William Beutler on Wikipedia

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2020

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on December 31, 2020 at 1:46 pm by William Beutler

It’s no overstatement to say that 2020 was a year where everything changed. Since March, ubiquitous semi-ironic references to the “Before Times” have served to euphemize the unfathomable. To date, COVID-19 has killed nearly two million people worldwide, reshaped the global economy, galvanized worldwide protests, and impacted politics, business and culture for years to come—including in ways we can’t yet see. 2020 gets all the hate now, but can we be so certain that the coming year will be meaningfully different?

2020 was also a time of change for Wikipedia, though these shifts occurred almost entirely below the surface: unless you’re an active participant in the Wikimedia movement, much of this list will come as news to you. This was a year where ambitious new projects were announced, small-scale tweaks took on larger significance, the relationship between human editors and the software supporting them became more fraught, differences in vision between the community and professional corners of Wikipedia emerged or were reinforced, and the future of the movement simultaneously became both clearer and more contentious.

Every year since 2010, The Wikipedian has offered its summary of the top ten Wikipedia stories—events, themes, and trends—of the previous year. In this installment we’ll do the same again, but with a little something extra. On Wednesday, December 30, I joined a recording of the Wikipedia Weekly YouTube livestream to discuss the big issues of the year that was. This list is informed by the “top ten” discussed on this show, although it is not identical. I hope you’ll read through my list, and then watch or listen to the discussion, which complements the topics covered below.

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10. Wikipedia approaches its 20th anniversary

Countless retrospective pieces will surely be published in the coming weeks to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Wikipedia, which I am certain you do not need to look up to know was founded on January 15, 2001. That milestone has loomed large over the past year, lending additional significance to milestones and benchmarks recently passed.

Wikipedia’s 6 millionth article, maybe?

In January, Wikipedia hit 6 million articles in the English language, its largest and most widely-read edition. No one knows precisely which article was the true number 6,000,000, but the nod was given to Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, co-founder of the Women in Red project, for her article about a Canadian schoolteacher and temperance movement leader. 

In February, Wired published a story calling Wikipedia “the last best place on the internet”, using the site as a counterpoint to the neverending dumpster fire of today’s World Wide Web—the last refuge of the promise of the “open web” which has long since given way to the mundanity of knowledge workers never being offline, every day facing another onslaught of disinformation and unpleasantry. By the end of the year, BuzzFeed offered a different way of saying pretty much the same thing: “The Top 40 Most Read Wikipedia Pages Of 2020 Perfectly Capture The Hellscape That Was 2020”.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s impressive stature was affirmed yet again when Twitter announced it was considering using Wikipedia as a benchmark for which user accounts would be bestowed with the simultaneously coveted and scorned “blue checkmark”. It was likewise affirmed in a more serious way when the World Health Organization announced it would be licensing its information for use on Wikipedia.

All in all, not a bad way to mark two decades, right? Well, you should see what else happened.

9. Should Wikipedia fear a Section 230 repeal?

If the phrase “Section 230” doesn’t mean much to you, then you probably don’t spend much time following the United States Congress… or on Twitter. Section 230 is the portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects providers of internet platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and, of course, Wikipedia, from being sued for content posted by users. Section 230 specifically allows these websites to moderate content—or not—as it sees fit. The internet as we know it today could not exist without it.

But in the last few years, 230 has come under increasing scrutiny, especially for websites alleged to permit sex trafficking (Craigslist), or terroristic threats (8chan), or disinformation (too many to count, but Facebook especially). What’s more, right-wing politicians and conspiracy theorists in the U.S. have viewed it as shielding the tech giants which they believe (or at least claim to believe) are censoring them. Meanwhile, “the internet as we know it today” is no longer seen as the frontier of possibility it was as recently as 2015. In the last week of December 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tied a vote on the latest covid stimulus package to 230 repeal, a poison pill designed to derail modifications sought by Democrats (and of course Republicans’ own outgoing president). 

Although I hesitate to make any predictions about the world we live in now, full repeal seems exceedingly unlikely. But maybe I’m only saying that because the internet after 230 is impossible to imagine—it would spell headaches at best and doom at worst for the entire Web 2.0 ecosystem (including Wikipedia) and the tech giants who rely upon it. So while it’s probably not going to happen, it’s still worth worrying about.

8. Creating Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia article

November already feels like it was years ago, but barely two months ago a news story involving Wikipedia captured the attention of American political media for about 24 hours: why Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic nominee opposing Iowa senator Joni Ernst, did not have a Wikipedia article. It goes without saying that Wikipedia is a widely-read source of information by voters, so it seemed notable that Iowans (and the reporters covering one of the country’s most hotly contested racers) couldn’t even look her up on Wikipedia.

The reason owes to a perfect storm of three applicable circumstances: 1) Greenfield was not a well-known figure prior to capturing the Senate nomination, 2) Wikipedia doesn’t have a rule granting “Notability” to major party nominees, but 3) it does have a rule against creating articles about individuals known for just one event—in this case, the Senate race. This surprised me, because for years I had been under the impression that there was a rule automatically guaranteeing an entry for major party nominees, the same way there is for professional athletes.

As tends to happen in such cases, debate ensued and Greenfield was eventually granted a Wikipedia entry. Given how much news the race had generated, the article quickly grew to a level of detail that made the earlier obstinacy seem ridiculous. And then on November 3, she lost.

7. Scots Wikipedia and the trouble with small Wikipedias

Perhaps the actual biggest story involving Wikipedia this year, at least in terms of headlines generated, was the “fun” and “lighthearted” discovery that the Scots Wikipedia was basically a complete sham. For those whose only experience with Scots is thumbing through an Irvine Welsh novel sometime after seeing Trainspotting in the mid-1990s, Scots is either a language of its own or a heavy dialect of English spoken by the Scottish peoples. This blog last mentioned it in 2014 when Scotland voted on a referendum to leave the United Kingdom (lolsob emoji goes here) and it is one of the smaller language editions of Wikipedia.

If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!

Well… in August a Reddit user realized that roughly a third of its 60,000-odd articles had been written by a single user, who turned out to be an American teenager with scant knowledge of proper Scots grammar or terminology. In other words, by a kid using a bad Scottish accent. The story was too good to pass up for almost any outlet that considers itself remotely “online”, and they all had a good laugh

A month after the Scots Wikipedia controversy, it emerged that a significant majority of the articles on the Wikipedia edition written in Malagasy—the national language of Madagascar—had been written by a bot translating articles from other editions. And most of them rather badly. And the Malagasy Wikipedia is far from the only Wikipedia edition to be mostly written by bots—a Vice report in February pointed out that the Cebuano edition was largely written without human editors, albeit apparently with more success.

But bots are not the only challenge. In a different example, the Portuguese Wikipedia—containing more than one million entries with just shy of 1400 active editors—decided to ban IP accounts from making edits, because the vast majority of vandalism on the site came from these unregistered editors. According to the Wikipedia Signpost, vandalism went down, and new account creation increased. This is unlikely to be adopted on the largest editions, but it’s worth watching to see if other small language communities decide to follow suit.

5. Anticipation and apprehensions about Abstract Wikipedia

Wikipedia is as human-created a project as exists in the world, but its future increasingly looks to be dominated by computers, programs, and algorithms. Look no further than the newly announced project called Abstract Wikipedia, and its sister project WikiFunctions, which plans to do much the same as the bots on small Wikipedias, but at a much larger scale and with greater ingenuity. 

First announced in a Signpost editorial in April, and approved unanimously by the WMF board just three months later, Abstract Wikipedia aims to create Wikipedia articles independent of any one language, combining structured data and “functions” related to information within them, to make it feasible for machine translation to effectively translate articles from one language to another. It sounds so ambitious as to be reckless, but its pedigree couldn’t be better—creator Denny Vrandečić is a former WMF board member, former Googler, and the creator of another pie-in-the-sky project that has become wildly successful: Wikidata.

Father of Wikidata, and now Abstract Wikipedia

As Vrandečić pointed out, of all topics that exist across Wikipedia, only a third of them have articles in English. Further: “only about half of articles in the German Wikipedia have a counterpart on the English Wikipedia … There are huge amounts of knowledge out there that are not accessible to readers who can read only one or two languages.”

If Abstract Wikipedia succeeds, it points toward a future where Wikipedia is controlled less by those who can merely write articles, and more by those who can write code. Exciting as the project may be, anxieties exist, too. Will Abstract Wikipedia dictate the content of articles, or merely inform them? Local control matters a lot to Wikipedians and, as we’ll see in the next few sections, WMF bigfooting is of increasing concern to some community members.

But it’s also easy to see why it appeals to many Wikimedians: much like Wikidata and very much unlike Wikipedia, it’s greenfield, unencumbered by the old habits of the arguably hidebound, conservative editorial base that both keeps Wikipedia running while also preventing it from growing beyond its original vision. The building of Abstract Wikipedia is set to begin in 2022, and it’s expected to start integrating with Wikipedia itself in 2023.

5. WMF Board makes some suspicious moves

In the spring, as the far-reaching implications of the coronavirus pandemic became clearer, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees announced that it would postpone its tri-annual board elections, and the three trustees whose terms were set to expire would stay on for another year. At the time, it was seen as a regrettable if understandable concession to the dire circumstances, even for an organization that can operate exclusively online in many other ways.

But then in October, the Board unveiled a considerable overhaul to the committee’s bylaws, with eyebrow-raising changes to the terms of, well, board elections. Certain board seats were no longer described as “community-selected” but “community-sourced”, and the words “majority” and “voting” were removed. A number of community members raised concerns that it could spell the end of community-elected board members, thereby increasing the stratification between the “professional” and “community” parts of Wikipedia. WMF general counsel Amanda Keton conceded that the community had “found a bug” in the proposal, and promised they would address them in a revision that is still yet to come.

Compounding matters, the timeline set for the change was considered too short, while Board members expressed different opinions about how far along in the process the proposals really were. Furthermore, apt questions were raised about the wisdom of sweeping changes when the board had three members who, in normal times, wouldn’t even be there. Perhaps it was merely an oversight, but it certainly exacerbated tensions that already existed.

4. Wikimedia debates Jimmy Wales’ permanent board seat

But that wasn’t the only discordant note involving Board governance this year. Shortly after the new bylaws were proposed, prominent Wikimedian Liam Wyatt suggested another change: discontinuing Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ permanent “Community Founder Trustee Position”—in short, eliminating his board seat after nearly 20 years. As Wyatt put it, “Now that the WMF is a mature organisation, I do not believe it is appropriate any longer for a single individual to have an infinitely-renewable and non-transferrable position on the board.”

Jimmy Wales, man of the people—really!

Wales himself replied in short order, expressing a not intractable opposition to the idea at some point, but arguing that the reason it should not happen now is because of the self-same tensions ongoing. As Wales put it, it is actually he who represents the community among the professional set. And in fact, Wales’ positions on the board have been largely pro-community, including expressed opposition to curtailing community voter supervision of the board.

And while it seemed a “modest proposal” in its initial offering, the idea was soon hotly debated, with community members taking it very seriously and arguing the pros and cons. Mike Godwin, former WMF general counsel, even took to the Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group to argue for Wales as the connective tissue back to Wikipedia’s original purpose, concluding: “in my view, he shouldn’t be kicked out of the traditional position before he’s ready to go.”

The debate never really focused on Wales’ leadership, but rather the wisdom of having such a position in the first place, and it doesn’t seem likely to be taken much further for now. In a year where many statues around the world fell, it seems like the Wikimedia community decided it should at least consider whether to topple one of its own.

3. Covering COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests

It feels sort of wrong to put COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests into just one list item, but they are very much of a piece, and together they highlight what Wikipedia’s community is better at than any other editorial body: documenting far-reaching global happenings. The old saying about journalism being the “first draft of history” made sense when it was first expressed, but now that role clearly belongs to Wikipedia.

This blog covered both efforts when they first arose, in the early part and middle of the year, respectively, with posts more thoroughly researched than imaginatively titled: “How Wikipedia is Covering the Coronavirus Pandemic” and “How Wikipedia Has Responded to the George Floyd Protests”. Both subjects gave rise to dozens, if not hundreds, of new articles apiece, and several were among the most-read Wikipedia pages all year long. Quartz recently assembled a calendar depicting the most-read articles for each day of the year, and the month of June is dominated by relevant topics, including Killing of George Floyd, Juneteenth, and Edward Colston.

George Floyd protest in Brooklyn

The George Floyd protests also created opportunities for organizing around social justice issues, which have been close to the hearts of many Wikimedia affiliate groups for a long time. A virtual Juneteenth edit-a-thon was well-attended, WikiProject Black Lives Matter took shape, and the AfroCrowd initiative built a following.

To this day, the main page of the English Wikipedia retains an information box in its top right corner directing readers to critical information about the pandemic.

Activism on Wikipedia is a tricky thing: as the Neutral point of view policy spells out clearly, articles should not advocate for a particular perspective on the topics covered. But which articles Wikipedians choose to edit shows a lot about what they think is most important.

2. Effects of the global pandemic on the Wikimedia movement

How much could Wikipedia be affected by a global pandemic, anyway? Everything it does is about putting information on the internet, while the lockdowns and restrictions most affected those who couldn’t simply move online, such as restaurants and the travel industry.

In the first place, its professional class realized how much it actually depends on travel. Although all the editing necessarily happens online, in every other year dozens of regional and global meetings take place. The Wikimedia Summit, formerly known as the Wikimedia Conference and scheduled for April, was the first to be canceled. It didn’t take long for the main annual event, Wikimania, to be “postponed” from its August date in Bangkok, Thailand as well. Rumor has it that Wikimania 2021 will not happen either.

Some events, with more time to prepare, moved online: Wikiconference North America went ahead with a scaled-down virtual program in mid-December. And Wikipedia’s community has long made use of online tools from the esoteric like IRC and Etherpad to the commonplace like Zoom and Google Hangouts. A new wikiproject even sprang up to catalog the various online-only events, and to offer advice to those wanting to host their own. But virtual conferences are a split proposition: the lack of obligation to appear in-person made it easier for some to participate remotely, while removing a lot of the reason to show up in the first place for others.

I’ll add one more possible effect of the pandemic, and I suggest this very delicately: COVID-19 might have actually been a good thing for Wikipedia. As The Signpost noted this summer, editing activity on Wikipedia surged to levels not previously seen in a decade. As they explained: “Recent years seem to have stabilised at a million edits every six to six and a half days, so the lockdown period with its editing levels of a million edits every five days is a significant increase.” 

Some people learned to make sourdough. Others, presumably, learned to edit Wikipedia.

1. The Wikipedia Foundation?

Chances are, you have never heard of the biggest controversy to envelop Wikipedia in 2020. The dispute, which began in January, boiled over in June, and remains as yet unresolved, centered on the obvious desire of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) to change its name to the “Wikipedia Foundation” despite the clear majority of active Wikimedians who oppose the idea. 

The case in favor of doing so is simple: everyone and their grandmother knows what Wikipedia is, but almost no one outside of the movement knows what Wikimedia means. Wikipedia’s ubiquity has overshadowed other important projects funded by the WMF. By rechristening the entire endeavor “Wikipedia” and doing away with the confusing split branding of “Wikimedia”, it would unify the whole project behind the one word everyone knows.

I still remember when the WMF logo was in color

But the arguments against were simple, too, and passionate: rather than drawing attention to other projects, it would obscure their independent status and achievements. Further, the proposed change was initiated without sufficient feedback or consideration for the branding of the movement’s many organized chapters and user groups. Procedurally, it was inexplicably separated from the rest of the long-gestating Wikimedia 2030 Movement Strategy that it clearly belonged to, and rushed to the proposal stage at a time when the conferences and meetings where this would normally be debated had been called off due to the pandemic. What’s more, the proposal drew the harshest rebuke from those very groups who work most closely with the WMF—a rare intra-wiki dispute not between Wikipedia’s professionals and volunteers, but within the professional class itself.

The sequence of events was damning, too: In June, the WMF opened up a survey asking the community to weigh in on what Wikipedia should call itself. The survey was heavily weighted toward the conclusion that “Wikipedia Foundation” was the way to go, even though a Request for Comment earlier in the year ran 9 to 1 against it. Yet the WMF decided that its “informed oppose” was less than 1%, based on an invented number of “~9,000” community members whom they claimed had a chance to fill out the survey, though far fewer actually submitted responses. Soon after, an open letter organized by the affiliate groups received nearly 1,000 signatories calling on the WMF to “pause renaming activities … due to process shortcomings”. 

And so it was shelved, but only until March 2021. Whether the WMF will go ahead and become the WPF (I guess) remains to be seen, but this blog for one finds it unlikely. Interestingly enough, it also shows the limits of even these change-oriented groups’ interest in changing how they think of themselves and the movement they’ve dedicated their lives and careers to. The WMF would do well to put this aside and accept this as just one of the many contradictions that Wikipedia has managed to succeed in spite of over nearly two decades. As the old joke among longtime editors goes: “Wikipedia doesn’t work in theory, only in practice.” That’s as true here as it is anywhere.

For threatening the goodwill of its closest allies, for creating a headache where none need exist, and for being an own goal of massive proportions, the controversy around the renaming of the Wikimedia Foundation is easily the #1 Wikipedia story of 2020. 

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And now, if you still can’t get enough Wikipedia year-in-review content, I present to you the Wikipedia Weekly episode featuring Richard Knipel, Vera de Kok, Netha Hussain, Jan Ainali, Andrew Lih, and yours truly. Enjoy, and see you in 2021!

Image credits, top top bottom: Public domain, Sodacan, Victor Grigas, Zachary McCune, Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Foundation

How Wikipedia Has Responded
to the George Floyd Protests

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on June 25, 2020 at 4:42 pm by William Beutler

“There are decades where nothing happens, and then there are weeks where decades happen” is an old and likely apocryphal quote attributed to V.I. Lenin. It’s been popular throughout the tumultuous and time-warping Trump presidency, but in the second quarter of 2020 the weeks have felt like eons.

The Wikipedian has written twice previously about how the encyclopedia anyone can edit has covered the coronavirus pandemic. Today I’m interested in how it has handled the George Floyd / Black Lives Matter protests, which—over the course of the past month—have grown into an international movement whose impact is being documented in the press, in the streets, and on Wikipedia in real-time.

It’s a lot for even a crowdsourced encyclopedia to keep up with, and simply trying to decide what to write about was no small task. The closest thing to an overarching theme is the rapidly changing attitudes toward racial and policing disparities in what might be called the second Civil Rights movement. This post can only speak to a narrow part of that, and specifically will focus on how George Floyd and the protests in his name have been covered on Wikipedia; how articles about the numerous police killings in America are organized; how questions about diversity around the Wikimedia project are (and aren’t) being addressed; and how any of the above could change in the future.

Decades more may happen in the weeks to come. For now, here’s some of what’s transpired:

Wikipedia Says His Name

As of this publication, approaching 1,500 Wikipedia articles mention the name George Floyd, an explosion of new content that reflects public outcry over his killing and government responses. Sadly, when you try to think of other people who became this famous immediately upon their deaths, the most prominent examples are other Black men who have met fates similar to Floyd’s at the hands of police (and at least partly within view of a smartphone camera).

The other proximate comparison, for general newsworthiness, is of course COVID-19; when this blog last wrote about the topic in mid-April approximately 6,000 articles used this novel phrase, and today there are more than 24,000. The focus article in that case, now called COVID-19 pandemic, has received more traffic overall and more edits than the focus article in this situation, but it is certainly comparable.

In this case that article is about the incident and its aftermath: Killing of George Floyd. The article has been edited more than 4,200 times by more than 700 different editors since it was created almost one month ago, and it has been viewed more than 4 million times, not counting 58 additional articles in other language editions. 

The biographical article about George Floyd himself has over 900 edits by more than 200 separate accounts and more than 3 million views, plus 24 additional articles in various languages. From a Wikipedia perspective, it is somewhat unusual that there is even a standalone page for him, as there is not typically a separate biographical article for victims of police violence. Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Breonna Taylor do not have biographies separate from articles about how they died. There is one for Trayvon Martin, though, whose death was similarly racially-charged, albeit not at the hands of the police.

Then there is George Floyd protests, with more than 4,700 edits from 800+ editors, more than 1.8 million views, and 42 articles in other languages.

George Floyd mural outside Cups Foods in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Lorie Shaull

Around 80 other articles actually have Floyd’s name in the title, thanks to the repeated construction of George Floyd protests in [location] across the great many places where they have occurred, both in the U.S. and around the world. Some of this owes to the secondary discussion around the many statues and monuments—of Confederates and others—torn down or formally removed from public view in recent weeks. There are too many to link, but the articles List of George Floyd protests in the United States, List of George Floyd protests outside the United States, and List of monuments and memorials removed during the George Floyd protests seek to account for them all.

Floyd’s name is now tied to the reputations of many other people, places, and things:

This list only scratches the surface—here’s a link to the search if you want to keep exploring. But one clear takeaway is Wikipedia’s response has as little precedent as George Floyd’s death has far too much.


When is a Death a Killing, a Shooting, or a Murder?

Although Killing of George Floyd is by far the most visited of these articles, it has received less traffic than a very similar article that no longer exists. Strictly speaking, they are the same article: for the first week of its existence, when the world first learned about what happened in Minneapolis on May 26, the article was titled Death of George Floyd. The name change followed a debate spanning more than 24,000 words—longer than Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—and there is a very good chance the page will be renamed again, eventually. As first reported by Stephen Harrison in Slate earlier this month, there is a contingent of editors that wants to move it to Murder of George Floyd. That discussion was closed after a mere newspaper article’s worth of discussion, about 1,300 words.

Factors considered in the successful renaming effort included: which word was most accurate; which was most neutral; instances of “death of” and “killing of” in news reports; applicability of the site policy referred to in shorthand as WP:BLPCRIME; and, most interestingly, the precedent of similar articles about police killings of citizens. Death of Eric Garner was mentioned in about a dozen comments opposed to the change, but also by a few in support. One said: “I’m legitimately interested to know what a move for this article would mean for the Death of Eric Garner article, then, since the two cases are extremely similar.”

In fact, once the change was approved—faster than in most cases, on account of the tremendous public interest—a proposal was made to rename the Garner article to Killing of Eric Garner, now citing the Floyd article as precedent. 

Meanwhile, a different choice was being made about how to reposition seven other articles, beginning with Death of Breonna Taylor. But this was not connected to the Floyd or Garner cases at all; these articles were about fatal police shootings specifically, and in fact the proposal went up on May 23—three days before Floyd was killed. The discussion to change all of these from “Death of” to “Shooting of” and bringing consistency to the category of articles called People shot dead by law enforcement officers in the United States took fewer than 600 words to reach consensus.

Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC. Photo credit: author

The desire for consistency is understandable, but the more you look up similar police killings, the lack of coordination across Wikipedia articles becomes quickly evident. Among the better known cases in recent U.S. history, each is considered differently: Shooting of Michael Brown, Death of Freddie Gray, Shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the newest entry, Killing of Rayshard Brooks. While at first it seems like the use of a gun dictates the difference between “Shooting” and “Killing”—and “Death” where there is some ambiguity—the Brooks article complicates matters. As it happens, there is an ongoing debate about whether to rename that article, and it seems like it very well might happen. So far the discussion has lasted more than 11,000 words, about the length of a profile in The New Yorker

Confusing as the above may be, Wikipedia’s categories are even more of a mess. Here is a list of some largely overlapping categories that I found by clicking around for just a few minutes:

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these are consolidated at some point; in the meantime, I recommend instead looking to the Black Lives Matter template, which lists more than 70 such cases. Among them, you will find a few using the “Murder of” prefix that some would like to apply to the Floyd article. For instance: Murder of Renisha McBride, Murder of Laquan McDonald, and Murder of Jordan Davis. In all of these cases, the change followed successful prosecutions of the officers responsible. A Murder of George Floyd article will clearly have to wait, and—as of this writing, and with no arrests made—a similar article about Breonna Taylor will have to wait even longer.


Who Tells Your Story on Wikipedia?

Wikipedia can be quite adept at documenting current events, whether hurricane, pandemic, or social movement. But there is a level of understanding beyond mere documentation, and the coverage of the George Floyd protests raises questions about how well Wikipedia addresses and contextualizes topics relating to Black people, their culture, history, and wider impact.

The rest of this post will examine this from two perspectives. First, Wikipedia’s demographics: how much do we know about the backgrounds of those editing, and how much does it matter? Second, Wikipedia’s content: what are some ways to look at how Wikipedia handles topics relating to people of African descent? Putting them together: what, if anything, should the Wikipedia community do about any of it?

It would be wrong to say Wikipedia is not aware of diversity or systemic bias in its midst. In fact, one of Wikipedia’s most famously persistent shortcomings is its low percentage of non-male editors: just 10%, even after years of organizing and repeated public acknowledgment of the problem. It’s also one of the most studied questions: a search of Google Scholar yields over 100 results for the narrow phrase “gender bias in wikipedia”. The number of results for the phrase “racial bias in wikipedia”? Zero. 

This problem extends to surveys conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) itself. Most recently, a 2018 report on the diversity and “health” of Wikimedia’s communities asked contributors about gender, age, education, and geography—but nothing at all about race or ethnicity. Pages written by editors to raise issues with other editors, such as Who writes Wikipedia? and Systemic bias, have little to say about demographics or the potential for racial bias. Another page about the demographics of Wikipedia editors makes no reference to race at all—likely because the surveys do not.

Curious about this omission, I asked the WMF communications team about it: in a brief email exchange, they confirmed that questions about race and ethnicity have never been included in its periodic surveys of contributors, including the 2019 report which will be released in July. As for why these questions haven’t been included, they told me it was “largely due to methodological challenges: given that race/ethnicity is defined differently across countries, it can be difficult to find language and a methodology that can be applied consistently around the world.” But they added that they do plan to ask these questions for the 2020 report, which will be available in the first half of 2021.

While we’re on the subject, what about WMF employees? In October 2019 the Foundation released a “diversity and inclusion” report, which did ask about race and ethnicity. It showed that two-thirds of employees were white, 13% were Asian, 8% were Hispanic, and just 7% were Black. (Another 5% were of mixed race, without further specification.) The numbers are worse when you look at employees in technical roles: 78% are white, 3% are Black, but a little better when you look at executives: 58% white, 14% Black (and 14% each for Asian and Hispanic). Overall, the report states, the numbers are better “compared to last year’s diversity report, but we still have significant room to improve.” (These figures cover only U.S. full-time employees, not contractors or international staff, but it’s much more than a representative sample.) Nonetheless, it is entirely plausible that the Wikimedia Foundation is more diverse than the community of editors it supports. Next year we might find out.

Race / ethnicity of Wikimedia Foundation U.S. employees. Source: WMF

The best information resource, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, turns out to be an article in the main encyclopedia called Racial bias on Wikipedia. It’s not a perfect article, but it is more informative than what little can be found behind the scenes.

Even as information is scarce, collaborative efforts are growing: WikiProject Black Lives Matter was created only in the first week of the Floyd protests, though it has identified just over 400 articles within scope—many fewer than I would have expected. Meanwhile, longer-running efforts like WikiProject African diaspora (with more than 10,000 articles under scope) and the Wikimedians of the Caribbean User Group are other places to collaborate specifically on Black subjects. WikiProject Countering systemic bias is another place to get involved, albeit one that is less active so far as I can tell. I suspect that it is because the topic is rather broad, and specificity matters. That is especially true for Wikipedia editors, who tend to edit on the subjects they know best.


Open Knowledge as Anti-Racism Tool

Recognizing the limits of my own knowledge on this subject, I reached out to Sherry Antoine, the executive director of AfroCROWD. The initiative was established in New York City in 2015 and sponsors or participates in at least one “edit-a-thon” or similar Wikipedia-focused event every month. In particular, I was curious how she understands the current state of Wikipedia’s demographics and content from a Black perspective.

Among my first questions for her was: has there been a formal investigation of Wikipedia’s content regarding Black topics? My point of comparison is WikiProject:Women in Red, a group which has measured the number of biographies of women relative to men across Wikipedia. (It’s not much better than the percentage of non-male editors.) According to Antoine, there has not been one that she is aware of. Antoine is supportive of the idea, although she has a good idea what one would find: “There is little disputing there is an under-measure of information about people of African descent,” she says.

The lack of a well-known benchmark—the kind of factoid that can make for a good news hook—has not stopped AfroCROWD from doing something about it. The organization has worked closely with New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and others to identify missing biographies across professions including STEM, medicine, and the arts, as Antoine puts it, “trying to find and fill in the gaps that we may not even know about.”

