William Beutler on Wikipedia

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History in the Making: The Tumblr That Explains Where Wikipedia Articles Come From

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on December 10, 2014 at 8:15 am

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, as the shopworn phrase goes, and it’s a clever one, but it’s never seemed quite right to me. Daily journalism is the reportage of events which may or may not be deemed worthy of reflection and remembrance; it’s in the subequent commentaries and essays—and even supposedly neutral online encyclopedias—where “History” begins to come together.

So I’m with John Overholt, a curator at Harvard’s Houghton Library, who launched a “concept Tumblr”[1]I’m coining that, by the way as a personal project, earlier this fall, devoted to the first version of Wikipedia entries: First Drafts of History. The idea is dead simple and all but infinitely replicable: for every subject Wikipedia covers, there was once a first version of this entry—and it’s just three clicks away from any Wikipedia article, so long as you know which three[2]“View history” > “Oldest” > First time-stamped entry.

That’s where Overholt began, as he told me last month: “I was suddenly struck by how interesting and unusual it is that Wikipedia’s entire (or mostly so) history is easily available and that you can peel back the layers of each article to its genesis. As someone with a keen interest in history, that’s very appealing to me, and I was curious to know what the articles were like in those early stages.”

Radiohead on WikipediaFunny enough, this is close to an idea that I once started to explore, in a post on this very site. Way back in May of 2009 I copied the text over from the first version of the entry about the rock band Radiohead and used it to muse about how Wikipedia’s standards have changed. I announced it as the first in a series, but I never did it again. Ideas are cheap, execution is what matters, and Overholt is executing it like crazy. Every day he posts screen shots with links to the the article and first version every single day, often matching entries to the calendar (Black Friday (shopping) on November 28) or focusing on pop culture goofery (Metal umlaut).

And looking back at the origins of entries reveals something about where Wikipedia came from. The second paragraph of the first Merlot article describes the varietal in three succinct sentences before concluding: “Merlot is also the name of an XML Editor….:-).”

Very, very early early articles, such as the first draft about Venezuela, are just one sentence. Others are written in in shorthand, omitting direct references to subject in a long-abandoned style, i.e. Putin: “Born October 7, 1952… KGB officer from 1975 to 1992…” and so forth.

iPhone on WikipediaIt also offers glimpses into recent-but-forever-ago history, when Facebook was Thefacebook.com, and the iPhone was just a nickname for an Apple partnership with Motorola (later redirected to Motorola ROKR, at least for a time), then rendered “IPhone” due to limitations of the software. This first concludes: “Note of author : please rewritting my article in a correct english. thank you”

I asked Overholt what his take on all of this was, and I’ll do no better than by quoting him at length:

Obviously it’s funny when articles have a really eccentric start, or a tone that’s very different from the standard style of Wikipedia today, but the thing I’m really struck by is how ambitious and difficult a task it is to think about, in essence, organizing all knowledge. It’s a problem that historians and philosophers have grappled with for centuries. I was tickled by the Pastrami article I posted the other day, which had the edit summary “What can one say about pastrami?” What indeed! But the important thing is thinking to say anything about pastrami at all. The genius of Wikipedia is that it didn’t really stop to solve the overarching problem of how to organize all knowledge first (because it’s all but unsolvable) but rather decided, “Well, we’ll just start with something, and hopefully make that something better little by little.” So even if the first draft of an article is terrible, it’s already done the very hardest thing just by existing.

What else I think is important about it Pastrami on Wikipediais that it might help to demystify the Wikipedia process, even if just a bit. Many readers have no idea how articles or written, and few probably ever think about what they once looked like, or what the best version may be.

An example I’ve considered with friends: do you prefer the version of the Wikipedia article Dog from 2014 or the article Dog from 2004? I’ll still take today’s entry for a number of reasons, but a decade ago it was arguably more accessible, and about one-quarter the size.

It makes you wonder: what should a Wikipedia article be? What’s the ideal Wikipedia article? The answer to that has changed over time, and probably will keep changing so long as it’s an active project. Reminding readers that Wikipedia once was very different is a good way to remind them that it can still be better.

All images ultimately via Wikipedia.org; first and third courtesy of Overholt.


