William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Featured articles’ Category

Adventures in Visual Editing

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on July 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm


It’s a big week for Wikipedia, and maybe a bigger one for its developers. Starting Monday (although I only noticed today, EST) the long-in-the-works Visual Editor rolled out to all registered editors. On the Wikimedia Foundation blog, Philippe Beaudette explains the big deal:

There are various reasons that lead existing and prospective contributors not to edit; among them, the complexity of wiki markup is a major issue. One of VisualEditor’s goals is to empower knowledgeable and good-faith users to edit and become valuable members of the community, even if they’re not wiki markup experts. We also hope that, with time, experienced editors will find VisualEditor useful for some of their editing tasks.

In the past I’ve been a bit of a Visual Editor skeptic—the Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that not knowing how to edit is seventh among readers’ answers for why they don’t edit Wikipedia, cited by only 18% of respondents to the 2011 reader survey. Moreover, one still has to know to click on the “Edit” button to get started. And then there’s a question for which we currently have no empirical evidence: does making it theoretically easier to edit invite more productive contributors, or more troublemakers? We may well get an answer—though it will take time and, of course, more study.

All that said, I’ll be perfectly happy if my misgivings turn out to be misplaced. And today I finally took the thing out for a test drive. The Featured article today is Alec Douglas-Home, the United Kingdom’s prime minister for almost exactly one year in the early 1960s. At first I noticed some double-spaces after periods (or, given the subject matter, full stops) and went to change it. As soon as I clicked “Edit” button (and disappeared the notification pop-up seen at the top of this post) I saw this:


Yeah, OK, that’s an edit page, all right. Upon first impression, I have to say I was wrong about one thing: I was expecting a WYSIWYG editor that was a half-step up from editing code, but was still confined to an undersized edit box. Nope, this is editing right on the page. (Yes, I could have turned on the Visual Editor for awhile yet, but I’ve also become the sort of person who still waits for an album release even once it’s been leaked.)

So I removed the superfluous double-space, and went to hit “Save page”. So here’s my edit summary:


But hey, I came back awhile later, and noticed some joker had changed Douglas-Home’s honorific prefix from “The Right Honourable” to “The Right Bhuval” (?) as pictured here:


So I went to edit again, but this time I got the same old edit window:


What happened? I didn’t realize until later that I’d actually hit “Edit source”, which brings you to the same code-based editing window that Wikipedians have known for more than a decade—and which will surely be the choice of power editors for a long time to come. Alas, I didn’t realize that his first name had also been changed to “Bhuval”, but someone else did step in to fix that before long.

And… that’s my experience with the Visual Editor so far! It’s not much to go on. But I still have a few early takeaways:

  • I’ve been editing Wikipedia for the better part of a decade now, and I still had a bit of trouble. Also, pictured at the top of this post is the new pop-up alerting editors that they have entered the visual editor, which didn’t include a little x-box to close. I wasn’t stymied long, but it’s the experience that counts, right?
  • The Visual Editor really slows down the loading of the edit page. This isn’t any huge surprise, but the length of page loads is a matter of concern, especially considering the Wikimedia Foundation’s conscious push to improve participation in the developing world, where Internet speeds may be slower.
  • It doesn’t seem to work on Talk pages, which is a mixed blessing. As something of a Wikipedia elitist, I think the uninitiated may offer the best help by pointing things out on discussion pages. Then again, Wikipedia discussion pages being “broken” is a whole ‘nother topic.
  • Here’s my optimistic prediction for the Visual Editor: while I don’t see it encouraging significant contributions of quality new material from previous non-editors, I do think it can encourage more edits by those who already edit occasionally, but maybe can’t be bothered to hunt through markup to move a comma.

If the Visual Editor is not for you, here’s what you do: go to “Preferences” in the top right corner, select the “Gadgets” tab, look under the “Editing” header, and check the box which reads: “Remove VisualEditor from the user interface”. Then hit “Save”, and you’re good to go. But I think I’ll let it stand. It’s not a panacea for Wikipedia’s ills, and for complex edits the source code is always only a click away. Besides, I’m always looking for that comma—or superfluous double-space.