Here are four gaps I hadn’t thought much about until researching this topic:

  • Activity on non-protest topics: Obviously, there is a ton of activity around the ongoing protests. But what about other Black topics? I decided to examine three articles: African-American historyTimeline of African-American history, and List of African-American firsts. I found that the first one had experienced a considerable traffic spike in late May and early June, but not the others, and none had a corresponding uptick in editing. Based on this, I assume that most of the activity is focused on current events, not the long-term coverage of Black topics, at least in the United States. Speaking generally, Antoine acknowledged the tendency for breaking news to drive editing activity. “I think and I hope that the attention that has been brought to it will continue when the news stops talking about it,” she said.
  • Wikimedia Commons: As Antoine pointed out to me, if you search Wikipedia’s image and media repository, Wikimedia Commons, for phrases such as “black women”, the results are dismal. If you follow the link (NSFW), yes, there is a photo of the female members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But the returned images actually contain more photos of white women, including some in various states of undress. Change it up slightly to “black woman” and the results are no better: it brings up an Egyptian figurine and women of other races, and another nude white woman, not to mention other sexualized content, before it returns any black women. Likewise, searching for a photo of a Black woman using a computer yields some relevant illustrations, also a few white women using computers, and more NSFW content. Matters improve if you find topic pages such as Black people, although it is mainly celebrity headshots, and the category African-Americans includes people like Johnny Depp and Penn Badgley, whose African ancestry is negligible to non-existent, respectively. Commons is notorious for being uncensored to the point of embarrassment, and a free-for-all to boot, but this is a bit much.
  • Capitalization: Should Wikipedia capitalize the word “Black” when discussing people of African descent? Capitalization has long been the practice of African-American newspapers such as The Chicago Defender, and in recent weeks has been adopted by the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and other mainstream publications. The Columbia Journalism Review, having opined otherwise as recently as 2015, now recommends capitalizing the word “Black” in such contexts. But Wikipedia has no formal rules on this subject. In fact, the Manual of Style’s guideline on Capital letters#People and their languages is just one sentence long, and focused on another topic. The first time I can find that the matter came up was way back in 2005, when it was reasoned that “black” and “white” are not proper nouns, and the lack of interest in capitalizing “white” would create an imbalance. The last time before the present moment it came up again that I can find was in 2018, when it was quickly shot down. A new Request for Comment was posted on June 21, and so far it has not attracted much attention, suggesting that Wikipedia will retain the status quo—with the question of what to do about “white” complicating matters as it often does. (For the purposes of this post, I have struggled with how to write it, and while The Wikipedian generally follows Wikipedia conventions, I have settled on capitalizing it for now.) In any case, Antoine is more concerned that anxieties about writing mechanics not disincline someone from contributing: “If that’s the focus, then we’re missing the point. Just write it. Get it in there. Later on we can have an argument about semantics.”
  • Blackout Tuesday: Wikipedia chose not to participate in Blackout Tuesday, a protest action held on June 2 where various businesses went silent, either all day long, or for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In 2012, Wikipedia did join a blackout to protest two pieces of U.S. legislation known as SOPA and PIPA. That was very controversial in the Wikipedia community, and The Wikipedian covered it at the time. This time the opposition was much more uniform, the effort being seen as outside Wikipedia’s domain, and arguably unhelpful. As one editor put it: “We are an encyclopedia designed to provide knowledge to all for free. Going dark takes away that knowledge.”

Knowledge was very much on the mind of Spelman College professor Alexandria Lockett, as the (virtual) keynote speaker at AfroCROWD’s Juneteenth edit-a-thon, which I attended last week. Lockett described Wikipedia as a “liberatory” force: the fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia is revolutionary—a point often noted since Wikipedia’s founding, but even more salient in the struggle for racial equality. And yet Lockett said her students sometimes will feel they do not have the authority to make changes themselves, even with well-prepared content. “You do not have freedom,” Lockett said, “if you do not feel you have the right to make knowledge.”

Taken very literally, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: if Black content is missing from Wikipedia, would-be Black editors might feel less comfortable contributing. But if there are not enough Black contributors, there likely won’t be enough Black content. The same would hold true for any marginalized group. This is a stylized presentation of the issue, to be sure, and in fact there are editors of color and efforts to encourage more of them, not least via AfroCROWD. But it does broadly describe the challenge involved in making Wikipedia a better resource on subjects that the straight white men who founded Wikipedia simply might not ever think to write about.

And just as white Americans and Europeans have been driven by conscience to join the George Floyd protests, so too might Wikipedia editors—whatever their ancestry—amplify efforts to increase representation of Black voices on the platform. As Antoine puts it, learning about people you might not encounter frequently “stretches your ability to understand what you might normally fear—the unknown.” She adds, “It allows you to make up your mind, rather letting your immediate society make it up for you.”

Any and all efforts to close information and representation gaps will ultimately strengthen the platform. The knock on Wikipedia, from some corners of the internet and academia, is that its “anyone can edit” ethos means that it ultimately lacks subject-matter authority, no matter how strong the citations. But by increasing topic and community representation, and highlighting this diversity, Wikipedia draws incrementally closer to being the type of epistemic change that many want to see.

How Wikipedia is Covering
the Coronavirus Pandemic

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on April 15, 2020 at 12:12 pm by William Beutler

Words fail to capture the significance of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic: the suffering of the disease’s victims, the pain of their loved ones, and the frustrations of those otherwise affected are, together, greater than any crisis our generation has experienced. In the first few days, comparisons to 9/11 and the Great Recession were commonplace. They have failed to capture the mood, so references to World War II, the Great Depression, and of course the 1918 influenza pandemic have seeped into news and commentary. 

It’s impossible to know how the present catastrophe will reshape the world in the future, but Wikipedia is already documenting, essentially in real-time, how COVID-19 is changing the world day by day. To understand Wikipedia’s coronavirus coverage, you have to start with WikiProject COVID-19


The WikiProject

For those not already familiar, WikiProjects are collaborative efforts organized by editors who want to work on similar topics. Wikipedia has almost 900 active WikiProjects, from A Cappella to Zanzibar City. Among them, there already existed WikiProjects whose subject matter is closely related to the coronavirus—specifically Disaster management, Medicine, and Viruses—but WikiProject COVID-19 is barely a month old as of this writing. 

In that time, nearly 1900 articles have been created or adopted by the project, out of more than 6,000 articles mentioning COVID-19 on Wikipedia.[1]and growing by about 1,000 articles per week, according to my unscientific spot checks  Launched by a single user on March 15, today it has more than 130 official contributors. And this is not to say there are only 130 editors working on pandemic articles, only that 130 have taken the time out from editing to sign their names up and, in some cases, help to coordinate efforts. Someone even came up with a logo (at right). A separate project from WMF Labs has sought to identify all pandemic-related editing, which at last check counted 527,000 edits by nearly 40,000 separate editors.

WikiProject COVID-19 also maintains a list of more than 600 articles it considers especially important and whose quality they are working hardest to improve. Some of these articles are exceptional in a conventional way, such as 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Germany[2]the Germans are just good at Wikipedia in general while others are more unusual: here is a rare article, about the Chinese doctor Ai Fen, where the encyclopedia entry is in English but nearly all of the sources are in Chinese.

Wikipedia editors’ contributions to our understanding of the coronavirus is important work[3]not like doctors and nurses, sure, but crucial nonetheless and unmatched on the internet. Nothing like Wikipedia existed for most of the world events described in the first paragraph, and even in 2008 Wikipedia wasn’t quite what it is now. This post is no comprehensive survey of these editors’ work, only a report back from a few days of reading and clicking to learn about aspects of the pandemic I knew nothing, little, or not enough about.[4]Lately, it feels almost like my early days of discovering Wikipedia: opening tab after tab after tab in my browser, losing hours to it, engaging in a very mid-2000s activity once nicely captured in a memorable XKCD comic.


How the Information is Organized

Most readers arrive at Wikipedia via web search, but those visiting the Main page over the past month have found a coronavirus-specific information box toward the top-right corner of the page.[5]A development this blog advocated for just before it became reality, ICYMI. This box is obviously a good place to start exploring Wikipedia’s coverage of the pandemic and related topics. By definition it is the highest-level summary of how Wikipedians think about organizing this information. But as we shall see, it doesn’t even begin to hint at the true scope of the topic.

There are nine total links here, which is arguably a lot, but it is well-organized. The bigger typeface on “Coronavirus pandemic” draws the eye to what is not just the box’s name but also a link to the primary article about the phenomenon, 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic. The next two links, “Disease” and “Virus” go to Coronavirus disease 2019 and Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, respectively, wisely sparing the reader from guessing about how these relate to each other. The rest of the links describe the pandemic from different angles, and we’ll examine them more later. But first, I’m interested in capturing some numbers about each of the three main articles. 


The Pandemic, The Disease, and the Virus

Here is a rudimentary side-by-side comparison of the three articles about (in order, left to right) the Pandemic, the Disease, and the Virus. The following is information pulled from WikiWatch, a tool that I built, and from Wikipedia itself:[6]Accurate as of April 13, when this data was collected

Even without charts, the pattern is clear: all the figures, from word count to images to edits to pageviews, are very large for the primary article about the pandemic, and commensurately less for each supporting article on more specialized subjects. Considering how Wikipedia’s content guidelines advise editors to consider giving subjects their “due weight”, the editors involved are doing pretty well on this account, whether by design or accident. It’s rather elegant, actually. 

As for the content, I won’t pretend to have read all 22,000 words, but in sampling a few sections of each, I feel confident saying they represent some of Wikipedia’s best work. The pandemic is clearly a topic of grave concern, with copious available sources to draw upon, and there is sufficient interest from editors and readers alike to ensure the articles are constantly updated as information changes. This is the kind of thing Wikipedia does exceptionally well during extreme weather events, such as hurricanes,[7]hat tip: WikiProject Tropical cyclones only this time the whole world is in one.

There is some repetition in photos, but if you have a good photo depicting a nasopharyngeal swab, you don’t really need another. And while we might think everyone has seen a “flatten the curve” illustration or animation by now, it doesn’t hurt to use in more than one article, just in case. Interestingly, a number of these images are drawn from the CDC which, along with the WHO, has released all of its coronavirus-related content as public domain.[8]To learn more about the coronavirus illustration oft-used in Wikipedia’s pandemic coverage, see this New York Times article. 

Speaking of flatter curves, there is another trend to be found in the traffic. First, here’s a chart from the WMF Labs pageviews analysis tool covering the last 30 days, also covering the Pandemic, the Disease, and Virus, in that order:

This gives you a good comparison of traffic on these articles over the last month, but the pandemic article receives so much more attention compared to the others that we can’t really see what’s happening with them. Via the WikiWatch dashboard, here are the same three articles, each according to its own x-axis:

This isn’t altogether surprising: the internet-surfing public’s greatest interest in these topics occured in the first two weeks, when the stay-at-home orders were as novel as the coronavirus. Now, at least half the public’s demonstrated curiosity has been sated. I also wonder if it might not suggest something about the urgency with which the public is responding, which is to say, less over time. If you feel like social distancing practices at your local supermarket are already diminishing, these charts might help explain why.


The Timeline and the Territory

Now let’s have a look at some of these other pages: the “Timeline” link goes to Timeline of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic, which is surprisingly short. But this is only because it is a repository of links to the timeline by month, which explains the “April” link next to it, and which naturally takes one to Timeline of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic in April 2020. This article is enormous—and we’re only halfway through the month! It’s a mind-bogglingly extensive list of events from all over the world, for each day this month. It’s already about 16,000 words, or 22,000 words if you count the references at the end.

And here one also starts to confront the limitations of what Wikipedia can offer the reader. Often as not, Wikipedia does not make for a riveting reading experience. Its content is constrained by requirements of sourcing, content, and tone appropriate to an encyclopedia. This is overwhelmingly a good thing: it is this quality control that gives Wikipedia its uniquely authoritative fixedness, although it comes at a price: the context you wish could be found between the facts. But this is not Wikipedia’s job. When the newspaper features and book-length investigations are finally published, months and years from now, then Wikipedia will have the sources it needs to tell a more compelling story.

Next there is “By location” which goes to 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic by country and territory. Less an article than a list of lists, it organizes the globe first by continent, with links to dedicated pages for each. It even discusses territories with no identified cases, such as 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Antarctica, which won’t take you very long. And some of these regions surely lying about it—see 2020 coronavirus pandemic in North Korea. Name a country, dependency or principality, and Wikipedia will tell you how it has been affected by the coronavirus. 

Naturally, there is an article for each of the 50 U.S. states, five territories, and one district, not to mention the parent article 2020 coronavirus pandemic in the United States. A summary of just these U.S.-centric articles would be a fascinating blog post, which I will not attempt here, except to observe that they vary widely in quality. This is not just because some are short. After all, there isn’t nearly as much to say about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Wyoming as compared to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Florida. But the Florida article is likely too short, whereas the 2020 coronavirus pandemic in California is so long as to be unreadable at times. Skim the subsection called “March 18–19” and tell me it’s worth anyone’s time to read or write. In an archive, of course. In an encyclopedia article, not so much.

Some of this tedium would be better replaced by charts. And indeed, many country and state articles include variations on a really excellent chart, meaning visually appealing and easy to interpret, that you can see below depicting cases in Sweden.[9]and accessible on a Wikipedia template page here 

Then there is another table which is far too tall to show in full, but starts like this:

This is the big picture of what you really want to know: how many cumulative cases, deaths, and recoveries by country. In fact, if you search Google for coronavirus cases right now, this Wikipedia page—not a government or professional organization—is where Google’s knowledge panel is pulling data from. Look for the easy-to-miss “Wikipedia” link at the bottom of this screen grab:

That link goes directly to Template:2019–20 coronavirus pandemic data. Not an article, but a template—the raw back end of Wikipedia that most readers never see. Because of the link from Google, this template is currently receiving nearly 200,000 pageviews a day, putting it in the top 1,000 pages across all of Wikipedia. A template!


The Rest of the Story

Finally, there are links for “Impact”, “Deaths”, and “Portal”. We’ll take these in reverse order: Portal:Coronavirus disease 2019 is like the front page of Wikipedia but focused entirely on the coronavirus (less the pandemic, for some reason). It’s a perfectly good starting point if you’d like some help in finding your way around; it presents partial lead sections of the “Disease” and “Virus” articles, and links to some other important pages, such as COVID-19 vaccine[10]hypothetical, just to be clear and COVID-19 drug development.[11]not just the hoped-for vaccine, but treatments as well Again, a great place to start, especially if you like curation, but its purpose is diminished because it is not actually the starting point. Compared to the millions received by the first three links, this page gets only a little over 2,500 pageviews daily

List of deaths due to coronavirus disease 2019, by contrast, is getting around 35,000 views daily. This article is self-explanatory, and is also a specialized version of Wikipedia’s perennially popular “Recent deaths” article.[12]see: Deaths in 2020 The coronavirus deaths article lists more than 200 individuals, each the subject of Wikipedia articles before or, in some cases, after they died. Previously, there was a separate list article about prominent individuals who had been infected, and then recovered, from the coronavirus. It was deleted in late March, largely for being potentially impossibly long, and also problematic for privacy reasons.

“Impacts” takes one to Socio-economic impact of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic another very long article with numerous links to articles organized principally by industry and then by region. There are dozens of them, and they too could be the topic of substantial study. Alas, considering the length of this article already, I will leave this for you to explore on your own. Know this: if it exists in the world, you can bet the coronavirus has had an impact upon it, and Wikipedia editors have organized the available news coverage and government statistics to explain it.

While you’re stuck at home over the next few weeks or months, you could do a lot worse than spending your time reading it all. And then, when you’re done, you might as well start again at the beginning, because WikiProject COVID-19 will have revised each article dozens or hundreds of times to keep up with the evolving situation. 


Odds & Ends

I can’t resist leaving you with a couple of unusual or unexpected things I found out that didn’t fit into the post above:

  • Speaking of the 1918 flu pandemic, the current article is called Spanish flu. Nowadays we know that it did not begin in Spain but likely it was in the U.S., and especially after the “Chinese Virus” controversy, many of us are more sensitive to these kinds of historical injustices. In March, there was a fierce debate about whether the article should be renamed. Ultimately the move to rename it failed, following Wikipedia’s sometimes controversial policy about using commonly recognizable names

  • What was the first news article to mention Wikipedia and the coronavirus? It appears to be “On Wikipedia, a fight is raging over coronavirus disinformation” by Omer Benjakob in Wired on February 9.

  • According to Wikipedia’s official statistics, pageviews are up 7% over the past month, and editing activity is up 9%. But if you look at past months, there’s nothing statistically significant about these upward ticks. For some reason, various months in 2019 and even earlier were on par or higher than these figures. Then again, we are talking matters of millions and billions, and one has to assume the law of large numbers applies.

  • This being Wikipedia, where anyone can edit as they wish until enough other editors become fed up with you, Wikipedia already had a list of “generally sanctioned” editors and pages. Not too many editors, fortunately, but if you’re looking for a list of coronavirus-related articles that have been more controversial than others, here you go.

  • Finally, WikiProject COVID-19 also maintains a list of its most popular pages, sorted by traffic. A couple of entries near the top of the almost 800 caught my attention:

    So there you have it, definitive proof of how much American life has changed in the coronavirus pandemic: Dr. Anthony Fauci is more popular than Tom Hanks.

Notes

Notes
1 and growing by about 1,000 articles per week, according to my unscientific spot checks
2 the Germans are just good at Wikipedia in general
3 not like doctors and nurses, sure, but crucial nonetheless
4 Lately, it feels almost like my early days of discovering Wikipedia: opening tab after tab after tab in my browser, losing hours to it, engaging in a very mid-2000s activity once nicely captured in a memorable XKCD comic.
5 A development this blog advocated for just before it became reality, ICYMI.
6 Accurate as of April 13, when this data was collected
7 hat tip: WikiProject Tropical cyclones
8 To learn more about the coronavirus illustration oft-used in Wikipedia’s pandemic coverage, see this New York Times article.
9 and accessible on a Wikipedia template page here
10 hypothetical, just to be clear
11 not just the hoped-for vaccine, but treatments as well
12 see: Deaths in 2020

Wikipedia’s Front Page Needs a Dedicated Section to Inform Readers About COVID-19

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on March 13, 2020 at 1:19 pm by William Beutler

Update: as of 5pm ET on Monday, March 16, the front page has one:

Wikipedia's dedicated COVID-19 box

Original post continues below.

♦     ♦     ♦

The front page of Wikipedia is visited millions of times every day and hundreds of millions of times every month. Although many users arrive at Wikipedia by finding a specific article through a search engine, the Main Page (as Wikipedians call it) is far and away the most visible real estate across the website and has been for years.

A whole book could be written just about how the Main Page works. Every day the various boxes which make up its features rotate through a “featured article” showcasing the site’s best work, plus three other prominent sections with updating lists of links: “did you know” spotlighting recently improved topics, “on this day” identifying memorable anniversaries, and “in the news” providing links to Wikipedia articles of relevance to world affairs. (That’s only a partial list.) The content for all of these is decided like the rest of Wikipedia: by volunteers who choose to get involved, following a set of reasonable but incomplete guidelines, with plenty of room for discussion about how things should be done.

Wikipedia's main page

“In the news” (ITN) is arguably the most contentious among them. Although Wikipedia is “not news” according to a well-known content policy, contributors here view their editorial decisions similarly to a newspaper editor deciding what should go above the fold, in print or online. Space is limited, anything included necessarily implies a degree of significance. The page outlining the criteria is an interesting read, if you have the time. Many of these debates are about which regional sports championships are meaningful enough for inclusion (college football playoffs? darts competitions?) but sometimes it is much more serious.

Presently, ITN contributors are debating whether they should create a new, temporary section to spotlight information about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, either within the ITN box or in another box above or below it. Of course ITN is already including links to coronavirus news, but they are choosing very carefully and leaving out a lot because the response efforts, shutdowns, and other developments are generating so much news it would overwhelm everything else if they allowed it to.

And yet, Wikipedia’s readership looks to it for authoritative information and such information about COVID-19 is critical right now as the pandemic worsens.

The suggestion was first made on the project’s talk page on Monday under the heading “Crazy idea: dedicating a section of the Main Page to coronavirus news” and with the reasoning: “This idea may be too drastic, however, but I do think very major ongoing events should have more prominence on the main page.” In my reading of the discussion since, contributors understand the obvious value it would hold for readers alongside concerns about the precedent it might set.

A sampling of comments in the days since:

  • One editor especially opposed warned: “I can see editors arguing that when we get to this next US election where whether Trump stays or not will have similar world-affecting impact will be argued and that we should have a similar box. Which no, we should not be doing at any point”.
  • The counterargument, which seems to have more support but less conviction, can be summarized in this comment: “I do believe that this is going to be the biggest rolling event for most of the world in a very long time. And I think that needs to be reflected on the main page”.
  • Two views of potential COVID-19 ITN expansionsAn outlier view, that the coronavirus isn’t that big a deal: “I think there are other kinds of events which would be more catastrophic (a nuclear war, for example) that we ought to use as the benchmark rather than a pandemic with a relatively low death rate and an admittedly unprecedented level of media coverage”.
  • Some even went so far as to mock up different versions[1]Corrected: Two editors have provided mockups; this post originally said it was one. of the ITN box with a single extra line devoted to coronavirus pages (at right).

I would go further: closer to the original suggestion, I would give it a whole box of its own, with obvious links to the key articles 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic (the global phenomenon), COVID-19 (the disease itself), and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes it), as well as a simplified version of the newly-created navbox collecting coronavirus-related articles.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else (however imperfect it may be, a key concern of the ITN guidelines). Wikipedia’s Main Page is among the most credible pages on the entire internet, its reach is massive, and it is already covering the news and thus giving readers the expectation they will find something relevant here.

Over the years, as their little experiment has become vastly influential, Wikipedians have struggled under the weight of the responsibility. For example, ITN often chooses not to link to articles if their quality is perceived to be too low, especially in its popular “recent deaths” section. This is one of those times that Wikipedians should set aside “this wasn’t my idea of what an encyclopedia is supposed to be” and acknowledge the reality of how Wikipedia is perceived and utilized by its global readership.

Also, it’s not like the Main Page is an essential encyclopedic function borrowed from the days of print publications. It’s entirely the invention of Wikipedia’s editors, it can change, and it should. (I’m not usually an IAR proponent, but this time I am.) It would just be one more frequently updated box on a page full of them. As to the slippery slope argument raised above, the line shouldn’t be that hard to draw: it should apply to matters of global significance where there is an immediate question of health and safety. This would obviously rule out more commonplace events like an election or a hurricane. But it would definitely include a nuclear war.

Once upon a time this website criticized Wikipedia’s decision to go “blackout” for a day in protest of American legislation designed to combat internet piracy. But this is different. The coronavirus is an immediate medical emergency affecting the entire world, and Wikipedia’s WikiProject Medicine has much experience making very careful decisions about how to represent such topics on Wikipedia because it actually can be the difference between life and death.

P.S. Lord knows, Wikinews is no useful source of information. At the time of publication on Friday afternoon, its top story was still this:

Wikinews: "Bloomberg, Warren end US presidential campaigns following Super Tuesday"

Notes

Notes
1 Corrected: Two editors have provided mockups; this post originally said it was one.

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2019

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on January 3, 2020 at 4:16 pm by William Beutler

This blog post marks the tenth consecutive year this website has contemplated the most important events, trends, and phenomena affecting Wikipedia and the wider Wikimedia community over the prior twelve months. Ten years is a long time—slightly more than half of Wikipedia’s own history up to this point.

The very first installment of this series arrived in late 2010 as an “easy-to-write, easier-to-read listicle” but within a couple of years had become a multi-chapter mini-essay project delivered with a solemnity not unlike the closing of a particularly bitter RfC. A few themes came and went: Gamergate, Wikipediocracy, and the Knowledge Engine. Some persisted: Wikipedia’s gender gap, paid editing investigations, and tensions between the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) and its community. Others fell away entirely: the once-declining number of editors eventually stabilized and even ticked upward, and once-hostile educators learned to love Wikipedia.

Eventually, the decade turned: the “good internet” techno-optimism of the aughts and early 10s gave way to the “fake news” hellscape of the Trump era. Wikipedia, to its credit, continued doing just as it always had. Recently, the progressive website Mother Jones declared Wikipedia a “hero of the 2010s” for being a “a true project of the commons at a political moment when the very idea of the mutual good is under assault.”

Indeed, Wikipedia has much to be proud of over the past ten years. No other major website has succeeded as a nonprofit, and no other nonprofit has leveraged its authority quite so effectively in the digital space. Wikipedia is a focal point for both the technology industry and the open access world. Even its controversies usually involve efforts to misappropriate Wikipedia’s reputation for independence and accountability. Wikipedia is something almost everyone can agree on.

So, how did these themes play out over the past year and decade that was?

♦     ♦     ♦

10. The media’s undying fascination with Wikipedia

Almost twenty years into Wikipedia’s existence, you’d think that the news media would have finally grown bored of stories about how things work behind the scenes at Wikipedia. If so, you would be wrong.

This year brought a cavalcade of deep dives into the Wikipedia community, including: “The Dumbest Wikipedia Edit War of the Dumbest Decade” (Gizmodo); “Wikipedia has a Google Translate problem” (The Verge); “Checking the Web on Hunter Biden? A 36-year-old physicist helps decide what you’ll see” (The Washington Post); “Socked Into the Puppet-Hole on Wikipedia” (Wired); “Election Results Mean All Nighters For Politicians, Pundits—And Wikipedia Editors” (Fortune); “Well It Sure Was a Big Year for the ‘Call-out Culture’ Wikipedia Page” (Jezebel); “How Hong Kong’s keyboard warriors have besieged Wikipedia” (Reuters) “Meet the man behind a third of what’s on Wikipedia” (CBS News); and “A Brief History of NRA Employees Editing Wikipedia for Fun and Possibly Profit” (Splinter, RIP). That is a lot of interest in how Wikipedia works, especially considering there are fewer working journalists than ever. Maybe they’re just interested in something on the internet that seems to be working as promised.

Not surprisingly, the coverage tended to come from technology-focused sites. But and politics and culture outlets from The Washington Post and Slate to to the entire archipelago of former Gawker sites published multiple Wikipedia-focused pieces. While The Wikipedian’s coverage has slowed considerably in the last few years, it’s encouraging to see that in-depth explorations of the dynamics behind the world’s most popular reference source continue to flourish.

9. Narrowing Wikipedia’s gender gap

Oh yes, it’s still here (first appearance on this list: 2011), and it, too, quite literally still makes news. In 2019 the New York Times, The Guardian and Fast Company were among numerous outlets to publish pieces pointing out that Wikipedia’s editor community skews heavily male (as does the site’s collection of biographical entries).

Remarkably, the reason everyone knows about the disparity is because Wikipedia has made a point of keeping it in the discussion. The Wikimedia Foundation published its first report on the demographics of Wikipedia users in 2010, and by the end of the decade many groups and initiatives existed for the purpose of bringing more women into the fold. Have they had an impact?

Given follow-up analysis after the first survey, which found a modest improvement a couple years later, it seems plausible that the answer is yes. [Update: It turn out I have mischaracterized the analysis, which was a re-interpretation of the same data. Nevertheless, my optimism remains unchanged.] With every year that passes, a new cohort grows up with Wikipedia—and receives increasing encouragement to participate. But as the saying goes, more research is needed.

8. Everything is (getting more) connected

In 2004, Jimmy Wales described Wikipedia’s mission as providing “free access to the sum of all human knowledge”. These days, this quote applies less to Wikipedia itself—which has all kinds of limitations on what it deems worthy of inclusion—and more to Wikidata—which really does want to describe everything in the known universe. 2019 was a big year for the open data knowledge base, particularly in the acceleration of content being made available to it from various institutions—including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among others. The trend is likely to continue in 2020 as integration with Wikidata becomes more widely accepted among archives and museums.

But Wikipedia is not left out: this year the Internet Archive launched an initiative to enable the display of actual pages of books cited as sources. As of November, approximately 130,000 citations had been connected to 50,000 books in multiple languages, with more on the way. The Internet Archive is much less famous than Wikipedia, but it deserves a lot more credit than it gets for preserving and distributing open knowledge. (Last year’s list celebrated another of its projects, to rescue and restore links to millions of Wikipedia citations that had previously succumbed to link rot.)

It’s interesting to me how for-profit Google and not-for-profits Wikipedia and Internet Archive all describe their mission as in some way about collecting and organizing the world’s information. It always reminds me of the final pages of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld:

There is no space or time out here, or in here, or wherever [this] is. There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyperlinked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password—world without end, amen.

This passage predates Google (founded 1998) and Wikipedia (2001), but not the Internet Archive (1996). It seems a stretch to say that DeLillo was inspired by the Internet Archive, but they are certainly carrying that hyperconnected vision forward.

7. Wikipedia or Wikimedia?

Everyone knows what Wikipedia is, but very few know what “Wikimedia” means. The word was coined in 2003 to name the new non-profit overseeing Wikipedia and other wiki-based sites which had begun to spin off it. Hence the Wikimedia Foundation. The problem is this split branding can be confusing, especially when trying to explain Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement (see? it’s a mouthful) to new audiences.

In 2019, the debate ramped up as the WMF hired a major branding firm, Wolff Olins, to help decide whether or not it should retire the m-word and simply become the Wikipedia Foundation. Although the rationale is clear enough, the counter-arguments are compelling, too. Wikipedia has long been the most important project of the WMF, but Wikidata very much seems like the future. Is it too late to make this change?

