Tuesday, April 05, 2011


Well-known & overlooked Wikipedia essays

Everyone who studies the phenomenon of Wikipedia knows about Raul's Laws. Everyone who writes about Wikipedia quotes from them as if they are the authoritative commentary on how Wikipedia works, something I noticed as I read Joseph Reagle's Good Faith Collaboration. Many of the chapters in his book begin with a headnote drawn from this collection.

It is well-known because it was the first collection of observations compiled, & a number of other Wikipedians contributed their own "Laws". So one could conclude that it this collection of essays is an authoritative statement on Wikipedia.

But I consider anyone who cites "Raul's Laws" guilty of considering only one vision of Wikipedia. There are other, IMHO more insightful, personal essays. One alternative I consider the counterpoint to Raul's Laws is Antandrus' observations on Wikipedia behavior. Where Raul's Laws is full of statements added by people eager to be part of the spotlight (& yes, that comment could be applied to me), & for that reason this collection often appears flashy & superficial, I often think of Antandrus' list as quiet & profound. One goes to Raul's Laws to add a witty comment for others to see; one goes to Antandrus' list to read & wonder if anyone else has seen it.

I don't have any desire to criticize Raul's list; there are a number of valid insights there. I simply believe that Antandrus' list is too easily overlooked by people -- both pundits & Wikipedians -- who want to understand what is going on there. Often something is better explained in the latter's list than in the former's.

I am often amazed at how many essays on Wikipedia can be found in the personal spaces of many users, many yielding far more insight than those in the public "Wikipedia" name space. Wikipedians often are reluctant to put their essays in public spaces because then they will lose control over what is often a personal reflection on their own experiences. Unfortunately this means the best writing on & about Wikipedia is the hardest to find.


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Friday, October 01, 2010


To make something, it helps to know what it is

Instead of doing something productive like folding clothes or writing Wikipedia articles, I spent a slice of my free time this afternoon looking at the links in the Navibox of Essays on building Wikipedia. It links to a number of interesting essays; not "interesting" in the sense of encouraging me to be a better writer of Wikipedia articles, but "interesting" in the sense of making me wonder about the mindset of my fellow editors.

Take, for example, this passage from the essay "Wikipedia:Bare notability", concerning research from non-web sources:

Look off the web: Visiting your local library may help. But sources found on the web are more likely to be trusted than those that are not simply because they are accessible to more people. So if an off-web source is used, try to make it as detailed as possible to increase the chances of verifiability.

The first thing I thought when I read that second sentence was, "But it must be true: I read it on the Internet." In a sarcastic tone, of course.

Of course, I changed it. My version might be considered too harsh, and might be severely rewritten by the time anyone reads this, but dammit when did it become common knowledge that the resources of your local library was always a poor second to the results of a Google search?

I wish my concerns ended there. I read a few more essays, some better thought-through than this one, until I found myself looking for a specific one, which was not there: How to research and write an article for Wikipedia. Actually, after "Wikipedia:Bare notability", I'd be happy to find an essay on only how to research an article; but essays on both would be useful.

My first thought was to consult my copy of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research papers, sixth edition, and use that to fill the need. The MLA Handbook has a useful chapter at the front on how to research and write a research paper, and after all the average Wikipedia article is a research paper. But after reading the first five pages of that book I had to put that idea aside, partly because to use it as an authority I'd have to deal with the author's assumption that a good research paper will include an idea or interpretation which has not been expressed before -- which violates Wikipedia's policy on no original research -- and explaining that away would effectively negate the MLA Handbook's value as an authority. (BTW, the major reason I had to put the book aside was that I had to get my daughter Rachel to lie back down to her nap. The joys of children!)

More importantly, I believe we would not have many of the problems over content had a definition over what is an encyclopedia. Instead we have Jimmy Wales' assertion, "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing." So instead of creating an encyclopedia, an introduction to a subject with clues to learn more about it, we have a website with the authoritative statement on practically every conceivable subject, which means a great many people have a vested interest in what it says. Not only topics about which people have killed and died over (like Israel and Palestine), or people have argued about for centuries (like any religious belief or creed), but even something like the aorist conjugation.

