William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Wikimedia 2030’

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2020

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on December 31, 2020 at 1:46 pm

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

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

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

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10. Wikipedia approaches its 20th anniversary

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

Wikipedia’s 6 millionth article, maybe?

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

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

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

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

9. Should Wikipedia fear a Section 230 repeal?

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

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

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

8. Creating Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia article

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

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

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

7. Scots Wikipedia and the trouble with small Wikipedias

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

If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!

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

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

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

5. Anticipation and apprehensions about Abstract Wikipedia

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

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

Father of Wikidata, and now Abstract Wikipedia

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

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

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

5. WMF Board makes some suspicious moves

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

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

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

4. Wikimedia debates Jimmy Wales’ permanent board seat

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

Jimmy Wales, man of the people—really!

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

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

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

3. Covering COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests

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

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

George Floyd protest in Brooklyn

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

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

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

2. Effects of the global pandemic on the Wikimedia movement

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Wikipedia Foundation?

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

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

I still remember when the WMF logo was in color

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2017

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on January 3, 2018 at 6:16 pm

Every year since 2010, The Wikipedian has delivered a roundup of the most interesting events, trends, situations, occasions, and general goings-on that marked the foregoing year on Wikipedia and in the broader Wikimedia community. Last year’s edition remarked upon the head-spinning series of events that made 2016 the “worst year ever”—or so we thought at the time—and now, looking ahead to 2018, we have a stronger sense that the most realistic expectation is more of the same.

Where does Wikipedia fit into that? Following the U.S. presidential election, it became briefly fashionable to see Wikipedia as a bulwark against “fake news”, but in a year where the new American president suffered vanishingly few consequences for his constant issuance of falsehoods, 2017 very much felt like a year when truth was under constant attack. These ten stories depict a Wikipedia editorial community and readership not necessarily in the midst of a crisis, but of life during informational wartime. Let’s go:

10. In the Wikimedia Year 2030…

Wikimedia 2030, photo by Avery JensenLast year’s list was dominated by a metastasizing organizational breakdown culminating in a change of leadership at the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF). Among many complaints about the non-profit’s former executive director, two of the most important were vision and communication, which is to say their lack. Katherine Maher, WMF’s current chief, seems determined not to let the same be said of her. In August 2017, a little over a year into her tenure, she announced an initiative called “Wikimedia 2030”, starting with a high-minded re-articulation of the Wikimedia movement’s mission statement and a series of commitments to (paraphrasing from the document itself) advancing the world through knowledge. It’s obviously operating on a very long time frame, and a lot depends on its implementation, which is yet to come. But the document received overwhelming support by community members in October, which is at least a positive sign in this otherwise fractured age.

9. The Daily Mail and Governance

Daily Mail clock, photo by Alex Muller / WikideaWikipedia’s quality is highly dependent on the sources it allows to verify its information. In February Wikipedia’s community decided it was fed up with the website of UK tabloid The Daily Mail for its mendacious unreliability, and so “voted” to “ban” its use. This apparent decision was widely reported, including by this blog. And yet, that’s not quite what happened. Rather than an official blacklisting, the Daily Mail was simply added to a list of potentially unreliable sources, and it’s possible to find instances of the website being used as a reference since, perhaps by contributors entirely unaware there was a controversy in the first place. This is how Wikipedia works: it has very few rules that cannot be overcome by editorial clout, determined obstinacy, continued evasion, or blithe disregard. On the whole, Wikipedia works pretty well, but breaks down at the edges: and that is still where the Daily Mail remains.

8. “Monkey Selfie” Reckoning

First, a mea culpa: as far as I can tell, The Wikipedian has never written a word about the Monkey selfie copyright dispute, as Wikipedia’s own article on the subject calls it.

Monkey selfie by David SlaterWikipedia played only a small role in the legal case, which primarily involved nature photographer David Slater being sued by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on behalf of a Celebes crested macaque who had no idea any of this was taking place. The legal matter isn’t quite settled, but as of September it seems close: Slater keeps the copyright, with concessions. Yet Wikipedia played a much larger role in the sense that there may never have been a case at all, or it would have remained quite obscure, had the WMF not refused to abide by Slater’s request to delete the photo from Wikimedia Commons. By virtue of its high profile, Wikipedia magnifies everything.

What’s more, the enthusiasm of its community also obscures: I remember the photo being everywhere at Wikimania 2014 in London and, being charmed like everyone else, I played along and used it in a slide presentation without looking into it further. I’m more regretful of this than my own non-coverage, and consider it still unresolved whether WMF is on the side of virtue in this matter. (Why am I using the photo here, then? For the same reason Wikipedia uses copyrighted logos: for identification.)

It seems indisputable to me that the copyright should belong with the human who went to considerable lengths at personal cost to facilitate its creation, regardless of which bipedal mammal clicked the button, and if the law is unclear on this, then the law should be clarified. If you haven’t listened to This American Life’s episode about the case from November, it’s worth your time—and Wikipedia doesn’t come across terribly well.