In May, the WMF published the results of a multi-part survey asking community members and affiliate groups what it thought of the idea. Some participants objected to the WMF’s methodology, claiming the criteria was selectively interpreted to show more support than actually exists. Some also faulted the fait accompli presumption that the change will inevitably be made unless significant opposition is discovered, in part because it does seem kind of like the WMF is actively trying not to find it.

Nevertheless, the topic is slated for discussion at two conferences in the first half of 2020. No one knows exactly what will happen, but if the change occurs, look to the Wikimania conference in August for a possible announcement.

6. Wikipedia meddling for face-saving and profit

Also in May, the outdoor lifestyle company The North Face and its ad agency Leo Burnett announced, proudly and quite inexplicably, that they had manipulated Wikipedia’s images of scenic hiking destinations to include its own clothing with logos fully visible, in order to dominate Google Images search results for said outdoor locations. The response was swift and fierce, and the images were deleted. Both companies seemed blindsided by the blowback from Wikipedia and the press (see: Adweek, PR Week, Fast Company) even though Burger King had come in for criticism for a similar stunt in 2017. (Also covered in that year’s list.) Each put out terse statements of apology, and the world moved on.

Less noticed but just as interesting, NBC News hired a PR consultant to influence Wikipedia’s treatment of subjects it cared about by engaging in discussions on their behalf on relevant talk pages. (Necessary disclosure: my company, Beutler Ink, provides similar Wikipedia consulting services.) These subjects included former anchor Matt Lauer and president Noah Oppenheim—accused of sexual misconduct and subsequent cover-up, respectively—which made everyone uneasy. As reported by noted secret account discoverer Ashley Feinberg, the consultant was “verbose” and “relentless” and his suggestions were sometimes debatable, but also “allowed within Wikipedia’s guidelines”. The nuance probably contributed to the limited outrage, although the story popped up again when it was included in Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill.

Oh, and remember Status Labs, formerly known as Wiki-PR? Yeah, they’re still around, and in December the Wall Street Journal nailed them again for undisclosed paid editing, including on behalf of Theranos, the notoriously fraudulent and now-defunct medical startup. Maybe they’ll start following Wikipedia’s rules now? Hahaha, yeah right.

5. Wikipedia co-founders keep trying for another big score

The 2017 and 2018 installments of this list included mentions of famous Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ post-Wikipedia attempts to become an internet billionaire, most recently via WikiTribune, a news site he first previewed in his 2013 Wikimania keynote. In October, Wales pivoted to WT.Social, a site intended as an ad-free, user-supported social network to compete with the fake news and clickbait of Twitter and Facebook.

There are reasons to think it could work: Wales’ fame means that WT Social has got a fair bit of coverage, including pieces from Business Insider and the BBC, and it had more than 400,000 members when I signed up to check it out around New Year’s. The pivot also sort of resembles the one Wales made from Nupedia toward Wikipedia, and that move seemed to work out. But there are reasons to think that this abrupt turn will not: it’s already struggling under the weight of its not-that-explosive growth, its espoused “news focus” will surely limit its appeal, and maybe we actually, you know, like our social networks clickbait-y.

Elsewhere, long estranged and non-famous Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger spent a couple years with Everipedia, an SEO strategy calling itself an encyclopedia that is somehow also a blockchain startup. (Also covered in our 2017 list.) In the honeymoon phase, Sanger promised that Everipedia would “change the world” far more than Wikipedia, but in October of this year, he departed and announced he would be leading a new project called the Encyclopshere: a distributed network of encyclopedias. If it materializes, this would actually be Sanger’s third try at building an encyclopedia to improve on Wikipedia. (Why not just revive Citizendium?)

Everipedia never made a lot of sense, and neither does Encyclosphere. Each competitor lobbed criticisms at Wikipedia that ranged from valid to puzzling without making a persuasive case for an alternative. The truth is that the quotidian labors of writing, editing, evaluating, arguing, and consensus-building is the real work of creating an encyclopedia, and this is vastly more difficult to realize than starting a new website with a different philosophy about how to store the ones and zeroes.

Call me crazy, but Wales and Sanger almost sound like they have compatible visions! Perhaps a team-up is in order.

4. Staff changes at the Wikimedia Foundation 

The WMF had a turbulent middle of the decade. In 2014, this list was bookended by items about the hiring of then-executive director Lila Tretikov, the next year it included kind of a blind item about various staff departures, and the year after that four separate items related to Tretikov’s messy removal and replacement by Katherine Maher, previously the chief communications officer. The three-and-a-half years since have been considerably smoother, but less so in 2019, and we’re probably closer to the end of Maher’s tenure than the beginning.

Once again, the last year has seen some major departures at different levels, and the surprising announcement that the entire Community Engagement department would be shuttered. The executive formerly in charge, who had been with the WMF for less than a year and whose style was widely viewed as abrasive, transitioned into one of those dignity-preserving “consulting” contracts so popular in Silicon Valley. The remaining Community Engagement staff has been dispersed to other departments.

In August, Maher hired a chief of staff, Ryan Merkley. The position had been empty since it was briefly filled by a former Army / DIA / Hillary ’16 official who had been viewed by some in Wikimedia circles as an odd fit. Not so Merkley: he arrived at the WMF after serving as CEO at Creative Commons. But this raised eyebrows, too: why would the leader of one open access institution leave to become second fiddle at another, unless he was being groomed as a successor? Also lurking in the background: complaints about how Merkley had handled sexual harassment claims in his previous role. (Merkley says he did so properly.) Will the matter come back to haunt the WMF? It probably depends on how long Maher plans to stay.

3. Wikipedia, enemy of authoritarian regimes

In 2015 China blocked access to Wikipedia’s servers within its borders, and in 2017 Turkey followed suit. The reason is simple: Wikipedia provides access to information that these governments do not like. In May, the Wikimedia Foundation filed a petition with the European Court of Human Rights to make Turkey explain itself, and in December the country’s highest court ordered access to be restored as a matter of human rights. As of this writing, however, Wikipedia has not yet been made available in the country. (This year, China also made sure that absolutely no language edition of Wikipedia can be accessed by its users.)

Russia has also blocked access to Wikipedia intermittently in recent years, choosing to selectively block access to specific Wikipedia pages until the HTTPS transition made this impossible. In November, Vladimir Putin announced a plan to digitize Russia’s national encyclopedia, the Great Russian Encyclopedia, which had previously been published between 2004 and 2017, and which is controlled by a central authority (not that you’d really expect otherwise).

By the way, Australia is not an authoritarian state, but nor does it have a constitutional right to free speech, and this year Wikipedia was cited by an Australian court for ignoring a gag order about reposting information relating to Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for rape and sexual abuse. For all the United States’ faults, the First Amendment continues to be the best ally Wikipedia can have.

2. Movement strategy could use some strategery

Just because you have a non-profit with a clear mission statement does not mean that you don’t have to make adjustments over time. And so for the last three years the Wikimedia Foundation has been working on something it once called “Wikimedia 2030”—because it asked participants to imagine what the Wikimedia project should look like in 2030—but now just calls Movement Strategy. Perhaps to forestall any jokes about how it really means it wouldn’t be finished until that year?

For those involved, it’s been a struggle, maybe even a boondoggle. Working groups have been convened and disbanded without arriving at a consensus view; endless conferences and conference calls have failed to reconcile the sprawling directions it has taken. To cite one example of disorder: at Wikimania 2019, the working groups presenting couldn’t even agree on a number scheme for their presentations.

Later in the summer, strategy participants were called to a last-ditch “harmonization” retreat in Tunisia to finally get it right. But this meeting too seems to have raised more questions than answers. In particular, an emerging theme of decentralizing the WMF—shrinking its size, spinning off dedicated groups, and devolving decision-making to chapter affiliates—was met with pushback by senior leadership. Word now is that yet another effort is underway to rewrite / reconcile the strategy for presentation to affiliates at the upcoming Wikimedia Summit in Berlin in April, but no one is quite sure what it is going to say. A new movement strategy could be a good thing—but right now it feels like process for process’ sake.

1. Framgate

In June, the Wikimedia Foundation did something highly unusual: it issued a one-year block for a longtime and very active Wikipedia contributor named Fram, who had been accused of behaving in an abusive manner toward other editors. While the WMF had blocked contributors before, these had always been permanent. Not so here. What could be so awful that it merited a ban, but one with an expiration date? And why didn’t they offer an explanation?

Reaction from the community was explosive, and divided. Fram was a highly productive contributor, but also one with sharp elbows. Wikipedia has faced plenty of criticism from within and without about harassment problems on the website, and here the Trust & Safety team had ostensibly stepped up to do something about it. But the way they did it left a bad taste, and led, somewhat ironically, to a loss of trust between the WMF and its community.

The next day, another editor unblocked Fram, only for the WMF to swiftly restore the block and remove the administrator rights of the editor who had restored him. A string of administrator resignations ensued, and nearly 50,000 words were devoted to the community’s internal debate about how to respond. [Update: Actually, I missed the archive pages so the true number may be thousands more.] As a result, the controversy drew far more press attention than anyone expected. BuzzFeed published a lengthy piece with an overreaching title, “The Culture War Has Finally Come For Wikipedia”. Both The Signpost and Slate settled for a slightly more circumspect description, calling it a “constitutional crisis”.

Indeed, the WMF and its community share some powers, which are not always clearly delineated. The 2030 strategy is supposed to clarify things, but obviously that process had not been resolved by the time Framgate came along. In September, ArbCom decided to vacate the block, but not to restore his administrator privileges. Once again, the WMF said nothing.

♦     ♦     ♦

Folks, this thing is long enough as it is, so I am going to do us both a favor and stop writing after one more sentence. Please send any corrections to thewikipedianblog@gmail.com, and thanks for reading!

Previous installments: 2010, 2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2013a, 2013b, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018

Image credits, in order of presentation: Slowking4, The North Face, Zachary McCune, Larry Sanger, Kritzolina, Wikimedia Foundation, Sailesh Patnaik. All images CC-BY-SA except The North Face.

What Happened to CongressEdits?
The Thrilling Life and Untold Death of Twitter’s Most Important Wikipedia Bot

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on January 17, 2019 at 11:59 am by William Beutler

Wikipedia and Twitter are very different internet platforms, but parallels can be found if you look closely enough (as The Wikipedian did a few years back). One important commonality is bots written by developers that automate certain tasks. On Wikipedia, bots can be found fixing typos, reverting vandalism, and performing repetitive administrative procedures. On Twitter, bots automate tweeting, retweeting, and related behaviors.

One of the most newsworthy bots of the past five years ties both platforms together. We’re talking, of course, about @CongressEdits, created to track edits made to Wikipedia from U.S. Capitol computers.

Launched in summer 2014, the account quickly became a cause célèbre, and if you wonder why, I’d like to invite you to familiarize yourself with the unavoidably self-referential Wikipedia article titled “United States Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia”. (Congressional staffers edit Wikipedia a lot, often embarrassingly, sometimes scandalously.) Over the next few years, CongressEdits would prove to be the source of news stories both serious and just for fun, revealing efforts to hide unflattering information and announce the availability of Choco Tacos in congressional vending machines. But then, in late 2018, @CongressEdits disappeared. If you visit today, you’ll see a standard message: “This account has been suspended.”

CongressEdits in 2014

What happened? Let’s start at the beginning: the account was set up (and the code behind it written) by Ed Summers, a software developer then working at the Library of Congress. He had previously established other Twitter bots, and also created WikiStream, a visualization of recent changes to Wikipedia displayed in real-time. CongressEdits was hardly a planned project, in fact it was “largely just an experiment,” as Summers explained to The Wikipedian in an interview. His inspiration for the new account came from the sudden appearance of @ParliamentEdits, which then and now tracks Wikipedia edits made from the UK Parliament. The creator of that account, Tom Scott, had piped the two known IP addresses for Parliament through the IFTTT automation service, which then published its findings to Twitter. ParliamentEdits was simple and clever. But a similar tool focused on the U.S. Congress would not be so simple: computers at the Capitol Building and its half-dozen office buildings are known to have multiple ranges and within them[1]Approximately 30 are known to be in use. —Last updated 1/22/19 thousands of possible addresses. After asking around, Summers received a list of known congressional IP addresses from GovTrack.us, an organization focused on government transparency. Summers put in a few hours of coding, and on July 8, 2014, CongressEdits was born.

Almost from the start, CongressEdits was the subject of supportive coverage—first from tech and politics sites like Ars Technica and TechPresident, and soon enough from The New York Times as well. Before long, the bot had its very own article on Wikipedia. What’s more, all the attention on CongressEdits (and to a lesser extent, ParliamentEdits) inspired developers in other countries to borrow the idea—and in some cases, Summers’ open source code—to create similar Twitter bots focused on the legislatures of Australia, Canada, Germany, and other countries. Summers is happy to have played the role he did, but also thinks it would have happened without him. “If I didn’t do it, somebody else would have done it soon after me,” he said. “It was just in the air at the time.” Still, CongressEdits proved to be the most famous among the bots, eventually gaining more than 60,000 followers.[2]Encouraged by the success of his side project, Summers created another bot, called @CongressEditors, which tracks edits made to the Wikipedia biographies of congressional members themselves. Later, he returned to CongressEdits and added screenshots of each edit, making it easier still for followers to scrutinize congressional IP edits.

Twitter-addicted journalists were soon mining CongressEdits for story opportunities, whether frivolous (The Daily Beast interviewed a 20-year-old congressional intern who admitted to vandalizing Wikipedia for funsies) or frightening (Mashable discovered edits watering down Wikipedia’s description of a Senate report on CIA torture). On multiple occasions, Wikipedia went so far as to temporarily block IP addresses from editing Wikipedia, for periods of up to three months, before restoring access in the name of openness. Some wondered if CongressEdits actually encouraged bad behavior. These included Wikipedia’s own Jimmy Wales, who speculated in an interview with the BBC “that it only provoke[s] someone—some prankster there in the office—to have an audience now for the pranks”. Others saw worse scenarios—as one developer said: “I just wonder when the first smear campaign leverages the watch bots.”

Which brings us to the autumn of 2018. The Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh started off as a routine exercise in shared powers among the U.S. government branches, but ended as one of the most bitterly partisan nomination battles in history. On Wednesday, September 27, in a dramatic sequence of events before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christine Blasey Ford, a former high school classmate of the judge, accused him of sexual assault, a charge Kavanaugh angrily rebutted. It was the next big moment in the #metoo movement, and the fight turned personal—in the committee hearing room, around dinner tables, and especially on social media.

On Thursday, September 28, a journalist alerted Summers that a CongressEdits tweet was going viral. This was nothing new, and Summers didn’t investigate until the next morning—when he found that Twitter had suspended the account. The story was already in the Washington Post: an anonymous person using a congressional IP address had “doxxed” several Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, posting their phone numbers and even home addresses—“personally identifiable information”, or PII in legal terminology. This was no regular chicanery, Summers said: “In the past, people have noticed that the bot had a lot of followers and then if they edited Wikipedia from within the Capitol building, they could basically send messages. … But leaking PII through the edits themselves was something new.”

Redacted CongressEdits doxxing tweet

On Wikipedia, the edits were swiftly reverted and suppressed from public view. On Twitter, with the offending tweets deleted, Summers appealed to Twitter for reinstatement. The request was approved, and soon CongressEdits was operating as normal. But this didn’t last either: the senators’ personal information was again added from a Capitol IP address, and Twitter suspended the account once more. Within days a former Democratic staffer was identified and arrested, but for CongressEdits it was too late.

Aghast, Summers was ready to simply give up. His mind changed after speaking to Daniel Schuman, policy director for the government transparency organization Demand Progress,[3]co-founded by the late activist, programmer, and Wikipedia contributor Aaron Swartz who persuaded him that additional code could be introduced which would scan edits for patterns common to such information: seven-digit strings for phone numbers, @ symbols for email addresses, and the like. Offending tweets could be withheld, or put in a queue for review, and Summers was willing to do it. He appealed again to Twitter, explaining that he would introduce a filter were the account to be restored. Instead he simply received a form letter stating: “Your account was permanently suspended due to multiple or repeat violations of Twitter Rules … This account will not be restored.”

As of January 2019, the account remains suspended.[4]There is, however, an archive on GitHub. Reached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson told The Wikipedian, “We don’t comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.” Summers eventually did post the revised code to the Twitter alternative site Mastodon, and so CongressEdits lives on—but in a place where almost no one will think to look for it. It now has just 382 followers.

The controversy surrounding CongressEdits thus became another casualty of the weaponization of social media, an increasingly common phenomenon. Twitter knows it has a harassment problem, has made repeated pledges to address the issue, and has taken serious steps to crack down on abusive bots and individuals. So far, they have yielded mixed results. It’s not uncommon to find stories of accounts suspended for reasons mild and mysterious. Sometimes Twitter’s rules enforcement has arguably contributed to the problem—for instance, the decision to ban @ImposterBuster, a bot which confronted users making racist comments.

To be sure, bots deserve more scrutiny than individual users. Last summer, Twitter introduced stringent new guidelines requiring botmakers to resubmit applications to continue their operations, no matter their content. These rules have apparently imperiled another internet-famous bot, @RealPressSecBot, which reformats tweets from @RealDonaldTrump to look like an official White House press release. In a December tweet thread, its creator, Russel Neiss, expressed his frustration and refusal to comply, and promptly began selling sponsored posts to monetize his protest until such time as this bot, too, is shut down.

Should CongressEdits return to Twitter, it will return to a much different internet than the one that gave birth to it. Using open technology for spirited problem-solving has given way to recently-realized threats and increased security measures. If unblocked, Summers says he would consider bringing it back to Twitter, but wouldn’t do so absent a clear message of support from the Wikipedia community: “I would take it up at that point,” he said, “but I didn’t feel like I was going to unilaterally do that.”

Unable to speak up for itself, CongressEdits’ legacy is undefined. Given the events of last fall, its critics might seem to be vindicated. Schuman, who had sought to help Summers restore the account, believes its real value was invisible: “I actually viewed it as something that inhibited people who have conflicts of interest from editing their own pages,” he told The Wikipedian. Summers is more cautious, but stands by his creation: “If I had to say if it’s a net positive or net negative, I would definitely say it’s a net positive, right? … I think it’s useful to think critically about our information sources that way.”

But now, Schuman laments, “This valuable tool just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Notes

Notes
1 Approximately 30 are known to be in use. —Last updated 1/22/19
2 Encouraged by the success of his side project, Summers created another bot, called @CongressEditors, which tracks edits made to the Wikipedia biographies of congressional members themselves. Later, he returned to CongressEdits and added screenshots of each edit, making it easier still for followers to scrutinize congressional IP edits.
3 co-founded by the late activist, programmer, and Wikipedia contributor Aaron Swartz
4 There is, however, an archive on GitHub.

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2018

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on December 28, 2018 at 4:17 pm by William Beutler

Were you exhausted by 2018? If not, then The Wikipedian doesn’t know what year you just lived in. The continued crises in Western democracies, ongoing wars in the Middle East, embrace of authoritarianism around the world, and the inexorable, seemingly unstoppable transition to a world where data comes before people—all served up for consumption on your internet device of choice as quickly as you can pull to refresh—have changed what “normal” means. Where 2016 was once half-jokingly called the “worst year ever” only for 2017 to replicate the experience, by 2018 it’s become apparent that we may never end up reverting to the previous mean. Indeed, this is just how things are now. Mean.

But is Wikipedia different? Whether because it’s a decentralized, international effort or simply not one dependent upon advertising or unstable business models, the wide world of wiki has often this year felt disconnected from the madness it ostensibly documents. Yet, if we look closely, we can see where the real world has seeped in. In this blog post, for the ninth year in a row, The Wikipedian will present a summary of ten events, trends, phenomena, and people that marked the year in Wikimedia.

Shall we?

10. Is that all she wrote for WikiTribune?

It was a questionable decision on The Wikipedian’s part to make last year’s number one story the rocky start for WikiTribune, the collaborative internet news site from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. It isn’t an official Wikimedia project, it has no financial relationship with the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), and Wales’ involvement with Wikipedia is arguably at an all-time low. But he had announced the concept in a Wikimania speech five years ago, and it certainly got a lot of attention when it launched. Well, it also got some attention when it laid off its entire staff this fall, having burned through its funding without otherwise making a dent in the broader media ecosystem. This was entirely foreseeable, as the idea always involved a leap of faith (but so did Wikipedia!) and Wales’ post-Wikipedia projects have mostly failed to thrive. Will we see WikiTribune mentioned again next year? It’s already fallen nine positions, so I wouldn’t count on it—or even that it’s still around by then.

9. Testing new models of collaboration

It is no minor understatement to say that Wikipedia has gone very far with its laissez-faire model of knowledge production: like Douglas Adams’ eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide, the content is written by those who have happened across it, spotted something they could fix, and miraculously actually done so. Yet Wikipedia’s content gaps and systemic biases are well observed, and it should take nothing away from the prior accomplishment to believe that more concerted efforts may be necessary for Wikipedia to take another step forward. For several years now the Wiki Education Foundation has been trying out different models, and this year they may have had a breakthrough with their Wikipedia Fellows pilot program, inviting academics from associations in multiple disciplines to try improving Wikipedia. The project has had some early success, though the number of participants were few and achievements relatively limited. Bringing more subject matter expertise to neglected areas of Wikipedia is still a daunting task that may not scale, but these experiments show promise and warrant further study.

8. Getting serious about systemic biases

Wikipedia and its associated nonprofits have been tackling similar problems in other ways: this year was the first occurrence of the Decolonizing the Internet conference, held concurrently with this year’s Wikimania in Cape Town, South Africa. Spearheaded by another independent group called Whose Knowledge?, the event brought together multiple strands of discussion and voices typically underrepresented on Wikipedia. Whereas Wikipedia has historically been the province of white males from North America and Western Europe, the conference’s participation was more than two-thirds non-male, from the Global South, and more than three quarters non-white. Actual outcome? Lots of discussion, a published report outlining agreement on issues to address (not always easy in sometimes fractured, identitarian spaces) and the creation of working groups to tackle specific issues. Whether this effort will have any measurable impact on a recognizable time frame is still an unknown, as the report acknowledges, but formalizing such efforts outside the WMF is nevertheless a major development.

7. “Free” Wikipedia goes offline

OK, one more in this vein: the Wikimedia Foundation’s efforts to bring Wikipedia (and yes, the other projects as well) to the far corners of the world without always-on wifi has unsurprisingly faced many challenges. Since 2012, the leading effort has been Wikipedia Zero, a program seeking telecom firms in developing regions to “zero-rate” Wikipedia, which means accessing it using their services would be exempt from the normal fee. It’s controversial in some quarters as it is often perceived to conflict in spirit, if not in law, with the principle of net neutrality. (Similar programs are also controversial in parts of the Global South: for example, in 2016 India rejected Facebook’s similar Free Basics program.) Although the WMF estimates it has reached more than 800 million people in more than 70 countries, the criticism never subsided and there was no corner to be turned, so in 2018 the program was shuttered.

So how will would-be Wikipedians in Ghana, Sri Lanka, Kosovo and elsewhere reach Wikipedia now? One would-be contender is the independent Internet-in-a-Box initiative, which seeks to put a copy of Wikipedia (and other digital libraries) on a low-cost computer (currently a Raspberry Pi) and distribute it the old-fashioned way. While it doesn’t come with any of the scary global data questions of Wikipedia Zero, because now we are again talking about atoms as well as bits, the old problems of distribution and scalability threaten to keep it a niche project. The tradeoffs are stark, and a sign of the times.

6. Attrition of administrators

It’s been a couple of years since we last worried openly about the decline in the total number of Wikipedia editors, largely because the erosion has been arrested. (These days Wikipedians worry about different charts going not down, but going up too much.) But topline figures only tell part of the story, and when it’s the power users who have the most impact on Wikipedia’s day-to-day governance, it’s troubling to note that Wikipedia contributors approved just ten new administrators—trusted editors who step in to lock pages and block accounts when needed—on eighteen nominations, the lowest number in either category in Wikipedia’s history. Yes, there’s even a down-and-to-the-right chart to describe it, and while it’s clear this trend has been developing for awhile—The Atlantic covered it in 2012 (!)—in 2018 all of the relevant figures approached, or breached, single digits for the first time (speaking of “Wikipedia zero”…). While Wikipedia still has more than 500 active administrators, there was a net loss for the year and no sign that will turn around. As attrition advances, will Wikipedia decide to lighten up, loosen requirements, or learn to live with fewer admins?

5. Save the links!

There are two widely held and mutually exclusive ways to think about the durability of content on the internet: nothing is forgotten, and everything is ephemeral. On Wikipedia, both are true: Wikipedia exists to record knowledge for posterity and every edit to every page is saved for all time, yet once something disappears from Wikipedia’s pages it rarely resurfaces—although it can! And this year, in one sense, it did.

The concept of “link rot” is central to this dilemma: because the internet is made up of links between files (and the World Wide Web specifically between web pages) if one file should disappear, the connection is broken, and so is information. The Internet Archive was established in the mid-1990s—practically the dawn of time, as the internet goes—to combat this problem by actually crawling the web, page by page, and storing all kinds of content long after its original publishers decide they no longer care to. This year a three-year effort in collaboration with Wikipedia delivered on rescuing millions of links to references once used in Wikipedia articles that later disappeared. It’s hard to overstate how important this is: Wikipedia is only as good as its sources, and finally its external sources are as stable as they ever have been—and perhaps can be.

4. I promise we’ll only mention him this once

The Wikimedia movement may be a global one, but considering its flagship Wikipedia edition is in English and its nonprofit foundation based in the United States, in 2018 hardly a week could go by without some intersection between the metastasizing national shitstorm that is the U.S. federal government with the leading source of putatively non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-biased information the world has agreed upon, Wikipedia. Most of the time, this involved harmful edits that require, ahem, administrators to combat effectively. From early in the year when Google amplified an instance of vandalism calling Republicans “Nazis” to efforts to whitewash articles related to the Mueller investigation to seemingly constant attacks on the Donald Trump Wikipedia page (often juvenile in nature, which alas is entirely fitting) and finally multiple issues revolving around the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The eyebrow-raising edits to the Devil’s Triangle page were almost quaint; more troubling was the “doxing” of elected officials on Wikipedia, which was then transmitted by CongressEdits (a Twitter account reporting Wikipedia edits from congressional IP addresses) which was then shut down by Twitter for being an unwitting conduit. The account, much celebrated since its 2014 launch, has not returned. Like much else these days, it makes for a tidy symbol of the nice things we can no longer have.

3. Building our own Hal 9000

The Wikipedian is not a very successful computer person and therefore pretty anxious about getting this one wrong, so let’s try to keep this really high-level and see if I don’t royally screw this up: besides Wikipedia, there are related projects like Wikidata (an open source knowledge database) and Wikimedia Commons (a repository of media files, especially images) that provide content for Wikipedia articles and serve as resources for researchers. Both have come a long way in recent years, and they are growing together. This year, structured data came to Wikimedia Commons, meaning the metadata about the files will now be better organized and machine-readable, and therefore more searchable, editable, and useful in ways we haven’t yet defined. Also lexemes came to Wikidata, which you’ll just have to trust me is important, too. Meanwhile, the WMF’s ORES project, which uses machine learning to evaluate the quality of entire articles and individual edits, got more useful—but it’s still most useful to decently successful computer people who know how to do things like install javascript files, and so it’s not quite ready for prime time. Maybe in 2019 some of this will become more comprehensible.

2. Donna Strickland and Jess Wade

Speaking of very successful computer people, in October the Canadian physicist Donna Strickland was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work in chirped pulse amplification. At the time, Wikipedia had no biographical article for her, and very quickly, this became an international incident in itself. Wikipedia’s oversight was covered by The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, Business Insider, Vox, Nature, The National Interest, The Daily Beast, and many more. In fact, it turned out an article about Strickland had been proposed in the months prior, only to be declined by a reviewing editor.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which absorbs every column inch of bad press that Wikipedia gets, was put on its heels, eventually publishing multiple explanatory blog posts about the matter, first by a mere staffer, and later by its executive director, Katherine Maher. What happened is perfectly understandable to anyone familiar with Wikipedia: there was not enough published information about her from independent sources prior to the Nobel committee’s announcement to satisfy Wikipedia’s stringent requirements. This is not unusual, as academics nearly always toil in obscurity. But of course, it’s almost certainly related to institutional sexism, and that while the processes in this instance were followed correctly, the outcome was nevertheless regrettable after the fact. Understandable, yes, but defensible? Perhaps not. And so the line out of the WMF is that yes, Wikipedia has to do better, but so must we all.

Meanwhile, there is another female physicist whose Wikipedia article was successfully created in early 2018: Jess Wade, who happens to be a Wikipedia editor herself. (Hmmm.) And not just any editor, but one who is the creator of hundreds of articles about other female scientists and who has received considerable media attention because of the fact. (It’s not even the first time this has been a story: cf. Emily Temple-Wood, an American medical student and prolific Wikipedian recognized in 2016’s list). Wade’s star began to rise this summer, and while it owed nothing to the Strickland issue—her first big round of U.S. coverage arrived more than two months earlier—it does feel like it may not be remembered that way.