But this is an understandable oversight: in the early days of Wikipedia, everyone involved knew what an encyclopedia was, and knew what a satisfactory encyclopedia article should look like. However with the passing years the community around Wikipedia has changed, and I can't help but suspect a large number of Wikipedians have never seen an actual encyclopedia in book form. They have an unrealistic assumption of an encyclopedia, which is often far more serious or stodgy than the ones I used in high school were. So that horse has escaped the barn long before anyone could close the door.

But at the least, could someone write an essay on how to research a subject for an article? It would benefit both Wikipedia's reputation for reliability, as well as the new contributor who might not know about the resources available, both online and off. I would write that essay, but on one hand I suspect my reputation on Wikipedia has suffered greatly and on the other my own interest in the project has likewise suffered greatly.


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Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Pending changes: Further thoughts

Thanks to Jospeh Reagle (here's his blog) for pointing me to Wikipedia:Pending changes/Metrics/Preliminary Analysis. I hadn't seen it before my last post, and I appreciate the work that Howief into quantifying this.

However, my first impression of reading Howief's good-faith attempt here reinforces my suspicion, voiced here and elsewhere, that Pending Changes is something no one who supports it actually has a rational reason for adopting it. Most of his analysis is devoted to simply getting a handle on what happened, which is borne out by his statement at the beginning: "This analysis is meant to serve as a starting point to help focus the data for community discussion." No one began this test with expressed assumptions of what would happen, and now that it is over no one can say whether the test succeeded or failed -- and why.

Chris.urs-o's criticism of the analysis is very insightful, better than what I wanted to say. The one point Chris did not raise, which I'll make here, is that no data was provided for just how long did it take for a change caught by the Pending changes software to be processed. This is an important piece of information for considering just how far will pending changes scale. No matter how well this change might work, only so many editors will review and act on the edits Pending changes affects; if not enough editors participate, pending changes will break at some point.

I could ask for more analysis, but I suspect that the fix is in: love it, hate it, or just don't care, Pending changes will be foisted upon the English Wikipedia. According to this story in the latest Signpost, Jimmy Wales was asked by the Wikimedia Foundation to interpret the discussion on Pending changes. Despite the general belief that voting is not a viable resolution for disputes, Wales states that it is "clear that there’s absolutely no consensus for simply turning the system off and walking away."

As I have written, Wales is not impartial on this matter: he has advocated for Pending changes in the past. Noting the straw poll has been closed at a 65% to 35% vote in favor of Pending changes, he claims "that there’s absolutely no consensus for simply turning the system off and walking away." This is in disagreement with a far more thoughtful interpretation by Cenarium. Cenarium concluded that, despite C's own views on Pending changes, there was no consensus to keep it in place; however, this did not mean Pending changes could not be adopted in the future, rather that it was time to build on consensus and "calmly analyze the trial, the merits of PC, and discuss of possible new implementation proposals which would have to acquire consensus for adoption". But in the end, it appears when Wales is in favor of something, although over one in three people are opposed to it, he believes their opinions are irrelevant. I always thought that "consensus" was something that all participants could agree to; I guess I was wrong.

I don't mean to sound cynical in that paragraph; as I type this I actually feel closer to sadness and disappointment. I don't consider Pending changes to be something so critical to Wikipedia's survival to justify overriding the desires of such a large group of people who respectfully disagree. If it's a good thing, it will eventually be adopted; if it isn't, then we shouldn't be in a hurry to adopt it. Approaching this disagreement in this way, those who work to develop and refine policy will gain the confidence of the rest of the Wikipedia community, who would rather work on its contents than engage in the bitter, and often inconclusive, disputes over the policy. I know I would rather be able to have faith and trust in them, but despite my frequent displays of cynicism I am probably incredibly naive.


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Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Pending changes, & how it defines Wikipedia

Well, the English language Wikipedia I mean.

For those of you who aren't that familiar with the latest conflicts at Wikipedia -- which has now come to include a large share of active Wikipedians -- probably the most important is the deadlock over whether or not to continue a test of the "pending changes" feature.

The proposed feature is simple enough. For certain groups of editors -- those editting anonymously or with a new account -- their contributions are sent to a queue where they must first be approved before being made visible to one and all -- such as people who are simply reading Wikipedia, who make up over 90% of its users. Otherwise, the edit is deleted.

