William Beutler on Wikipedia

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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 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2015

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on December 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Each year since 2010, The Wikipedian has looked back at the year on Wikipedia and taken a stab at determining which trends, milestones, and controversies most influenced the direction of Wikipedia in the twelve months preceding.

This is no easy task, considering the millions of articles, edits, and editors within the scope of Wikipedia and its sister projects, not to mention the off-wiki and even offline circumstances affecting them. The most important events may be overlooked, acknowledged major events can be misunderstood, and the significance of each can differ greatly depending on one’s viewpoint. No matter, The Wikipedian will make its best effort regardless.

This time around I’m pairing our retrospective with a post on the blog of my firm, Beutler Ink, called “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”. I recommend reading this one first: as we learn from the Bard, what’s past is prologue.

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10. Wikidata Rising

When Wikidata, the collaborative structured database project, first launched in 2012, it was difficult to summarize with any confidence. The Wikipedian covered it by carefully outlining its stated goals and quoting the speculative news and blog coverage. At the end of 2015, it’s not much easier to describe to a layperson, and many of its goals remain just that, but Wikidata’s growth is undeniable and the passion it inspires in the Wikipedia community is unmistakable. At this year’s Wikimania conference, Wikidata’s presence was felt like never before.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 10.39.33One big reason: Wikidata is unexplored territory in a way that Wikipedia no longer is. The encyclopedia project feels mature at 5 million articles (more about that below), but the database at only 15 million items has a long road ahead of it. For editors who joined the larger Wikimedia movement for the joy of discovery, Wikidata is where it’s at. The project still has some very real challenges, some of which unsurprisingly mirror those of Wikipedia, but it’s possible now to imagine that Wikidata, not Wikipedia, may prove to be the real “sum of all human knowledge”.

9. Exodus from New Montgomery Street

Has Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), seen a year with more comings and goings from its headquarters on San Francisco’s New Montgomery Street than 2015? It seems unlikely. The organization has seen admired veterans and high-level executives depart under different circumstances, and some touted recruits from Silicon Valley firms arrived to fanfare, only to exit quickly, and without comment. The only reason this exodus of talent isn’t higher on this list is because it’s one of 2015’s least-reported stories.

Approximately 18 months since Lila Tretikov became executive director, the WMF has experienced almost 100% turnover. For some longtime staff, it was probably time to move on anyway. And any incoming leader can be expected to make new hires and rearrange reports to their liking. But the very short tenures of some key hires, and mysterious circumstances surrounding some departures, can’t help but raise questions about whether Tretikov is in command of her personnel—and perhaps even if she’s the leader Wikipedia needs.

8. Community Tensions Felt in Trustee Elections

The Wikimedia Board of Trustees is the “ultimate corporate authority” of the Wikimedia Foundation, and its number includes three members elected from the volunteer community. The most recent election, held in May, was also the first since a major fight between the foundation and community over software implementation (Media Viewer) and platform control (Superprotect) in 2014. Against this backdrop, disagreements over Wikipedia’s next big software initiative, Flow, became increasingly increasingly pronounced—and a few months later, the project was shelved.

Perhaps it’s unfair to assume a direct cause-and-effect, but the result seemed to be a “throw the bums out” election. Ousted were Phoebe Ayers, Samuel Klein, and María Sefidari (in fairness, none were “bums”, nor particularly responsible for the problem). In are three respected veterans with the good fortune of non-incumbency: James Heilman, Dariusz Jemielniak, and Denny Vrandečić.

Oddly, the two women ousted received the first and third most votes in favor, but Wikimedia accounts for “oppose” votes, and they had too many of those. Today, just two Board members are women, the lowest representation in Wikipedia’s history.

7. “Wikipedia Hates Women”—or Maybe Just Lightbreather

Wikipedia’s alarmingly low female participation rate is decidedly not a new problem. The issue first came to attention in the late 2000s, as editor surveys confirmed suspicions that Wikipedia was a total brodown. Today, the gender gap remains a frequent topic of debate, including a much-discussed Cracked.com article whence this entry takes part of its name.

The other half of the title comes from what’s called the “Lightbreather” case, focusing on a female editor with this username, and her interactions with, among others, a (male) editor named Eric Corbett. A disinterested appraisal of the case would find plenty of fault with both, although there is not one person in the world who possesses the powers of concentration necessary to follow all of the rabbit holes leading from this single case. Notwithstanding the particulars, it became the subject of a provocative, error-ridden, five-times corrected but nevertheless widely read article in The Atlantic, held up as one example of Wikipedia’s “hostility” to women.