1. YouTube’s bewildering fact-checking announcement

Wikipedia’s relationship to the global tech giants like Google and Facebook it is sometimes compared to is uncomfortable for many reasons: all enjoy audiences and impact of truly staggering scale (not to mention Bay Area headquarters) but Wikipedia’s mission and governance are completely the opposite of its supposed peers. If Wikipedia was a for-profit corporation, it would undoubtedly be a “unicorn”, except it’s a nonprofit and it ever tried to monetize the value of its reach, its community would rebel and the project might collapse entirely. (Which could still happen to some unicorns, actually.)

All of which is backdrop for probably the most jaw-dropping, perplexing, and as-yet-unsettled Wikipedia-related news of the year: an announcement from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaking on stage at SXSW in March, that they would combat “fake news” by including links to Wikipedia articles on certain user-generated videos that ventured into conspiracy theory territory. How would this be done? What videos would be flagged? What articles would be linked? Among those asking: the Wikimedia Foundation, which quickly put out a statement saying that Wojcicki had not shared this information with them. And yet, some publications went so far as to call it a “partnership” even though no such relationship existed. But it’s not hard to imagine why they leapt to this conclusion. Following the announcement, you could be forgiven for thinking they just dropped the whole thing. In fact, YouTube did start including Wikipedia-sourced advisories with some videos, at least in some instances. It’s not clear how it has worked in practice because neither YouTube nor Wikipedia ever mentioned it again. Has the internet already forgotten?

Clearly, this was an unforced error on YouTube’s part. But was it also one by the Wikimedia Foundation as well? After all, it was little more than two years ago that the WMF published a blog post declaring Wikipedia a bulwark against the “post-fact world”. While the real shame lies with YouTube and its tendency, however unintended, to radicalize its audience by algorithmic recommendation, it’s another reminder that there remains a significant gap between what Wikipedia says it is, what people believe Wikipedia is, and what Wikipedia really is.

Will that gap narrow in the coming year? We’ll see, but I doubt this trend will fall all the way to number 10 in next year’s list. See you in 2019!

Image credits, in order: WikiTribune via Neiman Lab, Tinaral, Doc James, Hazmat2, RandomUserGuy1738, Gaia Octavia Agrippa, Sikander, Andrew Lih.

Why Aren’t There More Wikipedia Editors?

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on July 16, 2018 at 11:15 am by William Beutler

Why do some people contribute to Wikipedia? Conversely, why don’t others? Ever since Wikipedia became a self-aware community, this question has vexed those who participate in it, and would like to see more people pitch in and help build the encyclopedia. After all, Wikipedia was created by a community of individuals with diverse interests and motivations. Some stay for a short while, and others stay much longer, but no one can stay forever. For this reason, the community must analyze itself and attempt to address the problems which hold it back. But this is a very, very difficult topic to grapple with.

Wikimania_2012_Group_Photograph-0001In mid-June, an editor named Ziko van Dijk, who happens to be one of the longest-running active contributors, posed a version of this question on a Facebook group for Wikipedia editors called Wikipedia Weekly. In the post, van Dijk noted the difficulty of finding new contributors, and speculated that a big reason is “simply that most people don’t like the hobby that is Wikipedia”—it’s a rather abstruse pursuit. Few people enjoy writing, and those who do prefer to express themselves, rather than impersonally collate facts. Meanwhile, other “occupations” on Wikipedia, such as clerical work involving categorizing pages is similarly unappealing. Therefore, in his view, existing Wikipedians must be clearer about what being a Wikipedian really means.

A discussion ensued, and weeks later, the thread had grown to more than 100 comments, with numerous current and former editors, including Wikimedia Foundation personnel, weighing in. I was a participant near the beginning, and in returning to the thread last week, I found the discussion in its whole a fascinating and perhaps useful compilation of views about Wikipedia’s problems recruiting new editors and retaining existing ones. This blog post is an attempt to summarize some of the more interesting arguments; the following are presented without judgment as to their correctness, but simply to describe the views in circulation:

Why aren’t there more people joining Wikipedia in the first place?

  • Many people simply do not know that they can edit Wikipedia. This seems difficult to believe, when Wikipedia is one of the most-visited sites in the world and has been for more than a decade, but the fact remains: we can’t assume that everyone who reads Wikipedia understands how its articles come to be written in the first place.
  • As van Dijk suggests, most people are not writers. Despite the rise of social media, few people write very much or at length—Instagram is bigger than Twitter, and most people who use Twitter simply read, rather than tweet. Moreover, the kind of writing necessary to produce Wikipedia articles is slow, laborious, and exhausting. However energizing a Wikipedian might find the work involved, it’s not hard to see why others might find it enervating.
  • Those who do write tend toward personal expression, sharing opinions and experiences. Wikipedia is the opposite of this: it’s not a place to write what you know, but a place to record what others have written about what they know. Similarly, most who write like to have their name attached to it—even if it’s not their real name. But Wikipedia is not a place for brand-building; it’s a matter of policy that Wikipedia articles are unattributed to their authors, only to the sources the authors used to compile them.
  • Those who try may be surprised that Wikipedia places unexpected restrictions on what they can write. You can’t just copy material from another source into Wikipedia wholesale, for example. And the range of acceptable sources is fairly limited. Wikipedia’s content rules are complex, and many of them are non-intuitive for those not steeped in Wikipedia’s community.
  • Some who try writing or editing an article may have just one topic they really care about, and are uninterested in going beyond that to work on many articles. Once they’ve said their piece, or tried and failed, their interest in the project has been exhausted.
  • A lot of what’s involved in contributing to Wikipedia amounts to clerical work. For many people, this sounds like, well, work. People who work in information jobs, especially, may find that Wikipedia is not a break from the kind of tasks they have to do in their real jobs, so Wikipedia feels too much like more of the same.
  • Potential contributors may associate Wikipedia merely with writing, and not with the myriad other tasks necessary to build the encyclopedia. These include contributing photographs and illustrations, coding templates and writing software, curating information, reviewing content, or patrolling new changes to keep articles free from vandalism or nonsense. You can be a Wikipedian even if you never write an article! But this isn’t readily apparent.
  • Wikipedia is simply too difficult to understand, and finding your way around can be head-spinning. As one participant put it: “Wikipedia is a maze without walls.”

Even if they want to join, the barriers to contributing are quite high

  • Wikipedia now has more than 5.6 million articles: all of the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked and there are fewer opportunities to create new articles. Meanwhile, expanding or revising existing articles may be less enticing to new contributors than the possibility of creating new ones. This is not at all to say that Wikipedia has created all or even most of the articles that it should eventually include, but it does mean these remaining opportunities are likely to be on more esoteric topics.
  • Wikipedia’s rules are very difficult to discover and master. There is no comprehensive list, nor a clear order in which they should be read. Should you begin with Policies and guidelines, Key policies and guidelines, or List of policies and guidelines? Who knows? And once you’ve found them, they can take awhile to read, not to mention internalize.
  • Another potential problem is a lack of clear goals for the Wikipedia community: back when Wikipedia was much smaller, it was easier to say that the goal was to get to 50,000 articles, 100,000 articles, or 1 million articles. Growing the encyclopedia is no longer the focus—that seems to happen almost on its own these days—but what goal replaces it? Reach? Quality? It’s not clear.
  • The “confidence factor” may play a role in a few ways. One is simply by getting started editing, one exposes themselves to evaluation, judgment, and criticism for their work. That’s not inherently a lot of fun. Additionally, with so much already written, new contributors may be reluctant to “interfere” with the work of those who have come before. After all, Wikipedia seems to have done quite well without their input, so why start now?

Harassment is a problem, but how much of a problem?

  • A recurring theme in the discussion was the degree to which harassment, especially of women, on Wikipedia is really a problem. Many editors have experienced it or seen it, but disagreement exists about whether it is a truly pervasive problem that is turning off potential contributors, or if the worst examples are rare but memorable.
  • Prevalence of harassment is difficult to measure for the same reason that crimes of violence often are: victims may be unlikely to report it, because doing so is daunting, and more so when the default assumption of Wikipedia discussions is that they occur in public. Were ANI to feature a private reporting feature, perhaps this would be mitigated.
  • A related question: don’t you have to contribute to Wikipedia first in order to experience harassment? The thinking being, it doesn’t really make sense to discuss in terms of new editors. Still, it’s possible would-be contributors have heard horror stories. And regardless of the reality on the ground (or the page) you can be certain this is a topic that will come up when these questions are raised.
  • Lastly, was Wikipedia ever a friendlier place than it is now? One suggestion was: no, it only seemed that way because there were more wide open spaces between content and there were fewer opportunities for contention and confrontation. Also, because Wikipedia had not yet become a global brand, there was less vandalism, and fewer COI problems. It doesn’t change anything now, but it’s interesting to consider.

What might some potential solutions look like?

  • There are as many potential solutions as there are problems. Maybe more? Here is a short list of ideas floated in the discussion thread, relating to the explanations listed above. Like before, they are presented without judgment, but in some cases with a little bit of supplementary commentary mixed in.
  • Wikipedia’s information pages must explain better what participation means before new users sign up. Wikipedia:Introduction is intended to be the starting point, but it doesn’t really offer any context for what to do. Not only is a better community portal for first-time editors a possible solution, but perhaps “better” isn’t the same for everyone, and there should be more than one point of entry based on one’s background or intentions.
  • Spotlight other things people can do than simply edit articles: patrol changes, review articles for GA or FA status, contribute photos, produce cartography, create templates, write bots, or fix grammar and spelling. A “101 ways to contribute” video or similar presentation could help spread awareness.
  • Better integration of tools from the community; VisualEditor is the WYSYWIG editing interface new contributors are encouraged to try, and Wikipedia Teahouse is the place for new editors to ask questions of veterans, but you can’t use the VisualEditor at the Teahouse.
  • For those who want recognition for their contributions to Wikipedia, perhaps Wikipedia’s articles could be re-designed slightly to include randomized lists of contributors to the article. Every once in awhile, you would get to see your name in lights. (Un-discussed: what if you don’t want your name in lights?)
  • “Stop over-policing contributions and under-policing behavior”. This is a fascinating insight, but also one that appears to run counter to the long-observed community advice to “focus on the edit, not on the editor”.
  • Stop pretending that everyone should be an editor, and find ways to support those who do. Additionally, find out why current contributors do so, and find ways for Wikipedia’s support teams and infrastructure to better nurture these motivations. Showcase stories of editors explaining why they are personally motivated to contribute.
  • More outreach projects to specific communities who are actually likely to edit Wikipedia: in science, literature, and especially at libraries.
  • Find ways to surface specific tasks to be done within different modes of contribution. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit all have feeds with new content to consume, but Wikipedia has no such centralized resource, whether communal or individualized. A new editor-focused dashboard was a popular suggestion in the 2016 Community Wishlist Survey, but not much has happened with it recently.

Ultimately, to borrow a phrase from academic work, mentioned in the thread: “further research in this area is needed”. Hopefully, in the meantime, discussions like this can help shape more rigorous explorations of this subject matter, and point toward solutions that benefit Wikipedia and its contributors, present and future.

Photograph of 2012 Wikimania participants via Helpameout licensed under Creative Commons.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2017

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on January 3, 2018 at 6:16 pm by William Beutler

Every year since 2010, The Wikipedian has delivered a roundup of the most interesting events, trends, situations, occasions, and general goings-on that marked the foregoing year on Wikipedia and in the broader Wikimedia community. Last year’s edition remarked upon the head-spinning series of events that made 2016 the “worst year ever”—or so we thought at the time—and now, looking ahead to 2018, we have a stronger sense that the most realistic expectation is more of the same.

Where does Wikipedia fit into that? Following the U.S. presidential election, it became briefly fashionable to see Wikipedia as a bulwark against “fake news”, but in a year where the new American president suffered vanishingly few consequences for his constant issuance of falsehoods, 2017 very much felt like a year when truth was under constant attack. These ten stories depict a Wikipedia editorial community and readership not necessarily in the midst of a crisis, but of life during informational wartime. Let’s go:

10. In the Wikimedia Year 2030…

Wikimedia 2030, photo by Avery JensenLast year’s list was dominated by a metastasizing organizational breakdown culminating in a change of leadership at the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF). Among many complaints about the non-profit’s former executive director, two of the most important were vision and communication, which is to say their lack. Katherine Maher, WMF’s current chief, seems determined not to let the same be said of her. In August 2017, a little over a year into her tenure, she announced an initiative called “Wikimedia 2030”, starting with a high-minded re-articulation of the Wikimedia movement’s mission statement and a series of commitments to (paraphrasing from the document itself) advancing the world through knowledge. It’s obviously operating on a very long time frame, and a lot depends on its implementation, which is yet to come. But the document received overwhelming support by community members in October, which is at least a positive sign in this otherwise fractured age.

9. The Daily Mail and Governance

Daily Mail clock, photo by Alex Muller / WikideaWikipedia’s quality is highly dependent on the sources it allows to verify its information. In February Wikipedia’s community decided it was fed up with the website of UK tabloid The Daily Mail for its mendacious unreliability, and so “voted” to “ban” its use. This apparent decision was widely reported, including by this blog. And yet, that’s not quite what happened. Rather than an official blacklisting, the Daily Mail was simply added to a list of potentially unreliable sources, and it’s possible to find instances of the website being used as a reference since, perhaps by contributors entirely unaware there was a controversy in the first place. This is how Wikipedia works: it has very few rules that cannot be overcome by editorial clout, determined obstinacy, continued evasion, or blithe disregard. On the whole, Wikipedia works pretty well, but breaks down at the edges: and that is still where the Daily Mail remains.

8. “Monkey Selfie” Reckoning

First, a mea culpa: as far as I can tell, The Wikipedian has never written a word about the Monkey selfie copyright dispute, as Wikipedia’s own article on the subject calls it.

Monkey selfie by David SlaterWikipedia played only a small role in the legal case, which primarily involved nature photographer David Slater being sued by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on behalf of a Celebes crested macaque who had no idea any of this was taking place. The legal matter isn’t quite settled, but as of September it seems close: Slater keeps the copyright, with concessions. Yet Wikipedia played a much larger role in the sense that there may never have been a case at all, or it would have remained quite obscure, had the WMF not refused to abide by Slater’s request to delete the photo from Wikimedia Commons. By virtue of its high profile, Wikipedia magnifies everything.

What’s more, the enthusiasm of its community also obscures: I remember the photo being everywhere at Wikimania 2014 in London and, being charmed like everyone else, I played along and used it in a slide presentation without looking into it further. I’m more regretful of this than my own non-coverage, and consider it still unresolved whether WMF is on the side of virtue in this matter. (Why am I using the photo here, then? For the same reason Wikipedia uses copyrighted logos: for identification.)

It seems indisputable to me that the copyright should belong with the human who went to considerable lengths at personal cost to facilitate its creation, regardless of which bipedal mammal clicked the button, and if the law is unclear on this, then the law should be clarified. If you haven’t listened to This American Life’s episode about the case from November, it’s worth your time—and Wikipedia doesn’t come across terribly well.

7. Burger King’s Way

Burger KingRemember this? In April, Burger King announced a television ad for the U.S. and UK markets featuring dialogue intended to activate Google Home and read out Wikipedia’s entry for the Whopper. Almost immediately, The Verge noticed that Burger King’s ad team had surreptitiously edited the Whopper entry from Wikipedia’s typical dispassionate summary “…signature hamburger product sold by the international fast-food restaurant chain…” to unambiguous marketing-speak “…flame-grilled patty made with 100 percent beef with no preservatives or fillers…” Then, predictably, unidentified randos joined in and hijacked the entry to disparage the mass-market burger, producing head-scratching headlines like this one from BBC: “Burger King advert sabotaged on Wikipedia”.

Although Burger King was probably unaware of Wikipedia’s policy “Wikipedia is not a soapbox or means of promotion” and practically guaranteed ignorant of the guideline “Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point” that should hardly matter; Burger King knew what it was doing, and figured the ensuing coverage was worth the cost. They were probably right. But I can’t not play the schoolmarm, and tsk-tsk: it’s one thing for a high-school student to vandalize Wikipedia for fun, but quite another for a multinational corporation.

6. Wikipedia Vandalism is Fun for All

Last year’s version of this column decried the phenomenon of lazy sports-bloggers leaning on blink-and-you-missed-it vandalism of sports-related Wikipedia articles for amusement and clicks, and this continued unabated throughout 2017. Most of these stories came from minor sports websites and local news teams, but just as Wikipedia’s prominence owes to its high Google search ranking, so too are these time-wasters afforded visibility by Google News. But this year, we got something else: ostensibly serious news publications marveling over a pattern of self-aware edits coming from U.S. congressional computers.

US CSince 2014, the automated Twitter account @CongressEdits has tracked and reposted every edit made from House and Senate offices; in October, BuzzFeed and CNN both noticed that someone on the Hill was editing articles from Carly Rae Jepsen to Chuck E. Cheese, and on subjects as ubiquitous as Star Wars to obscure as indie band The Mountain Goats. In December, a college student and former congressional aide claimed credit in The Daily Beast, which led to other former interns and anonymous persons crying out for recognition as well. Whether for the lulz, or as part of “the resistance”, these edits at least proved that curiosity about Wikipedia’s willful vulnerability to nonsense appeals to journalists and readers who should probably be focused on something else.

5. Signpost of the Times

WikipediaSignpostIcon.svgA year ago, this list bemoaned the decline of Wikipedia criticism, largely based on the departure of critical thinkers (or at least decent writers) from forums such as Wikipediocracy. This year, I find myself concerned with Wikipedia’s own community news source, The Signpost. A bi-weekly online “newspaper”, The Signpost has been around since 2005, written and edited by volunteers much as Wikipedia itself is. In early 2016 a new editor-in-chief took the reins, led with an ambitious and hopeful editor’s note, produced three issues by the end of February, and then simply stopped.

The editor, a longtime community veteran and onetime WMF staffer, in fact ceased editing Wikipedia almost entirely. I thought about investigating it at the time, but figured I already knew the basics: burnout is a natural occurrence and all but inevitable, although it’s less typical for a project leader to step away without so much as a “gone fishin'” sign. By June, a skeleton crew of former contributors had banded together to put out an edition on at least a once-per-month basis, with a new permanent editor named as of September. Here’s hoping they can return the Signpost to its former schedule and retain its high quality.

In the meantime, I’ll say again what I’ve said many times before: The Signpost is hard work and is a crucial service for the core Wikipedia community; its health is in some ways a measure of the health of the community itself. Its editorship should be a stipended position, funded by but free from oversight of the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia does not depend upon volunteer developers, nor should it depend on volunteer reporters.

4. Everipedia Stalking

What’s Everipedia? Oh, it’s just the latest upstart challenging Wikipedia, this time an actual startup: a rival wiki-based online encyclopedia launched in 2014 by a couple of UCLA students, which later attracted investment from excommunicated Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam, and in December also the involvement of expatriate Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.

195px-L_SangerEveripedia is certainly audacious, calling itself the world’s biggest encyclopedia (for having exported all of Wikipedia’s entries and then adding more Wikipedia wouldn’t accept) and it projects a certain braggadocio not typically found in online knowledge repositories (at one time, its founders liked to call it “Thug Wikipedia”). It’s also not Sanger’s first attempt at a do-over, having left Wikipedia citing philosophical differences early on; his decidedly more staid Citizendium effort is itself now more than 10 years old, but with only a handful of active editors, is all but a dead project.

The most interesting thing about Everipedia, though, is its pivot to using blockchain technology and announced development of a cyrptocurrency with which to pay contributors. I’m curious to be sure, but even more sure of my skepticism. No question, Wikipedia is built on a relatively ancient software framework, and there is a case to be made that blockchain’s public ledger could represent an advancement in recording all “transactions”. But this is what Harvard’s Clayton Christensen would call a “sustaining innovation”, not a “disruptive innovation”—there’s no reason Wikipedia couldn’t adopt a blockchain ledger should the idea prove meritorious, meanwhile there’s very little chance that Everipedia can replace the day-to-day deliberations of an editorial community more than 15 years old. Culture is impossible to replicate, and extremely difficult to develop. I can’t promise an assortment of brogrammers and Wikipedia’s kooky uncle won’t pull it off, but I have my doubts.

3. Hey, Big Spenders

Wikimedia_Foundation_financial_development_multilanguage.svgWikipedia’s fundraising prowess, ever-growing expenses, and nevertheless-expanding bank account are a matter of interest year in and year out. From about $56,000 in the bank at the end of the 2004 fiscal year to more than $90 million by 2016, Wikipedia’s financial situation is still growing in a way that’s entirely divorced from the number of volunteers actively participating. In February, a 12-year veteran editor published an alarming (or alarmist) op-ed at the then-functioning Signpost with the unfortunate headline “Wikipedia Has Cancer”.

The controversial connotation (which I realize I’ve also made in #10) was very much intended: Wikipedia’s financial position has far exceeded what is necessary for the running of this non-profit, volunteer-driven project. What happens if (and presumably when) revenues slow—will the Wikimedia Foundation adjust spending downward, or start taking on debt? Pointing to recent failures in WMF software development initiatives as a reason to worry about Wikipedia’s leadership, the op-ed called for a spending freeze and greater transparency in financial matters. With some fiscal discipline, and Wikipedia’s newly-established endowment, Wikipedia could live comfortably off its prior fundraising indefinitely. Although the rhetoric was probably excessive, it struck a nerve, attracting an overwhelming number of comments in a discussion that continued for months. Soon after, an article in Quartz called the resulting frenzy “nuts”, and published a chart comparing Wikipedia favorably to similar institutions, including the New York Public Library and even the British Museum.

2. Slow Wiki Movement

Given the lack of high-impact news events surrounding Wikipedia, here is a new one: nothing really happened this year. That’s probably good news, but it doesn’t make for an exciting story. And for an avowed non-story, it’s relatively high-positioned as well. But as I contemplated the mood around Wikipedia over the past twelve months, I found it rather fitting.

320px-Wikidatacon_ux_participatorydesignworkshop_11Two items that just missed the cut: the WMF’s 2015 lawsuit against the NSA, dismissed by one court, was reinstated by another, and this could well be a standalone entry next year. And Wikipedia’s open database, Wikidata, continued to develop and grow, but all of this happened behind the scenes, without any single inflection point (though attendees of the first-ever Wikidatacon are free to disagree with me).

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s edit wars and paid editing scuffles continued, but few made actual news. Trolls, especially of the GamerGate variety, continued to be a nuisance, but (for now) are not an existential threat. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance barely registered a blip, Wikipedia’s editorship numbers again ticked upward, and Wikimania Montreal went off without a hitch. Other topics this year-end report card series has discussed before were also ho-hum: no major sock puppet networks detected, no major article-creation milestones (we’re just over halfway to 6 million), the detente between Wikipedia and education continues, and the Visual Editor continues to work even as most veterans ignore it. Yes, Turkey blocked Wikipedia, but following China and Russia having done so in previous years, it hardly made a dent.

This is what maturity looks like: Wikipedia is Wikipedia, and seems likely to continue doing what it does for a long time to come. So, does it feel like we’re celebrating?

1. WikiTribune’s Rocky Start

wikitribuneIn keeping with the somnolence of the previous item, this year’s top story isn’t even about Wikipedia: it’s about WikiTribune, the other new initiative from Wikipedia’s other co-founder, Jimmy Wales. Announced to great fanfare and no little skepticism in April, Wales’ long-dreamed wiki-based online news site finally launched at the end of October. Early reviews were not enthusiastic, and it has been little remarked-upon since. As of this writing, it has continued publishing a few stories a day, none with any apparent impact. WikiTribune offers little more than what other news operations are doing, and less of it.

In May, this blog offered advice about how it might stand out in a crowded online world: by focusing on developing news teams at the local level, and trial-run innovations that might be ported back Wikipedia. But WikiTribune seems determined to cover international news with no discernible viewpoint or special access, and has no connection to Wikipedia besides its name and famous founder. Why would anyone visit WikiTribune for news over any other publication? I have no idea. Alas, WikiTribune looks like just another much-heralded effort to reinvent news by doing the exact same thing that other news publications were already struggling to keep doing in seemingly impossible circumstances. Whether WikiTribune survives to see the end of 2018, or makes this list a year from now, I have no idea either.

Photo credits, in order: Avery Jensen; Alex Muller / Wikidea; David Slater; Restaurant Brands International; Public domain; Kjoonlee; Larry Sanger; Sameboat; Jan Dittrich; WikiTribune.

What You Missed at Wikimania 2017

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on August 18, 2017 at 4:39 pm by William Beutler

N.B. At the end of this post I’ve embedded a Spotify playlist for the delightful 2006 album “Trompe-l’oeil” by the Francophone Montreal indie rock band Malajube. It’s what I was listening to as I arrived at Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport last week, and I think it would make a nice soundtrack for reading this post.

♦     ♦     ♦

Wikimania 2017, the thirteenth annual global meeting of Wikipedia editors and the larger Wikimedia movement, was held in Montreal last weekend. For the fifth time overall, and the first time in two years, I was there. I’ve covered previously attended Wikimanias, sometimes glancingly, and sometimes day-by-day, and this time I’ll do something a little different as well.

One nice thing about a conference for a project focused on the internet: many of the presentations can be found on the internet! Some but not all were recorded and streamed; some but not all have slides available to revisit. The second half of this post is a roundup of presentations I attended, or wished I attended, with media available so you can follow up at your own pace.

But first, a note on a major theme of the conference: implicitly if not specifically called “Wikimedia 2030”, and a draft of a “strategic direction” document circulating by stapled printout from the conference start, later addressed specifically in a presentation by Wikimedia Foundation executive director Katherine Maher and board chair Christophe Henner. It’s available to read here, and I recommend it as a straightforward and clearly-described (if detail-deficient) summary of how Wikimedians understand their project, and where its most dedicated members want to take it.

Draft strategic direction at Wikimania 2017As one would expect, the memo acknowledges the many types of contributors and contributions, brought together by a belief in the power of freely shared knowledge, and a committment to helping organize it. It also focuses on developing infrastructure, building relationships, and strengthening networks. One thing it doesn’t talk much about is Wikipedia, which might be surprising to some. After all, Wikipedia is arguably more important to the movement than the iPhone is to Apple: Wikipedia receives 97.5% of all WMF site traffic, while the iPhone accounts for “only” 70% of Apple’s revenues.

I don’t wish to belabor the Apple analogy much, because there are too many divergences to be useful in a global analysis, but both were revolutionary within their markets, upset competitors, created a whole new participatory ecosystem in their wake, and each grew exponentially until they didn’t. Now the stewards of each are looking beyond the cash cow for new areas of growth. For Apple, it’s cloud-based Services revenue. For the WMF, it’s not quite as easily summarized. But the answer is also partly about building in the cloud, at least figuratively. Although both Wikipedia and the iPhone will remain the most publicly visible manifestations of each organization for the foreseeable future, the leadership of each is focused on what other services they enable, and how they can even make the core product more valuable.

I see two main themes in the memo, about how the Wikimedia movement can better develop that broad ecosystem beyond Wikimedia’s existing base, and how it can improve its underlying systems within movement technology and governance. The former is too big a subject to grapple with here, and I’ll share just a single thought about the latter.

One thing the document concerns itself with at least as much as with Wikipedia is “data structures”—and this nods to Wikidata, which has been the new hotness for awhile, but whose centrality to the larger project is becoming clearer all the time. Take just one easily overlooked line, about how most Wikimedia content is “long-text, unstructured articles”. You know, those lo-fi Wikipedia entries that remain so enduringly popular. They lack structure now, but they might not always. Imagine a future where Wikidata provides information not just to infoboxes (although that is a tricky subject) but also to boring old Wikipedia itself. Forget “red links”: every plain text noun in the whole project may be connected to its “Q number”. Using AI and machine learning, entire concepts can be quickly linked in a way that once required many lifetimes.

At present, Wikipedia is the closest thing we have to the “sum of all human knowledge” but in the future, it may only be the default user interface. Now more than ever, the real action is happening behind the scenes.

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Birth of Bias: implicit bias’ permanence on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a project by and for human beings, and necessarily carries the implicit biases of those human beings, whether they’re mindful of the fact or not. This presentation, offered by San Francisco State visiting scholar Jackie Koerner, focused on how to recognize this and think about what to do about it. Slides are accessible by clicking on the image below, and notes from the presentation are here.

Koerner Implicit Bias Wikimania 2017

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Readership metrics: Trends and stories from our global traffic data

How much do people around the world look at Wikipedia? How much do they look at it on desktop vs. mobile device? How have things changed over time? All of this and more is found in this presentation from Tilman Bayer, accessible by clicking through the image below.

Readership metrics. Trends and stories from our global traffic data (Wikimania 2017 presentation)

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The Internet Archive and Wikimedia – Common Knowledge Goals

The Internet Archive is not a Wikimedia project, but it is a fellow nonprofit with a similar outlook, complementary mission and, over time, increasing synergy between the two institutions. Every serious Wikimedian should know about the Internet Archive. I didn’t attend the presentation by Wendy Hanamura and Mark Graham, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from the slides embedded below, and session notes here.

