William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Wikipediocracy’

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2016

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on January 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm

2016 was a hell of a year. In matters of war and peace, politics and governance, arts and celebrity culture—not to mention unexpected crossovers among them—it was a year that seemed to come off the swivel. Was this true on Wikipedia as well? In this post The Wikipedian will attempt, as it has done each year since 2010, to summarize the year in the Wikimedia movement by itemizing and ranking ten of the biggest trends and events.

The list this time may be noteworthy less for what is included than what is not: in 2016 there was no major sock puppet or COI scandal (hopefully that’s because there weren’t any, not just that they weren’t called out), no major milestone (Wikipedia turned 15 in 2016, but it felt less consequential than the 5 millionth article last year), no mention of perennial fears about a declining editor base (is it still actually declining?) and nothing about last year’s number one, the implementation of HTTPS (it’s a done deal, and China hasn’t changed its mind about unblocking Wikipedia on the mainland).

That said, in 2016 Wikipedia still had more than its share of turmoil, more ominous signs than one ever really wants to see, plus the occasional inspiring story that makes for much more pleasant anecdotes. In this post, we’ll attempt to do justice to them all, or at least the ten that made the biggest impressions on this blogger. Ready? Let’s go:

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10. Women Scientists Revolt

emily_temple-woodAmong Wikipedia’s more problematic systemic biases, the gender gap in participation and representation is one of the more frustrating. This year it was momentarily a bright spot, when Emily Temple-Wood, one of Wikipedia’s best known female editors, became a minor media sensation for a project with an irresistible hook: for every instance of online sexual harassment she experienced, she would create another Wikipedia article about a woman scientist. The story was picked up by the BBC, Washington Post, Guardian, New York, and Huffington Post, among many other outlets. The sudden micro-celebrity placed her in the unique category of Wikipedia editors with a Wikipedia biography earned as a result of their editing activities. Jimmy Wales also named her Wikipedian of the Year (along with Rosie Stephenson-Goodnight). And then she started med school.

9. Wikipedia Vandalism, Spectator Sport

lebron_jamesIf you’re the kind of person who searches Google News for “wikipedia” with any frequency, you have undoubtedly seen headlines like “Denver Broncos ‘own’ Carolina Panthers, according to Wikipedia edit”. Seriously, search “wikipedia sports owned” and you’ll find the same combination for Chase Utley and the Mets, LeBron James and the Bulls, Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City. And that’s just one gratingly common construction. Yes, sometimes it can actually be funny. Occasionally, even heartwarming. But no sport is safe, and the phenomenon is familiar enough for Fox Sports (a frequent offender) to have once created a list of “most entertaining” examples. In early 2016, former WSJ reporter and Wikimedia staffer Jeff Elder called out the trend, spotlighting the tedious extra work it creates for Wikipedia volunteers. VentureBeat followed up by making the argument it was time for sportswriters to move on. And so that put an end to it? Yeah, right. It’s not clear what will ever kill this “story”; there is almost certainly nothing within anyone’s actual control. While individual writers or readers may tire of it, the thing about sports is that every big win is a moment without precedent, that obliterates all reason, and naturally seeks a good, mean-spirited to laugh top it off. All things considered, better to vandalize Wikipedia than light a car on fire.

8. The Business of Wikipedia is Fundraising

wmf-fundraisingWikipedia is alone among the top 50 global websites (give or take) for the lack of advertising to be found on its pages. As a consequence, its funding model is the focus of fascination and frustration for both the editorial community and news media alike. And as you’re certainly well aware, every year the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) launches a fundraising drive featuring very prominent and slightly annoying banners—which look a lot like advertisements for Wikipedia itself—to raise money from its millions of readers. To be sure, Wikipedia also raises money via grants and gifts from wealthy donors, but the vast majority comes from the annual campaign.

Beginning in mid-November, the WMF stepped up its annual efforts with a persistent email campaign fronted by Wikipedia’s founder-mascot Jimmy Wales, using sophisticated techniques—variation, highlighting, boldfacing, talky subject lines, and more. WMF fundraising has been A/B tested for awhile, but this was undoubtedly the slickest incarnation yet. And what do you know, it worked: this year Wikipedia reached its annual goal faster than ever before. Such success cannot come sans scrutiny. An op-ed in The Wikipedia Signpost called for greater transparency, The Register needled Wikipedia about this as it does about pretty much everything, and philanthropic publications have second-guessed the WMF’s fundraising strategy writ large.[1]Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.

All of which is fair, and one should be so lucky as to have to answer for this kind of success. As The Wikipedian sees it, the question of how much money WMF raises should be secondary to how it is spent, a topic historically less-well reported.

7. ArbCom and the Alt-Right

feels_good_manWikipedia’s Arbitration Committees (ArbComs) are elected panels of dedicated volunteer Wikipedia editors who agree to take up the often unpleasant and always time-consuming task of reviewing disputes involving the behavior of fellow editors. About a dozen of the most-active Wikipedia language editions have one, and it is by its nature the locus of controversy, year in and year out (said fundamental dysfunction last made this list in 2013). Lucky us, now we get to merge that with the rise of an international right-wing movement represented on last year’s list by Gamergate, and which in 2016 we learned to call the “alt-right”.

This is based on two separate incidents on the two most prominent Wikipedias. Worse between them, the German ArbCom saw eight of its ten members resign in the last third of the year. The reasons are too complicated to recite here, but it concerns a single member who IRL is actively involved with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party but had previously hidden his offline political activities from fellow editors. The decimated German ArbCom now lacks a quorum to act, and seems likely to remain inactive at least until new elections are held in May. Second was the near-election to the English ArbCom of a Canadian editor with a troubling Reddit history that included activity on the Gamergate-affiliated WikiInAction subreddit, dedicated to promoting alt-right views on Wikipedia. This candidacy was not successful, but it was a nail-biter, and close ArbCom observers are not reassured about future elections.