The myriad possible explanations for this problem only open doors to more complicated issues. How much of the gender balance can be attributed to Wikipedia’s rules? Its community? Where is the line between heated disagreements and harassment? How much can be explained by how the web influences behavior? How much is this reflective of the tech industry’s gender gap? Will understanding this question help to explain why other marginalized identities, from Latinos to Africans, contribute to Wikipedia in small numbers? The answers to these questions seem within the reach of comprehension, but beyond the grasp of consensus.

6. A Clockwork Orangemoody

OrangeMoody-BubbleGraphCombined-NolabelsAnother perennial topic on Wikipedia is conflict of interest (COI), usually playing out as someone inside Wikipedia or outside writing a self-serving autobiography, a low-rent marketing firm getting in trouble for editing clients’ pages, or sometimes more favorably, a group of PR firms coming together to try to make a good impression. This year, however, brought us something we never quite imagined: a massive extortion plot inverting the typical model of paid editing: rather than helping paying customers create Wikipedia entries, non-paying “customers” could simply be threatened with unflattering articles.

Orangemoody, as it was named for its “ringleader” account, was called the largest of its kind, but that merely counted the number of involved user accounts (nearly 400). The truth is, there has never been anything quite like it. Previous cases revolved around unscrupulous firms like Wiki-PR and WikiExperts who at least professed to be offering their clients a service. Orangemoody was a shakedown involving pages held for ransom, impersonation of Wikipedia administrators, and no real-world entity to absorb the blame. Orangemoody is so threatening because it suggests that Wikipedia’s open-editing model opens the door not just to unethical, if conceivable shenanigans, but also to transgressions that are much more horrifying.

5. The Luck of Grant Shapps

Next to Orangemoody, there’s something almost comforting about the familiar narrative of alleged self-interested editing of Wikipedia by Tory MP Grant Shapps and the plot twist that brought his accuser to (relative) ignominy and ruin.

Amid the UK parliamentary elections this spring, a report emerged in the left-leaning Guardian, prompted by an allegation by a Wikimedia UK administrator, that Shapps had used a pseudonymous account to massage his own Wikipedia profile while giving a drubbing to others. It seemed plausible: Shapps had admitted to editing his own biography years ago, and using assumed names in other circumstances, and his side career as an Internet executive aided the narrative.

But the tables soon turned: the right-leaning Telegraph revealed that there was no smoking gun connecting Shapps to the suspicious edits, that the Wikipedia administrator, Richard Symonds, was in fact a Lib Dem activist who had communicated with the Guardian prior to taking action, and Wikipedians soon became concerned that Symonds may have abused his administrative privileges in blocking the suspicious account.

In the end, Symonds lost his adminship, and Shapps exited a succession of positions within the Conservative Party and government. All that’s missing is Keyzer Soze shrugging off his limp and lighting a cigarette.

4. Wikipedia’s Big Picture Trends in Flux

editors-risingAfter a long period of sustained narratives about Wikipedia’s traffic and editing trends, this year things got a little interesting. Following unabated growth in global traffic to Wikipedia, given a boost in recent years by the proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices, overall traffic actually fell for the first time. Meanwhile, after almost a decade of resignation to Wikipedia’s ever-dwindling editor base—a decline perhaps also attributable to the adoption of mobile devices—the numbers ticked upward.

An August report from an SEO analysis firm showed that Wikipedia’s search referrals from Google fell by up to 20% since the beginning of the year. Most speculation focused on Google’s ever-advancing practice of answering search queries on the results page, obviating the need to click through to non-Google websites. This has bedeviled companies like Yelp, which compete with Google to serve up reviews while also depending upon it for traffic. For Wikipedia, the situation is more complicated, and perhaps less of an issue. After all, a significant portion of Google’s answers are powered by Wikimedia projects. In fact, beginning in late 2014, Google wound down its own open knowledge database, Freebase, in favor of Wikidata. And Google still recommends more Wikimedia sites than it recommends Google sites.

Also in August, the first hard data emerged to show that the long, slow decline of active (and “very active”) Wikipedia editors had been arrested—and is now trending the other way, if ever so slightly. As close Wikipedia observers know too well, Wikipedia attained its zenith participation rate in 2007, arguably the high point for the project’s activity and excitement overall, after which the lowering tide revealed consternation and even alarm, with nobody knowing where it would end. Well, maybe here? The number of very active editors—with at least 100 edits monthly—Wikipedia’s most valuable contributors, stabilized in 2014 and actually grew in 2015. The decline of administrators, coupled with the difficulty in admitting new ones in recent years, however, remains an issue.

In both cases, more data is surely needed before we can say what it really means.

3. English Wikipedia Hits 5 Million Articles

Wikipedia_5m_ArticlesAdmittedly, most of these top stories are unhappy ones, and the one just above is arguably mixed, but this one is unambiguously celebratory: on November 1, Wikipedia’s English language edition—by far its most popular, and synonymous with “Wikipedia” for most readers—notched its 5 millionth article.

