William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19’

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2020

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on December 31, 2020 at 1:46 pm

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

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

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

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10. Wikipedia approaches its 20th anniversary

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

Wikipedia’s 6 millionth article, maybe?

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

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

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

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

9. Should Wikipedia fear a Section 230 repeal?

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

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

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

8. Creating Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia article

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

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

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

7. Scots Wikipedia and the trouble with small Wikipedias

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

If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!

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

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

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

5. Anticipation and apprehensions about Abstract Wikipedia

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

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

Father of Wikidata, and now Abstract Wikipedia

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

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

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

5. WMF Board makes some suspicious moves

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

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

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

4. Wikimedia debates Jimmy Wales’ permanent board seat

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

Jimmy Wales, man of the people—really!

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

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

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

3. Covering COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests

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

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

George Floyd protest in Brooklyn

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

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

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

2. Effects of the global pandemic on the Wikimedia movement

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Wikipedia Foundation?

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

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

I still remember when the WMF logo was in color

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Wikipedia is Covering
the Coronavirus Pandemic

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on April 15, 2020 at 12:12 pm

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

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

The WikiProject

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

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

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

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

How the Information is Organized

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

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

The Pandemic, The Disease, and the Virus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Timeline and the Territory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest of the Story

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

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

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

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

Odds & Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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on March 13, 2020 at 1:19 pm

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

Wikipedia's dedicated COVID-19 box

Original post continues below.

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

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

Wikipedia's main page

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

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

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

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

A sampling of comments in the days since:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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