Trick or Treat! “The Human Centipede” and the Making of an Unpopular Featured Article

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on October 31, 2011 at 11:08 am

Editors on the English-language Wikipedia often like to choose “Featured articles” (FA)—the best articles Wikipedia has to offer—for appearance on the website’s front page to coincide with relevant dates, including holidays and anniversaries. This is called “Today’s Featured article” (TFA), and while all Featured articles are eligible (and only those articles) it is not automatic and not necessarily a given. For example, two articles shared featured status on the day of the U.S. presidential election in 2008: John McCain and Barack Obama. To coincide with Halloween in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) Wikipedia editors have chosen “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” as the day’s Featured article. And not without some controversy.

If you don’t know what this film about… I suggest that ignorance may in fact be bliss. But the chances are pretty good that you do; “The Human Centipede” is a film that many more people know about than will ever choose to see, so there was more than enough independent coverage to write extensively about it, and there were in fact serious horror fans who were so moved to write it. So it exists. And according to those who have reviewed it closely (I am not one of them) it’s quite well done.

This doesn’t mean everyone was happy that the article was granted Featured status, nor that it was actually chosen to be featured on Wikipedia’s front page. In fact, when it was first nominated for Today’s Featured article—by its originator and chief contributor, Coolug—to coincide with the sequel’s release earlier this month, it didn’t go over so well. One editor replied:

Using Wikipedia’s main page to promote the sequel, which features even more depraved torture of pregnant women, rape of children, etc., would be despicable. The nominator should quickly remove this nomination with an apology (for his own good) and then observe a self-imposed (unofficial) “block” as penance (again for his own good).


Oppose due to my personal belief that this is a disgusting topic, although I think Kiefer goes way too far in suggesting Coolug owes us an apology. He has as much right as anyone to be proud of his efforts and wish to see them on the main page.

And another:

Quite apart from the obvious dubious moral grounds in featuring this article, it also amounts to giving free advertising to The Human Centipede II, a film so questionable in its content that it is actually illegal to supply in the UK. “Highlights” of Centipede II include [Editor’s note: Wow, I’m really not going to quote that here.] I am sorry, but giving the kind of exposure the main page of Wikipedia provides to this apocalyptic level of filth is just not on. I am therefore posting a firm oppose.

So the article was shot down, and Coolug replied:

I suspected this might be the reaction to this nomination, but I thought I would give it a try anyway, oh well never mind 🙂 Maybe in a few months I will try and get a more traditional article on the main page. I’m writing something very boring about the Soviet Union and who knows where that might end up? I didn’t nominate this to try and help Tom Six sell tickets for his horrible sequel, but I can see why editors might see things that way. I must admit I am very amused by the suggestion that by nominating this I am essentially a bad person. Thanks for the comments congratulating me on getting the article to FA by the way.

But with Halloween on the horizon, he tried again, and this time the reaction was not too much warmer—just enough to get it through. The opponents led early:

I restate opposition to featuring Human Centipede on the main page, because its sadistic content and the worse content of its sequel, which includes murdering of a mother, torturing a pregnant woman, etc. A few minutes exposure gave me nightmares, honestly. The British authorities have banned the latter film because it threatens to cause harm to the public.

Second, I believe that everybody but myself stated (some) appreciation for Coolug’s efforts, so it is an exaggeration to say that “his head was handed to him”. Nonetheless, the community overwhelmingly opposed featuring Human Centipede on the main page, with many stating an objection based on its sadism, albeit apologetically, alas. Those objections will remain.

Although it was pointed out:

The Brits reversed their ban on the second film after filmmakers did a little more editing. This article is also not about the second film, but about the first one – thoughts on the content of the second film (or its article here) should not weigh into the decision. Our precedent has not been to wait a year after the release of a sequel to have other movies/video games/tv shows on the main page.

I’d be much more inclined to hold my objections if Human Centipede were on the main page on Halloween instead of a different date. I still wish I’d never read it, but that’s not due to the quality of the article.

And support did emerge:

OK Coolug, I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that you go ahead and nominate this for Hallowe’en. There seems to be some support building for this here, and on your user talk page. While I still think that the subject matter is horrible, it’s a very popular and widely-read article, and it is one of a tiny number of featured articles about horror movies. On Hallowe’en, readers will be less shocked to see the article on the main page, and I think that any concerns about promoting the sequel are even less relevant now that it no longer coincides with the release date. Finally, noting that a precedent exists for articles about distasteful subjects and extreme horror films on the main page, I can offer my support for a nomination in this date context.