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State of Video in the Wikimedia Movement

You don’t watch a lot of video on Wikipedia, do you? It’s not for lack of interest on the part of Wikipedians. It’s for lack of media availability under appropriate licenses, technology and infrastructure to deliver it, and even community agreement about what kinds of videos would help Wikipedia’s mission. It’s an issue Andrew Lih has focused on for several years, and his slides are highly readable on the subject.

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The Keilana Effect: Visualizing the closing coverage gaps with ORES

As covered in this blog’s roundup of 2016’s biggest Wikipedia stories, one of Wikipedia’s more recent mini-celebrities is a twentysomething medical student named Emily Temple-Wood, who goes by the nom-de-wiki Keilana. Her response to each experienced instance of gender-based harassment on the internet was to create a new biographical article about another woman scientist on Wikipedia. But it’s not just an inspiring story greenlit by countless news editors in the last couple years: WikiProject Women Scientists, founded by Temple-Wood and Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, dramatically transformed the number and quality of articles within this subject area, taking them from a slight lag relative to the average article to dramatically outpacing them. Aaron Halfaker, a research scientist at the Wikimedia Foundation, crunched the numbers using the new-ish machine learning article quality evaluation tool ORES. Halfaker presented his findings, with Temple-Wood onstage to add context, on Wikimania’s final day. More than just a victory lap, the question they asked: can it be done again? Only Wikipedia’s contributors can answer that question.

The slides can be accessed by clicking through the image below, notes taken live can be found here, and for the academically inclined, you can also read Halfaker’s research paper: Interpolating Quality Dynamics in Wikipedia and Demonstrating the Keilana Effect.

Keilana Effect (Wikimania 2017)

That was fun! Let’s do this again next year.

Update: Looking for more slides and notes? There’s an “All Session Notes” page on the Wikimania site for your edification.

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Does WikiTribune Even Stand a Chance?

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on May 12, 2017 at 1:05 pm by William Beutler

Almost four years ago, Jimmy Wales stood before an audience of Wikipedians at the 2013 Wikimania conference in Hong Kong, delivering his annual keynote address. Mere weeks had passed since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had become famous (or infamous) for releasing sensitive U.S. government documents and escaping to a hotel room just blocks away from the site of the conference. Given Wales’ status as the spokesperson for a movement based on free information, and the coincidence of shared location[1]Snowden’s hotel was in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Wikimania conference next door in Hung Hom, media coverage at the time largely focused on his remarks about Snowden.

But Wales had another topic in mind, inspired in part by then-current events, which media outlets mostly mentioned only in passing. Here, too. This is what The Wikipedian had to say, based on having witnessed the speech at the time:

Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see. Some raised the question of what will contributors to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikinews project think of it, but the question kind of answers itself: Wikinews has never been a success, and is kept alive only by a few die-hards. … So maybe this will become that. Or maybe we’ll never hear about it again.

Credit where it’s due: although Wales had said nothing more about it publicly in the years since, and “Jimmy’s hybrid model” had become at best the source of an occasional snicker among Wikipedians skeptical of Wales’ follow-through (about which more later) now there is no question he really meant it. On April 24, Wales announced the creation of an ambitious newsgathering and reporting project called Wikitribune with the debut of a placeholder website, promotional video, crowdfunding campaign, and launch coverage led by NiemanLab.

Jimmy Wales keynote address at Wikimania Hong Kong, 2013Most of what’s been written so far has been positive, thanks to goodwill surrounding the Wikipedia project, and by extension to Wales, its credited founder. Following the lead from his intro video, a fair bit of Wikitribune coverage is centered on its stated goal of fighting fake news. Despite the term’s dilution and partial co-optation by President Trump, it remains the media evil du jourWashington Post executive editor Marty Baron recently called it “the greatest challenge we face in the industry at the moment”. The notion that Wikipedia is the remedy is one everyone is happy to play along with, though it’s more hypothesis than established fact.

The most critical perspective so far comes from Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic, questioning the volunteer-professional hybrid collaborative concept, i.e. that one “who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered ‘equals’ with someone who is unpaid” and that it devalues the work of professionals to assume it can be done by volunteers. It’s partly a critique of the model, and partly a critique of the morality; it’s an important criticism, and one that should be taken seriously.[2]I do think these questions also have good answers, and it matters very much how the roles of each party are defined. There is a similarly important distinction to be made in managing paid vs. volunteer contributors to Wikipedia, although I suspect the best arrangement in each case are roughly opposite. A topic for exploration another time. Another cautious note was sounded by Mathew Ingram at Fortune, listing failed previous attempts to launch crowdsourced news sites.[3]Spot.us, Beacon Reader, Contributoria, and Grasswire, none of which I had previously heard of.

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In Wikipedia circles, there is considerable skepticism, and for entirely different reasons.

320px-WikiNews-Logo-en.svgThe first is that Wikipedia has tried this before, as briefly noted in my excerpt above: Wikinews launched in 2004, when Wikipedia was growing rapidly and adding new sister projects. But it never reached critical consensus, and few contributors ever produced meaningful original content for the site. These days, Wikinews has only a handful of active users. And it’s not hard to see why: Wikipedia already compiles digests of news coverage, and Google points readers to Wikipedia, so Wikinews is at best an afterthought. But it’s worse than that. Compare the Wikipedia article “Dismissal of James Comey” to the Wikinews article “President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, raising questions about Russia investigation” and the problem is apparent. The Wikipedia entry does something that no other website on the internet does: it serves as a one-stop aggregator of everything important in the ongoing political crisis, first with a high-level but substantial summary in the introduction, and then a deep dive into the particulars. The Wikinews article is a rehash of a few other previously published stories from traditional news outlets, offering no new reporting, ending at less than 700 words, and on a fixed date, like an Associated Press wire story might because of real constraints on the AP that Wikinews imposes on itself arbitrarily. Wikinews offers nothing new, is less good than what it imitates, and frankly has no reason to exist. Also, the Wikinews article has four sources; the Wikipedia article has 114. Case closed. And yet past attempts to close Wikinews have been resisted, both by a handful of dead-enders, and by Wikipedians who hold out hope for a future renaissance. Its biggest impact in 2017 is that its continued existence requires Wales to call his new thing “Wikitribune” rather than the more straightforward name on which it’s unproductively squatting.

TPO-logo-compact.svgThe second reason, and I don’t mean to dwell too much here, is that there are good reasons to think that Jimmy Wales is not the right person to lead such a project, save for his internet celebrity as the online collaboration guy. Wales struck gold with Wikipedia—although not actual money, as a cheekily titled NYT Magazine profile once reminded everyone—and he hasn’t repeated the trick since. His next most successful venture is Wikia, a collection of wikis on entertainment topics, the best known of them probably being Wookiepedia but also including communities for fans of music, TV, movies, video games, comics, and other geek subcultures. It does rank in the top 100 websites, and it’s more than 10 years old, so it’s a legitimate business—and it’s also monetized with advertising, the one thing Wikipedia can never ever do. Wikia is fun and useful to fans of pop culture, but it’s hardly a world-beater. Other Wales enterprises have fizzled or faded: Wikia Search was a bust, and a MVNO called The People’s Operator[4]It is worth noting that the aforelinked Wikipedia article about Wales’ MVNO is highly negative. is heading that direction. Yet almost no one outside of the Wikipedia world is familiar with any of this; Ben Thompson, one of the smartest analysts writing about technology and media, recently wrote: “I don’t know if Wikitribune will work — but Jimmy Wales is one of the last people I would want to bet against.”

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But let’s talk about Wikitribune and its actual prospects. This is not easy, as many specifics about its plans have yet to be clarified; at the time this is written, Wikitribune had announced but a single hire and, with no disrespect intended, it wasn’t someone with a high-profile name or big reputation. Although analysis of Wales’ actual plans may be premature, it’s not too soon to assess its stated direction and speculate about what might actually work for it.

I will switch gears here for a moment and agree that Wales has identified a real problem that needs to be solved: he is correct to say that the news industry is in big trouble—“broken”, even. The internet has dealt a nearly lethal blow by creating effectively free distribution, both upending its advertising-based business model and subjecting it to competition from low-quality but highly engaging clickbait infotainment.[5]Facebook, of course, figures prominently in both.

He’s wrong, though, to say as he does in the video that “we’ve figured out how to fix it”. As Ingram documents, others have tried and failed. And there’s no reason to think that, just because Jimmy Wales is the wiki guy, his association with the project is going to be sufficient for it to reach critical mass. No, if Wikitribune is going to have even a chance of success, it needs to figure out where its comparative advantage lies, and design its plans accordingly.

Jimmy Wales in Hong Kong, 2013The Wikipedian posits that Wikitribune must absolutely learn the lesson of Wikinews: that loosely organized, come-and-go-as-you-please, volunteer-based networks are no way to develop in-depth, sustained news reporting of the investigative or beat varieties that are the principal job of national and international news organizations. To the extent that it succeeds in these areas, it must develop tight-knit reporting teams, who will be professionals, and largely based in London[6]where Wales resides and Wiktribune will presumably be headquartered, New York, and Washington. The role that volunteers will play here would be very similar to the one already played by volunteers at traditional news outlets, where they go by a different name: sources.

But Wikitribune has no advantage over traditional news organizations in this kind of reporting. While the news industry overall is doing poorly, some major publications like The New York Times have seen subscriptions soar as their value has become clearer to readers following the U.S. presidential election, The Washington Post is buoyed by soon-to-be-world’s-richest-man Jeff Bezos, and financial publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist serve affluent audiences with need-to-know information.[7]Like so much else in the new new economy, it is the middle class that has been thinned out: mid-tier newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, and their undifferentiated news sites that look more and more like blogs every day. So the opportunity to have a positive impact here is not clear, either.

The Wikipedian will therefore posit that Wikitribune’s best chance to succeed is in fact in local news.

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As for opportunity, no one else has yet cracked the code: in news circles, the term for this is “hyperlocal”, and it hasn’t worked all that well, nor has it ever really ever been “news”—Patch Media, founded by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, is technically still around but has zero impact on anything; NextDoor sounded promising when I first signed up for it, but in practice is just another place to ask about lost cats and free furniture; Backfence was a similar site that, now that I search the web for information about it, apparently never got very far. Somewhat better are local subreddits, like /r/Portland, focused on what’s happening in a given city, but the content is usually centered on photos and gossip and links to local news stories.

Thompson, quoted above offering his shrugging support for Wales’ initiative, has written a lot about local news in recent months, and likes to quote from a Warren Buffet shareholder letter about how local newspapers once enjoyed unique business advantages: its customers couldn’t do without it, and couldn’t satisfactorily replace it.[8]As a reminder of just how prescient Buffet can be, this letter was written in 1991. The problem for local news publications is that the internet has kicked its advertising base out from under it, beginning with classified ads in print newspapers and later extending to the problems of infinite supply of web advertising devaluing the ad unit, not to mention the challenges of attracting audiences big enough or targeted enough to be worth selling ads to. Earlier this week, Thompson wrote a long piece assessing the prospects of local news, arguing that local news publications would need to be subscription-based, rather than advertising-based, to succeed.

He’s right about advertising, for sure. But why should it even be subscription-based? Wikipedia succeeds with donations, in some years generated by putting Jimmy Wales’ own face at the top of every page, and in 2017 Wikipedia has more money than it knows what to do with. This is one way Wales’ celebrity could have a positive impact. The subscriptions could be donations, which might have the added benefit of generating investment beyond cash—even creating passionate user-contributors.

wikitribuneWikipedia has succeeded at harnessing passions in a way few other sites have, building miniature newsgathering communities around subjects like major weather events, geography and places, physics and astronomy, transportation and infrastructure, major sports leagues, etc. All are limited spheres of interest that more readily map onto a city or region than matters of national politics and international diplomacy, trade policy, or ongoing military conflicts.

The primary difference is that Wikipedia’s content guidelines explicitly disallows editors from doing original reporting, which is just as well, because almost no likely editors have such access to federal government officials or multinational business leaders, nor is there any effective mechanism to vet them in a distributed volunteer system. However, with a professional editor at the center of the operation—as Wikitribune seems like it might—well, that could actually work.

Such a project would benefit at scale the same way Wikipedia does, not in developing one large ecosystem of researchers, writers and editors collaborating on a medium-sized number of topics, but multitudes of ecosystems working in parallel across many, many topics. And the benefit to readers is obvious: the experience reading of Wikipedia pages on familiar topics in the past prepares one to navigate Wikipedia pages on less-understood subjects in the future. Likewise, reading Wikitribune Peoria could prepare one to read Wiktribune Palermo. Consistency not just of branding but of style—a style native to Wikitribune, not to existing wire services as Wikinews does—could be useful to readers and a valuable differentiator for Wikitribune itself.

What’s more, Wikitribune has an opportunity to try new things that the entrenched Wikipedia community hasn’t been able to bring itself to do. For example: implement a discussion system that was designed less than fifteen years ago. The Flow project, which once sought to overhaul Wikipedia’s outdated and clunky talk page format, was eventually abandoned due to resistance from veteran editors averse to change. Flow wasn’t perfect, but there wasn’t even political will to work through the rough patches. Wikitribune would be wise to resurrect it, and perhaps show Wikipedia how it could actually benefit the original project.

Wikia_Logo.svgAnd there’s another thing: Wales certainly has proved successful at creating new structures based on the Wikipedia model but tweaking the rules in order to incentivize different activities for communities with different expectations. Wikipedians didn’t want advertising supporting their educational mission, but Wikians[9]if that’s a word? don’t mind advertising supporting their entertainment mission. It’s no accident that “Wikia” is Wikipedia without the “ped”[10]as in learning and knowledge. Revisiting Wales’ post-Wikipedia career again, it is when he has strayed too far from his Wikipedia roots that he’s got into trouble. Wikis turned out not to be the way to build a search engine, and some lofty rhetoric about transparency aside, Wales had no background in mobile telephony that would make him suited to lead an MVNO. So while there are reasons to be cautious, the more like Wikipedia his subsequent projects are, the better their outlook.

Wikipedia succeeds without a profit motive, and local news is unprofitable now. By following the same model, Wikitribune has an opportunity to benefit from Wikipedia’s non-business model, and adapt its methods from pure aggregation to a hybrid of reporting and aggregation. But it’s vital that Wikitribune not try to compete with the Times of London or New York. Its real, and possibly only, chance for success lies in reinvigorating a diminished local news industry. I hope Jimmy Wales takes it.

All images via Wikipedia, copyright of their respective holders.

Notes

Notes
1 Snowden’s hotel was in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Wikimania conference next door in Hung Hom
2 I do think these questions also have good answers, and it matters very much how the roles of each party are defined. There is a similarly important distinction to be made in managing paid vs. volunteer contributors to Wikipedia, although I suspect the best arrangement in each case are roughly opposite. A topic for exploration another time.
3 Spot.us, Beacon Reader, Contributoria, and Grasswire, none of which I had previously heard of.
4 It is worth noting that the aforelinked Wikipedia article about Wales’ MVNO is highly negative.
5 Facebook, of course, figures prominently in both.
6 where Wales resides and Wiktribune will presumably be headquartered
7 Like so much else in the new new economy, it is the middle class that has been thinned out: mid-tier newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, and their undifferentiated news sites that look more and more like blogs every day.
8 As a reminder of just how prescient Buffet can be, this letter was written in 1991.
9 if that’s a word?
10 as in learning and knowledge

What’s the Truth, What’s the Use?
On Wikipedia and the Daily Mail

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on February 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm by William Beutler

The_Daily_Mail_logo

Earlier this week, Wikipedia editors decided to restrict the use of a publication as a source for information in its articles, and then a funny thing happened: it made international news. First The Guardian, and then many other publications, reported on the outcome of a proposal to prohibit the UK tabloid Daily Mail from reference sections in Wikipedia articles. The first paragraph of the decision summary reads:

Consensus has determined that the Daily Mail (including its online version, dailymail.co.uk) is generally unreliable, and its use as a reference is to be generally prohibited, especially when other more reliable sources exist. As a result, the Daily Mail should not be used for determining notability, nor should it be used as a source in articles. An edit filter should be put in place going forward to warn editors attempting to use the Daily Mail as a reference.

It’s not the first time a source has been “blacklisted”[1]There is no official blacklist. but most of the time it’s because of spamming efforts, and the Daily Mail is by far the most high-profile recent example. In fact, it has the biggest online reach of any news website around the world, according to comScore. An effort is now under way to replace all existing Daily Mail citations with better sources.[2]It has a long way to go.

To understand what happened, it’s helpful to know about how Wikipedia considers the various third-party sources it prefers, allows, and prohibits as citations. The official guideline is called “Identifying reliable sources” and, over the course of several thousand words, it seeks to define sources with a “reputation for fact-checking and accuracy”.

The lengthy discussion on the “Daily Mail RfC”[3]short for “Request for comment” includes numerous examples of why editors believe it fails that test. The pithiest take—

Under NO circumstances should the Daily Mail be used for anything, ever. They have proven themselves to be willing to make up fake quotes and to create doctored pictures, and nothing they say or do is to be trusted. Even in the cases that some of the editors in this discussion believe to be OK (sports scores, for example), if it really happened then the Daily Mail won’t be the only source and if the Daily Mail is the only source, it probably didn’t happen.

—was followed by links to numerous examples of falsehoods and outright fabrications from the last few years.[4]Here, here, and here, for example, with a few cited to the Guardian itself. As the newspaper’s own Wikipedia article demonstrates, the Daily Mail has been the subject of multiple successful libel suits, not to mention other controversies calling the paper’s trustworthiness into question.

The Daily MailTo be sure, the Daily Mail is not the only publication that cares for clicks more than facts, but the determination of editors was that it cares for attention to the exclusion of facts.

An interesting, comparatively ancient[5]I thought I’d written about this, but apparently this just slightly pre-dated The Wikipedian—I was however quoted by Wired about it. example was whether to acknowledge the National Enquirer‘s reporting on then-U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards’ extramarital affair (producing a child, no less) when no one else had confirmed it. Wikipedians argued about it until the story was confirmed by others. The Enquirer received its share of reluctant praise, but it still isn’t generally allowed as a source on Wikipedia.

The media’s fascination with the prohibition may stem from their own trepidation: what if we’re next? They shouldn’t worry—the Daily Mail is an outlier case, and perhaps a useful caution for publications that skirt the line between truth and truthiness in their drive for traffic.

Still, it would be very bad if this became a trend. The difference between “you have to be careful with this publication” and “we simply cannot trust this publication” is hard to define, but important. The latter category should be a very small number. Moreover, Wikipedia should be careful not to apply a political test, even a de facto one, for publications. Wikipedians frequently argue over the political leanings of certain sources, but in all but a few cases, reliability can be established separately from a given point of view. The reasons must be based on trustworthiness of factual reporting, not the gloss added by the writer or by editors.

The reliability of Wikipedia depends on the reliability of reporting in the news media, which is the source of most information in articles about current and recent events. Journalism is in the midst of a long, slow decline accelerated by the internet (first Craigslist, then Facebook) and over the long term, this is bad news for Wikipedia, too. Maybe there is a way for Wikipedia to establish reliability for smaller publications that don’t look like traditional newspapers and lack their reach. But you don’t improve Wikipedia by allowing marginal sources, even if it necessarily limits what can be covered in its virtual pages. Fortunately, the Daily Mail doesn’t report on much that’s encyclopedic to begin with.

P.S. The first part of this post title is taken from a gorgeous non-album track by Radiohead, which happens to be called: “The Daily Mail”. You can listen to it here:

Notes

Notes
1 There is no official blacklist.
2 It has a long way to go.
3 short for “Request for comment”
4 Here, here, and here, for example, with a few cited to the Guardian itself.
5 I thought I’d written about this, but apparently this just slightly pre-dated The Wikipedian—I was however quoted by Wired about it.

#1Lib1Ref and Adventures in Practical Encyclopedia-Building

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on January 24, 2017 at 11:09 am by William Beutler

Wikipedia_Library_owlThe Wikipedian has long been of the opinion, perhaps controversial on Wikipedia, that it is a mistake to think that it can recruit the entire world to become Wikipedia editors. Yet this is the premise upon which so many aspects of Wikipedia’s platform are based.

Start with the fact that anyone can edit (almost) any page at any time. This was Wikipedia’s brilliant original insight, and there is no doubt it made Wikipedia what it is today. But along with scholars and other knowledge-loving contributors comes the riff raff. The calculation is that the value of good editors attracted by Wikipedia’s open-editing policy will outweigh the vandals and troublemakers. On one hand, it is an article of faith not rigorously tested. On the other hand, Wikipedia’s mere existence is proof that the bet is generally sound.

All of which is preamble to praise Wikipedia’s #1Lib1Ref project, now in its second year, for taking what is to my mind a more sensible approach to building Wikipedia’s editorship: targeting persons and professions that already have more in common with Wikipedia than they might realize, in this case librarians. Whereas the official Wikimedia vision statement calls for “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge”, the #1Lib#1Ref tagline suggests “a world where every librarian added one more reference to Wikipedia.”

This is great! As much as The Wikipedian strongly supports the big-picture goal of the vision statement, the fact is asking “every” person to contribute “all” things is no place to begin. But asking a very specific type of person to make just one contribution actually turns out to be massively more powerful because it is vastly more effective.

Speaking anecdotally, the greatest hurdle to becoming a Wikipedia contributor is figuring out how to make that very first edit.[1]The second greatest hurdle is getting that person to figure out what to do next, but that is for another day. Encouraging the determination to give it a try, and creating a simple set of steps to help them get there, will do a lot more than the sum of all lofty rhetoric.

#1Lib#1Ref runs January 15 to February 3, and you can learn more about it via The Wikipedia Library. If you decide to get involved, you should also consider posting with the obvious hashtag on Twitter or another social platform of your choice. Oh, and if you don’t get to it before February 3, I’m sure they’ll be happy to have you join in after the fact.

P.S. You have no idea how hard it was to write this without making either a Bob Marley or U2 reference. If you now have one song or the other stuck in your head, you are most welcome.

The Wikipedia Library logo by User:Heatherawalls, licensed under Creative Commons.

Notes

Notes
1 The second greatest hurdle is getting that person to figure out what to do next, but that is for another day.

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2016

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on January 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm by William Beutler

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

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

Gene Weingarten Proves Wikipedia Still Needs a Better Way to Deal With Feedback

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on October 3, 2016 at 11:23 am by William Beutler

Wikipedia has two kinds of problems. The first category includes problems it recognizes and realizes how to fix, sometimes through a policy change but more often, in recent years especially, by administrative actions or PR activities led by the Wikimedia Foundation. For example, educators once warned students away from Wikipedia, but now editing Wikipedia is an increasingly common pedagogical tool, for which a great deal of credit is owed to the Wiki Education Foundation.

The second type of problem comprises those issues it cannot or will not fix, for reasons as diverse as the problems themselves. This past week brings us another example, highlighted by a September 29 column in the Washington Post Magazine by Gene Weingarten, titled “Dear Wikipedia: Please change my photo!” This comes more than four years after Philip Roth published “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” online at The New Yorker. In each case, both men found fault with their biographical entries on Wikipedia, and used their access to the mainstream media to call attention to the changes.

The problem we are highlighting is that anyone who is written about in a Wikipedia entry typically has no idea what they can or cannot do if they have a problem with said entry. There is some awareness that editing one’s own biography is fraught with peril—“(One is evidently not allowed to alter one’s own entry.)” Weingarten explains in an aside that is effectively true, technically false, and debatable as a matter of Wikipedia guidelines, so who can blame him—but there is little understanding of what one is supposed to do instead:

I tried asking Wikipedia to change or delete this picture. No answer. So I did what any user can do, and deleted it myself, on seven occasions — which, yes, was in blatant and shameful contravention of all Wikimedia Commons policies blah, blah, blah.

Absent a clear path to offering feedback, Weingarten and Roth did they only thing they could imagine: they tried editing the “encyclopedia anyone can edit”. Oddly enough, this didn’t work. Looking at Weingarten’s edits, it’s not hard to see why his attempts to remove the photo were overturned: more than once he simply deleted the entire infobox. He might have been successful if he’d just removed the actual image link (but then again maybe not) however it stands to reason a middle-aged newspaper humor columnist might not be the most adept with markup languages. In Roth’s case, he asked his biographer to make the changes for him, which were overturned because available news sources contravened Roth’s preferred version.

New photo for Gene Weingarten's photo, via Simona Combi on Flickr. Whether it's actually an improvement is a matter on which reasonable people can disagree.

New photo for Gene Weingarten’s photo, via Simona Combi on Flickr. Whether it’s actually an improvement is a matter on which reasonable people can disagree.

When editing Wikipedia didn’t work, each finally turned their media access to their benefit, and this time they got results. Within hours of Weingarten’s article becoming available, Wikipedia editors gathered on the discussion page of his biography to determine what could or should be done about his plight. Meanwhile on Twitter, longtime Wikipedia contributor (and DC-based journalism professor) Andrew Lih engaged Weingarten in a conversation, trying to get a better photo for him, and explaining why his Washington Post headshot could not be used. Soon, another photo satisfying Wikipedia’s arcane image use policies was identified and added to the article, although it doesn’t seem Weingarten isn’t especially happy with it, either. Lih had previously invited Weingarten out to lunch and a quick photo shoot, and it sounds like this may still happen.

In Roth’s case, it was a more complicated matter: several book reviews had identified a character in Roth’s The Human Stain as “allegedly inspired by” a writer whom Roth denies was the character’s inspiration. In the short term, Roth’s objection was noted, but sometime after the entire matter was relocated to a subsection of the novel’s Wikipedia entry as “Anatole Broyard controversy”, explaining the matter more fully. This seems like the right outcome.

So, everything worked itself out, right? That’s just how Wikipedia works? Mostly, and yes, and this is nevertheless somewhat regrettable. The fact is Weingarten and Roth are both able to command a major media audience via a “reliable source” platform that the vast majority of people (and bands, brands, teams, companies, nonprofits, &c.) do not. The method they used to get action not only doesn’t scale, it rarely happens at all due to most article subjects’ fear of a “Streisand effect” bringing undue attention to their article. As Weingarten writes in his piece:

[I]it is also possible that this column will serve as a clarion call to every smart aleck and wisenheimer and cyber-vandal out there. Anyone can make ephemeral changes to my Wikipedia page, any time.

Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, but it isn’t an unreasonable worry. Fortunately for Weingarten, as a white male whose writing doesn’t really take sides on controversial issues, he’s not much of a target for the Internet’s troll armies and political agitators.

The causes of this failure are many. We can assign some blame to Wikipedia’s strict policies regarding copyrights and reliance on crowdsourced images which has made its often-poor celebrity headshots both a source of angst and amusement. We can assign some to Wikipedia’s confusing discussion pages, which are forbidding; a project was once in development to overhaul them, only to be mothballed after facing community critcism. We can assign some as well to the contradictory message of Wikipedia as the encyclopedia anyone can edit—just not when the subject is the one you know about best, yourself. And we cannot let Wikipedia’s editing community escape blameless; even as they are not an organized (or organizable) thing, the culture is generally hostile to outsiders, unless of course said outsiders can get their criticism of Wikipedia into a periodical they’ve heard of before.

In the four years since the Roth episode, Wikipedia has had time to come up with a process for accepting, reviewing, and responding to feedback. I’ve argued previously for placing a button on each entry to solicit feedback, feeding into a public queue for editorial review. The reasons not to do this are obvious: most of it would be noise, and there wouldn’t be enough editor time to respond even to those requests which might be actionable.

I still think the feedback button is a good idea, but I recognize it is not sufficient: it would also needs an ombuds committee set up to triage this feedback. Perhaps this could be community-run, but this seems too important to be left up to volunteers. This work could be performed by WMF staff even if, for complicated reasons every Wikipedia editor understands but would need a lengthy paragraph to explain, they could not implement them outright. And it’s not just a matter of making sure Wikipedia is accurate—though you’d think that would be enough!—it’s also a matter of making sure Wikipedia is responsible and responsive to legitimate criticism.

Of course, Wikipedia already operates on this very model, in a way: it solicits edits from its readership, and then also spends a lot of time reverting unhelpful edits, and the difference between bad edits with good intentions and bad edits with bad intentions is often impossible to tell. Providing a clear option for expressing a specific concern rather than forcing the expression of that problem to be an edit rather than a request is something Wikipedians should think about again. When someone is unhappy with their Wikipedia entry, that they have no idea what can be done about it isn’t really their fault. Ultimately, it’s Wikipedia’s. And it’s not just an abstract information asymmetry problem—it’s a PR problem, too.

All I Really Needed to Know I Learned Editing Wikipedia

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on July 12, 2016 at 3:33 pm by William Beutler

10th-wikibirthday

Ten years ago today, I created a Wikipedia account for the very first time, and made a few small edits that I probably would not make exactly the same way in 2016. For those who know about my Wikipedia participation over the past decade, you may not be surprised to learn that my initial series of edits was made at the request of my boss. As it happens, my very first edit was in fact to a discussion page, explaining my rationale. In retrospect, this instinct served me well later on, in ways I couldn’t have known at the time.