1 I’m coining that, by the way
2 “View history” > “Oldest” > First time-stamped entry

I Like Wikipedia Articles that Mention Abercrombie & Fitch

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on February 17, 2014 at 4:53 pm

The February 17 print edition of New York Magazine contains a profile of the notorious, once all-conquering, now-struggling mall-based U.S. clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, with particular focus on its longtime CEO, Mike Jeffries, now under fire as the company’s fortunes have declined.

Besides the company’s controversial public image—once cultivated and considered an asset, now perceived as turning into a serious liability—the article discusses its origins in the 19th century as a supplier of supplies for Most Interesting Men in the World, followed by a long mid-century decline, and then late-century emergence as a major apparel and pop culture force. It’s an interesting business profile as far as that goes, and largely an unflattering one. But it’s the very last paragraph that stuck with me, for reasons to become apparent shortly:

“I guarantee you, we’re already to the point where that resurgence in the nineties is a Wikipedia talking point,” says [industry observer Brian] Sozzi. “What we’ll remember Jeffries for now is for failing to change, for all the store closures, for the way employees were treated. And that’s unfortunate.”

Nothing major here, I just find it amusing that “a Wikipedia talking point” is how the interviewee chose to describe the company’s onetime glory—at one time the most salient fact of its existence—is described in relation to how it is depicted on Wikipedia.

I am also amused by the notion that Wikipedia has “talking points”, although I realize the term is used casually. The fact that Mr. Sozzi almost certainly used the phrase without deep consideration of how Wikipedia may have something to suggest about how the public views the information Wikipedia makes available, although I realize it may only suggest something about how Mr. Sozzi views Wikipedia.

Let’s do the obvious thing, and see what Wikipedia has to say (as of mid-February, 2014). From the History section:

In 1976, Abercrombie & Fitch filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, finally closing its flagship Manhattan store in 1977.[6] The name was revived shortly thereafter, when in 1978, Oshman’s Sporting Goods, a Houston-based chain, bought the defunct firm’s name and mailing list for $1.5 million[7] … Finally, in 1988, Oshman’s sold the company name and operations to The Limited, a clothing-chain operator based in Columbus, Ohio.[9]

The current version of A&F sells mostly clothes for the youth market, and describes its retailing niche as an aspirational “Casual Luxury” lifestyle brand.[10]

Especially since 1997, the company has consistently kept a high-profile in the public eye, due to its advertising, its philanthropy, and its involvement in legal conflicts over branding, clothing style and employment practices.

Interesting that, while it is consistent with Mr. Sozzi’s description, this is actually not a detail in Wikipedia—let alone a talking point.

I Swear I Had Something For This

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on January 23, 2013 at 11:15 am

Archer, the TV series that’s like an animated Arrested Development-meets-James Bond returned to U.S. airwaves last week. A discussion of the debut episode on Slate reminded me of an interview with the AV Club last year in which he revealed superspy Sterling Archer’s secret weapon:

AVC: Did you do any research into modern piracy?
AR: I did. One of my weird things is that I constantly, constantly use Wikipedia on these Archer scripts. If a bad guy draws a gun on Archer, I start thinking, “What kind of gun would this guy have? Let’s go look… What’s a creepy, weird, sort of rare gun?” And I’m on Wikipedia looking up Mauser C96 pistols, and then click, click, click, click, and I’m reading about Family Feud, and just hours go by. So I did actually read a lot about pirates, old and new, but especially the new pirates.

A new fragrance by Calvin Klein?

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on January 16, 2013 at 4:00 pm

From Best of Wikipedia Sandbox


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on January 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm

April Fools’ Day is still about 2 1/2 months off, but Wikipedians are already planning for the big day. Every year, editors who maintain the front page arrange for silly, sometimes misleading, and even mildly offensive articles to run during the 24-hour period covering April 1st. But as we noted in April 2011, not everyone is happy that such a serious project as Wikipedia, one focused on curating the world’s knowledge, spends one day per year kind of, sort of, doing the opposite. And as of today, there’s a thread on Jimbo Wales’ Talk page hosting a debate on the practice. This time in the mix: whether the juvenile pranks contribute to Wikipedia’s noted gender imbalance. Best comments so far: from female editors standing up for “women’s ability to both use and appreciate dirty or giggle-inducing language”.

30 for 30 (Divided by Ten)

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on May 25, 2012 at 4:46 pm

In Slovenian, the traditional name for the month of May translates to “the month when plants grow”, or so Wikipedia tells me. It’s apt then—if not altogether insufferable as a metaphor—that this month three “seedlings” I recently planted have all blossomed.