Support. Agree with Papa November. Coolug’s article is an accomplishment, well done! Nothing in the article nor the film is distasteful except the concept. Is Wikipedia going to disregard Raul’s (and the general readership of Wikipedia’s) opinion? Are we such prudes that we censor what the public finds fascinating? Halloween is the ideal choice. What else could be such a match? (Most past Halloween choices have been quite boring.)

Not that everyone agreed:

Strong Oppose, on any date The subject matter of the article is frankly extremely disturbing and filthy. I don’t deny that this is out of personal interest. My little sister views Wikipedia’s main page on a regular basis. I don’t want her to see this, and I’m fairly certain that the majority of readers wouldn’t want to read this either. This would also generally reflect very badly on the project.

But if I had to choose one quote that summarizes why the article was approved, it would be this:

I do not oppose the article (or indeed, any article) being banned from TFA [Today’s Featured article] at any point in time. I think it would be insulting to an editor who put so much work into an FA to be told “no, we won’t allow your article on the main page because the subject matter is icky” (which is what this ultimately boils down to), especially when such a thing is anathema to Wikipedia culture.

The point about Wikipedia culture links to a Wikipedia guideline called “Wikipedia is not censored“, which generally means that just because content may be conisdered “objectionable” is not a reason to remove it. Whether that means such material should be actively promoted is another issue entirely.

Other featured articles were suggested for the date, including Bride of Frankenstein and London Necropolis Company (this one would have had my vote) but “The Human Centipede” was on a roll. Today, some opposition is apparent on the article’s discussion page. The heading of one editor’s reply: “On What Planet Did Making This A Featured Article Seem Like A Good Idea?” You have to expand a hidden section to read all of the protest, so I can’t actually link it, but here is one that’s readily visible:

Wow. What a troll. How in the hell did this article become a Featured article? It’s not exactly morally right and this doesn’t make a good impression of Wikipedia to the masses who come here everyday. I hope the (old, resident) Wikipedians here are not becoming weird (if they aren’t already). Please reconsider and remove the Featured article nomination… this has NOTHING to do with Halloween, it is NOT FITTING; the subject of the article isn’t morally right and this kind of stuff shouldn’t be known by young kids who might come here. Oh what have you guys done? :O

And Coolug has set up a page to collect “Human Centipede related hate mail”—although no one has taken up the offer just yet. And has posted a note on his user page explaining the article’s history:

I started this article for a bit of a joke back in 2009 when I had for the most part only really used Wikipedia to mess about with articles and cause general low level mischief. I ended up taking the whole thing a little bit too seriously and out of it somehow became a pretty serious Wikipedian. I suspect this is quite a common editing progression and therefore I’m always loathe to treat the vandals too harshly. We can always revert their rubbish and hey, maybe one day they might write something really good?

After three attempts at FAC [Featured article candidates] this eventually passed, however, the attempt to immediately shove it onto the main page was as predicted an absolute disaster, with one editor observing that I should apologise and then leave Wikipedia temporarily “for (my) own good”.

However, bizarrely quite a few editors thought it would be a good idea to nominate the article again, this time for Halloween 2011. And even more bizarrely, it actually got selected!

You may not care for the subject matter—I’m not planning to read the article, let alone see the film—but I think that makes it all the more interesting a Wikipedia success story.

GLAM Rock: The Wikipedian in Residence and the Race for the Prize

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on June 18, 2010 at 11:47 am

british_museum_cc_temporalataStarting in March, a longtime Wikipedian and co-host of the Wikipedia Weekly podcast, Liam Wyatt, began an unusual experiment: he has become, for a short while at least, a volunteer “Wikipedian in Residence” at the British Museum in London (which I visited in high school and where I touched the Rosetta Stone, when no one was looking, not that you care). It’s the first time such an institution has created such a position (voluntary though this arrangement is) and it points toward a future where organizations with significant cultural material (GLAMs, as this project calls them) may appoint or hire individuals to be representatives or ambassadors to Wikipedia.

Along the way, Wyatt and the British Museum are doing something very interesting: they are offering cash prizes for raising articles to Featured-level status on topics related to the British Museum. From the project page:

The British Museum is offering five prizes of £100 (≈$140USD/€120) at their shop/bookshop for new Featured Articles on topics related to the British Museum in any Wikipedia language edition. Ideally, the topics will be articles about collection items.