Wikipedia has always had obnoxious contributors with noxious views, but their dispersal across the vast expanse of topics meant the problem areas were fairly isolated, and usually avoidable. But ArbCom is one of the few places on Wikipedia where actual power is concentrated. In a U.S. presidential election year (about which more later) in which anti-semitic tropes were promoted by the winning candidate, has there also been a concurrent rise in such views on Wikipedia? Some think so. And will ArbCom face an organized assault like the one the Hugo Awards has faced in recent years? It seems unlikely—but it’s definitely not impossible.

6. Wikipedia Needs Better Critics

Wikipediocracy_logoOur 2013 installment listed the rise of Wikipediocracy, a website devoted to criticism of the Wikimedia movement. This time we’re here not to praise it, but to bury it. The site’s multi-contributor blog has published exactly once in the second half of the year, while its once-lively (and sometimes disreputable) discussion forum has slowed to a crawl. What happened? The biggest factor was the departure of its most serious contributor, Andreas Kolbe, who took his talents to The Signpost. Second was an apparent falling out between mainstays Greg Kohs and Eric Barbour. The latter went on to create an alternative site named, hysterically, Wikipedia Sucks! (And So Do Its Critics.).

The decline of Wikipediocracy highlights the dearth of effective Wikipedia criticism. What have we got? There’s the UK IT news site The Register, which harps on a few recurring themes of narrow appeal. There’s WikiInAction, affiliated with Gamergate, focused even more narrowly. Wikipedia Sucks is a joke, itself barely registering a pulse. For what it’s worth, The Wikipedian does not consider itself to be among their ranks. This site offers Wikipedia criticism, but will admit to being pro-Wikipedia in most ways; The Wikipedian is an apologist, if also a realist. And to drop the pretense for a moment, I don’t post often enough for it to matter but a few times a year.

There is something about Wikipedia criticism that attracts people with fringe views, who are not always the most stable personalities, and whose obsessions tend toward the arcane. Of course this is generally true of the gadfly profession, but when you consider that Wikipedia owes its very existence to freaks and geeks, it shouldn’t be any wonder that participants who hold themselves apart from mainstream Wikipedia may be stranger still.

As of late, the best criticism happens at The Signpost, especially under former editor Kolbe, and now under Pete Forsyth. Given the competition, however, that isn’t necessarily saying much.

5. The Brief, Less Than Wondrous Board Membership of Arnnon Geshuri

Arnnon_GeshuriWe now arrive at the first of a few related topics which dominated the early months of the year, a series of interrelated controversies far greater than this annual list has previously contemplated. The least-related among them was the early January appointment of Arnnon Geshuri to the WMF board of trustees. Geshuri received no public vetting, as most appointed board members do not. However, other board appointees also had not played a public role in one of Silicon Valley’s biggest recent scandals.

To wit: Apple, Google, Intel and others secretly agreed (until, of course, it was found out) not to recruit each others’ employees, thereby holding back the careers, and holding down the salaries, of thousands of employees. As a Google executive, Geshuri had taken the initiative to fire a recruiter after then-CEO Eric Schmidt received an unhappy email from Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs. In his note back to Schmidt, Geshuri added: “Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs.” The U.S. Department of Justice eventually forced the firms to pay $415 million to settle class action claims.

Geshuri’s membership on the Wikimedia board proved to be short-lived. Facing public criticism by former board members, a debate over what to say about it on his own Wikipedia entry, a no-confidence petition signed by more than 200 editors, and probably his own realization that this just wasn’t worth all the trouble, Geshuri stepped aside only two weeks after accepting the position. In another year, this could have been a top story. But 2016 had only just begun.

4. Wikimedia’s New Leader

katherine_maherAnother contender for top story in a less eventful year: the Wikimedia Foundation got a new leader. Katherine Maher was named interim executive director (ED for short) in March, and was made permanent in June. She is the third person to hold the title—the third woman, in fact—and brings experience in global governance, international institutions, and even the Arabic language.[2]Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this. Maher also brings something her predecessor lacked: a great deal of experience with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement.

I am burying the lede, of course: she was previously the WMF’s chief communications officer, a position she had held since 2014. Oh yeah, and about that predecessor… as Wikimedians have already realized, I’m leaving out a lot of back story, and it’s because there is more coming further down this list. All that said, the advent of a new ED is big news in any year, and that’s true this year as well. The fact that Maher’s ascendancy falls outside the top three stories of 2016 owes as much to the public drama leading to her promotion as the absence of drama characterizing the start of her tenure.

3. Fake News and the U.S. Presidential Election

donald_trumpThe U.S. presidential election was literally the biggest story on Wikipedia this year, if we mean the topic that received the most edits across multiple entries. The biographical entry for president-elect Donald Trump, plus articles about Hillary Clinton’s endorsements, the general election, and GOP primary occupy four of the top five slots on the list of most-edited articles.[3]Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case. But there’s a lot more to be said about Wikipedia’s relationship to the craziest and most surprising U.S. election in living memory.