Wikipedia has been the largest encyclopedia by any reasonable measure for a long while, so nothing has really changed. And it took seven years for Wikipedia to double in size, so if growth trends continue holding steady for now, we might not have a similar milestone to celebrate until sometime the next decade. Meanwhile, sheer heft is easier to measure than other important characteristics, like accuracy or completeness, so this benchmark will remain Wikipedia’s equivalent of McDonald’s “Billions Served” for the foreseeable future. It may be an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a damned impressive one.

Number 5,000,000 itself: Persoonia terminalis, a rare shrub native to eastern Australia. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the RfC debating which temporary logo Wikipedia should display on the joyous day, I very much recommend taking a look at the near misses. Perhaps it will instill some faith in Wikipedia’s community processes if you agree the best logo won (and you should).

2. It’s About Ethics in Gamergate Opposition

In late 2014 and into the start of this year, the loosely-affiliated right-wing counterpart to the left-ish Anonymous expanded its focus from video game journalists to include the Wikipedia entries where said journalists’ critical takes had accumulated. Organizing on Reddit and other forums, the ‘gaters created numerous throwaway Wikipedia accounts to first try swinging Wikipedia’s coverage of their movement and a few of their top targets around to their liking and, when that failed, they took on Wikipedia editors directly.

gamergatelogoWikipedians fought back hard—too hard, in some cases—and when Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee got around to handing out punishments, the only ones with anything to lose were the Wikipedia editors who cared. It also fed into the above-discussed ongoing trouble over Wikipedia’s treatment of gender issues, and was by far the year’s biggest blow-up along such lines, far greater than the argument over how to handle Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition, which still lay ahead.

It’s hard to say if Gamergate is a 100-year-flood (although on the Internet, the time frame may be more like 100 months) or a sign of things to come. Wikipedia has faced trolls before, but few have been as dedicated or as destructive as the ones beneath the Gamergate bridge. The best defense is a strong base of committed Wikipedians, and perhaps this year shows us they’ll probably still be around to carry the sand bags and shore up the levees.

1. China, Russia, and Completing the HTTPS Transition

One aspect of Wikipedia’s global prominence that the foundation and movement alike have struggled to fully grasp is the role it can, should, and does play on the international stage. This year, the Wikimedia Foundation joined forces with the ACLU to sue the National Security Agency over its mass surveillance practices, only for the case to be thrown out by a federal court. As important as that fight may be, it is but one jurisdiction of many where Wikipedia has become a proxy for privacy and free speech battles, not to mention authoritarian power grabs.

In 2015, Wikipedia’s multi-year plan to convert all traffic moving through Wikimedia servers to the HTTPS encryption protocol was finally completed. HTTPS was first enabled for WMF sites in 2011, then became the default for logged in users in 2013, and this year was finally made the default for all traffic, including readers without a Wikipedia account. This is a good thing for Internet users who wish to access Wikipedia without their governments knowing about it. But it’s complicated when governments decide to shut off access altogether.

Indeed, the full implementation of HTTPS prevents governments like China from blocking access to specific entries—such as Tiananmen Square protests of 1989—and instead they have to choose between allowing all traffic, or blocking the site entirely. China opted for the latter. To be sure, Wikipedia wasn’t the biggest collaborative online encyclopedia in the PRC—it wasn’t even the second—and China’s Communist Party seems to be perfectly TankMancontent promoting its homegrown versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter. In December, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, traveled to China to participate in an Internet conference, where his comments about the limitations of the state’s ability to control the Internet were intentionally lost in translation, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

A similar issue is ongoing in Russia, where the government’s media authority, Roskomnadzor, has weighed blocking access to the Russian-language Wikipedia based on its entries about illegal drugs, temporarily blocking reader access. In addition, it may also be attempting to co-opt Russian-language editors, presenting further challenges to the independence of the Wikimedia project among Russian language contributors.

It’s unclear what Russia will decide to do, but it seems safe to assume that China will hold the line for the foreseeable future. In both countries, and under still more repressive regimes—like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan—independent websites and even independent political parties and religious movements are allowed to operate only at these governments’ discretion. Why should Wikipedia be any different?

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And this seems like a perfectly good place to leave it. More often than not, Wikipedia’s issues reflect issues that animate and plague society and the Internet writ large. Open knowledge and digital discourse create incredible opportunities for research and innovation, but also bestow tremendous power to the platforms and communities that effectively control the gates. The problems on Wikipedia aren’t that different from those on Reddit or Twitter, they just feel more significant given the site’s mandate and perceived authority. To understand Wikipedia’s successes and failures, we have to look to ourselves for the answer.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to check out its companion piece at The Ink Tank: “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”.

All images via Wikimedia Commons except Gamergate logo, source unknown.