William Beutler on Wikipedia

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The Wikipedian Interviews: At the Movies

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on February 28, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Every once in awhile, here at The Wikipedian we like to spotlight editors who have made a substantial impact on Wikipedia (previously: User:Esemono) by asking a willing editor to talk about the articles they’ve worked on, and how they think about the article writing process. With Oscar season coming to an end this Sunday, there’s no better time than now to share this e-mail interview with a longtime contributor to WikiProject Film, User:Erik. I sent him a few questions earlier in the week, and he was gracious enough to respond with his thoughtful answers presented, unedited, in this post. Thanks, Erik!

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How do you select specific topics for the film articles you work on?

I tend to choose topics that have underdeveloped articles or do not have articles. Most of my contributions are to articles about upcoming films, and I like to give these articles a good start by weaving together details about the films’ development and production process. The topics I choose can be of personal interest to me, can be those whose articles I rescue from AfD, or even just related to a bigger initiative of mine. Lately, I have been in the habit of creating articles about crew members because I’ve warmed up to the idea of crew lists in film articles. (The film infobox is restrictive in not having fields for some crew members, like the costume designer or the production designer.) I’ve also started to create list articles that can link together film articles, usually because they have something in common.

What’s your research process like? Any favorite sources or techniques for identifying encyclopedic information?

I use the advanced search operators in Google pretty frequently. One can filter for the domain (e.g., site:variety.com) and/or choose a date range to find results about a film during a certain time frame. I usually tend to find out the earliest coverage about a film and work forward from there. Most films will not be written about in books, so most of my contributions have been derived from news and magazine coverage. However, I do use Google Books and the book preview feature in Amazon.com to make a case for an older film’s notability or to help resolve a content-based dispute. One of my favorite sources was the British Film Institute’s Film Index International database, which could provide a list of periodical articles for a given film. Such lists have been of tremendous value in expanding Wikipedia articles. Unfortunately, I only had access to that database in college, and not anymore. I’ve learned to seek out information in different ways since.

One of your articles that really caught my eye was Interpretations of Fight Club. How did you come to decide to create that article?

Fight Club is a favorite film, so when I worked on its Wikipedia article to bring it up to Featured status, I came across academic analysis of the film. Originally, I thought that these sources were too high-brow to include in a film article, but another Wikipedia editor with a PhD in English literature told me about film theory — auteurship, intentional fallacy, and how a film could be interpreted independent of the original meaning. That really opened my eyes to the field of film criticism, and I think it has enriched my perspective of film. Anyway, unfortunately Fight Club is hugely popular to study. The article Interpretations of Fight Club currently has four references, but on the talk page, there are many more listed that I have not implemented. The four that I did implement were dense and very difficult for me to summarize, especially with so many good points made. The experience made me think more about incorporating film criticism in Wikipedia articles. I helped an editor improve the Wikipedia article for the film American Beauty to Featured status, and I think that outcome is what I want for film articles. I have also added similar analysis to the article for Apt Pupil, though I do not find it complete yet. I’m also working on a similar approach for the film Panic Room. I even have an itch to revisit Fight Club to incorporate that scholarship and not just write about the film’s themes as determined by the director and the stars.

Based on your selection of topics over time, I think you have pretty good taste in movies. And then there’s… Surf Ninjas. How did you decide to work on that one?

Surf Ninjas is a nostalgic favorite of mine, though not to the point that I would own the DVD. I expanded the Wikipedia article back in 2007, a time when I was probably hitting my stride as a Wikipedia editor. Surf Ninjas is a movie that predates the Internet, so that means most of the news coverage could only be found on internal databases. My work was a sort of experiment to see what I could find for a film that old, especially since at the time, working on articles about upcoming films, I could find headlines with ease. That is probably another reason why I continue to work with upcoming films; I do not have access to databases like I used to in college, so I depend a lot on what is publicly available.

Which article are you most proud of that does not get the kind of traffic or recognition that you wish it would?

In terms of balance, I would have to say Sea Shadow. It is a 2011 Emirati coming-of-age film for which I created a Wikipedia article a year after the film was first released. When I first started editing on Wikipedia, I liked to work on articles for films based on comic books. These films get so much news coverage because of the fan base, and I think that demographic overlapping with that of the “average Wikipedian” (explained at WP:BIAS) means that these articles continue to be the most well-developed film articles on Wikipedia. I’m supportive of this since readers know to go to Wikipedia to read in depth about a film. However, since I’ve moved on from these films to a more varied set, I’ve seen how much work there is to be done elsewhere.