A chief attribute of Trumpism is, well, bullshit—in the Harry Frankfurt sense of the word—and anti-intellectualism as a virtue. As it became clear Trump’s victory was owed in part to falsehoods propagated on social media, the phrase “fake news” gained widespread currency among news commentators. With the mainstream[4]OK, fine, liberal media casting about for a better model, what better exemplar of valuing real facts over imagined realities than Wikipedia? Even before the election, Wikipedia’s model of requiring verification of information and allowing anyone to question received wisdom had garnered positive press attention. Afterward, Wikipedia’s commitment to veracity was held up as a kind of antidote to Facebook’s hands-off attitude toward the truth or falsity of claims shared by its users.[5]Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature. The Wikimedia comms team took something of a victory lap in an early December post, declaring:

We are not in a post-fact world. Facts matter, and we are committed to this now more than ever.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that Wikipedia is free of falsehoods. It is only as good as its contributors and the reliability of the news sources they rely upon. Long-persisting hoaxes are not unheard of. Therein lie the biggest threats to Wikipedia: it must maintain an editorial community to uphold its own standards, and the media must keep up its end of the bargain with good reporting. Not unlike democracy, eternal vigilance is the price of an encyclopedia anyone can edit.

2. Lila Tretikov Resigns as Wikimedia ED

Right, so about Katherine Maher’s predecessor as executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation…

Lila_TretikovLast year, The Wikipedian included “Exodus from New Montgomery Street” at number nine in the top-stories list—i.e., the large number of staff departures from the organization since the appointment of Lila Tretikov in 2014. In retrospect, this should have been higher, but in my defense the whispers were rather quiet until the emergence of a matter that we’ll explain better in the next entry.[6]Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas. Tretikov, whose tenure got off to a rocky start for reasons not entirely her own fault and not worth going into again here,[7]if you must, you can go here was eventually forced to resign after losing the confidence of Foundation staff. Morale fell to such depths, and management became so unresponsive that, once the dam burst, virtually the whole thing played out in public, online.

Low-level staffers came out of the woodwork to say what managers would or could not, and community observers filled in the gaps. Most persuasively, ArbCom member Molly White created a detailed timeline of Tretikov’s WMF leadership that presented the sequence of events without commentary—selectively perhaps, but damningly for sure. This very blog took the highly unusual step of actually calling for her ouster, a position this blogger never imagined when launching this site late last decade. Nobody wanted things to arrive at this dire situation, but once they had, Tretikov could no longer effectively lead the organization, and resign is what she did.

Anyway, we’re not quite done with this topic.

1. The Knowledge Engine and its Discontents

Dr._James_HeilmanThe biggest story of 2016 actually began unfolding in the waning days of 2015, when just-elected community board trustee James Heilman announced his resignation with a cryptic message on a community email list. Subsequent comments from other board members failed to resolve the ambiguity. Thus began the most tumultuous period in recent Wikimedia history, ultimately leading to Lila Tretikov’s jumped-before-she-could-be-pushed departure and the elevation of Katherine Maher to the executive director role.

Honestly, I’m kind of dreading the idea of recapping it all here. This blog expended 7,000 words[8]a conservative estimate on the topic earlier this year, and it’s a chore just to summarize. But let’s give it a try:

Heilman’s departure owed to a disagreement about how to handle sensitive information related to the secretive development (and eventual abandonment) of a misbegotten “Manhattan Project” to create a search engine intended to preserve Wikipedia’s prominence if Google ever stopped sending it traffic on its historically massive level. In its most ambitious form, it was called the Knowledge Engine, and Tretikov’s WMF sought a grant for it from the Knight Foundation, with which it previously had enjoyed a good relationship, without disclosing the precise nature of the project. When scaled back, it was called Discovery and was limited to Wikipedia’s on-site search, which isn’t a bad idea by itself but wasn’t clearly a top priority for the volunteer community at large, let alone the foundation staff. The lack of public discussion was echoed in the catastrophic appointment of Geshuri to the board, establishing a pattern that could no longer be overlooked.

knowledge-engine-rocketThe seriousness of the Knowledge Engine fiasco itself may have been overstated in terms of time and money allocated to it (and away from other projects) but it became emblematic of Tretikov’s ineffective leadership. More important probably was the botched Knight request, which contradicted good sense, and was seen to have damaged an important outside relationship. It wasn’t a crime, but it was covered up nonetheless, and Tretikov’s failure to communicate effectively—with external stakeholders, internal managers, staff throughout the organization—was what really did her in.

If you really must have the whole story, and you have a few hours to spare, I recommend the following links:

The regrettable history of the Knowledge Engine, the wasteful exit of Heilman from the board of trustees, the ill-advised appointment of Geshuri to same, the calamitous leadership of Lila Tretikov, the unfortunate departure of so many valuable foundation staffers, were separately and collectively the biggest story on Wikipedia this past year. Here’s hoping 2017 is just a bit less eventful.

All images via Wikipedia, and the copyrights held by their respective contributors.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.
2. Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this.
3. Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case.
4. OK, fine, liberal
5. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature.
6. Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas.
7. if you must, you can go here
8. a conservative estimate

Meet Lila Tretikov, Wikimedia’s New Leader… and Her Uninvited Plus-One

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on May 30, 2014 at 11:58 am

On May 1, the Wikimedia Foundation named a successor to Sue Gardner as executive director: Lila Tretikov, a “Russian-born technologist specialising in enterprise software”, as her newly-minted Wikipedia article begins. This followed a search that lasted more than a year, since Gardner announced her intention to move on in March 2013. What followed was a sigh of relief, at least at first.

