Saturday, June 30, 2007


The barrier to entry at Wikipedia

You might have seen my response to Andrew Lih's blog entry, "Wikipedia Plateau?". If not, go ahead and read Andrew's essay, and the various responses his thoughts provoked. Somehow, he managed to attract a wide variety of people, not all of whom are the usual voices when it comes to Wikipedia -- which I commend him for, and makes his post all the more worth reading.

I'm not sure we understood each other, but one thing Andrew wrote in reply to my comment got me thinking:
The task of article improvement -- copyediting, fact checking, grammar usage and cross article consistency -- has historically been less popular than the immediate gratificiation of content creation and features addition. The former activities are likely to be less social, and pertain to certain personal pet peeves and hangups. ... Another problem with the "least work" hypothesis is that it takes a lot of work to find that "least work." What that means is you need to be quite adept in navigating to and interpreting the Community Portal to access the queues of pending requests and outstanding tasks that now make up the easiest and most requested ones from the community.

On one hand, I think Andrew misses my point of how the drop in new article creation is related to the idea that "all of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked". For some reason, he believes that newbie Wikipedians make a conscious effort to satisfy the requests of other users when they write articles -- which has rarely been the case. Speaking from my own experience, which has been verified by anecdotal evidence, becoming a Wikipedian is a far more organic, unplanned process. It usually starts by fixing obvious typos or grammatical errors, or maybe supplying a fact or two -- the same actions that Andrew says "has historically been less popular than the immediate gratificiation of content creation." Yes, there have been people who have waded into Wikipedia by creating an article from scratch -- or debating content with another editor -- but it is the simple things that prove to the newbie that Wikipedia has a low barrier to entry that gives her or him the confidence to quickly move from the simpler tasks to the more challenging ones.

But to stand by that alone would be simply a qubbling or trivial details. People write the articles for Wikipedia that they believe Wikipedia should contain -- and there are a lot of topics for articles that Wikipedia does not yet have. I was reminded of this last weekend when I thumbed through my copy of Peterson's Field Guide to Shell of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii, and quickly discovered about 50 species in my Peterson's did not have articles -- not even stubs.

As I reflected on the process that led me into Wikipedia, I began to realize that had I discovered Wikipedia today, and followed the same steps that I had taken almost five years ago, I don't know if I would have stayed with it for more than a few weeks or months. Comparing my experience to the experience I witness many newbies have with joining Wikipedia, I find that it is harder to become a Wikipedian now than it was even 18 months ago. Years ago, the community was more welcoming, and less dogma-driven than it is now. For example, out of all of the articles I created in the first year I was part of Wikipedia, I can only think of two where I supplied sources -- and that only because I suspected that in those cases no one would believe that I hadn't made up the material out unless I supplied some form of sources. In one case, I simply added a couple of scholarly articles I had used to write the article (and within a couple of days, I had to go back and revert the changes another experienced editor had made -- she evidently did not know the proper bibliographic style to quote an article); in the other I quoted a paragraph from a usenet post -- a medium is still considered by some Wikipedians without exception an unreliable source.

I don't mean to make it sound as if the early days was a paradise that fame and popularity took from us. But at the same time, anyone who made a change to an article was not greeted with the stern words

Do not copy text from other websites without a GFDL-compatible license. It will be deleted.

Contributors did not have to worry about biographies they wrote on living people being reduced arbitrarily to a one-sentence stub -- or swiftly deleted because someone thought the article was an attempt to slip some free advetising in. (Hopefully the Business FAQ will reduce this possibility.) Asking a stupid questions did not result with a brusque answer or being branded a troll. And creating an article that was a synthesis of various incidents into a general survey did not bring the risk of having it deleted for being "original research."

I'll admit that I've been on the other side, treating a new Wikipedian with undeserved contempt for a trivial act. And the community has a new problem with people who think they need to have an account on Wikipedia -- but have no interest in writing an encyclopedia, or anything other than editting their user pages and their friend's talk pages. Yet, whenever the words grow heated over the perennial topic of "following process" and "ignore all rules", I can't stop from wondering if the participants consider whether they are providing the wrong examples for new users. Both tools are increasingly abused to claim the existence of a consensus and force their preference upon everyone else -- and requests to slow things down and talk are arrogantly dismissed. (Wikipedia has seen a number of discussions in the last few months that were "speedily closed" -- which only prolonged the discussion and made the parties more acrimonious.)

