William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘The Independent’

Wikipedia is Not Finished, But Its Needs are Changing

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on December 18, 2012 at 9:14 am

Earlier this fall, a very interesting and not too-academicky paper on how Wikipedia’s article about the War of 1812 (by historian and Wikipedian Richard Jensen) somehow begat an Atlantic web story with the wishy-washy subheading “Wikipedia is Nearing Completion, in a Sense” which begat this less subtle, more alarming headline in the UK Independent: “Is Wikipedia Complete?

Wikipedia doomsaying is a popular pastime among technology writers (one can’t exclusively rely on Apple doomsaying, after all) and this isn’t even the first go around for this particular variant. But this one is more annoying than the usual complaint that Wikipedia is losing editors, because proclaiming Wikipedia complete is more likely to suggest that one shouldn’t consider get involved. Why bother? Wikipedia’s finished.

Of course, it’s not. The Atlantic’s Rebecca J. Rosen acknowledges this briefly, quoting Jensen as follows:

Wikipedia is now a mature reference work with a stable organizational structure and a well-established reputation. The problem is that it is not mature in a scholarly sense.

Just so. Yes, Wikipedia already has more than 4 million articles in the English language. The problem is that a great many of them just aren’t very good. An article may exist, but it might not contain much information. It may contain some decent information, but some of it may be wrong. It may have been correct at one time, but has since become outdated. Or an article may have lots of information, but it may not be well-organized. Just because an article exists does not mean the job is done. What it really means is the job of cultivating that specific slice of human knowledge—whether about the War of 1812 or the 18½ minute gap or —has only just begun.

The problem Wikipedia faces is that it has many, many more readers than editors (only 6% of readers have ever tried, according to a 2011 survey) even if the line between them is supposedly no thicker than choosing to click the “Edit” button at the top of a page.

For almost any topic you can thing of, it can seem like there is already an article. What’s more, the topics which are most well-known, especially those related to current events, tend to be extremely well-developed and already saturated with editors. An edit on a page like President of the United States is likely not to last long before someone else comes along and changes it. The uncomfortable truth is that the veteran editor is probably right, insofar as Wikipedia’s standards are concerned. But that doesn’t make it any less discouraging to new editors.

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So, where can new Wikipedians gain confidence, knowledge of Wikipedia’s editing style, and make edits that really make a difference? The answer lies with Wikipedia’s vast collection of underdeveloped articles—those far outside of the daily news cycle, focused on topics dating to the pre-Wikipedia age, and which could be much better, but have lacked for sustained interest from foregoing editors.

As someone who reads Wikipedia daily, I come across these all the time. I also decided to ask some colleagues about what kind of article categories might be particularly neglected. Here are just a few topics that we see (and please note that we are all native English speakers from the U.S. and UK in our late 20s and early 30s, so YMMV) where new editors can dive in and start adding information and sources:

  1. 1990s rock albums: A surprisingly large number of rock albums from the ’90s have just a stub article—one that has very little information other than a basic description of the album. Follow the link, start by clicking on titles that you’re familiar with, and it won’t take long to find one that needs some help. The wider Internet has no shortage of reviews from music publications, which should be just what you need to add new details.
  2. 1990s comedy films: There’s a theme here, and one that speaks to the demographics of Wikipedia: the missing age group of 29- to 40-year-olds has left the encyclopedia with a gap in its collective knowledge: the 1990s! Once again, you can follow the link, pick any film and help improve it. Just remember: you can’t use IMDb (not a reliable source!) but you probably can use articles IMDb links to.
  3. Historical novels: If you’re not into reminiscing about the 1990s, perhaps you’d like to look back a bit further in time. In which case, the historical novel stubs listed here might be right up your alley—or galley, since there are a few of C.S. Forester’s nautical-themed Hornblower novels listed here…
  4. Fairy tales: Still on a literary note, a surprising number of articles on well-known fairy tales are lacking references or still in stub form. See if any of your childhood favorites need some work.
  5. Cartoonists: Biographies are a good topic area for any beginner on Wikipedia and there are no shortage of sub-topics to choose from that need development. There’s a whole list of cartoonists here whose articles are currently just stubs, why not dive in and see if there’s one you’re familiar with?