This is something that Jimmy Wales has long advocated for (see here for one example), and as a result many Wikipedians consider it a good thing. And maybe it is; I'm undecided only because after a two month test, no one has presented any factual evidence that it solved any problems. I haven't seen any in the lengthy, at times bitter, and for the moment deadlocked discussion over its adoption. But what I have seen are examples of long-existing tensions that exist over the ideals of Wikipedia, but which have not been adequately discussed. (For all of his supposed experience with Wikipedia, I haven't seen Jimmy Wales even acknowledge their existence.)

One of these tensions is presented quite clearly on Wikipedia's front page: "the encyclopedia anyone can edit". This is both the strength and the weakness of Wikipedia -- that anyone can, and does, edit its articles. The fact that something useful has resulted -- let alone a reference work which is as useful as it is -- has been pointed out so many times to become banal. When critics pointed out that allowing "anyone" to edit, this included vandals and malicious individuals, the response was to point out that bad edits were almost always promptly reverted. And one could say it was part of the price for creating an otherwise invaluable resource; after all, when dealing with experts and powerful people, one must put up with their eccentricities to benefit from them.

However, the steady trend since its inception has been to limit the meaning of "anyone" with more and more exceptions in order to improve its quality and usefulness. Some of these exceptions are quite reasonable: vandals, kooks and cranks, people who simply can't play nice with others. Others fall into a more difficult category, such as those who want to advocate for a specific political agenda or for their own economic gain. One can't do the simple thing and exclude them all because in many cases, they are the exact experts Wikipedia needs in order to be a useful reference. So Wikipedians are forced to develop essays such as Tendentious Editting or Civil POV pushing to define the problem and help each other confront it.

And then there are some policies which came about in a quick, knee-jerk reflex whose rationale have never been adequately explained, such as denying anonymous and new editors from creating articles. This came about because of the Seigenthaler incident, where an anonymous editor made a libelous allegation about John Seigenthaler which remained undetected for four months. This denial has remained mostly out of inertia: denying anonymous editors all editting rights is a perennial proposal which, although always rejected, has strong support. And if one creates an account then waits a few days, one will be able to create articles -- so no one sees this as anything more than an inconvenience for new editors. On the other hand, it is not an effective security fix: determined troublemakers need to simply create an account and wait for it to age before abusing it to wreak havoc. This change is only a speed bump, which may discourage more new editors than it justifies in dissuading vandals; no one really knows.

Now keep in mind that I'm not criticizing putting limits on just who edits; all of us want Wikipedia to be as accurate and useful as possible. My point is that there is a tension here, between allowing anyone to edit and creating reliable content, which fails to be considered in these decisions. And when I tried to participate in the discussion on whether to continue this test, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that no one had provided the needed information to show whether this test actually improved content or not. Instead a lot of anecdotes, first impressions and opinions were being tossed around. I don't know whether to be discouraged or just sad at this.

Before I continue, I'd like to also point out that I'm not saying that these tensions are not a weakness; they are simply a fact of Wikipedia's nature. Further, by identifying the existence of these tensions I am not consciously forcing a Hegelian dialectic upon Wikipedian dynamics; rather, I am picturing a statics diagram with opposing forces in an equilibrium. In other words, this is a situation where modifying one force in the tension without sufficient care or information can destroy the existing equilibrium and lead to everything falling apart.

A second tension illustrated in this debate is an old one: the clued versuses the clueless. This tension has existed either explicitly or implicitly since practically the beginning of Wikipedia. Larry Sanger's notorious emphasis on credentials was simply one extreme version of this tendency. Most Wikipedians, whether they are professional experts, serious amateurs, or just individuals with a desire for learning, tend to be elitists; we spent our spare time reading or tinkering in order to understand something better, while everyone else was watching television, playing games, or otherwise frivolously occupied. And we often did this both at our own monetary expense, and at the derision of our peers. So, yes, Wikipedians can be elitist in how they respond to new editors; it's an assumption experienced editors often find themselves fighting against.

In this conflict, over whether to turn this experiment into a full-scale adoption, I see this tension playing out on several levels. One level is the change itself: that new and unregistered editors are somehow less clued than the established ones. While a reasonable assumption, it inadvertently insults those new editors who are knowledgeable, forcing them to run a gauntlet to make even trivial changes of spelling or punctuation. But another, and more serious, level can be seen in how the two camps are discussing this proposal: many of the participants seem from their tone to be one step away from responding to their opposite number with something along the lines of "well, if you were smart and actually knew what was going on, the solution would be obvious to you and you'd agree with me."