But anyway, I came back the day after, and a few days after that, and started making edits based on my own interests. At the time these included: Michael Mann, The Crow (1994 film), Mike Bellotti, The Postal Service, Truthiness, and Ratfucking. So: action movies, college football, indie rock, and amusing political jargon. I have more interests today than I did when I started editing in my mid-20s—relatively late, compared to some editors I know—but I’m still interested in all of the above, even if some of the specific topics aren’t quite as relevant. I continued making small edits over the next two years, learning more as I went, until finally building up the confidence to create my very first article, about legendary Portland, Oregon retailer and TV pitchman Tom Peterson.

Looking back on these ten years, my contributions are rather modest compared with many, many other editors whom I’ve come to know. But here is a short recounting, both on-wiki and off: I’ve attended four Wikimania conferences and two WikiConference USAs; appeared as a speaker at four combined; made several thousand edits across primary and secondary accounts; created dozens and improved hundreds of articles; launched a business initially predicated on helping companies and organizations with COI compliance; and helped put the world’s largest PR companies on the record about following Wikipedia’s rules. Oh, and I started this blog, now more than seven years old.

To say that Wikipedia has changed me far more than I have changed it would be an understatement. I owe a great deal of this decade to Wikipedia and everyone there, and this put me in mind of what, specifically, I have learned from it. Dare I say, to finally invoke the title of this piece, all I really needed to know I learned editing Wikipedia.

♦     ♦     ♦

The following is an entirely non-comprehensive list of life principles as elucidated by the principles of Wikipedia as I’ve come to understand them. I’d love to hear feedback, whether you agree or disagree, and especially if you can think of any others:

  • Let’s first dispense with the obvious: there are many lifetimes worth of knowledge to be found in the 5.2 million entries on the English Wikipedia. In a very literal and obvious sense, of course it contains everything you need to know, especially if you need to know about footballers.
  • More to the point, Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, and the lessons one can learn from interactions with Wikipedia’s editors, are extremely useful if you’re willing to think about them and apply them to your own life. I can think of several… (WP:POLICYLIST)
  • Finding a balance between giving others benefit of the doubt while also being judicious in whom you trust is one of the most challenging tasks facing everyone, and making the right call can have a profound influence on what we believe and how we act upon these beliefs. (WP:AGF, WP:RELIABLE)
  • Building on the last one: be prepared to investigate your own opinions and beliefs. Just because you think something is true, there’s a decent chance you may be wrong, and the best way to handle any challenges is to soberly consider the evidence and determine if your conclusions hold up. (WP:VERIFY)
  • Sometimes the best way to understand what a thing is is to observe what it is not. By process of exclusion, one can arrive at more a objective assessment about the practical nature of a thing by determining first what it isn’t, than by trying to understand it solely for itself. (WP:NOT)
  • Not all principles should be accorded the same weight, and forming a coherent and defensible hierarchy for which values supersede others is necessary to conduct oneself morally. Rules should in general be followed, but well-intentioned rules can lead to bad outcomes if you don’t pay attention to the totality of their implications. (WP:GUIDES, WP:IGNORE)
  • Respect others’ intellectual contributions as you would their physical property. If you got a good idea from someone, give them fair credit. You’d want the same, and if you don’t there’s a very good chance it will catch up with you, especially on the Internet where everything is searchable. (WP:COPYVIO, WP:IUP)
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t violate others’ space, and don’t cause anyone grief to make a point, even if you have one. It’s possible to disagree reasonably and with appropriate emphasis while upholding your dignity and allowing others’ theirs. Just be cool, OK? (WP:CIVIL, WP:PERSONAL, WP:BADGER)
  • If you want to get along with others and coexist in a world where there are many differences of opinion and belief, it’s important to have a good sense of how others came to those conclusions, be able to assess other opinions neutrally, and know not only when to give them their due but also how far is too far in polite society. (WP:NPOV, WP:UNDUE)
  • You can’t make rules for everything, and some degree of flexibility based on your surroundings will be necessary to thrive in surroundings you cannot control. Not every community will have the same standards, so it’s in your best interest to be alert for these differences and conduct oneself accordingly. (WP:CONSENSUS)
  • Finally, no matter how worthy the principles you decide to live by, it’s simply a fact that not everyone you’ll come across will agree to them, or act the same even if they voice agreement with them. When you’re dealing with human beings who have their own objectives, passions, prejudices and prerogatives, a certain comfortability with uncertainty and disagreement is as necessary as any of the rules preceding this one.

♦     ♦     ♦

So, does all this mean Wikipedia is perfect? Heck, no! What I mean is that it’s an excellent place not just to soak up the sum of all human knowledge, but also to learn how to conduct oneself in a society riven with conflict and ambiguity, where might sometimes seems to make right and in the end all one can really be certain about having the power to safeguard is one’s own integrity. Maybe that’s a dim view of the world, but when you consider all the bad things that happen every day, you know, getting into (and out of) an edit war on Wikipedia is a relatively safe and surprisingly practical way to learn some key lessons about life. In another ten years’ time, I’m sure I’ll have learned some more.

A Note on Wikimania 2016, and a Small Request

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on June 21, 2016 at 2:52 pm by William Beutler

View from the road to Esino Lario. (Ed Erhart, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

View from the road to Esino Lario. (Ed Erhart, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

At this very moment, Wikimedians are traveling from all over the world to attend Wikimania, the annual conference for Wikipedia and its sister projects. When the main conference kicks off this weekend, for the first time in five years, I won’t be among them. The controversial selection of Esino Lario, a tiny Italian village in the Alps 40 miles outside of Milan, certainly figured into it, but for me it’s also a very busy summer, and one with plenty of other travel. I regret having to bail on it but, having heard about the touch-and-go logistics from the few I know who are following through, I can’t really say I regret the decision.

The biggest reason why I might is because a presentation I’d submitted was accepted. My absence interrupts what would have been a hat trick of delivering a presentation about the complicated matter of “paid editing”[1]To use just one several inadequate summary phrases for this multifaceted topic. at consecutive Wikimanias. Fortunately, it remains on the schedule, because my co-presenter, Andrew Lih, is committed to making the heroic journey to the Lake Como region of Italy.[2]I understand this is mostly to maintain his perfect Wikimania attendance, but it’s as good a reason as any. It is called “Found in Translation: Comparing paid editing policies in the top Wikipedia language editions” and if you are attending this Wikimania, I think that you should go see it!

You can read more about it at the link above, but the gist is this: the “conflict of interest” guideline on the English Wikipedia has been a matter of controversy and debate for at least a decade. When the self-reference averse Wikipedia actually has a long article on the topic, you know it’s a big deal. However, much less has been said about this issue on Wikipedia’s many other language editions, which are smaller and less prominent, but sometimes still deal with these issues. Since 2015, we have been reaching out to Wikipedians involved in the top 30 language editions of Wikipedia to find out: what official rules does each edition have about paid editing? What are the community norms? Have there been similar controversies?

As it turns out, this qualitative research is much harder to pull off than we’d first hoped. Whereas we had hoped to present our findings at this conference, instead we will be using this Wikimania to draw additional attention to the topic. And that is what this blog post seeks to do as well. If you are interested in helping us understand better how the multivarious Wikipedia communities approach this thorny topic, and you contribute to one of the top 30 language editions,[3]Besides English, of course. To see if yours is one, click here and sort by Active users. then please consider taking the survey here. And if you have any questions about the project overall, hit me up using the contact link above.

That’s all from me! Alas, my non-attendance at Wikimania means I am unlikely to write a summary post like I have in past years. Instead I’ll aim to stay part of the conversation on Twitter via @thewikipedian, and I’ll look forward to seeing you next year in Montreal.

Notes

Notes
1 To use just one several inadequate summary phrases for this multifaceted topic.
2 I understand this is mostly to maintain his perfect Wikimania attendance, but it’s as good a reason as any.
3 Besides English, of course. To see if yours is one, click here and sort by Active users.

InstallAware Unaware, or, How Not to Create a Wikipedia Entry About Your Company

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on June 2, 2016 at 4:38 pm by William Beutler

Unless you are a member of the small fellowship of netizens who keep a Google News search for “Wikipedia” bookmarked, chances are you missed out on a truly strange but totally real press release last month from a software company called InstallAware. Its headline: “InstallAware, the Only Alternative to InstallShield, Fails to Get Its Wikipedia Article Published Despite Years of Trying”.

Another reason you may have missed it is because no one picked it up. As far as I can tell, The Wikipedian is the first to write about it at length.[1]And, this being The Wikipedian, I do mean at length. If it’s a failure as a press release, it is a fitting capstone to a failed attempt on the company’s part to attain the exalted status of mattering on the Internet these days: having a Wikipedia entry of one’s own.

Before I go any further, I actually want to recognize InstallAware for trying, however imperfectly, to do the right thing. Instead of trying to sneak an entry into Wikipedia, they used the Articles for Creation (AfC) process as it is intended. Wikipedia has a big enough problem with anonymous PR activity that—regardless of other mistakes the company and its consultants made along the way—Wikipedians should be grateful they tried to follow the rules and use the appropriate channels.

That said, this is a hot mess of a situation. Eight times since September of last year, using two separate Wikipedia accounts, InstallAware has submitted a draft entry, in slightly different versions, to AfC for review. Eight times they have been rejected, with some reviewers offering a couple of jargon-laden phrases to explain the reason, or nothing more than the required template. Most companies in this situation would slink away, dejected and angry. InstallAware seems to feel that way, too—but took a different tack.

♦     ♦     ♦

InstallAware press release

The press release itself suggests a blithe unawareness of InstallAware’s position on Wikipedia, not to mention whether anyone would care. It includes cringe-worthy bravado such as “InstallAware’s significance is beyond question” and a ham-handed critique that “Wikipedia is out of touch with its original egalitarian ideals,” says the company founder himself, and even cites unrelated research by the Wikimedia Foundation’s own Aaron Halfaker in support of its claims. As InstallAware sees it:

InstallAware has been repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to contribute an article about itself to Wikipedia. InstallAware, the largest independent software installation vendor for Microsoft Windows, hired a specialist and conducted months of revisions, which ensured that the InstallAware article had more quantity and quality of citations than InstallShield, a similar product which does have a Wikipedia article.

There are two arguments here: a) InstallAware deserves a Wikipedia entry on its own merits, and b) InstallAware deserves a Wikipedia entry because InstallShield, a rival software tool, has one that contains fewer citations than the one they prepared for InstallAware.

To evaluate the first argument, we must consider the guideline Wikipedia editors use to determine whether a given subject should have its own page: Notability. As far as guideline names go, it’s an undeniably loaded word. If one is told “sorry, you’re not Notable” you can understand why they hear “you aren’t important enough”.[2]When discussing this topic with non-Wikipedians, I prefer to use the term “eligibility”. It’s a delicate message that is too often delivered with a one-size-fits-all template.[3]Don’t template the regulars”, says an essay familiar to Wikipedians. I think this is backward: don’t template the noobs.

The generalized version of the Notability requirement[4]“If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to be suitable for a stand-alone article or list.” is very broad and susceptible to interpretation based on wishful thinking. But it isn’t meaningless: it basically says that Wikipedia outsources its judgment about a topic’s significance to sources it considers reliable, which must have written about the subject more than once and with enough information to write a satisfactory entry. When it comes to extant organizations, this often means mainstream and industry news publications.

To apply this standard, we must consider the draft itself.

The draft is at least an honest attempt to reshape a press release into something resembling an encyclopedia entry. It simply tells the company’s story, plus contains some additional information about its software products. Of course it still makes lots of mistakes: toward the end it reads increasingly like a brochure, offering simply too many product details for an encyclopedia. It actually boldfaces InstallAware like that, which is pretty silly in the press release, and completely absurd for an encyclopedia entry. It’s almost a surprise there aren’t little ® symbols after the name of each product.

InstallAware software, via Google Images.

InstallAware software, via Google Images.

Those problems can be dealt with. The problem we can’t is the sources. The very first draft cited a couple of press releases, and called it good. Once InstallAware was informed they needed better references, what else did they do but add more. Unfortunately, these weren’t much better and the long list now included only makes them look desperate. Among the sources included: InstallAware’s own website (several times), the founder’s own resume, websites of InstallAware partner companies, SEO zombie sites, even Wikipedia itself.[5]In Wikipedia circles, this is just about the funniest mistake one can make. One thing is definitely missing: serious coverage from recognized news publications. As one Wikipedian put it:

Sorry but it seems the currently listed sources are simply not enough, what is needed is solid in-depth third-party sources such as news (any time of news is acceptable except press release and trivial passing mentions). If there’s not enough, then there’s simply not enough for a solidly acceptable article.

That sounds right. I ran my own search, on Google News and Lexis-Nexis, and I just found press releases. Curious whether they were aware of these issues, I reached out to InstallAware via the media contact listed on the press release. Over the course of a few polite if pithy emails, I got a better understanding of where they were coming from.[6]Among the questions I asked: Did they know about the WMF Terms of Use disclosure requirements? No, that one had escaped them, and earlier this week the consultant added a disclosure notice to the draft discussion page. An unfortunate error, but a fair course correction. What was their goal with the press release? “To pressure Wikipedia into accountability and rationality.” Which, fair enough.

Did they know about Wikipedia’s Notability requirement? Yes, they said, and pointed me back to some of the citations to InstallAware’s own website I had ignored. It turns out several of the articles they believe support their eligibility are quite old and no longer online. To make them available for inspection, InstallAware simply scanned them and posted them to their own website, without making this clear to anyone.[7]A simple rule of thumb: don’t expect Wikipedians to read past their initial assumptions, let alone spend time correcting your mistakes.

Did they attempt to discuss the article with Wikipedia editors? Yes, the specialist—whose expertise it turns out is SEO, not Wikipedia—had posted messages on an involved editor’s discussion page, and also the AfC help desk. Click through and you’ll see an unformatted wall of text that is a chore to read. So, guess what: no one read it.

You can find InstallAware’s collected list of sources here, and evaluate them as I have. I think you’ll find, as I did, that the longest article was written by the founder himself, while others are republished press releases, brief mentions in blog posts, pages on commercial websites, and a short product review. There is one bylined Microsoft publication that might be useful if better sources also existed, but it’s still a borderline call. Overall, it is not: InstallAware does not have sufficient coverage to meet the Notability requirement.

Let’s turn to InstallShield.

What’s interesting is that it sure looks like InstallAware has a point here. Indeed, the entry for InstallShield has only two citations, and one of them is actually a press release. The page was flagged more than four years ago for requiring additional citations. Otherwise, the page seems appropriate enough. It isn’t excessively detailed, and it’s reasonable to guess the article was created not by the company that sells it, but by Wikipedia editors who knew both about the software and also how to develop an entry. In fact, the entry has existed since 2004, long before Wikipedia was a place to be seen.

InstallShield software, via Wikipedia.

InstallShield software, via Wikipedia.

But that doesn’t seem fair. Should the page be retained simply because it has been around so long? Is the page somehow more acceptable because it was probably created without a marketing goal in mind? In strict terms the answer should be no, but in reality the answer is often yes. There is, in fact, a double-standard for content[8]and behavior, but that’s another post on Wikipedia: what the policies and guidelines say is ideal, and what Wikipedia editors will actually tolerate. This double-standard is consecrated by the long-established and completely necessary, yet unofficial compromise rule, called “Other stuff exists”, which basically says: just because we have some bad articles that is not a rationale to create more bad articles. InstallShield has been, er, shielded by these circumstances.

Then I ran the same search for InstallShield as I had for InstallAware. The results did not bolster their argument. Although the InstallShield entry contains inadequate citations now, they definitely exist. Some of the stories are quite old, so they are not online, but it’s my opinion there is enough substantial reporting to justify their inclusion. There’s Crain’s Chicago Business in November 1997 with “Installation-software firm set for leap into corporate arena: raising money to push beyond vendor market” and InfoWorld with “Installation software vendor to ship enterprise version” from June 1999, and more. The software has received less press recently, but the snarky IT news site El Reg has mentioned it twice in news stories this year. Taken as a whole, it’s my professional opinion[9]this note is either an appropriate disclosure that Wikipedia engagement is a key service at my firm, Beutler Ink, or an unsubtle advertisement that InstallShield meets the Notability requirement. “Other stuff exists” need not apply.

But there’s something else going on here. Most of InstallShield’s coverage is from the late 1990s, when they were an independent company putting out tons of press releases in an era with many more technology magazines being published than exist today. Do you think it’s possible that InstallAware is at a disadvantage because of the declining journalism industry, to say nothing of the utility of the press release? I do! As noted above, Wikipedia itself outsources many content decisions to the judgment of working journalists, of whom there are fewer than ever. Then again, maybe InstallAware just isn’t very interesting.

♦     ♦     ♦

None of this is to say all of the mistakes are on InstallAware’s side. Their errors are specific, attributable to individuals, and therefore simple to point out. What happened here was a failure of communication on both sides, and Wikipedia’s mistakes are long-term, systemic, with a collective responsibility that is all too easy to ignore.

Herewith, the most important mistakes I believe made on both sides:

  • No one at InstallAware, and neither their specialist, bothered to learn much about Wikipedia. Neither disclosed their conflict of interest nor made any kind of introductory statement to the community about their intention and perspectives. When they finally did try speaking with editors, they didn’t keep it brief, and they didn’t follow standard conventions.
  • On the other side of it, Wikipedia editors didn’t immediately offer useful feedback. Instead both InstallAware accounts received only templated messages. Even if they hadn’t responded, Wikipedians never tried to engage on a human level. Yet I noticed something else while researching this: in 2006 the consultant was in a similar COI situation, and at the time received a friendly response from an actual Wikipedia editor. Ten years later, Wikipedia is less hospitable.
  • InstallAware was unwilling to reconsider that the sources it proffered actually fit the standards Wikipedians ask for. Over the past several months, at least one Wikipedian declining their submission enumerated the ways in which the various sources were insufficient for the purposes of establishing Notability. Maybe these justifications seemed arbitrary, but they aren’t, and InstallAware should have educated itself after the first couple of rejections.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation has not done enough to publicize its disclosure requirements, added to the Terms of Use in 2014, to industry professionals. Likewise, Wikipedians haven’t made this clear enough. Even though the disclosure requirement is featured prominently at AfC, it’s hard to fault anyone for overlooking it. Wikipedia has so many points of advice, it can take years to get up to speed.
  • Independent PR consultants take on too many projects they’re not actually qualified for. Relatedly, advice to companies: don’t hire SEO consultants to run a Wikipedia project. SEO and Wikipedia occupy adjacent spaces, as Wikipedia is famously a top Google search result for nearly everything. But the actual knowledge and skills involved in one or the other are vastly different.
  • A successful Wikipedia consultant spends less time looking for ways to make something happen—the creation of a new article, for example—and more time looking out for things that may cause it not to happen.
  • AfC header

  • AfC doesn’t work when submitters don’t know anything about Wikipedia. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about AfC from Wikipedians over time, and they’re right that it often doesn’t work very well. The InstallAware situation is just a more emphatic version of the usual problem. Submitters don’t know what they’re doing, and Wikipedians are too busy to bother with bedside manner.
  • Likewise, Wikipedia should define more clearly which kind of publications it considers appropriate for verifying notability for extant companies and organizations. Besides the General notability guideline (GNG), applicable Wikipedia guidelines such as Notability (software) and Notability (organizations and companies) offer some wise and unavoidably vague advisories. After all, Wikipedians can’t anticipate future situations which might be ill-served by too-specific rules. But it could be clearer, and it might not hurt to include some examples of acceptable sources and why they are.

Ultimately, the most salient issue in this whole kerfuffle is that InstallAware was unwilling to take “no” for an answer. But a close second is the fact that Wikipedia editors made only a half-hearted effort to communicate with them, and third is that AfC is just about impossible to navigate for anyone. InstallAware is only one company, and if this is actually the end of the road for them at Wikipedia, there will still be countless more companies asking for an entry after them.

Working with companies may not be what gets Wikipedians out of bed in the morning, but so long as the site remains one of the Internet’s top destinations, and maintains its famously low barriers to entry, it’s in Wikipedia’s best interest to improve these processes. Yes, that process is still mostly going to reject drafts of articles about companies, who won’t be happy about it. Hopefully, they won’t feel like they have to write press releases.

Notes

Notes
1 And, this being The Wikipedian, I do mean at length.
2 When discussing this topic with non-Wikipedians, I prefer to use the term “eligibility”.
3 Don’t template the regulars”, says an essay familiar to Wikipedians. I think this is backward: don’t template the noobs.
4 “If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to be suitable for a stand-alone article or list.”
5 In Wikipedia circles, this is just about the funniest mistake one can make.
6 Among the questions I asked: Did they know about the WMF Terms of Use disclosure requirements? No, that one had escaped them, and earlier this week the consultant added a disclosure notice to the draft discussion page. An unfortunate error, but a fair course correction. What was their goal with the press release? “To pressure Wikipedia into accountability and rationality.” Which, fair enough.
7 A simple rule of thumb: don’t expect Wikipedians to read past their initial assumptions, let alone spend time correcting your mistakes.
8 and behavior, but that’s another post
9 this note is either an appropriate disclosure that Wikipedia engagement is a key service at my firm, Beutler Ink, or an unsubtle advertisement

Wikipedia is Not Therapy, but it Has its Benefits

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on May 20, 2016 at 4:20 pm by William Beutler

That Wikipedia can be a toxic environment is not lost on many editors who’ve stuck around awhile, and likely even fewer who decide to walk away from the project. Wikipedia has rules—mandatory policies, even—requiring civility and prohibiting harassment, but in a community that prizes free speech and values second chances, these admonitions to good behavior are rarely taken seriously.

The impact this can have on the mental health of key contributors became a heated topic this week, so in the spirit of contributing to a better environment, The Wikipedian is running this guest post—not our first, but it’s been awhile!—from friend of the blog and The Wikipedia Library founder Jake Orlowitz, in this memoir-commentary about the other half of the equation, Wikipedia’s ability to uplift:

♦     ♦     ♦

Journey of a Wikipedian

There’s no one moment when you go insane;

not when

you find yourself crying into a phone behind a closet door

or tapping your foot to neutralize thoughts you can’t handle

or sleeping on a bed of worn clothes on a hard floor

or when the police officer pulls you over again for driving

up and back the same stretch of highway, six times

and not when you physically crack the monitor in a dark room for no reason even though it was the only light left in a night’s center as you tap away at keys throughout the silence

But you occasionally get a glimpse of someone else realizing that, “you’ve lost it”.

It was probably fall 2010. My dad turned the knob on the attic bathroom door in the house where I had grown up, and the reaction on his face was devastated. He didn’t know that no other room in the house, or the country, felt safe to me, that the warm water soothed and wetted the dry, frigid air, that my laptop was balanced purposefully so that it would fall backwards onto the tile rather than into the hip-high water, and that I had chosen the back wall of the tub for its ergonomic watchlist-monitoring suitability.

He didn’t know that. He just saw his 27-year old son, feverishly tinkering with electronics on the edge of a full bath, completely nude, oblivious to anything else, or anything wrong. He also didn’t know that I was helping lead the Egyptian revolution.

That too sounds insane, but as the calendar flipped into January 2011, the new year brought millions to Egypt’s streets. A boy had gone missing, turned up in a morgue clearly beaten beyond breath by police. Facebook pages organized gatherings that filled immense public squares. Protests turned into uprising turned into revolution.

And I, alongside 4 exceptionally dedicated editors from 3 different continents, monitored the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Wikipedia article 24-hours-a-day with equipoise and fervor. We yearned for Mubarak to fall, but in the newsroom which the article’s talkpage had become, we were vigilantly checking multiple independent reports before inputting any new words onto the growing page, scouring the article for flourishes of revolutionary support. The world would come here to find the facts; those that would dispassionately drive understanding without embellishment or motivation, for the hundreds of thousands of people reading that page each day. And I would make sure of it. From my bathtub.

There’s also no one time when sanity returns, if there is such a defined state. But suffice to say that it builds upon moments.

Like the moment when you start chatting off-channel to a Wikipedian on irc-help, just to talk to someone again. Or when you put on a suit for the first time in 6 years, to give a talk on conflict-of-interest to a gathering of pr folks at a posh downtown bar. Or when you step into the hostel at Wikimania in 2012 in D.C. and meet Stu Geiger, your coincidental bunkmate, and instantly recognize his familiar, Wikipedian-ite, eclectic genius.

The moments gather momentum though. Soon you are calling up major media companies to ask for donations. Not as Jake, or that guy who lost a decade in his 20’s, or the model teenager who lapsed into dysfunction and veered ‘off course’. But calling rather, as a piece-of-Wikipedia… Do you know what doors that opens?

The drama of recovery shouldn’t be overly simplified into highlights. It was just as much my psychiatrist’s expert balancing — seeking of psychic neutrality — with a fine and formidable mix of anxiolytics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sleep aids. Not too high, not too low. Not too moody, not too flat. Every pill presented a trade-off, but we found a consensus pharmacology that worked.

My parents made sure that my rock bottom was somewhere safe.

My friends’ surprise visits reminded me that there was fun yet to be had.

The diagnoses I received were varied and all increasingly off-the mark. I was bipolar, but generally calm through even the grittiest edit wars. I was agoraphobic and socially anxious, but traveling to Hong Kong and Quebec and Berlin for meetups with strangers from myriad countries. I was depressed, but could not control an urge to improve a bit of Wikipedia, every day, most of the day.

They say that Wikipedia is NotTherapy. It’s a serious place to write an encyclopedia, not to iron out one’s mental kinks or cracks. But I think that’s wrong. No one knew me on Wikipedia, except for my words, the wisdom of my input, and the value of my contributions. They couldn’t care less if I was manic, phobic, delusional, or hysterical. It just didn’t matter. They didn’t see that part of me.

So I got to build my identity, my confidence, my vocation — with longwinded eloquent analyses, meticulous bibliographies, and copious rewrites of difficult subjects.

They also say that Wikipedia is Not a social network, but that’s wrong too. In the 8 years since I started editing, first in my car outside a Starbucks, and then throughout the dull shifts of a mountain-town Staples store where I squatted for wifi, and then still more through 3 years back at home under blankets between dusk and dawn, I met hundreds of people with whom I shared the same passion. I received, quite marvelously, 49 barnstars from peers, friends, and fans. There wasn’t a bigger or better sense of validation.

Jake OrlowitzI received two incomparable partners, to build a Wikipedia Library that I created and had become the head of. I received a job offer, with wellness benefits. I also received, in the grand sense of things, an irrepressible, stunning and brilliant girlfriend and her exuberant 5-year old daughter into my life.

You see, Wikipedia brings people together. It brought me together. It just takes some time for everyone to get their heads on straight, before they can see that their lives too have a mission, and an [edit] button.

■     ■     ■

A few thoughts to remember, for online collaborators, or any collaborator, really:

  1. We are a community of very real people with deep emotions and human complexities.
  2. We are deeply invested in our project, so much so it hurts us at times even if it is also a passion or refuge for many.
  3. You never know what someone has been through, or is going through.
  4. We all need help at some point. There is no shame in needing help, asking for help, or receiving help.
  5. If you are ever feeling completely hopeless: Wait. Things really can get better. Talk to someone about it.
  6. Mental health carries a powerful stigma. The more we are open about it, the less that weighs all of us down.
  7. If we listen, we can learn from each other.
  8. We need to be kind. This is a higher calling than civility, and entirely compatible with achieving our goals.
  9. Our movement depends on its people. We are our most valuable resource.
  10. We are not finished products. With time, space, support, and practice — people can, and do, grow and change.

If you ever see someone in need of help, or are seeking it yourself, please contact one of many available 24-hour emergency hotlines, or just dial the local emergency number for your area.

— Jake Orlowitz, User:Ocaasi, @JakeOrlowitz

This text is licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0. It can be shared or reposted without permission under the terms of the Creative Commons license, which requires only attribution and that reusers keep the same license.

Orlowitz post originally published in a slightly different form on Medium.

Image by Christopher Schwarzkopf via Wikimedia Commons.

Everyone’s a Critic: Manson Family Murderer Tex Watson Doesn’t Like His Wikipedia Entry

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on April 4, 2016 at 3:00 pm by William Beutler

It’s not so weird for a prominent figure to solicit changes to their Wikipedia entry. After all, Wikipedia is the only reference website of its profile, thanks in no small part to its ubiquity in Google searches. For better or worse, what Wikipedia has to say overlaps with, and heavily influences, the public’s knowledge on many subjects.

But this one is weird, because the subject is convicted murderer and “Manson family” member Charles “Tex” Watson, currently serving a life sentence in California for his part in the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate and several others.

At this writing, there isn’t much information to go on—and there may be none forthcoming (although I will certainly update this post if there is). But here’s what’s happened so far: last Thursday, a new message was posted to the discussion section of the Tex Watson Wikipedia entry. The post was not by Watson, nor an interested representative, but a member of Wikipedia’s Volunteer Response Team.[1]called OTRS, for reasons not all that important This included an embedded 5-page PDF featuring a scanned printout from two versions of the very same Wikipedia entry, with handwritten changes and corrections apparently by none other than Tex Watson himself.