Tretikov comes to the foundation from SugarCRM, a would-be competitor to Salesforce, where she’s held CIO and VP positions. She started her career as an engineer at Sun Microsystems, holds several patents, previously founded a company, is photogenic and just 36 years old. Not a bad resume at all. And her statement released to Re/code hit the right notes:

When I got the news, I thought, ‘This is big in every way: A big website — the fifth most popular in the world. A big community — 80,000 active Wikimedians from around the globe. And a big mission — nothing less than making the sum of all human knowledge freely available to all.’

It quotes Jimmy Wales’ most famous line, Wikipedia’s easiest to remember data point, and it cheerily overestimates the effective participation rate (in the latest official figures, the number of very active Wikipedians on the most active project, the English Wikipedia, dipped below 3,000 for the first time in nine years). [Edit: Lila’s figures are accurate for “active editors”; fair enough, although, pace Vilfredo Pareto, I would argue “very active” editors have far more impact than “active” editors.]

Lila TretikovBut the slow erosion of Wikipedia’s user base is just one reason why Wikipedians are apprehensive about their future and how the Foundation’s new leader fits into it. To get my Walter Winchell on, for one thing, word is that Tretikov’s appointment did not come out of the official executive search process. Although the firm Wikimedia retained, m/Oppenheim, proudly joined in the announcement fun earlier this month, do note that it doesn’t actually take credit for it. Apparently the Board was unhappy with the results, tapped their own personal networks instead, and Tretikov came out of Gardner’s own rolodex. [Edit: I’ve now been told that she came in from another referral, not Sue, serves me right I suppose.] All of which at least underscores how difficult the search proved to be.

Meanwhile, Tretikov arrives with a solid resume in open source projects, but exactly zero with the open-source project that matters most: Wikipedia. This lack of experience was not exactly unexpected—the Foundation purposefully, and smartly, wanted a new leader from outside the movement—but it made people awfully anxious to hear from her.

Instead, they heard from someone else first.

That someone is a Bay Area PHP programmer named Wil Sinclair, also Tretikov’s partner (“boyfriend” in flyover country-speak). Most notoriously (at least in the beginning) about a week to go before she officially took the helm, Sinclair took it upon himself to join Wikipediocracy, a website dedicated to criticism of Wikipedia, both responsible and otherwise. It’s a website that many Wikipedians loathe, although some grudgingly respect, and where a few even actively participate. Getting involved there requires a certain degree of care. And while Sinclair comes across as bright, articulate and polite in his postings, to a veteran observer he also comes across a bit clueless. It’s like entering a snake pit with only a textbook familiarity with the concept of a snakebite.

This didn’t sit well with many longtime Wikipedians and community observers, especially those who participate in wikimedia-l, a public mailing list also dedicated to Wikipedia discussion. Unlike Wikipediocracy, it’s hosted on a Wikimedia website, although it is likewise open to participation and is not infrequently the site of drama itself. Various “dramuh” from the week concluding:

  • Wil Sinclair and conversation about him completely dominated the email list for several days, initially regarding the propriety of his Wikipediocracy participation, but eventually moving on to other subjects, with several editors advising Wil in strong but even terms that he was setting himself up for trouble. After being advised he was well in excess of posting volume norms, of course he kept right on going.
  • Behind the scenes, much of the discussion focused on whether this would negatively impact the beginning of Lila’s tenure. Sometimes it wasn’t entirely behind the scenes… one veteran editor accidentally sent a private email to the whole list, comparing the chaos to an episode of The West Wing and suggesting Tretikov was an “amateur” ostensibly unfit to run the Foundation.
  • Pressing on, Sinclair raised questions about how some content on Wikimedia Commons is inappropriate for children and how some editors feel harassed by others, as if no one was aware of or willing to discuss these things, even though they are among the most frequently cited issues on Wikimedia projects, as was quickly pointed out.
  • He was also called out for once offering unguarded praise of Wikipedia’s least liked, most persistent critic—many would say troll—Greg Kohs, naturally a Wikipediocracy mainstay. Wil confirmed he’d said it and meant it, and if you can’t imagine how poorly this was received, then you don’t know a thing about Wikipedia. Obviously, this includes Wil Sinclair.
  • Eventually Wil decided the community should vote on whether he should stay or go, and started a thread dedicated to the topic. It was short-lived, however, as he later posted a simple statement that he would in fact cease communications on the list. It stands to reason Lila finally told him to can it, although I don’t have any way of knowing this for sure. [Edit: And in the comments here, Wil says she did not.]
  • In the midst of it all, Lila Tretikov finally made her first unofficial public communication to the Wikimedia community in the form of a message disclaiming any responsibility for Wil’s activity and promising: “I make my decisions using my own professional judgement in conjunction with input from the community and staff. I don’t consult Wil on these matters, ask him to do anything on my behalf or monitor his engagements with the community.” Later, after Wil stood down, she started a new thread announcing she had made her first-ever edits to Wikipedia, and wanted to hear from others newbies about their editing experiences. Sort of nothingburger of a project, but at least it might start to bring things back on-topic.

So, that may or may not be a good summary of events, but it’s already pushing the limits of how much space this whole thing really deserves. Lila Tretikov takes over the Wikimedia Foundation beginning June 1, and one hopes the next time we’re talking about her, we’re talking about her.

Update: Be sure to check the comments, where Wikipedia statistician Erik Zachte points out that Lila’s figures for “active” editors is correct (I’ve amended the post above to clarify my view) and where none other than Wil Sinclair offers some corrections and clarifying information, which readers of this post should see for full context.