Horse ebooks Wikipedia article

First up is something I am almost embarrassingly prideful about: that I will go down in history as the person who created the Horse ebooks Wikipedia article. (The what, you ask? Read the article!)

Considering the meteoric rise to Internet fame of the Horse ebooks Twitter account—without a doubt, the most followed and most beloved Twitter spam account of all time—it’s rather surprising that when I first looked in late April, no such article existed. So, I wrote it. The article debuted on May 5, and graced Wikipedia’s front page with its presence—in the “Did you know” section—on May 12.

Read the Wikipedia article, follow the Twitter account, and then buy the T-shirt (note: I have no deal with the sellers, except that I did buy the shirt). And then take sides in the debate over whether the magic is gone since its automation became a subject of disagreement.

Best of Wikipedia Sandbox Tumblr screenshot

Another fun project that has taken off this month is The Best of Wikipedia:Sandbox, a Tumblr account.

There are many Tumblrs like it, but this one is mine. In fact, there are other Tumblrs about Wikipedia, including Best of Wikipedia, [Citation Needed], and—if you know Tumblr, you know this is coming—Fuck Yeah Wikipedia!

Ostensibly Wikipedia:Sandbox is a place to test edits and check formatting, but that’s not all it gets used for. What started out as a joke among my colleagues—sharing screen caps of the ridiculous things we’d seen in the Sandbox—has transformed into a Tumblr to share these largely unknown and unappreciated comic gems with the world. The Sandbox is an unlikely repository for strange world views, faceplam-worthy test edits, and—since this is the Internet—cat pictures.

I’ve saved the biggest announcement for last… this month I launched what is essentially my second Wikipedia-related website: Beutler Wiki Relations. Yes, it’s a business website.

Although I rarely write about my consultancy much here, close readers of The Wikipedian are likely aware that one of my professional focuses (focii?) is helping brands, companies and individuals work constructively with the Wikipedia community to improve articles. I’ve never sought to draw attention to this—and indeed, when I appeared on C-SPAN this January, the subject only came up briefly. But I feel like it’s worth posting a simple website explaining myself to skeptical Wikipedians and, sure, potential clients alike. Closer readers may recall the phrase “wiki relations” from my post about the Bell Pottinger mess, and how it could have been avoided.

Although “conflict of interest” and “paid advocacy” on Wikipedia remain contentious topics, I think it’s more important than ever to make them seem less mysterious. It won’t stop the Bell Pottingers, but it may stop people from hiring them to mess with Wikipedia.

And yes, I realize I have a conflict of interest in saying that. Can’t avoid it; might as well own it. Or as Horse ebooks says: “Discover the usefulness of wax.”

Disambiguate This!

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on April 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm

If the Wikipedia article titled “Wikipedia in culture” is to be believed, the free, online encyclopedia’s primary contribution to popular culture is as a humorous reference, particularly in U.S. cable television programming.

Topic-wise, sometimes the joke relates to Wikipedia’s uneasy relationship to education, including T-shirts featuring leaping graduates thanking Wikipedia. More often than not, Wikipedia’s uneven reliability is the joke, such as The Onion’s classic 2006 article: “Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence”.

If it has had any noticeable linguistic impact (aside from debate over the meaning of “Santorum”) it is probably in the phrase “Citation needed”. But the word that I wish Wikipedia could popularize is:


It’s a perfectly cromulent word, and can be found in the dictionary (or at least on Dictionary.com), apparently dating to the 1960s, and unsurprisingly means:

to remove the ambiguity from; make unambiguous

And yet it’s not a word that I can recall having seen prior to Wikipedia, even though I have a degree in English and very nearly earned one in journalism. In a world of ambiguity, what more could we want than disambiguation to help us understand what’s real, and what matters? Well, maybe therein lies the problem: there are no easy diambiguations in the real world. But are they so easy, even on Wikipedia?