7. Burger King’s Way

Burger KingRemember this? In April, Burger King announced a television ad for the U.S. and UK markets featuring dialogue intended to activate Google Home and read out Wikipedia’s entry for the Whopper. Almost immediately, The Verge noticed that Burger King’s ad team had surreptitiously edited the Whopper entry from Wikipedia’s typical dispassionate summary “…signature hamburger product sold by the international fast-food restaurant chain…” to unambiguous marketing-speak “…flame-grilled patty made with 100 percent beef with no preservatives or fillers…” Then, predictably, unidentified randos joined in and hijacked the entry to disparage the mass-market burger, producing head-scratching headlines like this one from BBC: “Burger King advert sabotaged on Wikipedia”.

Although Burger King was probably unaware of Wikipedia’s policy “Wikipedia is not a soapbox or means of promotion” and practically guaranteed ignorant of the guideline “Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point” that should hardly matter; Burger King knew what it was doing, and figured the ensuing coverage was worth the cost. They were probably right. But I can’t not play the schoolmarm, and tsk-tsk: it’s one thing for a high-school student to vandalize Wikipedia for fun, but quite another for a multinational corporation.

6. Wikipedia Vandalism is Fun for All

Last year’s version of this column decried the phenomenon of lazy sports-bloggers leaning on blink-and-you-missed-it vandalism of sports-related Wikipedia articles for amusement and clicks, and this continued unabated throughout 2017. Most of these stories came from minor sports websites and local news teams, but just as Wikipedia’s prominence owes to its high Google search ranking, so too are these time-wasters afforded visibility by Google News. But this year, we got something else: ostensibly serious news publications marveling over a pattern of self-aware edits coming from U.S. congressional computers.

US CSince 2014, the automated Twitter account @CongressEdits has tracked and reposted every edit made from House and Senate offices; in October, BuzzFeed and CNN both noticed that someone on the Hill was editing articles from Carly Rae Jepsen to Chuck E. Cheese, and on subjects as ubiquitous as Star Wars to obscure as indie band The Mountain Goats. In December, a college student and former congressional aide claimed credit in The Daily Beast, which led to other former interns and anonymous persons crying out for recognition as well. Whether for the lulz, or as part of “the resistance”, these edits at least proved that curiosity about Wikipedia’s willful vulnerability to nonsense appeals to journalists and readers who should probably be focused on something else.

5. Signpost of the Times

WikipediaSignpostIcon.svgA year ago, this list bemoaned the decline of Wikipedia criticism, largely based on the departure of critical thinkers (or at least decent writers) from forums such as Wikipediocracy. This year, I find myself concerned with Wikipedia’s own community news source, The Signpost. A bi-weekly online “newspaper”, The Signpost has been around since 2005, written and edited by volunteers much as Wikipedia itself is. In early 2016 a new editor-in-chief took the reins, led with an ambitious and hopeful editor’s note, produced three issues by the end of February, and then simply stopped.

The editor, a longtime community veteran and onetime WMF staffer, in fact ceased editing Wikipedia almost entirely. I thought about investigating it at the time, but figured I already knew the basics: burnout is a natural occurrence and all but inevitable, although it’s less typical for a project leader to step away without so much as a “gone fishin'” sign. By June, a skeleton crew of former contributors had banded together to put out an edition on at least a once-per-month basis, with a new permanent editor named as of September. Here’s hoping they can return the Signpost to its former schedule and retain its high quality.

In the meantime, I’ll say again what I’ve said many times before: The Signpost is hard work and is a crucial service for the core Wikipedia community; its health is in some ways a measure of the health of the community itself. Its editorship should be a stipended position, funded by but free from oversight of the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia does not depend upon volunteer developers, nor should it depend on volunteer reporters.

4. Everipedia Stalking

What’s Everipedia? Oh, it’s just the latest upstart challenging Wikipedia, this time an actual startup: a rival wiki-based online encyclopedia launched in 2014 by a couple of UCLA students, which later attracted investment from excommunicated Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam, and in December also the involvement of expatriate Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.

195px-L_SangerEveripedia is certainly audacious, calling itself the world’s biggest encyclopedia (for having exported all of Wikipedia’s entries and then adding more Wikipedia wouldn’t accept) and it projects a certain braggadocio not typically found in online knowledge repositories (at one time, its founders liked to call it “Thug Wikipedia”). It’s also not Sanger’s first attempt at a do-over, having left Wikipedia citing philosophical differences early on; his decidedly more staid Citizendium effort is itself now more than 10 years old, but with only a handful of active editors, is all but a dead project.