So how did I get to Sea Shadow? I noticed a POV dispute at the article for the 2012 film Promised Land, and in the process of restructuring the article to satisfy all parties, I eventually created an article for Image Nation, which was one of the companies that financed the film. When I put together its filmography, I saw that Sea Shadow was a red link among a set of blue links, and I decided to create the article. Writing it made me realize how much I took movies for granted in the United States; Sea Shadow was the first movie to be filmed in the United Arab Emirates! It made me think about how much Wikipedia focuses on popular Western-produced films. I am more conscious of these filmmaking efforts that go on outside the mainstream — either efforts elsewhere or independent efforts. I admit I still Google the title Sea Shadow once in a while to see if it will ever appear on the first page of Google’s search results. Regardless, I’m happy to have told the story of this film on Wikipedia.

Is there an article or a list you would like to develop but haven’t yet had the time? In particular, what are your plans for Alcoholism in film?

There are so many articles I would like to write. I have learned over the years how to research a film, but the key obstacle is having the time to collect the information, digest it, and write a Wikipedia article based on all these findings. I can think of so many projects to do, but I try not to be too ambitious. Otherwise I am setting myself up for disappointment. Among less recent films, I would probably like to complete Panic Room and Apt Pupil, which have been perpetual works-in-progress. One goal I’ve considered setting is to get an article to Featured status and displayed on the Main Page for a certain anniversary. (I did that for Fight Club for its 10th anniversary.) Once in a while, I look up films that would be celebrating its 10th, 25th, or 50th anniversary in the next year. For example, Batman Begins will be 10 years old (and has a lot of fascinating critical analysis to go with it). Dances with Wolves (which I re-watched recently to see if it holds up) will be 25 years old. And so forth. I just wish I could devote more time to give these films their wiki-closeup! 🙂

Regarding the idea of alcoholism in film, I noticed that Wikipedia often writes about general topics and about individual films. I thought this was a gap that could be filled. My thinking may have started with superhero films being on-and-off in development, so it seemed better to define such an article about a set of films not as a film series but as the character in the context in film (e.g., “Batman in film”). I’ve also argued at AfD to keep articles like “Latinos in film” or “Vietnam War in film” since I found them to be valid topics that have potential. Unfortunately, I have not pursued this “in film” idea to its fullest, mainly due to time constraints. In a way, I have simplified this idea by creating list articles that can link together similar films. It’s not as prose-based and thus not in depth, but it is easier to put together and can give readers an idea of related films. The article “List of films featuring surveillance” is one of my favorites in this regard. I may create a similar “List of films featuring alcoholism” instead of “Alcoholism in film” at some point.

How did you get involved with Wikipedia in the first place, and how do you think it has changed over time?

I cannot remember what I thought of Wikipedia before I actually joined, but I started off with gnomish edits mostly focusing on film articles. (And the rest is history…) I think I enjoyed the idea that Wikipedia was an open space that was also very visible to Internet users. I liked sharing information about films (and still do), and I think I found films to be a “safe” topic as opposed to hot-button ones like political and religious issues.

In terms of what has changed, I have been a member of WikiProject Film for most of my time on Wikipedia. I served as coordinator for part of the time, but I think we tried too hard to emulate WikiProject Military History and found that initiative too ambitious. Quite a difference between dedicated military historians and casual moviegoers! We no longer have coordinators, and our primary initiative as a WikiProject is to maintain a balanced set of guidelines and to notify the community about specific disputes to help resolve. I helped write the guidelines, so it is nice to see new editors reference them. Sometimes the guidelines are misinterpreted from their original meaning, so we have to go back and clarify!

More in general, I have seen some editors retire and some persist. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many who persist tend to be hard-headed, and I think that makes us a bit unwelcoming at times. Another observation I’ve made is that there seems to be less vandalism than before, and a recent New York Times article called “Wikipedia vs. the Small Screen” made an excellent point in that most people nowadays browse Wikipedia on their smartphones. This seems to cut both ways — less vandalizing and less beneficial editing.

If you could change one existing policy, guideline or community norm, what would it be?