If you don’t know what disambiguation is, it’s pretty simple. Wikipedia has articles about many people named John Smith, most real and even some fictional. So many, I’m not even going to bother counting. Because no John Smith is considered vastly more famous than the other, none of them gets this URL:

Nope, that’s the disambiguation page, where one can find, among many others:

And, for fans of The A-Team, there is also:

In many cases, a word will have one primary meaning, and then multiple secondary uses. This is when the parenthetical expression “(disambiguation)” comes in. One example:

Typically, articles requiring some form of disambiguation require a “disambig” note at the top of the page (called a “hatnote”). Frequently, the phrasing is “Not to be confused with…” and here is one example, which I enjoy more than most:

McGraw-Hill disambiguation

As you may expect, there is a lengthy guideline detailing how disambiguation pages are to be governed. But on a website where not everyone knows the rules, nor does everyone agree about the relative importance of similarly-named subjects, there can be some glitches. This is especially true when one is being implored by unknown advisers “not to be confused by” a deceptively unrelated topic.

One errant disambiguation comes to mind immediately, because I’m the one who undid it.

First, Bob Dole should well-known to any American over the age of 25, if not for being the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, then perhaps for that one Pepsi ad with Britney Spears. Meanwhile, Robert Dold is a U.S. congressman from Illinois, whom I had never heard of until very recently, although I live in DC and have worked in and around U.S. politics for a decade. (Dold has only been in Washington since 2010, so there’s that.)

Then what explains the admonition not to confuse this:

With this:

Yeah, I didn’t get it either. So I removed the unnecessary disambiguation from Dole’s page, and I seriously doubt anyone has been wondering “What about Bob (Dold)?

There are other interesting unbalances, however often more justified. As I recently tweeted:

Joe Plummer vs. Joe the Plumber on Wikipedia

Indeed, compare this:

With this:

But I’m sure that’s right. Joe the Plumber is far better known, following his stint as the semi-official mascot of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, than is Joe Plummer, who is probably a swell guy and earns bonus points from me for being from Portland. And with Mr. the Plumber now the Republican nominee to challenge Rep. Marcy Kaptur this fall, it’s looking even dimmer. Sorry, Joe (the Plummer).

But in the world of interesting disambiguations, undoubtedly this one is my favorite:

At least it doesn’t tell you to not to be confused.

USA Congressional Staff Edits to Wikipedia: The Saga Continues

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on April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Last week I was asked by Politico’s Marin Cogan to provide some commentary about a situation on Wikipedia whereby a congressional staffer had tampered with her boss’ entry. This became “Rep. David Rivera’s war with Wikipedia” in last Thursday’s paper.

As the article explained, David Rivera’s press secretary, Leslie Veiga, had created an account using her real initials and last name (otherwise, she would’ve gotten away with it) in order to delete a number of negative subjects from the entry and replace them with conspicuously favorable language. Both actions are officially discouraged by site policies, but no official action was needed: the changes were rolled back, the offending account was issued a warning, and the unhelpful editing activity ceased.

Now a new section about the incident has been added to Rivera’s article, although its inclusion has been disputed (Wikipedia dislikes self-referentiality unless unavoidable, and its relevance to Rivera’s overall career is unclear) so it’s not necessarily there “forever,” as Gawker suggested. Then again, as I told Cogan: “All Wikipedia aims to do is reflect what is public knowledge and has been widely reported.” And it seems to have been covered widely enough.

As hinted above, the cynical view is that Veiga’s biggest mistake was the one thing that was laudable about her actions: her transparency. The truth is that she could have been transparent and made helpful suggestions in accordance with Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guideline… but this requires much more knowledge about Wikipedia than most staffers have. (As Politico mentions, I deal with this subject professionally and written about how it can be done it properly.) And none of this is new: the fact of congressional staff editing Wikipedia was first widely reported in early 2006 and is now memorialized in the Wikipedia article “USA Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia”.

What most staffers seem to do instead is what most uninitiated contributors do, and that is edit without creating an account, thereby displaying their IP address. The U.S. House and U.S. Senate have dedicated IP addresses serving members’ offices on Capitol Hill (I used to think there was a single IP address for each, but now I’m not so sure; if anyone knows for sure, please speak up in the comments). As Cogan writes:

The House IP address … frequently shows up in the edit histories of members, committees and constitutional amendments. Wiki editors repeatedly blocked the House IP for limited periods of time until 2009, when they apparently gave up the effort.

By following these edit histories, you can make some guesses about which offices might be doing the same as Rivera’s staffer. To be clear: most of these edits are not so blatantly self-serving as were Veiga’s; most are only mildly self-serving, such as the staffer from Rep. Jimmy Duncan’s office, who apparently tried to add his Facebook page and YouTube channel (for which one could actually make a decent case, but few know to do) only to be reverted and warned.