The most interesting thing about Everipedia, though, is its pivot to using blockchain technology and announced development of a cyrptocurrency with which to pay contributors. I’m curious to be sure, but even more sure of my skepticism. No question, Wikipedia is built on a relatively ancient software framework, and there is a case to be made that blockchain’s public ledger could represent an advancement in recording all “transactions”. But this is what Harvard’s Clayton Christensen would call a “sustaining innovation”, not a “disruptive innovation”—there’s no reason Wikipedia couldn’t adopt a blockchain ledger should the idea prove meritorious, meanwhile there’s very little chance that Everipedia can replace the day-to-day deliberations of an editorial community more than 15 years old. Culture is impossible to replicate, and extremely difficult to develop. I can’t promise an assortment of brogrammers and Wikipedia’s kooky uncle won’t pull it off, but I have my doubts.

3. Hey, Big Spenders

Wikimedia_Foundation_financial_development_multilanguage.svgWikipedia’s fundraising prowess, ever-growing expenses, and nevertheless-expanding bank account are a matter of interest year in and year out. From about $56,000 in the bank at the end of the 2004 fiscal year to more than $90 million by 2016, Wikipedia’s financial situation is still growing in a way that’s entirely divorced from the number of volunteers actively participating. In February, a 12-year veteran editor published an alarming (or alarmist) op-ed at the then-functioning Signpost with the unfortunate headline “Wikipedia Has Cancer”.

The controversial connotation (which I realize I’ve also made in #10) was very much intended: Wikipedia’s financial position has far exceeded what is necessary for the running of this non-profit, volunteer-driven project. What happens if (and presumably when) revenues slow—will the Wikimedia Foundation adjust spending downward, or start taking on debt? Pointing to recent failures in WMF software development initiatives as a reason to worry about Wikipedia’s leadership, the op-ed called for a spending freeze and greater transparency in financial matters. With some fiscal discipline, and Wikipedia’s newly-established endowment, Wikipedia could live comfortably off its prior fundraising indefinitely. Although the rhetoric was probably excessive, it struck a nerve, attracting an overwhelming number of comments in a discussion that continued for months. Soon after, an article in Quartz called the resulting frenzy “nuts”, and published a chart comparing Wikipedia favorably to similar institutions, including the New York Public Library and even the British Museum.

2. Slow Wiki Movement

Given the lack of high-impact news events surrounding Wikipedia, here is a new one: nothing really happened this year. That’s probably good news, but it doesn’t make for an exciting story. And for an avowed non-story, it’s relatively high-positioned as well. But as I contemplated the mood around Wikipedia over the past twelve months, I found it rather fitting.

320px-Wikidatacon_ux_participatorydesignworkshop_11Two items that just missed the cut: the WMF’s 2015 lawsuit against the NSA, dismissed by one court, was reinstated by another, and this could well be a standalone entry next year. And Wikipedia’s open database, Wikidata, continued to develop and grow, but all of this happened behind the scenes, without any single inflection point (though attendees of the first-ever Wikidatacon are free to disagree with me).

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s edit wars and paid editing scuffles continued, but few made actual news. Trolls, especially of the GamerGate variety, continued to be a nuisance, but (for now) are not an existential threat. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance barely registered a blip, Wikipedia’s editorship numbers again ticked upward, and Wikimania Montreal went off without a hitch. Other topics this year-end report card series has discussed before were also ho-hum: no major sock puppet networks detected, no major article-creation milestones (we’re just over halfway to 6 million), the detente between Wikipedia and education continues, and the Visual Editor continues to work even as most veterans ignore it. Yes, Turkey blocked Wikipedia, but following China and Russia having done so in previous years, it hardly made a dent.

This is what maturity looks like: Wikipedia is Wikipedia, and seems likely to continue doing what it does for a long time to come. So, does it feel like we’re celebrating?

1. WikiTribune’s Rocky Start

wikitribuneIn keeping with the somnolence of the previous item, this year’s top story isn’t even about Wikipedia: it’s about WikiTribune, the other new initiative from Wikipedia’s other co-founder, Jimmy Wales. Announced to great fanfare and no little skepticism in April, Wales’ long-dreamed wiki-based online news site finally launched at the end of October. Early reviews were not enthusiastic, and it has been little remarked-upon since. As of this writing, it has continued publishing a few stories a day, none with any apparent impact. WikiTribune offers little more than what other news operations are doing, and less of it.

In May, this blog offered advice about how it might stand out in a crowded online world: by focusing on developing news teams at the local level, and trial-run innovations that might be ported back Wikipedia. But WikiTribune seems determined to cover international news with no discernible viewpoint or special access, and has no connection to Wikipedia besides its name and famous founder. Why would anyone visit WikiTribune for news over any other publication? I have no idea. Alas, WikiTribune looks like just another much-heralded effort to reinvent news by doing the exact same thing that other news publications were already struggling to keep doing in seemingly impossible circumstances. Whether WikiTribune survives to see the end of 2018, or makes this list a year from now, I have no idea either.

Photo credits, in order: Avery Jensen; Alex Muller / Wikidea; David Slater; Restaurant Brands International; Public domain; Kjoonlee; Larry Sanger; Sameboat; Jan Dittrich; WikiTribune.