And, in my humble opinion, I believe that this elitism is more prevalent on the side which wants to adopt this change and make "Pending changes" permanent.

The problem for anyone not invested heavily in this discussion -- like me -- is that I don't see any proof that this will fix any of the problems it is supposed to fix. No one has provided the evidence showing not only that it will solve the problem of incorrect information being inserted into articles, but to what degree. (This feature can be subverted, some times rather simply. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.) And then there is the trade-off of discouraging new editors from further contributions: one of the enticements that is often mentioned by new users is the thrill of seeing one's edit accepted for all to see.

There is the advantage that some articles no longer need to be indefinitely semi-protected or fully protected -- but no one has provided evidence whether applying "Pending changes" to certain contentious articles will work better in protecting content than protecting those articles. However, instead of providing a comparison between these two approaches, those for adopting "Pending changes" simply assert that it is the best approach, and that it should be adopted immediately.

I am all for any change which improves Wikipedia's content, but Wikipedia has grown so large and so complex that I doubt anyone understands how it works comprehensively any more. I used to criticize Jimmy Wales because in many of his responses to its problems it was clear he no longer understood either the community or its dynamics; only those in constant interaction with the community, with editting articles and debating policy would have any chance of knowing. He had been out of touch with the day-to-day activities of Wikipedia for years now. More recently, despite the fact I participate in some way daily on Wikipedia, I've realized that I have grown out of touch. And it is clear that many other core members are too, for people will assume the concensus around a given article or discussion page is identical to its state when they last viewed it, when it may have changed radically in a few months or even weeks.

And here is yet another tension present in Wikipedia: between its constant changing and the need to manage that evolution. Its increasing rate of change, most of the time but not always for the better, has left practically all of its members behind and out of touch. There are no more "clued" Wikipedians -- assuming they existed in the first place. Some may see this as a good thing because it is this uncontrolled evolution which is responsible for Wikipedia's success; but if this true, then why does Wales, a philosophical libertarian, feel compelled to intervene when there is a problem? Wikipedia needs some management, and for management to be successful one needs information.

I like to think that the dynamics of Wikipedia can be controlled, through the same approach which existed in the beginning, through open discussion and building consensuses. It through this discussion and consensus-building that information is shared. The problem is that often, to arrive at a timely decision shortcuts needed to be made. Yes, one last tension that exists in Wikipedia! (I guess now that I've seen a few structural tensions The old shortcuts, however, no longer work; we need to either find and create new ones, or accept the need to laboriously build consensuses at every new change. Because the one thing that will kill Wikipedia is have a single person who makes all of the decisions; Wikipedia has flourished because of its "out of control" nature, not despite it.



Friday, May 14, 2010


Oh gosh! There's porn in Wikimedia Commons!

By now, everyone who cares about the functioning of the Wikimedia projects has heard about Larry Sanger's allegations that he found child pornography -- which is illegal in every country on Earth which aspires to some degree of respectability -- on Wikimedia Commons. And everyone who has investigated has discovered that the materials concerned -- some 27 images -- aren't actual examples of child pornography, but items associated with this shadowy sub-culture: pictures of a number of protests, some logos of pedophile groups, two images of child prostitutes, and some examples of 19th-century illustrations which could be considered child pornography in certain places.

Sheesh, not even one image of the Coppertone girl? She was that toddler in pig-tails with the swimming bottoms pulled down by a frisky puppy. Ignoring copyright concerns, now that could be considered kiddy porn. After all, allegedly it was a favorite decoration of prison cells in the 1960s. (And then there is that scandalous episode of "The Monkees", where one character carries a topless little girl along the beach! And it was broadcast on network television. Disgusting!)

The sad development in all of this is that after a certain conservative misinformation organization masquerading as a news channel ran with this non-story, Jimmy Wales panicked and decided to delete a bunch of images he thought were pornographic. (Story here.) Which only led to Wales relinquishing some of his administrative rights to appease a justly offended community.

Now allegedly there are a lot of images of a sexual nature in Commons which lack any educational or informative use. These include out-of-focus photos of genitalia, and avatars from Second Life doing things most people have only experienced by watching exotic porno videos. Or certain websites which come and go without much notice. Further, it's reasonably accurate to say that most people who volunteer with one of the Wikimedia projects -- or even at Commons itself -- believe most of these should be deleted. But let's put this into perspective.