The Talk page associated with the IP address is also enlightening (that’s how I found the Duncan edits) and sometimes amusing; this comment (under the header “Wow”) is my favorite:

Look at all those edits of mudslinging your opponents and painting yourselves in some golden light. I expected better from our government.

Uh huh… right. And of course there is the page listing all contributions made from the House IP address, where one can find all manner of subjects that Hill staffers are interested in, besides just their bosses. Among non-political recent edits:

As you can see by the repetition of collegiate topics, one may surmise that more than a few are largely concerned with themselves. One edit from late March was undoubtedly self-centered: Congressional staffer. But their bosses do seem to be among the greatest focus. And about the fact that, in late March, edits were made to the article titled Liar, perhaps the less said the better.

P.S. Just over two years ago, I covered this topic in a post titled “Did Rep. Hinojosa Get a Free Pass on Biased Wikipedia Edits?” (Yes, for awhile.)

P.P.S. Just over one year ago, I had an article published in Campaigns & Elections’ Politics Magazine about very nearly the same topic: edits made by political campaigns, how they are most often bad and some pointers about how to make them good.

No Citation Needed, Mr. Vice President

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on April 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Friend of The Wikipedian Howard Mortman points us to this laugh out loud moment from a memorial service for longtime Washington Post columnist David Broder, featuring the always hilarious Joe Biden, courtesy of Wikipedia and C-SPAN:

Although the headline says “no citation needed” in fact there is one: to a New York Times profile of the (then-future) vice president, by one John Broder (no relation).

Wiki Fools!

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on April 1, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Like other prominent websites and organizations (notably Google) Wikipedia likes to play harmless pranks on its users each April 1, and has every year since 2004. The first year, the notoriously deletion-happy (well, arguably) Wikipedia community took votes on whether to delete the Wikipedia main page. And though the vote for deletion was overwhelming, of course no such action was taken.

These days, some pranks are user-facing: Wikipedia now writes a humorous summary of a real article for its Featured article of the day, and in a nod to last fall’s controversial banner ads (well, less arguably) featuring Jimmy Wales, today they took it a step further:

Wikipedia April Fool's joke, 2011

Although obviously worked out ahead of time, it still prompted a few long-ish discussions on the Talk page associated with Wikipedia’s Main Page. The descriptive title of one: ““Disgraceful. Keep the April Fools Day jokes off Wikipedia!” This particular not-unreasonable argument went like this:

We are supposed to be a website of information, not mis-information. Aprils Fool’s Day is not a cultural universal and it is confusing to international visitors. It’s hard enough reading in a second-plus language let alone deciphering humor and sarcasm. Leave silliness to less important websites. Call me old fashion [sic] and boring but Wikipedia is supposed to be above such triteness.

The best answer, at least regarding the joke Featured summary, came from editor JTalledo:

Eh. We get into this debate every April 1st. It used to be a lot worse, when actual misinformation was placed on the main page. I remember one year there was a faux announcement about Wikipedia being sold to Britannica, resulting in an admin edit war. The current compromise involves intentionally misleading prose explaining actual facts. … Serious events have happened and continue to happen on April 1 and they’re often slighted in the Main Page hijinks. Personally, I think it’s one of those things that goes against the previously stated aim of trying to achieve Britannica quality or better. But hey, it’s popular, so what are you gonna do?

Yep, that sounds right. April Fool’s Day may not be universal, but it certainly is international, especially in English-speaking countries. And because Wikipedia runs on Greenwich Mean Time, it’s gone already.

P.S. Wikipedia also maintains a list of well-known April Fool’s pranks, and it could use some assistance.

Wikipedia’s Endless Pool Party (Not Quite What it Sounds Like)

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on February 16, 2011 at 11:26 am

There’s no longer a question of whether the English-language Wikipedia will hit the four million article mark: only when. While new topics may become increasingly difficult to come by, five, six million or more articles is not out of the question. And when Wikipedians are not busy working on making that happen, sometimes they like to place guesses on when those things will happen. If you visit Wikipedia’s vast backstage, you can find several current and past betting pools these milestones and others through the years.