I wish that the behavioral policy of WP:CIVIL had more teeth. Punitive action only takes place when a “bright line” is crossed. I recently saw a heated and increasingly personal exchange between two long-time editors. Only one of them was blocked because their words became explicit personal attacks. It was disheartening to read the exchange in which both editors’ tones became accusatory and unwilling to disengage, especially to have the last word. Along the same vein, punitive action in regard to the three-revert rule and edit warring operates by a similar “bright line”. I have seen the rule essentially gamed where a long-time editor knows when to stop where the other party may not. Tag-teaming is also a strategy, intentional or unintentional, where an assist by another editor can circumvent the rule, when the overall goal really should be starting a discussion to resolve the dispute. Unfortunately, I have seen too many discussions start only after both parties have reverted three times, and they are usually too hostile to each other by that point to engage in a conducive discussion. I personally strive to revert as little as possible, especially when looking at the big picture, that these are just words on a web page that are being fought over. Maybe a two-revert rule can prevent such hostility from escalating too much.

Who are some editors whose work or community-building efforts you admire?

I think that there are many editors that I admire in different ways. MichaelQSchmidt is one with whom I have disagreed at times about how to write about films in development, but I think in spite of that, we have cordial and productive discussions. He has striven to write useful essays to guide editors at AfD and elsewhere. At WikiProject Film, I can always count on Betty Logan to make sensible contributions to discussions. I notice certain editors who can put together excellent film articles even though they may not participate actively in the WikiProject Film community. Although he is retired from Wikipedia, Steve was a model editor who had a very collaborative demeanor and wrote the excellent articles American Beauty, Changeling, and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Got a favorite for Best Picture this year?

12 Years a Slave. While I have not had a chance to see all the Best Picture nominees, I have followed coverage about 12 Years a Slave very closely since it began development. I really enjoyed Steve McQueen’s previous films Hunger and Shame and looked forward to this one. I’ve read a lot of commentary about whether or not 12 Years a Slave deserves to win. I think Gravity is a technical wonder, like Avatar was, though with themes not as swallowed up by spectacle. However, 12 Years a Slave is important in the sense that it is a rare film about a key element of American history — slavery. I did research to put together a Wikipedia list of films featuring slavery as well as the article Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which was a 1984 TV film by PBS based on the same source material as 12 Years a Slave. Knowing this background and the general skew of demographics in the film industry toward older white men, I think it’s important to recognize 12 Years a Slave for its creative merit and for representing an otherwise underrepresented aspect of American history.

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One last thing: for this year’s Oscar season, my team at Beutler Ink conceived and created a poster featuring an icon for each of the films to win the last 85 Oscars, plus an icon each for this year’s nominees. You can check it out here: The Best Pictures.

The Wikipedian Interviews: Esemono

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on April 30, 2013 at 11:42 am

Today The Wikipedian launches the first in what we hope will be an occasional series: an interview with a Wikipedia editor about his or her work and views on Wikipedia. First up is Esemono, a contributor to the English-language Wikipedia since 2006. He first caught my attention for being the originator and primary contributor to List of helicopter prison escapes, one of my favorite Wikipedia articles of all time (and one I see making the rounds on social media every few months or so). Other prominent articles Esemono has created and developed include Longest recorded sniper kills, List of people who have died climbing Mount Everest, and List of hospital ships sunk in World War I. The following interview was conducted via email during the week of April 22:

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How do you select topics for the articles you decide to work on?

It usually starts with an interesting article I read and then think, “Wow, I wish everyone knew this,” then I check if it’s on Wikipedia. If it’s not I write the article and if there is an article I will try and improve it. I like to create lists because I enjoy the list format and because I am horrible at writing. The lists allow me to provide info to the world without allowing too many chances for me to mess up my grammar. Hopefully you’ll clean up the grammar in these answers, so I don’t look too bad!

Your lists are very well-sourced. What’s your research process, and what tools or websites do you use most?

My go-to site is the BBC but if I can’t find it there then I just do a Google search and then scan through the results until I find a reliable source. Using Google Books is also a useful tool that I spend a lot of time mining.

The most popular article you’ve started is “List of people who died climbing Mount Everest”, but it didn’t exist until you created it in May 2012. Why do you think this was, and why did you decide to create it?

I don’t think anyone wanted to sit down and do it. There was a less detailed article talking about deaths on all mountains over I think 8000m but no one had tackled just Everest. I read an article about how there are over 200 bodies on Mount Everest, just laying exposed but mummified by the harsh environment. It’s too dangerous to bring them down and so they sit on the mountain forever. People climbing see them all the time and actually use them for landmarks, “turn left at the American, follow the path past green boots and you will reach the summit.” This was fascinating to me and a great opportunity to make a list.