If you’re thinking about starting to edit Wikipedia and the thought of trying to improve a whole article seems overwhelming, here’s a few ideas for small fixes that you can make in any article of your choosing:

  1. Read through an article and fix any typos or formatting errors.
  2. Remove any obvious vandalism or pure nonsense you come across.
  3. Look at information in infoboxes (the sidebars that appear at the top right of articles) and check that it is correct and up-to-date.
  4. Rewrite sentences that don’t make sense or are obtusely worded.
  5. Fact-check: choose a claim from an article with no citation, then find a book or another quality source to verify the statement.

I fully acknowledge that all of the above is easier said than done. Even though Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, that doesn’t mean everyone does. But it is possible for anyone to learn, given the right inspiration. With this post—and who knows, maybe more like it to come?—I’d like to help others find it.

Thanks to Rhiannon Ruff, Morgan Wehling and Pete Hunt for help with this post.

Johann Hari and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Wikipedia Edits

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on September 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Unless you follow the media, and more specifically the British media, you may be wholly unaware that there is such a person named Johann Hari, or that he has been a wunderkind columnist and correspondent, or that a lot of people find him kind of insufferable, and in that case you almost certainly don’t know that he got himself in a big heap of trouble this summer, over charges of plagiarism and meddling with Wikipedia.

Understandably, most of the criticism has been focused on the plagiarism charges. After all, that’s a crime against journalism, and by definition journalists are the ones writing about it most widely. What he did in those cases was not remotely OK, but at the moment I’m a little more animated by his improper Wikipedia activity. After all, that’s a crime against Wikipedia, and by definition The Wikipedian blogs about Wikipedia.

The matter is news again today because Hari has published a public apology in the pages of The Independent, his employer. He is sorry for everything he has done, he’s returning his prestigious Orwell Prize (which he probably was going to lose anyway) and he’s taking a sabbatical to go back to journalism school. I guess it’s a start.

About the Wikipedia controversy, Hari devotes just one full paragraph:

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

Hari’s Wikipedia article contains this brief account:

Several journalists, including Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph and Nick Cohen in The Spectator, concluded that a Wikipedia editor, ‘David r from meth productions’, who claimed to be ‘David Rose’, were in fact made by Hari. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Odone noted that, after she had fallen out with Hari, Rose began making misleading edits to her Wikipedia article accusing her of anti-Semitism and homophobia. Nick Cohen said that misleading edits were made to his own Wikipedia article by the same editor after he had published criticism of Hari’s work. … The Times leader writer Oliver Kamm later attributed to ‘David Rose’ a change in his Wikipedia biography that he regarded as “merely an unsubstantiated judgement” but which had been made not long after a “spat” with Hari.

I am not one who believes, as a general rule, that someone should never edit their own Wikipedia article. Indeed, I’m kind of the expert on how to do it and not bring grief to yourself. But by his own admission, Hari’s editing of his own page amounts to what Wikipedia informally calls whitewashing. Hari also did not disclose that he was behind the “David r from meth productions” account, which is also, obviously, a problem. And it’s all the worse—and by worse I just mean “embarrassing”—if you’ve read any of his surreptitiously self-serving arguments in the archives of his Talk page.

But embarrassment is the bare minimum of regret Hari should feel about his “juvenile and malicious” edits to Wikipedia articles about his media adversaries. This is the part that really gets me. Others may disagree, but I see a vast gulf between sneakily trying to make yourself look better and sneakily making others look worse. And I think there’s a big difference between being an anonymous Internet critic—although it’s a type known to take things too far—and using the veil of anonymity (or in the case of Wikipedia, pseudonymity) to smear a person’s reputation.

Calling someone a “douchebag” is rude, and you may be wrong, but that’s your opinion. Calling someone a “drunk” is a specific charge of bad behavior, about which one is either right (and maybe still an asshole) or wrong, and that’s unforgivable. I don’t know which is the case, but either reflects very poorly on his character. This is the one thing that I think no apology, leave of absence, or media training, can fix.

Update: In the comments, a reader points out that Hari’s edits are even worse than I’ve described them, and he’s right. He points to apparent sustained anonymous vindictiveness on Hari’s part, and I add that Hari’s self-support included some rather absurd sock puppetry, neither of which I was aware of at the time I first wrote this. Had I the time, I would follow this up in more detail. But the upshot remains the same: as a public figure, Hari may or may not be finished—but as a respectable one, he certainly is.