This is the first time an organisation in the UK has put out a prize that recognises the value of fine articles on Wikipedia. This is a recognition that Wikipedia work is not only good quality but is consistent with the outreach aspect of the Museum’s mission to engage the public.

It’s an inventive idea, even if some of the rules are a little unclear: it almost sounds like it requires the creation of a brand new article, though that doesn’t seem to be the case. Meanwhile, there are already a dozen or so articles on the English-language Wikipedia currently judged to be Good, B, or C-quality, according to Wikipedia’s internal rating system. Though the prize is pointedly offered in any language edition, most will surely be won in the English, German or French language versions, and at least a few of the aforementioned English articles will be the five ones improved by the winners.

And in keeping with Wikipedia’s “There is no deadline” ethos (related to the concept of “eventualism“), the competition runs until all prizes are claimed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went fast, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that leads to another interesting situation: most quality articles have several major contributors, as was pointed out on a Wikipedia mailing list this week.

the_great_court_mchohanAs Wyatt points out, getting an outside organization to care about “the value of good quality articles on Wikipedia in their own right” is a significant achievement, and the first of a kind. Now that the English-language Wikipedia has grown to include far more articles (3 million) than its veteran editors (a few thousand editing on a daily basis) can possibly handle, more ideas will be needed to generate new content for Wikipedia. Perhaps this represents the next step in the development of the human-powered “content management system” for Wikipedia. Wyatt hopes that other museums will follow in the British Museum’s lead; as someone who works with companies, associations and other organizations that are frequently concerned about how they are represented on Wikipedia, I think outposts for representatives to the Wikipedia community from many organizations can be a good idea, though sorting out the conflict of interest issues is likely to be different for each.

If you’re interested in joining the British Museum contest, you might start with one of the articles discussed above, or find your own in the Collection of the British Museum category. And if you’re looking for a curator at the British Museum to work with, here is the page to do that.

And for more information about Wyatt’s residency, see his personal blog posts here: Part 1: Making Wikipedia “GLAM-friendly”* and Part 2: Making Wikipedia “GLAM-friendly”.

Exterior of British Museum by temporalata on Flickr; Great Hall by M.Chohan.

*GLAM stands for “Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum”; I had to look it up, too.

Wikipedia On Dead Tree Redux

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on June 20, 2009 at 3:31 pm

More than a week ago I posted a photo that’s been making the rounds lately — and even wound up as the basis for a joke on Conan O’Brien this past week — about a student artist who had created a physical book of Wikipedia’s Featured articles, one taking up approximately 5,000 pages. I noted at the time that the explanatory text

Reproducing Wikipedia in a dysfunctional physical form helps to question its use as an internet resource.

wasn’t terribly satisfying to me, and I asked at the time

Would printing all of Google’s search results also question its use as an Internet resource? Would printing an image of a sundial question its use as a physical timekeeping device?

and I resolved to find out more if I could. In fact I did hear back from the book’s creator, Rob Matthews, not long after. When posed with the question above, he responded at first:

I’m comparing the Internet Wikipedia to a traditional encyclopedia, by putting it in the same format, therefore suggesting that Wikipedia is dysfunctional compared to a normal encyclopedia. This is suggested by how I’ve conveyed Wikipedia physically.

I still wasn’t satisfied with this, but after a bit of back and forth, Matthews confirmed that his intention was to point out, compared to a traditional paper-based encyclopedia, it’s less reliable because of its radical openness, or hard to find what’s important among the incomplete and unbalanced articles that exist on the site. Those are my words, but he agreed with this much.

I actually do not agree with this view. Not that I don’t agree there is some truth to the point, because there is, but because I do not actually see how anyone is impeded from finding what they want because of Wikipedia. Moreover, “what’s important” is always in flux, and Wikipedia is a reflection of that.

wikipedia-in-print-rob-matthewsIt’s also nothing new. Those who lament the fact that Wkipedia gives disproportionate coverage to trivial matters — a criticism voiced by none other than Stephen Colbert, who sarcastically riffed on the subject, “any site that’s got a longer entry on ‘truthiness’ than on Lutherans has its priorities straight” — should also recognize that these imbalances are often corrected.