A short discussion ensued, with some asking how they could tell for sure if the request came from Watson as claimed. That the PDF came via an official Wikipedia channel was taken as a likely sign of legitimacy, while others pointed out that it should matter less where the questions come from, and more whether any valid points were made. The final comment as of this writing notes that the existing entry lacks citations for many of its claims, so whatever the validity of Watson’s apparent requests, this is entry is not among Wikipedia’s better ones.

For your perusal, here is a link to PDF as hosted on Wikipedia, and below are thumbnails of each page (click on each to read at larger size):

Tex_Watson_1Tex_Watson_2
Tex_Watson_3Tex_Watson_4
Tex_Watson_5

So, what exactly does Tex Watson want? First of all, it’s worth noting that Watson seems to have been working primarily from a version of the entry from February 2016 (the first four pages above) so it doesn’t quite line up with what we see today. This version he compared to at least the first part of the article in August 2013 (the fifth page) which he liked better. Finally, some edits have occurred on the page since last week—but more about those below. Here are some of his specific requests:

  • The article to be returned to Charles “Tex” Watson; it was moved to Tex Watson about two years ago following a short discussion.
  • The nickname “Mad Charlie” removed from the infobox, which he claims is inaccurate.
  • The restoration of a paragraph in the introduction, deleted in August 2013, mentioning his book about the murders.
  • Basically a complete rewrite of his “Early life” section, including details about working at an “onion packing plant saving for college” and as a bag handler for Braniff Airlines.[2]best known to American audiences today as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s production company on South Park
  • At one point he wasn’t satisfied with the section heading “Cielo Drive murders”, but then changed his mind.
  • Watson asserts that fellow Manson family member Patricia Krenwinkel was the primary killer of victim Abigail Folger, although he says he “assisted”, and denies taking $70 from Folger’s purse. He also disputes Sharon Tate’s last (?) words.
  • To omit the gender of four children he fathered through conjugal visits with his then-wife.
  • To delete an entire paragraph related to a citizen signature drive to oppose parole following the commutation of his sentence from death to life. As he notes in the margins, the section is unsupported by citations.
  • Watson has some kind of issue with the citations included. He actually suggests including the book Helter Skelter, written by the late Vincent Bugliosi, none other than the attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson. He suggests removing a 2009 CNN web story for reasons I can’t quite discern.

And what should we make of all this? Well, I’ll start by taking the potentially controversial position that everyone deserves fair treatment in their Wikipedia biography, even a convicted murderer. As editors on the Watson talk page noted, a point may be valid regardless of where it comes from. This is a more difficult position to stick with when the details concern, you know, Watson’s murder victims. Therefore, determining whether the requests are valid or not may be tricky, but with so much written about the Manson family murders over the past forty-five years, it stands to reason the answers may be found.

And it does seem that Watson has done at least a bit of research into how Wikipedia works: he understands there should be citations, and knows he can lobby for the removal of uncited material—although it seems more likely someone will just find a news story about the signature drive than remove this detail. However, the request to remove details about Watson’s non-famous offspring is one frequently granted to less heinous public figures, so it will be interesting to see if that happens here as well.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out… bringing attention to a specific page can work! It worked for novelist Philip Roth, when he published “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” in The New Yorker in 2012, and it works for brands who post on-point, easy-to-understand requests on talk pages.[3]which, I hasten to add, is something my firm Beutler Ink has done with success for years—although Watson is probably a client we would choose not to take on For Watson, it has already resulted in a handful of edits by two different editors. One has added back a mention of Watson’s book, although not to the introduction. And, until such time as the issues raised by Watson (and others) are addressed, another has added a helpful advisory for readers to consider:

Tex_Watson_warning

Update: Lane Rasberry, the volunteer who handled Watson’s request, has now written a very thoughtful blog post explaining how he decided to take up the request and exploring some related issues, including whether or not prison inmates should have Wikipedia editing privileges. I highly recommend it.

All images via Wikipedia. Five likely also via Charles “Tex” Watson.

Notes

Notes
1 called OTRS, for reasons not all that important
2 best known to American audiences today as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s production company on South Park
3 which, I hasten to add, is something my firm Beutler Ink has done with success for years—although Watson is probably a client we would choose not to take on

A Modest Proposal for Wikimedia’s Future

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on March 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm by William Beutler

On February 25, Lila Tretikov, the embattled executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), finally tendered her resignation. Though an interim successor would not be named until March 10,[1]it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications the Wikimedia movement breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Tretikov’s twenty-two month tenure produced the greatest organizational crisis in Wikimedia’s history.[2]For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit. Her leadership will be remembered for poor communication, worse management, rapid and unannounced changes in strategy, and a lack of transparency that produced an atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety, one which finally overwhelmed and brought the Tretikov era to an acrimonious end.

Most of all, Lila Tretikov will be remembered for the precipitous decline in staff morale that sent more than two dozen key employees and executives for the exits. The loss of talent, relationships, and institutional memory is devastating, and it is not something the Wikimedia Foundation will recover from soon.

I suggest maybe the WMF should not recover and rebuild itself, at least not exactly like it was. Acknowledging this modest proposal stands to be controversial,[3]possibly just ignored I believe in this tragedy lies an opportunity for the Wikimedia Foundation to reconstitute itself in a way better suited for the challenges facing it at this point in its history.

This would be a WMF that recognizes its primary mission is educational, one that is willing to reconsider what responsibilities it keeps for itself vs. what works better distributed among its affiliates. I argue in this post that it should split its executive leadership into two roles and spin off certain core functions into standalone organizations. Doing so would allow for better transparency, create more opportunities for “WMF-Community” cooperation, and perhaps offer a chance for volunteers to seek a career path within the movement.

The Wikimedia Foundation does not need to do big things. It needs to create an environment for big things to happen.

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If the WMF is going to reconsider its organizational structure, this is certainly the time to do it. The forest fire of Tretikov’s tenure creates a unique and unexpected opportunity to plant anew. Other questions are already being explored: what will Wikimedia’s next five-year-plan say?[4]The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed. Should Jimmy Wales continue to hold his semi-permanent seat on the Board? Are the processes for selecting and vetting the three groups of Board trustees still adequate, the underlying assumptions still operative? How can the Board be induced to act transparently? The Wikimedia Conference coming up in April should be interesting, if not explosive.

All of these are very difficult and important questions, and yet I strongly suggest opening another conversation about the size and scope of WMF responsibilities going forward.[5]I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames. Why should the WMF consider radically re-envisioning its organizational structure? Because the WMF as it exists was created to solve a different problem than the one we have now.

When the WMF was launched in 2003, two years after Wikipedia’s creation, “Wikimedia” was a retconned neologism coined to describe a wide-ranging movement not yet fully baked. The WMF was needed to create a backbone for these efforts and give its global volunteer base a strong sense of direction. Under Sue Gardner, the WMF was successful in fulfilling this role.

The present WMF has become, in the pithiest description possible, a fundraising organization in support of a nonprofit web development company and a small-grant issuing organization. To a lesser degree, it has also funded community outreach and the development of membership chapters around the world.

Wikipedia, in its many languages and numerous sister projects—the larger Wikimedia movement with which this post is really concerned—has succeeded in becoming the world’s free resource for knowledge, however imperfect it can be. Maintaining this is a different kind of challenge, and it is inherently a defensive one. Indeed, there is much to defend, and the threats are not imagined.

The first challenge is the changing Internet: Wikipedia’s software and culture came from an Internet dominated by desktop computers accessing the World Wide Web. Today, Internet activity has moved to mobile devices, increasingly inside of apps, which are of course closed platforms. Though WMF’s mobile efforts have come a long way, they are fighting upstream against several currents no one imagined in 2001. The idea of collaboration is as strong as ever, but its tools become weaker all the time.

The second challenge is WMF culture. The Tretikov disaster reveals weaknesses in two of the WMF’s most important functions: the raising of money[6]Knight Foundation and the allocating of money.[7]Knowledge Engine In addition, as described in varying degrees of detail by former staffers, under Tretikov the Foundation had become a toxic workplace environment—but the truth is it had structural issues even before that. Finally, the edifice of a nearly 300-person staff created a kind of intrigue—“Montgomerology”[8]hat tip: Liam Wyatt—that plays out daily on Wikimedia-l,[9]for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion and which this blog is frankly obsessed with. Which, I acknowledge, isn’t exactly healthy.

The third challenge, not unrelated, is Wikimedia culture. The English Wikipedia’s volunteer community, the movement’s largest and most influential bloc, is deeply set in its ways. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s extraordinarily high profile contributes to a reluctance to tinker with, let alone radically rethink, how it conducts its business. And several bold initiatives developed within the WMF—including good ideas like the Visual Editor, debatable ideas like the Media Viewer, and bad ideas like the Knowledge Engine—have been received poorly by the community.

In all three cases, solving these problems are more than any one executive can handle alone.

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So what should happen? First, an apology from the Board of Trustees is definitely in order. Tretikov’s failure is entirely on them as Wikimedia’s ultimate corporate authority. Second, an audit / accounting of the failures of recent years. Wikimedia UK was required to do one following the Gibraltarpedia controversy; what’s good for the chapter is even better for the foundation.

Third, the Board of Trustees should split the role of executive director into two positions: a president and provost, like universities do.[10]Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance. One becomes the “head of state”, handling the public and fundraising efforts, while the other handles administration and operations. Wikipedia’s high profile means that representing its value and values to the outside world is a full-time job. Regardless of whether Jimmy Wales remains a trustee, Wikipedia needs a new mascot, and it should identify a charismatic leader for this role, who may or may not come from the Wikimedia community. The provost position would be focused on grantmaking, community outreach, and long-term strategy. They must be a good manager and internal communicator, but need not be a big personality. And this person absolutely must come from the Wikimedia movement.

Fourth, and the really hard part, would be the voluntary dispossession of core Wikimedia movement functions from the central organization. The WMF should keep only what is mission critical—fundraising and grantmaking[11]legal and communications, too, of course—and spin off the rest.[12]It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation. WMF grants should fund these newly independent foundations, encouraging a reinvigorated support for community-driven organizations.

What is the basis for considering smaller organization sizes? From a theoretical perspective, there’s Dunbar’s number. The larger an organization becomes, the harder it is for everyone to know everyone else and understand what they’re doing. In the business world, this has been seen in the arrested development of agglomeration, once large corporations realized they had become slow and bureaucracy-laden.[13]Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”? Critics of corporate consolidation were caught as flat-footed as the conglomerates they disdained when spin-offs became ever more popular. This is also an operating principle at Amazon, where they call it the “two-pizza rule”.[14]“Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”

From a practical perspective, the WMF’s behemoth status suits neither its day-to-day operations nor its perceptions by the wider community. As detailed by recently departed veteran staffer Oliver Keyes in The Wikipedia Signpost last month, systemic problems with hiring, promotions, and HR in general were an issue at the WMF well before Tretikov’s arrival. Meanwhile, the WMF itself seems unapproachable, simply too much for anyone to wrap their heads around. Indeed the WMF itself is a conglomerate, of a kind. Creating more community space around its current departments would make each more accessible, generating more “WMF-Community” interactions. This would help greatly with transparency, and make it far easier to start new initiatives.

It all sounds pretty radical—and I’m not saying it isn’t!—but there are good reasons to think a new organizational structure could work. The argument against ultimately relies on an appeal to familiarity, bolstered by inertia.

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With the caveat that I have never worked at the Wikimedia Foundation, nor in non-profit governance even for a minute, I won’t let that stop me from taking a crack at some specifics. What I write below is merely one way to go about it, and I encourage others—especially those with real WMF experience—to offer their view in the comments. Let’s go:

Among the WMF’s first major grants should be to the new Wikimedia Technology Foundation, containing the current Technology and Product teams. There is no critical reason why it needs to live in the same house as fundraising, and it would benefit from a strong leader with community ties—which it has not had for a long time. After all, even as we’re now sure Discovery is working not on a Google-killer but merely improved site search, it still ranks very low compared to other community-enumerated goals. Doing so would make its efforts more useful to everyday editors, and give it the latitude to develop for the next generation of Wikipedia editors. An early initiative of this spinoff should be to think about how to position Wikipedia for the mobile web and even to consider partnerships with today’s media orgs—not so much the New York Times and CNN, but Facebook and Snapchat.

More complex would be the evolution of Community Engagement, encompassing grantmaking and outreach. WMF grantmaking has nearly always been hampered by thinking too small and funding projects too dispersed and under-staffed to be effective. Through its chapters, user groups, and various grantmaking committees it funds projects for not quite enough money which are basically nights-and-weekends projects, from which very few can draw compensation, thereby limiting their ambitions and achievements.

So while the core function of grantmaking should stay with the provost at the slimmed down WMF, the bulk of its activity should happen outside its walls. And the way this would happen is by the creation of a more ambitious grantmaking operation whose mission is to nurture and develop mini-foundations modeled on GLAM-Wiki US, the Wiki Education Foundation, and WikiProject Med Foundation. Rather than there being one new foundation for community outreach, this needs to be a core capability of every mini-foundation that receives WMF funding.

Among the key projects necessary to a healthy and functioning Wikimedia movement that could benefit from a devolved organization and dedicated funding: The Wikipedia Signpost, which is heroically staffed entirely by volunteers; the Wikimania conference, the locus of numerous organizational failures in recent years; Wikimedia chapter management: the model of volunteer support currently practiced focuses too much on geographic concerns at the expense of thematic topics, with considerable overlap.

Another might be content development: if you look at Wikipedia’s complete list of featured articles, it is arguable the only article categories supported by existing foundations are “art and architecture”, “education” and “health and medicine”, served, respectively, by the three model organizations listed above. Adapting from the list, this leaves dozens of top-level categories unserved by a formal organization, and decreasingly supported as the informal “wikiproject” has withered in recent years.[15]Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias. By creating formal structures with specific outreach to associations and universities along these lines, Wikipedia can create more opportunities for outreach and collaboration.

What’s more, it would create opportunities for Wikimedians, particularly its younger cohort, to choose a career within the movement. Presently, there are too few jobs at libraries and museums to make use of all this talent. While conflict of interest (COI) issues will be justifiably considered, these fears are generally overblown. Nowhere in Wikipedia’s policies or guidelines—and certainly not in the Five Pillars—does it say that Wikipedia must be volunteer-only, and creating staff positions will actually reduce the likelihood editors will “sell out”. Wikimedia has long passed a point of diminishing returns on the volunteer-only model. And you know what? It isn’t entirely that now. We already live in a “mixed economy”, and we owe it to our community members to expand their opportunities. There’s no reason software programmers should be the only ones to earn a living working on Wikimedia projects.

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Can I summarize all this in a paragraph? I think so: a small constellation of well-funded Wikimedia Foundation spinoffs, each with a strong sense of mission, focused narrowly on the movement’s needs stands a better chance of working more efficiently among themselves and offers many more touch points for the community itself to be involved. Through that, transparency can be improved, both at the WMF parent org and within a reinvigorated movement organized around professionally staffed, standalone foundations doing what each does best. In the gaps between them and the WMF, new opportunities for community involvement would arise for the benefit of all.

Wikimedia is vast, with an incredible diversity of talents and resources. It contains multitudes, and its organizational structure should reflect that.

Notes

Notes
1 it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications
2 For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit.
3 possibly just ignored
4 The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed.
5 I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames.
6 Knight Foundation
7 Knowledge Engine
8 hat tip: Liam Wyatt
9 for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion
10 Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance.
11 legal and communications, too, of course
12 It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation.
13 Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”?
14 “Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”
15 Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias.

Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov

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on February 19, 2016 at 11:00 am by William Beutler

The Wikimedia Foundation is in open revolt. While the day-to-day volunteer efforts of editing Wikipedia pages continue as ever, the non-profit Foundation, or WMF, is in the midst of a crisis it’s never seen before. In recent weeks, WMF staff departures have accelerated. And within just the past 48 hours, employees have begun speaking openly on the web about their lack of confidence in the leadership of its executive director, Lila Tretikov.

knowledge-engine-rocket

All in all, it’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start to 2016. Controversy in the first weeks of the year focused on the unexplained dismissal from the WMF Board of Trustees of James Heilman, a popular representative of Wikipedia’s volunteer base, before shifting to the unpopular appointment to the WMF Board of Arnnon Geshuri, whose involvement in an anti-competitive scheme as a Google executive led him to resign the position amidst outcry from the staff and community.[1]The denouement of Geshuri’s time at WMF might have been a great post of its own, but I didn’t get to it, and, as usual, Signpost has you covered.

But other issues remained unresolved: WMF employee dissatisfaction with Tretikov was becoming better known beyond the walls of its San Francisco headquarters, while questions mounted about the origin, status and intent of a little-known initiative officially called Discovery, but previously (and more notoriously) known as the “Knowledge Engine”. What was it all about? How do all these things tie together? What on Earth is going on here?

Deep breath.

The strange thing about the Knowledge Engine is that, until very recently, basically nobody knew anything about it—including the vast majority of WMF staff. Not until Heilman identified it as a central issue surrounding his departure from the Board had anyone outside the WMF staff ever heard of it—though in May 2015, a well-placed volunteer visiting HQ[2]specifically, User:Risker, a widely respected former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee observed that a team called “Search and Discovery” was “extraordinarily well-staffed with a disproportionate number of engineers at the same time as other areas seem to be wanting for them”. This despite the fact that, as we know now, the WMF had sought funding from the Knight Foundation of many millions of dollars, receiving just $250,000 in a grant not disclosed until months later. As recently as this month, a well-considered but still in-the-dark Wikipedia Signpost article asked: “So, what’s a knowledge engine anyway?”

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After several months of not knowing anything was amiss, followed by weeks of painful acrimony, we think we have the answer: as of February 2016 the mysterious project is in fact a WMF staff-run project to improve Wikipedia’s on-site search with some modest outside funding, which sounds like a good idea, sure, Wikipedia’s on-site search engine isn’t maybe the best, but we also know at some point it was an ambitious project to create a brand new search engine as an alternative to Google. Sometime in 2015 the WMF submitted a proposal to the Knight Foundation asking for a substantial amount of money to fund this project. It is described in still-emerging documents from this grant request as a “search engine”, and several early mock-ups seemed to suggest this was in fact the idea (click through for higher resolution):

Knowledge Engine mid

Why would Wikipedia consider building a search engine, anyway? The most likely answer is fear of being too dependent on Google, which sends Wikipedia at least a third of its total traffic. In recent years, Google has started providing answers to queries directly on the search engine results page (SERPs), often powered by Wikipedia, thereby short-circuiting visits to Wikipedia itself. Tretikov herself, in a rambly January 29 comment on her Meta-Wiki[3]a wiki devoted to, well, meta-topics regarding Wikimedia projects account page, identified “readership decline” as Wikipedia’s most recent challenge.[4]“Our aim was to begin exploring new initiatives that could help address the challenges that Wikipedia is facing, especially as other sources and methods arise for people to acquire knowledge. If you haven’t yet, please have a look at the recent data and metrics which illustrate the downward trajectory our movement faces with readership decline (since 2013), editor decline (since 2007, which we stabilized for English Wikipedia in 2015), and our long standing struggle with conversion from reading to editing. These risks rank very high on my list of priorities, because they threaten the very core of our mission.”

It’s an understandable position: if you are the leader of an organization whose success has been largely described in terms of its overall traffic,[5]#6 in the U.S., #7 worldwide any decline in traffic may be equated with a decline in Wikimedia’s ability to fulfill its mission. I submit this is short-sighted: that Wikipedia has an educational mission whose impact cannot be measured solely in terms of traffic. That Google borrows information from Wikipedia—though they are not alone in this—in such a way that it answers people’s questions before they have to actually click through to en.wikipedia.org is still a win for Wikipedia, even if it reduces the (already low) probability that a reader will become a Wikipedia contributor.[6]See this comment from WMF’s Dario Taraborelli, who argues: “[T]raffic per se is not the goal, the question should be about how to drive back human attention to the source”.

The logic is twisted, but you can follow it: most readers find Wikipedia through a search engine, so if the search engine that helped make Wikipedia the success it is today changes its mind and starts pointing elsewhere, better to get ahead of things and create a new alternative that people will use. I guess? If we accept this reasoning, we still have to confront questions like: Is this actually something the WMF can accomplish? Is this within the WMF’s scope? Is this something that will help Wikipedia accomplish its mission? These are much harder questions for WMF to answer—in part because the answers are “no”, “no”, and “no”—and would absolutely have to be shared with the Wikimedia Board of Trustees ahead of time and, for political reasons, socialized within the Wikipedia community itself. The incident surrounding Heilman’s departure suggests the former was an issue, and the ongoing furor is because the latter obviously did not occur.

Meanwhile, the extreme unwillingness of Lila Tretikov and even Jimmy Wales to talk about it is, in fact, tearing the Wikimedia Foundation apart. Tretikov has lost all remaining credibility with Wikimedia staff and close community observers, not that she had much to begin with. As this week comes to an end, more staffers are quitting, remaining ones are complaining in public, and it seems impossible to imagine Lila Tretikov remaining in charge much longer.

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If you’ve come to expect a detailed timeline of events from The Wikipedian, I am pleased to say you’ll find just what you’re looking for below, although I’m afraid this whole thing is too large and multifaceted to do proper justice within the space of this already very long post. A full accounting may go back[7]as James Heilman does in his own timeline of events to the mid-2000s, when Jimmy Wales harbored ambitions of building his own search engine—Wikiasari in 2006 and Wikia Search in 2008. It certainly would include a full accounting of the many high-profile WMF staffers to leave since late 2014, and the role Tretikov played in each. It would include a careful examination of what the WMF can and should do in Wikipedia’s name, and an evaluation of how the evolving app-focused Internet raises questions about Wikipedia’s own future.

I think that’s more than I can accomplish in this post.

Instead I want to focus on what’s happening this week. But first we have to fill in some of the blanks. To do so, you’ll want to wind back the clock a few weeks:

  • Let’s start on January 25, when Jimmy Wales called Heilman’s claims that transparency issues were at the core of his dismissal “utter fucking bullshit”. Jimmy Wales is known for occasionally lashing out at pestering editors on his Talk page, and this certainly seems to be one of those times.
  • Jimmy Wales, 2013

  • On January 29, Tretikov made her first public, community-facing statement about the Knight Foundation grant, which was welcomed for showing some self-reflection[8]“It was my mistake to not initiate this ideation on-wiki. Quite honestly, I really wish I could start this discussion over in a more collaborative way, knowing what I know today.” but also raised more questions than it answered.
  • On February 1 WMF developer Frances Hocutt stated[9]on Tretikov’s discussion page, no less that employees were being “censured for speaking in ways that I have found sharply critical but still fundamentally honest and civil”.
  • Don’t skip the aforementioned “So, what’s a knowledge engine anyway?” investigation by Andreas Kolbe for The Signpost, published February 8, still the most comprehensive evaluation of this multifaceted controversy.
  • We then jump ahead to February 11, when Wales was still doing his “Baghdad Bob” routine, publicly insisting to Wikipedia editors that any suggestion WMF had ever considered building a search engine was “a total lie”.[10]Full quote: “To make this very clear: no one in top positions has proposed or is proposing that WMF should get into the general “searching” or to try to “be google”. It’s an interesting hypothetical which has not been part of any serious strategy proposal, nor even discussed at the board level, nor proposed to the board by staff, nor a part of any grant, etc. It’s a total lie.”
  • Just hours later, WMF comms uploaded the Knight Foundation grant agreement itself to the WMF’s own wiki, confirming for the first time, in public, that WMF was describing the project as “the Internet’s first transparent search engine”. The Signpost has the most detailed breakdown not only of the grant agreement, but also three supplemental documents which were leaked to the Signpost but have not been made public at this time.
  • Also read this powerfully-argued blog post by Wikipedia veteran Liam Wyatt about the poor strategic decision-making that led to the current controversy.[11]“It seems to me extremely damaging that Lila has approached an external organisation for funding a new search engine (however you want to define it), without first having a strategic plan in place. Either the Board knew about this and didn’t see a problem, or they were incorrectly informed about the grant’s purpose. Either is very bad.”
  • You might then have a look at The Register, always snarky, but with a decent summary of where things stood last week, just before it became newsworthy. I definitely recommend this February 15 story by Vice’s Motherboard about the fiasco (and this follow-up)[12]Both of which quote yours truly, so take that into consideration. but skip this Newsweek story except to see how the media was, for a brief moment, cluelessly reporting that Wikipedia was taking on Google.[13]This story has since been corrected, albeit on an insignificant, unrelated point.
  • However incomplete, I think this upshot from The Verge is a good enough summary, at least for public purposes:
    • Whether Wikimedia’s plans just naturally evolved [away from the search engine project] or whether it was responding to the community’s response is difficult to say, but the organization is now, at least, claiming it does not want to square up to Google, but just improve its own product.

  • As all this was unfolding, the exodus of key WMF staff was accelerating. On February 8, Tretikov announced on Wikimedia-l that Luis Villa, head of the Community Engagement department and previously a member of the WMF’s legal team, would be leaving.
  • At least Tretikov seemed to be in control of that one. Because the next day Anna Koval, a manager of the education program, announced her own departure on the mailing list.
  • And then on Friday, February 12, a very big resignation letter dropped on the Wikimedia-l: that of Siko Bouterse, another veteran leader who had long provided a crucial link between the Wikipedia volunteer community and the professional WMF staff. Careful with her words, Bouterse wrote:
    • Transparency, integrity, community and free knowledge remain deeply important to me, and I believe I will be better placed to represent those values in a volunteer capacity at this time.

  • Messing up my timeline a bit, but still worth noting: Hocutt, the developer who had made public internal fears about silencing dissent, announced her own (albeit temporary) departure in yet another Wikimedia-l post on February 17, noting her leave was “due in part to stress caused by the recent uncertainty and organizational departures.”

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Finally, on February 16, Lila Tretikov published an open letter[14]Co-authored by Vice President of Product Wes Moran on the Wikimedia blog titled “Clarity on the future of Wikimedia search”. Alas, it wasn’t terribly clarifying: it seemed aimed at the clueless mainstream journalists like the one at Newsweek, and not at the Wikipedia community who knew which information gaps actually needed to be filled in. It began:

Over the past few weeks, the Wikimedia community has engaged in a discussion of the Wikimedia Foundation’s plans for search and discovery on the Wikimedia projects.

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Well, that is certainly one way to put it! Put another way, you have been backed into a corner defending the untenable proposition that Wikipedia has never considered building a search engine, and now that the mainstream press is reporting, based on your own documents, that you are building a search engine, one certainly has to say something about it.

After much boilerplate about the growth of Wikipedia and its many achievements, Tretikov and Moran finally get around to the point:

What are we not doing? We’re not building a global crawler search engine. We’re not building another, separate Wikimedia project. … Despite headlines, we are not trying to compete with other platforms, including Google.

This seems to be true, insofar as there is no search project currently. However, Wales had previously locked himself into the position that there was never a search project originating from WMF, and by now we know that is obviously false. Without any acknowledgement in this letter, it is useless. But it’s worse than that:

Community feedback was planned as part of the Knowledge Engine grant, and is essential to identifying the opportunities for improvement in our existing search capacity.

We are 10 months past the initial plans for this far-reaching, mission statement-busting project, six months past the award of a grant to pursue this quixotic effort, and not two months removed from the violent ejection of a Board trustee over the matter… and all you can say is “feedback was planned”?

Finally, the closest thing to acknowledging the Knowledge Engine was, at some point, actually a search engine:

It is true that our path to this point has not always been smooth, especially through the ideation phase.

And nothing more.

The first comment on the post was brutal, bordering on uncivil, from a retired editor. It concluded:

You are either:
a. Flat out lying, and hoping we don’t actually read the grant,
b. Have misled the Knight Foundation as to your intentions for their grant money, or
c. Seriously incompetent and should never be put in charge of writing a grant application
None of these options look good for the WMF.

A few hours later, a member of WMF’s Discovery team gamely stepped forward and tried to offer a plausible explanation for how the grant request did not necessarily imply a Google-competitive search engine project—damage control, essentially—but still had to concede the wording of the grant did not make Tretikov or WMF look good: “It is ambiguous. I can’t speak to the intent of the authors and while there are current WMF staff listed, they are not the sole authors of the document.”

Finally, a day later, a true hero emerged in Max Semenik, another Discovery team engineer, mostly unknown to the community, and who was willing to take off his PR hat to say what everyone pretty much knew:

Yes, there were plans of making an internet search engine. I don’t understand why we’re still trying to avoid giving a direct answer about it. …

The whole project didn’t live long and was ditched soon after the Search team was created, after FY15/16 budget was finalized, and it did not have the money allocated for such work … However, ideas and wording from that search engine plan made their way to numerous discovery team documents and were never fully expelled. …

In the hindsight, I think our continued use of Knowledge Engine name is misleading and should have ended when internet search engine plans were ditched. No, we’re really not working on internet search engine.