The amount of bodies / entries was a reasonable amount, a couple hundred, and when people die on Everest its usually in the news so there would be lots of RS news articles I could mine. For more info I actually bought a book, Everest, that had a complete list up to the early 90s. It actually took a long time and I would belt out 20 more at a time until I finished the whole list.

This shows the great power of Wikipedia. The list in the Everest book was great but it would always be dated and you would need to buy a new edition to get the latest list. By creating the list on Wikipedia there is a publicly updated list, easily sortable and has all sorts of extra info including the chance to click on the individuals to find out more information.

The subject matter of “Longest recorded sniper kills”, another of your creations, is arguably the most macabre. How did you get the idea, and what was the process like?

That list was me appealing to my patriotic side. During the Afghan war two Canadians broke the record and the whole incident was covered up by the Canadian government (they were afraid the Canadian public would get angry that their soldiers kill people) and the snipers were actually forced out of the military because they dared to excel at what they were trained to do. Searching around I couldn’t find any info on previous record-holders, so I created the list. It’s actually in the “All-time DYK page view leaders” page, I don’t mean to pat my own back but pat, pat.

The article now is a good example of the challenges Wikipedia faces in the future. Recently an unnamed Australian broke the record. A reliable source reported this and that is usually good enough to be included into a Wikipedia article, but there are all sorts of sniper “experts” claiming that the shot hasn’t been recognized by the sniper community so they want the entry pulled. Yet Wikipedia policy states that it’s verifiability, not the truth that should be published on a Wikipedia article, which understandably is hard for many to swallow.

My favorite article that you’ve created and developed is “List of helicopter prison escapes“. Where did this idea come from, and what challenges did you face developing it? And how about those success / failure icons?

"List of helicopter prison escapes" success / failure iconsI read about that French guy who had escaped something like 4 times from prison by helicopter. I think he recently did it again. This type of high-profile event is usually covered by the news, so I knew there would be lots of RS talking about the escapes. At the time I was learning how to handle svg files and I created the helicopter icon you see there. I thought it was cool but a lot of editors didn’t like it and wanted them removed, luckily the effort to remove a column in a list that size is pretty high, so laziness on their behalf saved the icon.

Which article are you most proud of, and why? Is there one you wish was better known?

I made an animated gif about the political boundaries of North America.

To accompany it I created an article Territorial evolution of North America which I think is pretty cool. There used to be an animated gif with all the slides at the top of the page but the wiki admins shut down large gifs. Smaller gifs still work but larger ones like my North American animation were shut down a few years ago because smart phones then couldn’t handle the large file sizes. Now though things have changed, with faster and faster phones. The wiki powers that be turned gifs back on but the turning gifs on and off broke something and so large animated gifs don’t work for some reason. Hopefully they can sort it out.

Is there an article or a list you would like to develop but haven’t yet had the time?

I would love to do an article and animated gif similar to the North American one but showing Native American kingdoms / tribal areas.

How did you choose your username?

Just sounded cool in Japanese.

If you could change one existing policy, guideline or community norm, what would it be?

Clarification of the status of the copyright of military images. There is a huge segment of wiki users that insists that personal pictures taken by military servicemen while on duty, on their personal cameras are in the Public Domain (PD). They trawl Facebook, Flickr, and take these pictures and put them on the Commons but I can’t see how they are PD. I think it will be a real problem in the future. Don’t get me wrong, if they are PD, then great! What a great resource! But when anyone questions this the issue is just swept under the rug.

Who are some editors whose work or community-building efforts you admire?

The admins in DYK who put up with crabby, chafe-at-all-the-rules editors like me. Also User:Golbez inspired me by doing a territorial evolution of Canada and other regions too that are far superior articles and animations than mine.

Images by User:Esemono via Wikipedia.

Ken Auletta on Wikipedia

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on October 30, 2009 at 11:46 am

On Sunday November 1, New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta will appear on C-SPAN‘s “Q&A” with host and network founder Brian Lamb. In the three-minute excerpt below, Auletta talks about Google’s algorithm, search engine optimization, and Wikipedia:

Auletta’s expertise stretches far beyond the media mogul interviews he writes for his magazine’s editors — in 2001 he wrote a book on Microsoft and its enemies — but wait for the part where Lamb stumps Auletta on Google search results.

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.