I’ve never been one to take my social commentary from visual art such as painting or sculpture, in significant part because it is rare that an image or an object can convey a subtle point while also succeeding as art. For such a purpose — in this case offering commentary on a subject which is overwhelmingly composed of words — I think nonverbal art is inferior to something like the novel, the essay or even the sitcom.

Even if I thought Matthews had a strong argument about Wikipedia to make, I think this fails as standalone commentary. But if Matthews does actually sell copies of this book, consider me interested (price dependent). Mr. Matthews doesn’t have answers for his questions, but his artwork would make for an excellent conversation piece.

Wikipedia On Dead Tree

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on June 10, 2009 at 6:35 pm

OK, now this is something else — artist Rob Matthews printed all of Wikipedia’s Featured articles as a 5,000 page book. It’s a great image:


Which raises the question — what would a book containing every article from Wikipedia look like?

Meanwhile, Matthews doesn’t offer much explanation for the art or what it is supposed to mean, although he does offer this much:

Reproducing Wikipedia in a dysfunctional physical form helps to question its use as an internet resource.

Hmm… it does? Would printing all of Google’s search results also question its use as an Internet resource? Would printing an image of a sundial question its use as a physical timekeeping device? I love the book as an art piece, but I’m not entirely sold on this point. (No matter what, though, it’s still more constructive than the other Wikipedia art.)

I will drop Mr. Matthews an e-mail and ask both questions — and I’ll update if I find anything out.

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

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on May 3, 2009 at 11:52 am

I’m starting a new occasional series of posts here today — showing what the very first version of different Wikipedia articles looked like, one or two or a few at a time. After all, even the best had to begin somewhere, and it’s highly unlikely that they were delivered to Wikipedia as a fully formed article. This is partly because standards have improved over the years, but also just because of the nature of the wiki — most add just a little at a time, but over time those little bits and pieces turn into a complete article.

The first example is about Radiohead, the favorite rock band of yours truly since The Bends in 1995. The article today is ranked among Wikipedia’s best, and earlier this year was a Featured article, meaning featured on Wikipedia’s main page. But it wasn’t always so. Without further ado, here is the very first version of the Radiohead Wikipedia article from February 7, 2002:

Radiohead, British rock band.

Shot to critical acclaim with their third album, OK Computer, one of the best albums of the late nineties.

Others include:

* Pablo Honey
* The Bends
* OK Computer
* Kid A
* Amnesiac
* I Might Be Wrong (Live recordings)

Other decent artists include PJ Harvey, U2, Nirvana, and more recently, Ryan Adams.

Seriously, Ryan Adams? (Note: The original title for this post was I Might Be Wrong.) The notion that Nirvana, U2 or Radiohead may only be “decent” artists is amusing, too.

You may have also noticed that this version of the article would absolutely violate Wikipedia’s NPOV guideline, which proscribes editors from injecting their own opinions into Wikipedia articles, as it stands today. But it would also have run afoul of the much simpler guideline as it existed then, under the principal authorship of Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and The Cunctator, an editor who is one of Wikipedia’s most veteran.

I undoubtedly agree that OK computer is one of the best albums of the late 1990s, and so this is present in the article as attributed to the music critics who said so, and in the section header which currently reads:

OK Computer, fame and critical acclaim (1996–1998)

That works for me.

The Fix is In

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on March 6, 2009 at 8:44 am

Today’s Featured article on the English Wikipedia covers an interesting subject, and one that is recently relevant as well:


As you may remember, the fix was necessary for Senator Hillary Clinton to become Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and this is well-covered in the section titled “21st century.” But here’s my favorite part:

These pay raises were by executive order in accordance with cost of living adjustment statutes, as noted by legal scholar Eugene Volokh on his blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.[54] Before the January 2009 pay increases, secretaries made $191,300 and senators and congressmen earned only $169,300.[59]

If you know anything about the Verifiability guideline, one of the things you probably know is that blogs are nearly always disallowed as a “self-published source.” But the usage of Volokh’s writing on his widely-celebrated group blog falls well within the scope of this guideline:

Self-published material may, in some circumstances, be acceptable when produced by an established expert on the topic of the article whose work in the relevant field has previously been published by reliable third-party publications.

Check, and check. As a longtime fan if intermittent reader of The Volokh Conspiracy, I think Eugene Volokh’s admittance as a source on this rigorously-evaluated article — and not just once but in fact five times — is pretty cool.