One of the first was the Half-million pool, in June 2004, in which several dozen editors took part. When Wikipedia passed 500,000 articles on March 17, 2005 the winner (an active Wikipedian to this day) had guessed March 18, narrowly beating another who had guessed March 15. Since then, more recent pools have focused on landmarks including the Million pool (passed March 1, 2006) and the 300-million edits pool (a matter of dispute, but certainly in 2009). Though there are just more than 3.5 million articles today, if you’d like to guess when Wikipedia’s four-millionth article will be created… I’m afraid you’re out of luck. No further guesses were taken after February 2010.

Among pools still open, one of two versions of the Five-million pool is still open, as is the Ten-million pool and the Twenty-million pool. In the latter category, one unlucky soul guessed 2007, several picks would have this achievement within the next decade, but more have placed their bets in the 2015-2025 range, and more still in the 2026-2100 range. A few have placed their bets on “Never”; time will tell… or not.

There are some more outlandish pools as well, including something like a dead pool: the Last topic pool. What will be the last article created on Wikipedia? There are some swell guesses; among my favorites are: “2100 Wikimedia server room fire” and “Why the zombies won”.

Want in on the fun? You can test your powers of prediction at Wikipedia:Pools. And if you do win, what exactly do you win? Is there any money involved here? Alas, no. Each page makes sure to note: “The person who comes closest to the actual date is the winner (of eternal fame).”

Photograph by Finlay McWalter, via Wikipedia.

What’s With All Those Banners

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on November 20, 2010 at 5:36 pm

If you’ve visited Wikipedia during the second week of November 2010 (and I’ll wager you have) you’ve no doubt seen the bearded mug of one Jimmy Wales staring back at you from one of several banners placed across the top of the article you wanted to read.

Not everyone is happy to see them:

Do you feel violated but can’t quite figure out why? Perhaps it’s the gargantuan banner atop all Wikipedia articles these past few days that feature the mug of none other than Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales pleading for some money.

Yes, they are a little annoying and, if you really hate them, there is the little [X] box in the corner you can click to make them go away. But in this fourth year of fundraising by the Wikimedia Foundation (which oversees Wikipedia and its sister projects) this kind of reaction is nothing new. Even in 2008, Gawker covered that year’s campaign with a characteristically unfriendly tone. This year, some of the complaints are more amusing. Here are two of the family-friendlier screen shots of actual Wikipedia articles going around Facebook and other parts of the Internets:



On the other hand, if you absolutely love seeing Jimmy Wales at the top of every Wikipedia page, well, now you can see him on every page on the entire Internet.

While the fundraiser formally launched on November 15, the banners started running on some pages since the 12th, and even before that, for reasons of testing. You might find being stared at by Jimmy Wales a little disconcerting, but there’s a reason Wikipedia is using them—they tested better than the other options.

Billed as “the fundraiser you can edit”, for this year’s campaign the Wikipedia community was invited to come up with banner ideas, and these were tested alongside the “Jimmy” banner. Volunteers were challenged to “Beat Jimmy” and produce a banner that would have a higher clickthrough rate. Almost 900 people got involved in the process.

In the banner message testing itself, four contenders rolled out onto Wikipedia for limited testing:

  • The Jimmy banner which had 1537 individual donations
  • Thanks for the brain massage which received just 19 donations
  • You depend on Wikipedia for information. Now it depends on you which received 99 donations
  • Admit it: without Wikipedia you never could have finished that report which had 140 donations

As you can see, it wasn’t much of a contest. That negative reaction some people have when they see Jimmy Wales? Well, at least it’s a reaction. For better or worse, Jimmy Wales is the unofficial mascot of Wikipedia, and that means he’s its biggest fundraising mascot.

For further details on how the banner featuring Wales stacked up against other tested options, check out the Banner testing project page. For a visual representation, see this David “Information is Beautiful” McCandless infographic (which seems to be better than his last one (update: per the comments, apparently not)).

This year the goal is to raise $16 million, the Foundation’s biggest target to date. That’s roughly the same amount of money the Foundation spent last year, of which $1 million alone went to web hosting. It’s also far less than the budget of the other top 10 global websites, as Wikipedians have pointed out. In the coming year, the Wikimedia Foundation plans to expand operations—including a new office in India—and hire 44 new staffers (there are 40 now). That’s a pretty incredible growth rate, one more like that of the other top 10 global websites. Whether that is a good idea at all has been the subject of debate on the blog of a Wikipedia contributor.