Bats in the Belfer: A Beginner’s Guide to the Biggest Wikipedia Controversy You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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on April 2, 2014 at 7:47 pm

If you follow Wikipedia a bit more than casually, you might have heard something lately about nefarious goings on about the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable trust called the Stanton Foundation, and something called the Belfer Center at Harvard University. If you follow Wikipedia in the news generally, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

The short version—if I can manage to pull this off—is that from 2012 to 2013 the Wikimedia Foundation (or WMF, which oversees Wikipedia) followed the request of a major donor (the Stanton Foundation) to coordinate the placement a paid editor (named Timothy Sandole) with the Belfer Center (at Harvard University) to directly edit articles (which WMF has always said it does not and would not do). The position was supposed to go to an experienced Wikipedia editor, but Sandole had no Wikipedia experience before he applied for the position.

The work he contributed over the course of the following year hardly seemed to justify his compensation, and some non-trivial edits were of direct benefit to the Belfer Center and Stanton Foundation. It’s probably worth noting at some point here that the principals at Belfer and Stanton are a married couple. It is also worth mentioning that several Wikipedia veterans privately criticized the initiative to Foundation employees and warned this would not go well. As you may have gathered, it did not go well.

I’m going to repeat myself and underline the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation has always said that it wants to stays out of content creation or editorial decisions on Wikipedia, and it’s frankly kind of boggling to find that’s exactly what happened here.

So, this all looks really bad. It is also complicated by a handful of other problems:

  • News broke at the same time as the Wikimedia Foundation considered an amendment to its Terms of Use intended to require greater disclosure by paid editors—a highly relevant situation, you might say.
  • Also concurrently, people associated with the Wikipedia watchdog Wikipediocracy had been hammering the Wikimedia Foundation for looking the other way when prominent Wikipedia donors had edited their own article—an even more relevant situation, clearly.
  • And of course, all of this coming at a time when WMF has been struggling to name a successor to long-serving executive director Sue Gardner, whom this blog has praised, but whose track record of success seems to be unraveling as the end of her term draws (presumably) nearer.

So there’s context and commentary, but if you’re intrigued, I promise there is a lot more to read. Here’s what you need to know, and then some:

  • April 26, 2012—Not quite two years ago, and long before this became a controversial matter, a post on the official Wikimedia blog—“Can you help Wikipedians collaborate with Harvard University?”—announced the initial call for Wikipedians to apply for a position to work with Harvard’s Belfer Center.

    You can actually still read the original job description on Jobvite, seeking a “Campus Wikipedian”. The position began August 2012, and concluded August 2013.

  • March 2, 2014—The first public report that something might have been amiss was published one month ago today, by a Polish editor best known as Odder, in a blog post titled “The pot and the kettle, the Wikimedia way”. This lays out a good deal of the key info, and its implications, but the connection between Belfer and Stanton had not yet been made. Still, Odder’s editorialization remains valid:

    The WMF’s unprecedented role in endorsing a project so negligent in adhering to broadly accepted ethical principles not only undermines the integrity and quality of Wikipedia, but also raises questions about the role of the Stanton Foundation and the Belfer Center in it.

  • March 19, 2014—After percolating in private discussions and email lists for a couple weeks, the matter was finally raised on the publicly accessible Wikimedia-l mailing list under the heading “Timothy Sandole and (apparently) $53,690 of WMF funding”, with a link to Odder’s post and some pointed questions about WMF’s handling of the matter. Want to read more from this thread? OK, you asked for it.
  • That same day, Wikipedia’s volunteer-written newsletter, the Signpost, put a spotlight on the issue, detailing the case as it was then understood. Following Wikipedia’s cautious, Timesian house style, it was titled “Foundation-supported Wikipedian in residence faces scrutiny”.
  • March 20, 2014—The next day, Liam Wyatt and Pete Forsyth, two editors who had warned against the Stanton-Belfer arrangement went public with their previously stated misgivings. Wyatt’s concluded:

    The WMF dug themselves into this hole despite the frantic attempts, which were largely rebuffed, of several of the GLAM-WIKI community help them fix it – or at least reduce the number of problems. Now, it’s up to the WMF to dig themselves out again. Ironic given the current attention being given by the WMF to paid editing…

  • March 21, 2014—Just one more day after that, a longtime Wikipedia antagonist published the findings of his own research on the same list, with the subject line “Belfer report – analysis from Russavia”. This posting finally connected the dots between Stanton’s Liz Allison and Belfer’s Graham Allison.
  • Finally the WMF was moved to respond, and deputy director Erik Moeller sent a fairly detailed, bulleted reply to the same list just a few hours later. It acknowledged some edits by Sandole seemed to favor Belfer and also Stanton in a way that raised exactly the kind of “conflict of interest” issues Wikipedia is often worried about.
  • April 1, 2014—Yesterday more details arrived with a blog post on Wikipediocracy titled “Business as Usual”, identifying even more problematic Belfer-Stanton edits (if less implicating of WMF) by individuals assoicated with it, and added substantially more detail to the record. As mentioned before, this is a website disliked by many in the Wikipedia community, and this post in particular written by Gregory Kohs, who has more than earned his reputation as Wikipedia’s #1 gadfly. Indeed, there is often too much innuendo floating around these parts, but they still do investigations that no one else does.
  • Finally, we come to the official report from the Foundation, written by a team and presented by none other than Sue Gardner herself. With an even more prosaic title than Signpost, Gardner laid out the “Wikipedian in Residence/Harvard University assessment”.
    • It acknowledged the “mistake” of combining “fundraising and programmatic work”, not listening to people like Wyatt and Forsyth, and that no course correction was done. The “decisions” made were mostly bureaucratic promises to apply more “scrutiny” and “process” and a tentative date for May 1 has been set for more information. We’ll see. But one decision is quite clear, so far as it goes:

      In the future, the Wikimedia Foundation will not support or endorse the creation of paid roles that have article writing as a core focus, regardless of who is initiating or managing the process.

