William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Internet Archive’

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2019

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on January 3, 2020 at 4:16 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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10. The media’s undying fascination with Wikipedia

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

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

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

9. Narrowing Wikipedia’s gender gap

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

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

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

8. Everything is (getting more) connected

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

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

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

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

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

7. Wikipedia or Wikimedia?

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

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

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

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

6. Wikipedia meddling for face-saving and profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Staff changes at the Wikimedia Foundation 

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

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

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

3. Wikipedia, enemy of authoritarian regimes

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

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

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

2. Movement strategy could use some strategery

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

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

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

1. Framgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2018

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on December 28, 2018 at 4:17 pm

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

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

Shall we?

10. Is that all she wrote for WikiTribune?

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

9. Testing new models of collaboration

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

8. Getting serious about systemic biases

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

7. “Free” Wikipedia goes offline

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

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

6. Attrition of administrators

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

5. Save the links!

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

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

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

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

3. Building our own Hal 9000

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

2. Donna Strickland and Jess Wade

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

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

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

1. YouTube’s bewildering fact-checking announcement

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

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

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

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

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

What You Missed at Wikimania 2017

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on August 18, 2017 at 4:39 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birth of Bias: implicit bias’ permanence on Wikipedia

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

Koerner Implicit Bias Wikimania 2017

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Readership metrics: Trends and stories from our global traffic data

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

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

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The Internet Archive and Wikimedia – Common Knowledge Goals

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

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State of Video in the Wikimedia Movement

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

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The Keilana Effect: Visualizing the closing coverage gaps with ORES

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

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

Keilana Effect (Wikimania 2017)

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

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

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