So, you should expect those fundraising banners to last through December, at least. But once the fundraising goal has been met, they won’t necessarily go away—they’ll just refocus. Once that happens, the banner space will start asking readers to contribute to Wikipedia with their knowledge, i.e. to start editing themselves. While the money is important, it’s the time and effort of volunteers that really makes Wikipedia work. Yes, you can click that [X] box anytime you want, and Jimmy will go away. But it’s probably worth leaving them up for now, to see what comes next.

Much Ado About Malamanteau

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on May 18, 2010 at 8:29 am

XKCD is a web comic written for math majors, web developers and related sub-groups classifiable as “nerds” by Randall Munroe, whom one presumes falls into one or more of the above categories. Among Munroe’s favorite topics is Wikipedia, and a few of his panels — “The Problem with Wikipedia” and “Wikipedian Protester” — are classics, inasmuch as a comic strip about a website can be so considered. Last week Munroe published a new panel cartoon about Wikipedia, reprinted below in accordance with Creative Commons:

I’m not sure I quite got this one, so I turned to a website called Toby, Dave & Ian Explain XKCD for their take:

The Author, a well-known fan of Wikipedia, has squeezed yet another joke from its bountiful bosom. This particular joke uses the clever linguistic trick of “word-play” as well as “meta-humor” to derive a new word: malamanteau. Malamanteau is a combination of the words “malapropism” (the substitution of a word for a word with a similar sound) and “portmanteau” (the combination of two words).

The creation of this new word or “neologism” is particularly humorous as the methods used to create it are the very words used in the process. This is called a meta or “self-referential” joke.

That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, either. XKCD Sucks, a similar blog with a somewhat different mandate, stated:

Today’s xkcd comic genuinely mystifies me. I’d like you to try to imagine me writing the following post (the beginning of it, at least) with a more honest voice, not the sarcastic one I usually employ. Today’s comic asks us a question: “Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?” And the thing is, I haven’t. I have never noticed that. Have you? … what word is he even referring to? It can’t be “Malamanteau,” since that isn’t a real word and isn’t on wikipedia (though of course some xkcdicks tried.

As much as I enjoy XKCD on occasion, this take made more sense. And indeed, someone did try to create a Wikipedia article for Malamanteau:

What followed was a debate, running to nearly 19,000 words, over what to do about it. Wikipedia has a clear guideline against the creation of articles about neologisms, and even most words unless there is more to be said than a dictionary entry might. In these cases, the term should become an article at Wiktionary, but having a Wiktionary article just isn’t the same, and in any case “Malamanteau” isn’t ready for that, either.

The discussion of what to do about Malamanteau ultimately was not about whether to have an article about the term — that was right out — but whether to create a “redirect” so that people who search for the term will find themselves on the Wikipedia article about XKCD. The best argument against creating the term is perhaps the first:

The target article holds no relevant information on the term currently, thus this redirect only serves to confuse. XKCD readers already know this originated there, thus with no relevant information on the target article, the redirect is purposeless. Non-XKCD readers who somehow find the term and search it won’t find any information on it at all, and will only become more confused.

And some of the arguments for keeping the term could be described as willfully encouraging Wikipedia to undermine its own goals:

Wikipedia’s editors are high on their own farts. Comics like the one that led to this redirect make that point, and the ensuing discussion drives it home expertly. Of course it will be deleted – why would the project suddenly have a sense of humor about itself, or allow contributions that encourage everyone’s involvement, rather than that of an elite few who “take the project seriously enough” to be endowed with its protection?

At least some of the votes to delete the redirect are based more on annoyance than anything else: because “Malamanteau” is supported by people who do not have Wikipedia’s best interests at heart, there is no reason to grant such leeway. Hence some editors weighing in to say: “Delete with a vengeance” and “Delete and salt” — as in salting the earth to prevent someone from recreating it again.

But in the end, the redirect stuck. The editor who closed the discussion explained at length; to the lay reader unfamiliar with the finer points of Wikipedia’s guidelines, here are the facts that mattered:

The threshold for a term being a redirect is substantially and intentionally lower than that for a separate article. As several keep !voters pointed out, redirects are supposed to be from any useful search term or likely mistake, to the proper destination. The traffic indicates that, while falling off by as much as 75% a day, the term “Malamanteau” has plenty of search traffic during its short life to establish that it is useful to some people. … Since XKCD maintains past archives of all its strips, it is likely that traffic will continue to seek this term even after this week’s furor has died down.