      In other words, the Wikimedia Foundation has decided that it will not do the one thing it previously said it would not do, but that it just did anyway.

So there you have it. What happens next? Probably nothing regarding the above; an official report and an acknowledgment like the one which arrived yesterday is about as much as you can get. The person at the top is already leaving her position (eventually) and it seems very unlikely that anyone else who made “mistakes” is in line for that job anyway.

That said, it’s certainly not how Sue Gardner wanted the last chapter of her leadership at WMF to read. And whatever this means for the Terms of Use proposal, or the larger question of paid editors or “conflict of interest” on Wikipedia, will be written in the next.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

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on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

On Tuesday, this blog published the first half of our annual roundup of the biggest Wikipedia events over the past 12 months. In that post, we covered the untimely passing of Aaron Swartz, the launch of Wikivoyage, the rise of Wikipediocracy, battles at Wikimedia Commons, and problems that have followed Wikipedia’s impressive fundraising. Today we finish the job:

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5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

Fair warning: I am not an ArbCom insider, I rarely follow its various dramas, and so I am not going to even going to attempt a satisfactory summary of everything that happened with ArbCom this past year. But let’s start with some background: ArbCom is short for Arbitration Committee, a group which I’ve just discovered has its own Wikipedia article. It’s an elected volunteer panel of (generally) respected Wikipedians who weigh in on tough issues and make binding decisions. The comparison to a national Supreme Court is glib but not entirely wrong, especially as they can (and often do) refuse to take certain cases, not to mention set precedents affecting future decisions.

The problem with ArbCom, if I can describe it generally, is that the organization has long been characterized by turnover and chaos. Nothing that happened this year was especially new, but that’s also part of the problem. Back when Wikipedia was just an experimental project, it was plausible enough that ArbCom’s dysfunction was something Wikipedia could grow out of. But the opposite has proved to be the case—as far as I can tell, no one thinks it’s ever getting better.

Two major incidents were big enough to merit rate a mention in episodes later in this post. Among others which didn’t, one more or less started off the tone for the year when, in March, an ArbCom veteran resigned his position while excoriating his fellow members for “stonewalling, filibustering, and downright ‘bullying’” when they weren’t “getting their way”. And then 2013 ended with another bang, as the top vote-getter in the latest ArbCom election, conducted just weeks ago, resigned his position after admitting to maintaining a secret account on—wait for it—Wikipediocracy.

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4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

Bradley_ManningIt won’t take us too long to get back to ArbCom, but first let’s observe that Wikipedia is well known to have a “gender problem”; as The Wikipedian (and many more mainstream publications) have written extensively, Wikipedia’s editorship is overwhelmingly male, and it doesn’t cover certain topics (like women scientists, for example) very well. But this year an ugly row exposed what seems to be a more localized but still serious problem with transgender issues.

In August, Private Bradley Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, and subsequently announced a public transition from male to female and the intention to be known as Chelsea Manning. (As I’ve written before, Manning’s transgender status was known, but until this point unconfirmed by Manning herself.) Wikipedia is generally considered a more progressive community than most, and references on Wikipedia were changed more quickly than at most news organizations. In fact, some of those same mainstream news publications praised Wikipedia for being quick to act. As it turned out, they should have been slower to praise.

Chelsea_ManningThe move was challenged, and the article was even changed back to Bradley, where it stayed as the debate heated up. Some objections were made in good faith and based on interpretations of guidelines, but some people were just being assholes. And then some of some of Chelsea Manning’s defenders crossed the line as well, and of course it ended up at ArbCom, which could seem to make no one happy in its various conclusions. First, ArbCom decided that yes, “Chelsea Manning” would indeed be the article’s name going forward. But among the punishments handed out, a pro-Chelsea editor was banned over an issue many considered a technicality—specifically for writing this blog post. During the fracas, the media was still watching, and some of the headings stung. Indeed, a newspaper may be slower to change, but when it makes a decision, it usually sticks with it.

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3. What happens when the COI guideline is contested in court?

Some of the problems involving the Wikipedia community have to do with the unusual compensation-based class system that has evolved around its community and “conflict of interest” rules. The more important Wikipedia has become, the more reputational impact it has shown to have, and the more it has been seen as both an opportunity and problem for celebrities, semi-public figures, professionals, companies, brands, bands, campaigns and non-profits. Since this first became an issue in 2006, Wikipedia has never quite figured out what to do about it. At the risk of oversimplifying things, mostly it has done nothing.

This year the worst nightmare of many came true when it turned out that a little-known but ever-expanding investigation into a network of secretly connected “sock puppet” user accounts traced back to an obscure but apparently quite successful startup called Wiki-PR. The name was familiar to some Wikipedians, but no definitive link had been established between the company and these accounts, owing something to the community’s (inconsistently applied) hang-ups about identifying editors’ public identities.

The revelation prompted the Wikimedia Foundation to issue a strongly-worded cease-and-desist letter to the company, although the impact was blunted when it emerged that someone from the Foundation’s own law firm had once anonymously edited the company’s article, violating the same rules it was supposedly defending. One can almost start to understand why the issue has been allowed to slide for so long.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s volunteer community banned the company’s known accounts, and then Arbcom angered some editors when it ordered one of the volunteer investigators to back off for reasons it said it couldn’t explain. Legal action from the Wikimedia Foundation is still possible, which could put the Foundation on an uncertain path just as its longtime leader is about to leave (see next).