Now in quality control, reaching a 99% success rate is pretty good. Especially if this is done by a bunch of unpaid volunteers who take time from their families, friends and employers to do the work. Reaching a 99.99% success rate is even better. Yet at either rate, there will be some materials which slip through which are undesirable, if not repugnant and illegal like child pornography. So had it actually been true that all 27 images had been undeniable examples of children under the age of 16 being coerced into sexual acts, as disturbing as the results was, the folks running Commons were still doing a fantastic job at monitoring content.

Had that been the case, Jimmy Wales should have written by hand a thank-you letter to each Administrator at Commons for the fine work they had done, not arbitrarily delete images he did not want there. (And no telling how many volunteers at Commons were offended by the act of a "hands-off" manager, and decided to find another use for their time.)

But since we all can agree that 27 images would be 27 too many, what should be done to improve things there? Besides looking for images that most of us really don't want to see and nominating them for deletion?

This blog post is already too long, so I'll have to defer my answer to this question to another post. But the solutions I would propose really aren't that hard to do, and I suspect that some of them have already been implemented on Commons.


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Wednesday, April 28, 2010


A thought for spring

The liberal arts is a struggle. It is the unending, yet inevitably unsuccessful, rearguard struggle against ignorance and oblivion. Every day new people are born, who eventually learn to talk, to read, to think. Unless we share with them our experiences, our wisdom & histories, they will never know them. But we cannot share all of these with those who come after us, so every day as someone dies, another battle is lost.

That is why I tell myself I contribute to Wikipedia.

It is one way to transfer what has been preserved in print into the electronic medium, where hopefully this material will continue to survive, & be found & used by those who are not yet alive. However, not all of this material will make the transition; the majority of what has been written has not made the jump into print, & the majority of what has been said, let alone experienced, has likewise failed to make the jump into a more permanent form.

So the best we can do is to keep the number of defeats to a manageable number, & hope that those who are not yet alive will join in this unending, demoralizing rearguard struggle. For if we concede this struggle, the result will be worse than the current status.


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Thursday, December 11, 2008


After much time

I left a comment on the Talk page to Wikipedia:Don't Feed the Divas, which expresses something that I've been trying to say in a way that didn't sound to me as if I were simply whining. I don't know how many people read that page, so I thought I would reprint it here -- in case anyone is still monitoring my blog.


Reading this essay, I wondered if it applied to me; after all, a few months back I grew angry over how I was being treated, threw a fit & went on a Wikibreak. However considering my experience carefully, I saw that it actually didn't. First, anyone who has contributed to Wikipedia for more than a few months will agree that there are some unpleasant people here that make the experience unpleasant: cranks & ruleswankers, for example. Then there is the matter that the most active Wikipedian remains a stranger to the vast majority of other active contributors: we have little or no ability to build up an informal reputation here, even as far as to alert our peers that one is not just another newbie. As a result, as much as any of us -- okay, as much as I would like to receive lots of praise & validation that I'm an important member of Wikipedia, most of the time I'm by far happier if the rest of you just leave me alone to work on my own little corner. I don't want any praise, just a reasonable amount of civility & the assumptoin that I usually know what I'm doing.

Next, my motivations didn't quite match those described in this essay. I had decided to leave for a while first -- yes, in part to see if anyone noticed, but also because I was growing angry with certain users & knew that if I did take a break I might do something I would later regret. But no one noticed; we all think we're more important than we really are & it sucks when we learn the truth. I was about to accept this humbling discovery & move on with my life when, glancing thru the usual places in an admittedly self-centered quest for validation, I found Yet Another thread about a certain borderline contributor. Now that ticked me off & I threw a tantrum, which got me attention, sadly. And I still wonder why the only way I could get any attention was by being unreasonable.

Lastly, I have been troubled by a phenomenon of Wikipedia which has continued for a long time, several years in fact: the steady loss of experienced members. Almost all of the people who made Wikipedia work when I started here back in late 2002 have gone, & I wonder why that is. These people are our institutional history, the ones with experience in the ways of Wikipedia who can prevent us from repeating mistakes. Most of them have gone & the few who haven't operate under the radar, more interested in being left alone to edit articles than to share their experience with newer Wikipedians. It's as if being a Wikipedian means you contribute until you eventually burn out, then either blow up like a supernova or simply fade away like a dimming white dwarf. Neither is a worthy ending for so many altruistic contributions to an important project.

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