Now that sounds like a real answer! What’s more, it also provides the outlines of a believable story as to why the Knight Foundation grant included language about the search engine, even if it wasn’t then the plan. This is transparency of a sort! But it’s transparency of the last-ditch kind. That it had to come from a low-level engineer indicates there is a major problem, and speaks to the fact that the WMF simply cannot go on this way.

At a time when Wikipedia has already-existing problems, the WMF was asking for money to basically create a whole new set of problems. That is the mark of an organization, if not a movement, adrift. Clearly, they pitched a search engine to Knight, and they asked for millions—I have heard the number placed at $100 million over 5 years—later reduced to $12 million, of which Knight provided $250K to build a plan—essentially a pat on the head: ‘since we like you, here’s a few bucks to come up with a better idea’.

knowledge-engineMysteries remain: where did the idea come from, who championed it, when did it die—or when did it recede and what happened afterward? One answer is supplied in another comment on this public thread (!) from yet another WMF team member (!) pointing a finger at former VP of Engineering Damon Sicore as having “secretly shopped around grandiose ideas about a free knowledge search engine, which eventually evolved into the reorg creating the Discovery team.” Sicore left in July 2015. A big remaining question, for which there is no answer at this time: when the actual grant was submitted to the Knight Foundation.

An argument I have heard in recent days is that it’s common in grant-making to try for everything you can and see what actually sticks. This may be true, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have been worth it. That WMF leadership felt they had to hide the fact later on also underlines the mistake they knew they were making.

Another big question: how does this affect Wikipedia’s public reputation, particularly among donors, most especially among foundations? You have to think the answer is a lot. The WMF looks like the Keystone Kops. Why would you give it money? And right now, the Knight Foundation specifically must be asking what it’s got itself into.

♦     ♦     ♦

Within the last 24 hours, the trickle of public criticism about Tretikov has become a widening stream. Some of it is taking place in the above comment thread, plenty is still happening at Wikimedia-l, but a lot of it has moved to a semi-private Facebook group called Wikipedia Weekly, where staffers previously not known for voicing internal dissent have been speaking quite frankly about how bad things are at 149 New Montgomery Street.[15]Example: “Dozens of staff formally warned the Board and Leadership months ago that this would happen. Sadly, we were right. But it was entirely predictable, and preventable.”

Yesterday afternoon on the mailing list, a developer named Ori Livneh replied to a plea for calm by community Board trustee Dariusz Jemielniak by explaining why they could not remain silent:

My peers in the Technology department work incredibly hard to provide value for readers and editors, and we have very good results to show for it. Less than two years ago it took an average of six seconds to save an edit to an article; it is about one second now. (MediaWiki deployments are currently halted over a 200-300ms regression!). Page load times improved by 30-40% in the past year, which earned us plaudits in the press and in professional circles. …

This is happening in spite of — not thanks to — dysfunction at the top. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is wait: an exodus of people from Engineering won’t be long now. Our initial astonishment at the Board’s unwillingness to acknowledge and address this dysfunction is wearing off. The slips and failures are not generalized and diffuse. They are local and specific, and their location has been indicated to you repeatedly.

Shortly thereafter Asaf Bartov—one of WMF’s more outspoken staffers, even prior to the last 48 hours—voiced his agreement and turned his comments back to Jemielniak:

Thank you, Ori. +1 to everything you said. We have been laboring under significant dysfunction for more than a year now, and are now in crisis. We are losing precious colleagues, time, money, *even more* community trust than we had previously squandered, and health (literally; the board HR committee has been sent some details). Please act. If for some reason the board cannot act, please state that reason. Signal to us, community and staff, by concrete words if not by deeds, that you understand the magnitude of the problem.

And then, about 10 minutes later, Lila Tretikov posted to this very conversation thread, and this is all she had to say:

For a few 2015 accomplishments by the product/technical teams you can see them listed here:

https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/2015_Wikimedia_Foundation_Product_and_Technology_Highlights

That is the complete text of her emailed post. That is really all she had to say, in a public thread specifically criticizing her leadership and all but explicitly calling for her removal. One gets the feeling, at this point, even Lila Tretikov just wants it to be over.

♦     ♦     ♦

In the early morning hours of February 19, a WMF software engineer named Kunal Mehta wrote an impassioned, rather forlorn post on his personal blog, titled: “Why am I still here?”:

Honestly, I don’t understand why the current leadership hasn’t left yet. Why would you want to work at a place where 93% of your employees don’t believe you’re doing a good job, and others have called you a liar (with proof to back it up) to your face, in front of the entire staff? I don’t know everything that’s going on right now, but we’re sick right now and desperately need to move on. …

I love, and will always love Wikimedia, but I can’t say the same about the current state of the Wikimedia Foundation. I’ve been around for nearly nine years now (nearly half my life), and it feels like that world is slowly crumbling away and I’m powerless to stop it.

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textAnd that’s why there is really just no way Lila Tretikov can continue to lead the WMF. A week ago, the thinking was: the Board of Trustees chose her over James Heilman, so they’re really sticking with her. At the time it also seemed like the Knowledge Engine was a going concern, and their support for her owed to their insistence on moving ahead with the project above community and staff objections. Knowing what we do now, it’s inexplicable. The thinking now is: she obviously has to go, and the only reason the Board might have for not acting on it would be legal considerations.

For the sake of Wikipedia’s future, the Wikimedia Foundation needs new leadership. Lila Tretikov must resign, or she must be replaced. This is the most challenging blog post I’ve ever had to write at The Wikipedian. The next one, I hope, will be about the start of the turnaround.

Notes

Notes
1 The denouement of Geshuri’s time at WMF might have been a great post of its own, but I didn’t get to it, and, as usual, Signpost has you covered.
2 specifically, User:Risker, a widely respected former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee
3 a wiki devoted to, well, meta-topics regarding Wikimedia projects
4 “Our aim was to begin exploring new initiatives that could help address the challenges that Wikipedia is facing, especially as other sources and methods arise for people to acquire knowledge. If you haven’t yet, please have a look at the recent data and metrics which illustrate the downward trajectory our movement faces with readership decline (since 2013), editor decline (since 2007, which we stabilized for English Wikipedia in 2015), and our long standing struggle with conversion from reading to editing. These risks rank very high on my list of priorities, because they threaten the very core of our mission.”
5 #6 in the U.S., #7 worldwide
6 See this comment from WMF’s Dario Taraborelli, who argues: “[T]raffic per se is not the goal, the question should be about how to drive back human attention to the source”.
7 as James Heilman does in his own timeline of events
8 “It was my mistake to not initiate this ideation on-wiki. Quite honestly, I really wish I could start this discussion over in a more collaborative way, knowing what I know today.”
9 on Tretikov’s discussion page, no less
10 Full quote: “To make this very clear: no one in top positions has proposed or is proposing that WMF should get into the general “searching” or to try to “be google”. It’s an interesting hypothetical which has not been part of any serious strategy proposal, nor even discussed at the board level, nor proposed to the board by staff, nor a part of any grant, etc. It’s a total lie.”
11 “It seems to me extremely damaging that Lila has approached an external organisation for funding a new search engine (however you want to define it), without first having a strategic plan in place. Either the Board knew about this and didn’t see a problem, or they were incorrectly informed about the grant’s purpose. Either is very bad.”
12 Both of which quote yours truly, so take that into consideration.
13 This story has since been corrected, albeit on an insignificant, unrelated point.
14 Co-authored by Vice President of Product Wes Moran
15 Example: “Dozens of staff formally warned the Board and Leadership months ago that this would happen. Sadly, we were right. But it was entirely predictable, and preventable.”

Twitter and Wikipedia: Parallel Challenges

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on February 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm by William Beutler

Twitter-Wikipedia

Twitter has had an almost unprecedented run of bad press lately. Its stock is down, its executives are out, and uncertainty reigns. In recent weeks, Twitter has announced (or had leaked) plans to change the platform’s famous 140-character limit, its reverse-chronological order of messages, and the site’s most vocal users are fearing, and saying, the worst.

The more I read of it, the more I think about the bad press Wikipedia has received over the past few years, and I see some striking parallels.

To be sure, they are very different entities. Most importantly, Twitter Inc. is a publicly traded company, while the Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organization. But both are important platforms in the online information ecosystem facing significant questions about not just its future but even its present. Both have much in common in their history and structure, and in the challenges they now face:

  • Wikipedia and Twitter both started out as side projects of other projects that weren’t going anywhere: Wikipedia of traditionally-edited online encyclopedia Nupedia, and Twitter of possibly-before-its-time podcast directory Odeo.
  • Both are basically monopolies in their particular corner of the information ecosystem: Wikipedia has no competitor in collating the “sum of all human knowledge” into readable text; Twitter is the only public, real-time conversation network (in perhaps this alone it has bested Facebook). Both have been described as a “utility” at one time or another.
  • Both are among the most-recognized, heavily-visited destinations on the web. Google pretty much points searchers to Wikipedia by default, and recently re-upped a deal to provide Twitter results in searches. Both are top 10 global websites: according to Alexa, Wikipedia is 7th and Twitter is 10th. In the U.S., Wikipedia is currently 6th and Twitter 8th.
  • Both are open publishing platforms, inviting its readers to be contributors. Even so, the vast majority of participants (broadly defined) choose only to consume. Wikipedia’s reader base has always vastly exceeded its editors, which isn’t a huge surprise. But Twitter has been trending this way for a number of years. (See also: the Pareto principle, the Internet’s 1% rule).
  • One possible reason why both have so few active contributors is that they are both notoriously difficult to use. This is rather obviously true for Wikipedia. It is, after all, an encyclopedia, and making beneficial contributions to it requires time, knowledge and inclination (not to mention persistence and thick skin). Twitter’s 140-character simplicity belies its true complexity, as Walt Mossberg has argued recently.
  • Both are organized as democratic, non-hierarchical platforms where everyone theoretically has an equal chance to be seen and heard. But of course invisible hierarchies emerge, as certain power users self-identify through the strength of social ties or canny dexterity with the platform. Twitter at least makes follower counts public, while Wikipedia is considerably more opaque.
  • For each, active users grew dramatically (even exponentially) until hitting a peak and then declining. This happened for Wikipedia in 2007, which happened to be the same year Twitter first started gaining traction. However, this growth ran out by 2009, making for a very similar looking user growth-and-decline charts:
  • Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

    Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

  • Both allow users anonymity—or, more accurately, pseudonymity—which arguably fosters a community culture suffering from a lack of responsibility and accountability. Relatedly, both have had significant trouble with the so-called Gamergate movement, and female users of both platforms have reported serious harassment issues.
  • Fallings out among top leadership have been the norm since the beginning. At Wikipedia, co-founder Larry Sanger became disillusioned with the project, leaving Jimmy Wales free to bask in the glory of being a “digital god” as the Evening Standard actually called him last week. As Nick Bilton described in his book, Hatching Twitter, Twitter’s most contentious co-founders, Jack Dorsey and Ev Williams, were at each other’s throats almost constantly. Multiple defenestrations later, Dorsey once again leads the company as CEO.
  • Besides the personal squabbles among its founders, both have experienced very recent and very concerning internal confusion at the company / parent organization, riven with conflicts about the future of the organization, and a revolving door of high-level executives. For Twitter, this has been in the tech press almost constantly. For Wikipedia, this has been covered most extensively by only The Wikipedia Signpost and a handful of blogs, including this one.
  • The direction of each has caused immense consternation in the community of power users who are conflicted about revisions to the platform, both rumored and launched. Impending changes to Twitter’s character limit and algorithmic order of tweets can be compared to community revolts over several recent software initiatives, especially the Visual Editor debacle, which sought to fundamentally change the nature of editors’ interaction with the site. At present, Wikipedians are anxious to know if this “Knowledge Engine” project is another.
  • For both, the silver lining is that their position is secure so long as arguments are being had there: that people care about what is being said on each website. No matter what ails each one, no competitor is likely to displace them, and their core function is likely to be relevant for the foreseeable future.

Are there lessons for one or the other? I’m not so sure. One conclusion that does occur to me as a longtime Wikipedia editor, observer and fan: how fortunate is Wikipedia to be a non-profit foundation right now! Whatever complaints one may have about Jimmy Wales, and there are many valid ones, his decision to forsake the chance to become “an Internet billionaire” on the back of Wikipedia, as The New York Times once put it, infelicitously, owes significantly to its central role on the Internet today. Had, for example, Wales insisted on monetizing Wikipedia with advertising (something Twitter once, long ago, promised it would never do, and only recently has begun turning off ads for power users) the rest of Wikipedia’s contributors might have walked out the door along with the 2002 “Spanish fork”.

Twitter, on the other hand, was founded by startup veterans who probably never seriously considered doing anything but become Internet billionaires. (For what it’s worth, Dorsey and Williams both achieved this goal.) I come here not to criticize the ambition, but to observe that it hasn’t worked out so well for the platform. In its attempts to generate revenue to match their brand recognition, Twitter has experimented with several different strategies and business models. Unfortunately, these often ran at cross-purposes to what Twitter was good at, as observers from Ben Thompson to Twitter investor Chris Sacca have both written. That it is now publicly traded is a worse headache, and places on it a burden of expectations that may ultimately spell its doom as an independent company.

Fortunately for Wikipedia, it has a clearer notion of what it should be. It is an encyclopedia. Its recent struggles may owe something to the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t always seem to recognize that. Twitter may have largely succeed at becoming “the pulse of the planet” but, for a company whose shareholders expect continuing growth, that isn’t enough.

Wikipedia at 15: How it Played in the Media

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on January 15, 2016 at 7:40 pm by William Beutler

Happy 15th birthday, Wikipedia! As any wiki-watcher surely expected, today’s milestone brought an avalanche of news coverage not seen since, well, the last round number anniversary, when Wikipedia turned ten in 2011. But Wikipedia journalism is hard (take it from me, I know) and when outsider scribes momentarily turn their keyboards to Wikipedia and try to write something meaningful, the results can be decidedly mixed. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at what some major news outlets are saying about Wikipedia today: what they led with, what they weirdly obsessed over, and how they wrapped things up. Let’s go!

♦     ♦     ♦

ABC News, “Wikipedia Gets Another Source of Cash for 15th Birthday”, Michael Liedtke

Lede:[1]Journo-speak, natch

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million articles by its 15th birthday.

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million
articles by its 15th birthday.

Wikipedia is getting another source of cash for its 15th birthday, expanding beyond fundraising drives that have already poured $250 million into the Internet’s leading encyclopedia.

Huh:

Wikipedia’s growth has spurred criticism that its parent foundation has become bloated and doesn’t need to raise so much money.

Upshot:

“We stay very mission-driven,” [Jimmy] Wales said. “One of the things that we are focused on is the idea of having an encyclopedia available for every person in the world in their own language. As you go in that direction, these (requests for money) are some of things you need to do to build that long-term dream.”

The Wikimedia Foundation’s (WMF) announcement earlier this week of its new endowment[2]as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month pays off here, giving journalists a solid hook for a story more substantial than “has it been 15 years already?” and less unpleasant than the troubled times at the WMF HQ in San Francisco. However, points subtracted, ABC News, for quoting Eric Barbour, arguably the least-insightful critic of Wikipedia on the Internet—and that’s really saying something.

♦     ♦     ♦

Washington Post, “Wikipedia just turned 15 years old. Will it survive 15 more?”, Andrew Lih

Lede:

On Jan. 15, Wikipedia officially celebrates 15 years as the Internet’s “free encyclopedia,” cataloging humankind’s achievements in real time and, more importantly, rescuing desperate students facing school assignment deadlines. In that time, it has hastened the end of Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia and supplanted Britannica as the dominant reference work in English. While the digital landscape has changed drastically over the last decade, Wikipedia has not, and still delivers that rare site that strives for neutrality and accuracy, all with no commercial advertisements.

Huh:

Unfortunately for Wikipedia, this global trend toward mobile could have a dramatic effect on the site’s volunteer contributions. Are people going to help edit text articles on mobile devices with tiny on-screen keyboards, or can the Wikimedia movement tap the potential of micro-contributions or use these multimedia-capable handsets for audio, video and photos from the crowd?

Upshot:

[T]echnology is not enough to keep the Wikimedia movement moving forward. Ultimately, Wikipedia was started by and still relies on the efforts of human volunteers. It will only thrive for another 15 years if that community can work cooperatively with the Wikimedia Foundation — and infighting doesn’t splinter the movement.

Good call by the Post to turn over its coverage to longtime editor and commentator Andrew Lih, the author of a 2009 book, The Wikipedia Revolution. Of all the pieces mentioned here, this is by far the most comprehensive, and does an admirable job balancing what’s great about Wikipedia as well as what ails it. Although it’s impossible to read everything written about Wikipedia published today, I feel safe saying if you can only read one column, this should be it.

♦     ♦     ♦

BBC News, “George W Bush tops Wikipedia 15th birthday list”, Zoe Kleinman

Lede:

The English language version of the site, which anyone can edit, has more than five million entries and has been edited around 808 million times.

Huh:

We're still talking about this guy?

We’re still talking about this guy?

A page about former US president George W Bush has attracted the most attention with 45,862 edits since its creation.

Upshot:

[Warwick Business School professor Aleksi Aaltonen:] “As Wikipedia has grown older, it has become progressively more difficult for contributors to improve content. At the same time, Wikipedia’s system of rules has become more burdensome. However, if Wikipedia can maintain its success, it will be remembered as a gift of an open internet that is now under attack from many directions.”

Yesterday, the WMF also published a blog post about the most-edited articles in Wikipedia’s history. So, you can see what’s going on here: many of the poor, beleagured hacks[3]See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried. tasked with writing something about Wikipedia just went to the nearest official source and piggybacked on whatever they were saying. So, nice work Wikimedia comms dept! That said, I could see the Independent or Guardian still being obsessed with George W. Bush all these years later, but et tu, BBC?

♦     ♦     ♦

TIME, “Wikipedia at 15: How the Concept of a Wiki Was Invented“, Lily Rothman

Lede:

Wikipedia went live on Jan. 15, 2001, but the now-omnipresent online reference couldn’t have existed without work that began years earlier, around the the dawn of the World Wide Web.

Huh:

Everybody loves Ward.

Everybody loves Ward.

Looking back, the extent of that sociological phenomenon is surprising even to [wiki-inventor Ward] Cunningham. “The Internet is a much more hostile place,” he says, acknowledging that the site he started in 1995 was a place for “computer people” to talk about computer programming, a context in which open collaboration wasn’t so scary. “They all felt like we were working together. Even so, I thought it was so open to abuse that if it only lasted six months it would still be a nice experiment.”

Upshot:

[H]ard work alone couldn’t have made Wikipedia what it is today. After all, without the collaborative feeling engendered by the wiki technology, it’d be hard to convince people to do that work. Cunningham sums up that allure thus: Before WikiWikiWeb, you might reach the end of a set of linked pages, and that was that. On a wiki, he says, “it says, ‘Now it’s your turn. You tell us.’ It’s an invitation. It says, ‘If you’ve gotten this far, we need your help building this.’”

Well done, Lily Rothman, for tracing Wikipedia’s history all the way back to Hypercard.[4]Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class. Actually, the whole piece is really just an interview with Cunningham, but that’s more than all right. Everyone else was trying to write something “big picture” today, so, kudos to Rothman for picking up the phone and doing something a bit different.

♦     ♦     ♦

Scientific American, “Wikipedia Turns 15 [Q&A]”, Larry Greenemeier

Lede:

It must be difficult for the roughly half a billion people who visit Wikipedia every month to remember a world without the free online encyclopedia. Since co-founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia on January 15, 2001, the site has grown into a behemoth of information with about 35 million articles and 30 million images available in nearly 300 different languages. The English-language Wikipedia site alone features more than five million articles.

Huh:

[Scientific American:] Are you aiming to have a specific ratio of male to female editors for the site?

Upshot:

[Lila Tretikov, in response:] We did research on this in 2013 and a study by researchers Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw estimated that 23 percent of U.S. editors are women and 16 percent of global editors are women. We also try to target special programs on women, for example an education program in Arabic that is 80 percent women. Wikipedia is so diverse, which is why it’s hard to put just one number on it.

Everyone around Wikipedia loves Ward Cunningham, who made everything we do possible, and today is kind of an aloof, avuncular figure far-removed from the controversies constantly swirling around Wikipedia. The same is assuredly not the case with WMF executive director Lila Tretikov, who is deeply unpopular in the non-profit’s headquarters (and a mystery to the thousands of editors who never think twice about what happens in San Francisco). The most interesting part of this interview was the oddly-phrased question about Wikipedia’s difficult gender imbalance, and Tretikov’s accurate but evasive reply that closes the Q&A is barely worthy of a shrug.

♦     ♦     ♦

The Economist, “Wikipedia celebrates its first 15 years”, “A.E.S.”

Lede:

These people didn't mean to launch Wikipedia.

These people didn’t mean to launch Wikipedia.

Fifteen years ago today, on January 15th, 2001, Wikipedia was founded by two internet pioneers, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, although neither had any idea how ambitious their online encyclopedia would become. Today Wikipedia is the tenth most popular website in the world, with versions available in some 280 languages containing around 35m articles. Like the ancient library of Alexandria and Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia published during the Enlightenment, Wikipedia is an ever-evolving manifestation of its creators’ desire to preserve and compile knowledge.

Huh:

Wikipedia was early to anticipate three important digital trends. First, people are willing to participate in global forums for nothing. Wikipedia, which is written and edited by volunteers, was an early social network. Second, Wikipedia saw that the knowledge economy was heading online. In 2012 the “Encyclopedia Britannica” stopped printing and is now only available in digital form. Third, Wikipedia showed the importance of network effects to online ventures: the more people use Wikipedia and write entries, the more helpful it has become. Younger digital firms, like Facebook and Uber, are premised on this same concept.

Upshot:

Wikipedia has other challenges with which to reckon. … However, there is plenty of time. Wikipedia has built up a trove of information and become an invaluable resource to anyone with an internet connection. That is more than any teenager could hope for.

I love The Economist, but you don’t read it for the hot takes—nor the pithy quotes. It’s certainly not a perfect overview, and not even a great one, but if you didn’t have time to read Lih’s in-depth analysis, this wouldn’t do you too badly.[5]Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.

♦     ♦     ♦

The Guardian, “Wikipedia launching $100m fund to secure long-term future as site turns 15”, Stuart Dredge

Lede:

As Wikipedia turns 15, its operator The Wikimedia Foundation is hoping to secure its long-term future with a new endowment fund that aims to raise $100m over the next 10 years.

Huh:

A Google search for “death of Wikipedia” yields more than 72k results, with articles from 2006 onwards predicting that the online encyclopedia was on its way out for various reasons.

Upshot:

“We have a great fundraising model right now, but things on the Internet change so it’s not something we can count on forever,” said The Wikimedia Foundation’s chief advancement officer Lisa Gruwell.

A perfectly serviceable entry in the “big picture” genre, and another win for the timely endowment announcement.

♦     ♦     ♦

Wired, “At 15, Wikipedia Is Finally Finding Its Way to the Truth”, Cade Metz

Lede:

Today, Wikipedia celebrates its fifteenth birthday. In Internet years, that’s pretty old. But “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is different from services like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Though Wikipedia has long been one of Internet’s most popular sites—a force that decimated institutions like the Encyclopedia Britannica—it’s only just reaching maturity.

Huh:

As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.

As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.

If editors were required to provide real names, many would leave the site. And the decline would begin again. Wikipedia is dominated by people who embraced the Internet early, and that kind of person still holds tight to the idea of online anonymity.

Upshot:

Of course, the non-profit setup comes with its own advantages. Wikipedia doesn’t have ads. It doesn’t collect data about our online habits. It gives the power to the people—at least in theory. The result is a source of information that could never be duplicated by a Britannica or a World Book. “There are very few websites that make the world a better place,” [Overstock.com employee and “longtime critic” Judd] Bagley says. “And I’ve come to believe that the world is better off for Wikipedia.”

Wow, does anyone remember the Overstock.com controversy from 2007–8? Cade Metz—who used to cover Wikipedia for the always-antagonistic UK Register[6]aka El Reg—clearly does. Now writing at Wired, Metz is not above repeatedly linking to his old stories at that website, and I guess Wired is cool with that. To be fair, it’s perfectly fine that some of these overviews are hostile, and this one certainly is. And however much Metz has his thumb on the scale, he’s at least done his homework.

♦     ♦     ♦

Wired UK, “How Has Wikipedia Changed In The Last Fifteen Years?”, Emily Reynolds

Lede:

It’s hard to imagine a world before Wikipedia. Saviour of student deadlines everywhere and settler of endless pub arguments, Wikipedia is now a ubiquitous part of the online world. But it’s not been an entirely easy ride — beset by vandalism, Wikipedia has also had to ban users for secretly promoting brands and has been accused of being skewed by “rich, Western voices”.

Huh:

The most striking difference between early and late Wikipedia pages is in tone. Like a traditional encyclopaedia, Wikipedia strives to be neutral in tone and requires articles to be rigorously and extensively referenced. Early pages, often, do not reflect that mission.

Upshot:

This is NOT the most embarrassing photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

This is NOT the most embarrassing
photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

“Spot the Dog showcases Hemingway’s hallmark minimalism: ‘Where’s Spot? Is he under the stars? Is he in the box? No. He’s at the bar. Sipping whiskey. Sucking on cigarettes. Suffering’.” the page stated. Like the iPhone, though, the page has now been reverted to its (less existential) reality.

Wired‘s UK edition opted for a quick look at how certain prominent entries have changed over time, which is a neat idea. OK, that’s all I have to say here.

♦     ♦     ♦

Fortune, “Wikipedia Turns 15. Will It Manage to Make It to 30?”, Matthew Ingram

Lede:

After 15 years, Wikipedia has become one of those Internet services that is so central to the online world that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. Would we go to the library to read physical books? Turn to a printed encyclopedia? Or just trust the information we find through a random web search?

Huh:

Those who have seen inside the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent entity that theoretically manages Wikipedia (to the extent that a massively crowdsourced phenomenon can be managed) say there is a lack of strong leadership. This threatens the organization’s ability to spend money wisely or come up with a coherent long-term vision, they say.

Upshot:

Will Wikipedia be able to survive the turmoil in its management ranks, and broaden its appeal and inclusiveness, while at the same time raising enough money to keep it operating for at least the next decade? The answer to those questions is unknowable. But it is definitely a site worth rooting for, in all of its troubled glory.

Fortune’s piece is another rather critical one, less detailed than that of Lih’s or Metz’s, but more open-minded than the latter. It also wins points for quoting from my post about recent WMF turmoil, not that it influenced my decision to include it or anything.

♦     ♦     ♦

Mental Floss, “15 Things That Share Wikipedia’s Birthday”, James Hunt

Lede:

Part Encyclopedia Britannica, Part Hitchhiker’s Guide, Wikipedia has proven itself an invaluable (and often entertaining) research tool since its creation 15 years ago today. It’s almost hard to imagine what life was like before it became the go-to source for articles on everything from A (the letter of the alphabet) to Zəfəran (the village in Azerbaijan).

Huh:

Our man Sully.

Our man Sully.

January 15th 1967: The first ever Super Bowl is played in Los Angeles, with the Green Bay Packers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. It remains the only Super Bowl that was broadcast simultaneously by two television networks: NBC and CBS.

Upshot:

January 15th 2009: US Airways Flight 1549 makes an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River, shortly after taking off from the nearby LaGuardia Airport. All passengers and crew survive.

Hey, as of this writing, a Chiefs–Packers Super Bowl is possible again this year! (Unlikely, though.) And Sully is the best, amirite?

♦     ♦     ♦

Fusion, “The website that helped you write every paper since 2001 turns 15!”, Sloane Steel

Lede:

Wikipedia, also known as Wiki, (wɪkɨˈpiːdiə / b. 2001), is a free access, free content encyclopedia. On January 14, 2015, Wikipedia celebrated its 15th anniversary (1).

Upshot:

[1] “Fusion Celebrates Wiki Anniversary” (Fusion.net, January 2015)

OK, this isn’t a real overview (it’s a quote graphic[7]Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has. with clever copy), but that’s cool by me. After all, on the advent of Wikipeda’s 10th anniversary I wrote and executive-produced the following video, narrated by Jimmy Wales, which I think holds up well. In fact, is there anything in it that isn’t essentially true today?

Yeah, as Aaliyah said long before Wikipedia was a gleam in Jimmy Wales’ (or Larry Sanger’s!) eye: age ain’t nothing but a number.

All images c/o Wikimedia Commons. In order, copyrights belong to: Andrew Lih; N/A, work of U.S. government; Carrigg Photography; Edward O’Connor; Wikimedia Foundation; Zzyzx11; Ingrid Taylar.

Thanks to Emily Gaudette for research assistance.

Notes

Notes
1 Journo-speak, natch
2 as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month
3 See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried.
4 Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class.
5 Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.
6 aka El Reg
7 Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has.

The Crisis at New Montgomery Street

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:12 pm by William Beutler

Wikipedia officially turns 15 years old at the end of the week.