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2. Sue Gardner’s departure and the uncertain new era

Sue_GardnerSue Gardner is not exactly the only leader Wikipedia has ever known. After all, Jimmy Wales is still its most widely-recognized figure, and there was that guy who called the FBI on them, once, too. But Sue Gardner is (with one interim exception) the only executive director the Wikimedia Foundation has ever known.

In 2007 she left a position running the CBC’s web operations in Toronto to join the Wikimedia Foundation. By the end of that year she was in charge of the whole thing, at a time of significant growth and staff turmoil (does anyone remember Danny Wool? Carolyn Doran? no?). In the years since, it has grown considerably more (150+ staffers now vs. a handful at the beginning), and she has led the Foundation about as well as anyone could be imagined to do. Now she’s announced that she is leaving on an as-yet-unspecified date to pursue as-yet-unspecified plans. An decision about her replacement is expected by March 2014, though a presumptive favorite hasn’t publicly emerged.

Whomever gets the job in the end has a very difficult task ahead. In fact, asking how much the leader of this San Francisco non-profit is really in control of Wikipedia is really asking the wrong question. The executive director leads the Foundation’s staff, but that’s entirely different than saying she leads the Wikipedia community. Which, as a matter of fact, brings us to the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013…

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1. The Visual Editor debacle is also a potent metaphor for Wikipedia’s chief organizational dilemma

To conclude the thought above: the Wikipedia community does not always agree with the Wikimedia Foundation. Some Foundation initiatives have been met with a indifference at best (see last year’s #9, which is arguably the real predecessor entry to this one). Others have been rejected like antibodies to a transplanted organ.

Into this latter category falls the Visual Editor, a long-in-development software initiative which was rolled out this summer to mixed reviews (hey, I thought it was fun) followed by a backlash that grew and grew until a volunteer editor’s uncontested edit of the source code summarily immobilized the whole expensive project.

Maybe I’m overdoing it to place this at number one. Maybe the underlying issue is less than the existential struggle between those two classes of community members than I think; perhaps the issue was simply one of a botched deployment and avoidable toe-stepping that only temporarily poisoned the well.

But I believe no single event in the past year encapsulated the biggest challenge facing Wikipedia today: it seems no better able to organize itself now than when it was a freewheeling experiment stumbling into greater and greater success in its first seven years of its life. Seven years further on, Wikipedia is a different kind of community, one struggling to cope with its fantastic success, but which hasn’t yet learned to adapt.

Whether the Visual Editor itself ever finds its way into everyday usage—and I think it will, after a long “eventually”—it spotlights Wikipedia’s most critical challenges more than any other story, and that’s why it’s the most important Wikipedia story of 2013.

Photo credits: U.S. Army, Chelsea Manning, Wikimedia Foundation.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

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on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

In late December for each of the past few years—2010, 2011, 2012A, 2012BThe Wikipedian has published a list of the most important, impactful, and memorable events concerning Wikipedia in the 12 months preceding, according to no one besides me.

Let’s make it four in a row, although like last year I failed to rein the list in, so I’ve again split it into two parts. The first is the post you are reading now; the second will go up on Thursday.

Compared to recent years, 2013 was arguably more eventful, which also sort of implies that that it was a more troubled year. Indeed, I think Wikipedia’s near term future is certain to include its greatest uncertainty yet. The list will show why.

For returning readers: Two stories which repeated in previous years are absent this time: Wikipedia’s role in education (where the situation seemed to get better) and Wikipedia’s gender imbalance (where it didn’t). In both cases, the exclusion simply reflects a lack of any singular newsworthy related event, especially compared with what did make the list. Other issues, relating to conflict of interest and community infighting, are more than represented in specific incidents, which you shall read (much) more about shortly.

Another important acknowledgment: Following the far-flung domains and disciplines Wikipedia contains, I’ve endeavored to research and provide useful information and links, but if I get anything wrong, just drop me a line; I’ll correct and annotate post haste.

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10. Losing Aaron Swartz

Aaron_Swartz-by-RagesossWe start with the year’s saddest event: Aaron Swartz, a widely-admired, long-contributing Wikipedian and a key member of many other important Internet communities from the early 2000s onward, took his own life at the age of 26 in January. I can’t do any better than his own Wikipedia article to give you an idea of how much he accomplished in his short time, but the big media profiles all mentioned his hand in developing RSS, Creative Commons, and even Reddit. Few will approach that over a significantly longer lifespan.

His prodigious intellect could put one in mind of David Foster Wallace with different interests and avocations. It may come as no surprise that Swartz was a DFW fan, and I actually consider Swartz’s early classic of Wikipedia commentary (written while running for the Wikimedia Board in 2006) to be arguably less important overall than his extraordinarily persuasive explanation of what happens at the end of Infinite Jest. Often, it can take a genius to understand one.

Meanwhile, Swartz’s strong belief in the free availability of information led him to a legally risky brand of non-violent direct action: downloading and releasing electronic archives for public consumption. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing prosecution, and potentially many years in prison, for “liberating” academic papers from the JSTOR archive via an MIT closet. Some close to Swartz even blamed his suicide on overzealous persecution. However, like his literary hero—who hanged himself in 2008—Swartz had earlier written of suffering from depression. The case itself was dropped, too late in any case.

What led Aaron Swartz to take his own life will always remain unknowable, but his legacy is secure.