In fact, this isn’t even the first time Munroe has used his comic strip to poke at tender spots in Wikipedia’s organizing rule structure.

While there are many editors who feel that this only causes unnecessary problems — 19,000 words over a lousy redirect? — I think the better case to be made is that Wikipedia’s long-term success lies in a carefully considered approach to site policies. To the extent that Wikipedia’s policies are explored by outsiders and explained by insiders, this is a good thing. But it’s still a pain in the ass.

Examples of Bias in Conservapedia’s Examples of Bias in Wikipedia

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on November 14, 2009 at 3:07 pm

conservapedia_logoI can’t say that I spend much time thinking about Conservapedia, the creationist wiki created as a counterpoint to Wikipedia, but today I happened to find myself on the page titled “Examples of Bias in Wikipedia“. As you might expect, it’s a fun one. The one-line introduction to the page states:

The following is a growing list of examples of liberal bias, deceit, frivolous gossip, and blatant errors on Wikipedia.

It certainly is growing. The list of examples stands at 150 and counting as of this writing, and it defies easy summary. Many relate to disagreements over the portrayal of religion and use of international or non-U.S. standards, or complaints that certain details they find important have not been included on certain pages. For example, one of the most recent (#150) states:

Wikipedia’s Nidal Malik Hasan article fails to mention any connection to Obama’s transition government.

It’s true that Hasan participated in a task force associated with a GWU think tank that offered advice to Obama’s transition team. In fact, the detail has been considered for inclusion on the article about Hasan. Maybe something about it will be, however if it does it will surely fail to imply… whatever it is that this factoid is supposed to imply.

And then there are some objections (#2) that would never have occurred to me:

Wikipedia’s article on engineering features a photo of … an offshore wind turbine, which is an inefficient liberal boondoggle and certainly not a representative example of engineering. None even exist off the shores of the United States because they are not competitive.

Actually, as of today there is no such photograph in that particular article. Victory for Conservapedia! As it happens, there are other cases where the Conservapedia perspective has “won”; here (#45) is another:

Wikipedia has once again deleted all content on the North American Union. The old pages are inaccessible, and re-creation is blocked.

Turns out, there is now a North American Union article, and has been since December 2007, following a period where it indeed had been deleted. This was certainly in error, as the concept has received plenty of coverage — the article has nearly 50 sources.

And then there are some examples (#14) which are not, in fact, genuine examples:

In his article entitled Wikipedia lies, slander continue, journalist Joseph Farah supports his observation that Wikipedia “is not only a provider of inaccuracy and bias. It is wholesale purveyor of lies and slander unlike any other the world has ever known.”

Well, I am sure he is sincere in this belief, but I would still have to tag that “citation needed”.

Conservapedia logo via Conservapedia.

More Ironic than an Alanis Morissette Song

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on October 12, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Every once in awhile you just come across something like this which makes you out laugh out loud and start showing it to people sitting next to you. For me, this is such a something:


There is an explanation, and some additional curiosity, in the fact that the idea of “original research” as conceptually separable from “research” is primarily a concept at Wikipedia—namely that information in articles should be previously published in reliable sources, which makes this a self-referential article. Wikipedia usually tries to avoid having articles about Wikipedia-related subjects that have not gained currency off-site. For example, “Neutral point of view” has no dedicated article separate from Objectivity, while the Wikipedia biography controversy involving John Seigenthaler does. Should this article exist? It’s been debated before, and even put up for deletion before, but consensus has never been achieved, and others have floated potential sources for inclusion in the article.

Oh, and it doesn’t take all that much to be more ironic than the song referenced in the title; as the “Linguistic usage disputes” section of the Wikipedia article about the song notes, by most definitions the situations posited in Alanis’ song fail the requirements of irony. And that’s kind of ironic, don’t you think?

April Fools! …or Not?

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on April 1, 2009 at 8:35 am

Today is April Fools’ Day, and among those getting in on the act are the Wikipedians who update the “In the news” section of the English Wikipedia‘s front page:


Ireland’s PM, naked? Diamonds in the sky? Hartford and New Orleans collide? Actually… yes, yes and yes. Where most April Fools jokes are invented from whole cloth — TechCrunch has a guide to many of the Internet’s more prominent hoaxes today — all of these stories are 100% true. They’ve just been couched in dubious language.

Click through the image today, or try here after April 1, to see the real stories for yourself.