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9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

If, sometime in the last decade, you have visited a website called Wikitravel, you might’ve imagined it to be another Wikipedia sister project. After all, it has a similar name, it uses the same software, and anyone is invited to edit. This would be a fair assumption. It would also be wrong. Wikitravel is actually a commercial site with absolutely no connection to the Wikimedia Foundation; the most obvious tell is that it runs ads, which Wikimedia projects emphatically do not.

Some back story is in order: in 2006 Wikitravel was acquired by Internet Brands, a California-based web development company (think Barry Diller’s IAC, minus the websites you’ve heard of). Some community members were unhappy about it, and created a “fork” of the project under the name Wikivoyage. In 2012, the English-language Wikitravel community also said “enough” and decided to reconnect with Wikivoyage, which meanwhile decided to join forces with the WMF and make Wikivoyage the very thing you probably thought Wikitravel was all along. This is how, in January 2013, Wikivoyage was relaunched as the 12th official Wikimedia project.

The break was not a clean one. Internet Brands was already suing two Wikitravel contributors who supported the fork, a case the WMF settled in February 2013. Only then it turned out the new logo (which was pretty cool if you ask me) was too similar to the World Trade Organization’s logo (which was not nearly as cool if you ask me) and it was duly changed.

And yet, if Alexa is to be believed, Wikitravel remains the more popular website by far; Wikivoyage briefly enjoyed an impressive traffic spike upon relaunch, but it didn’t last. (Here is one rare occasion where a Wikimedia website has less SEO mojo than a rival site.) While Wikivoyage hasn’t become one of the community’s more successful projects, it still faces some of the same problems as its more popular siblings (see #7).

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8. Wikipediocracy rising

Wikipediocracy_logoWikipediocracy is a website dedicated to Wikipedia criticism, launched in early 2012 by a collection of current and former Wikipedia editors, some exiled and some in good standing. It’s not the first website of its kind; Wikipedia has attracted critics for years, and for most of that time an independent forum called Wikipedia Review played host to the cranks’ most fervent complaints. Wikipedia Review was all but persona non grata on Wikipedia, where it was considered the prototypical “WP:BADSITE”.

Yet Wikipediocracy has proved to be much more relevant. One reason may be structural: whereas its predecessor was merely a message board, Wikipediocracy puts its blog front and center, spotlighting its best arguments while making it easier for outsiders to follow. The net effect is a more insightful—if not always less hostile—critics’ forum, and perhaps this has led more who genuinely like Wikipedia to participate. Whether most Wikipediocracy members think they can make Wikipedia better is questionable, but it seems quite likely that Wikipedia has made Wikipediocracy better.

In just the past calendar year, Wikipediocracy’s distributed network of well-placed, often anonymous, usually pseudonymous observers have played an influential role moving several conflicts into mainstream view. Exposés from Salon about a fiction writer tormenting rivals with malicious edits (the Qworty case) and from Daily Dot about a clever hoax article (the Bicholim Conflict)—to say nothing of some controversies discussed elsewhere in this list—had their roots on Wikipediocracy.

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7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is the archive where anyone can upload media files, the more-than-text counterpart to Wikipedia, and is the home to some 20 million images, moving pictures and sounds. As variously detailed by BuzzFeed and Daily Dot, the WikiCommons community’s tolerance of exhibitionists and avant-garde artists has tested Wikimedia’s dedication to freedom of expression. In 2010, this very list included estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger’s call to the FBI about the site’s “lolicon” collection.

This year, an Australian editor who had tangled with Wikipedia’s remaining co-founder Jimmy Wales worked out a deal with an Australian artist calling himself “Pricasso” to paint a portrait of none other than Jimmy Wales using only his… yep, you guessed it. This was uploaded to Commons, along with: a video depicting Pricasso’s full frontal artistic process.

Wales called foul and begged for the deletion of both; after an exhaustive but not atypical debate in two parts, the video was eventually removed. The completely SFW—albeit still WTF—painting survived, and can still be found on Commons. In November, the Wikimedia board updated its strict guidance for biographies of living persons to include “media” and “images”. This was probably not a coincidence.

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6. Where the money is

Wikimedia_motivational_posterIn 2013 I’m still kind of surprised to meet people who don’t know that “anyone can edit” Wikipedia or that it’s operated by a non-profit called the Wikimedia Foundation. But I’m not at all surprised when I meet people who have no idea how much money the Foundation actually has. It’s a lot! According to its latest KPMG-audited financial report, the WMF will earn almost $51 million for the current period, spend $38.5 million, and have $37.8 million left over. Nearly all of the money comes from Wikipedia’s annual fundraising drive, probably the most effective in Internet history.

That’s incredible—everyone who is afraid Wikipedia will one day deploy banner ads, please take note—but it’s also a huge target for critics of the non-profit organization (you know, like those at Wikipediocracy). This year the Foundation has changed how it allocates those funds, allowing community members to join the Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC) for the first time, while discontinuing its centrally-chosen fellowship program in favor of an even more open process called Independent Engagement Grants (IEG).

Criticism also came from less expected quarters: outgoing Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner, who in October made waves for warning that the current FDC process “does not as currently constructed offer sufficient protection against log-rolling, self-dealing, and other corrupt practices.” Specifically, most FDC money goes to “chapters” representing countries or cities around the world, and FDC is heavily influenced by said chapters. Gardner did not call anyone out by name or group, and no one has leveled any kind of serious charges, but one can certainly entertain the possibility that her comment will have more than a slight ring of Ike’s “military-industrial complex” speech to it in years to come.

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The second half of this list followed on Thursday, January 2, 2014.

Photo credits: Aaron Swartz via User:Ragesoss; Wikipediocracy logo via Wikipediocracy; motivational poster via User:Hannibal.