While I admit I'm saddened by this development, it is not necessarily a bad one. About 10 years ago, the community around developing the Linux kernel was about as flat as the Wikipedia community is now: anyone could present a patch or change to Linus Torwalds, and if he liked the code it went into the next release. Nowdays, kernel development is very hierarchical, and there is the impression that would-be coders should read the Linux kernel development mailing list for several weeks before sending out their first email -- and even then, many are treated brutally. Yet the community produces code that has been favorably reviewed.

Jimbo Wales has often stated that wiki is simply a tool to create an encyclopedia, that there is no permanent commitment to this approach. Because it can be jettisoned at any point if the tool no longer works, there is no guarrantee than in five or 10 years Wikipedia won't adopt a structure similar to the Linux development community. However, I wonder when that comes to happen who will populate the structure of that future project -- and if the peole will have a more favorable proportion of qualified people than other possible models.


Technocrati tags: , ,


Friday, June 29, 2007


A proposed venue for the 2008 Wikimania

If Cippalusi is selected to host the 2008 Wikimania Conference, I could continue a proud family tradition: the first time my Dad visited Italy, people shot at him; going to Cippalusi, people would shoot at me. However, he caught hepatitis drinking from a contaminated water source, and that is one tradition I do not want to continue.

(In case you're wondering, my Dad went to Italy in the 1940s as an employee of the US government, so to speak; after Italy he was scheduled to travel to Japan and work there also, but the government ended the project early and sent him home to Oregon. Which was a good thing, because the working conditions in Japan were not expected to be as good as they were in Italy.)


Technocrati tags: , , ,


Thursday, June 28, 2007


Tonight's BarCamp Get-Together

I fought the traffic on Sunset Highway for an hour to get to the June BarCamp get-together about a half-hour late. I've been later.

Not much to retell, except John Seechrest's probing questions about how to attract enough computer programmers and other technology workers to meet the demands of the companies in Corvallis. According to John, he met with the management of over 10 growing high-tech businesses located there earlier today, who expect they need to fill in total about 100 openings for programmers with Java, .NET and C++ skills -- but don't know how to attract them to Corvallis to live. A few of us discussed brain-stormed for ideas to meet the need, of what it would take to make Corvallis an attractive place -- like Portland has become, much to my surprise.

One way I can help John in this quest is to mention that there are some cool events happening there. One is da Vinci's Days, which will convene on 20-22 July for the 19th year. OSCON begins the following week in Portland, so one could attend both with not much trouble.


Technocrati tags: , ,


Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Time and topics

My silence hasn't been for a lack of topics. Things have been changing at Wikipedia, as they do in any dynamic, thriving community. However, I've had more to occupy my time with than just the need to earn a paycheck in order to keep the cats fed and afford more books. Some of what happened in the last few days:

Meanwhile, the following notable events happened at Wikipedia:

I don't want to fall into my usual rut of cynicism, but I can't help concluding that I thought hobbies were supposed to be fun -- or at least provide a sense of satisfaction.


Technocrati tags: ,


Monday, June 18, 2007


Just another thing, that happens far too often

When I read Annalee Newitz's post "Wikipedia Activism", where she states that"another entry [was] recently deleted for not being notable enough -- that of Sonia Greene", my first response was to be angry at my fellow Wikipedians. I immediately assumed that another group of well-meaning knuckleheads nominated, debated and deleted a perfectly legitimite article. Something that happens far too often, and always ends up making Wikipedia look foolish.

So I decided to poke into matters -- only to be baffled by the fact that I could not find any record of a debate for the article's deletion. I looked a little further into the history of the article, and discovered that the article had been deleted not for being about a subject that failed the notability criteria, but because it was a copyright violation: it had been copied from another website, without either attribution or obvious permission. Another thing that happens far too often, and while it doesn't make Wikipedia look foolish it's obviously not a good thing.

So Newitz has basically misunderstood (or misrepresented) just what happened on Wikipedia. No one claimed that Sonia Greene was not notable enough to warrant an article about her: someone had merely removed material that had been stolen from another author. I'd think that someone who makes her living from writing would know what a copyright infringement is, but I guess that doesn't make for a good enough reason for writing another criticism about Wikipedia. Just another thing that happens far too often, and while it doesn't make Wikipedia look foolish, it does make someone look foolish.

I would have posted this in the comments to her post, but that would require that I create an account on Alternet first. Since I have this perfectly functional blog here, which I haven't posted to enough times in the last few weeks, this often-repeated story, with the usual plot twists, appears here.


Technocrati tags: ,


Sunday, June 17, 2007


A practical review

This morning I happened to be browsig at a local bookstore, when I noticed that they have four unsold hardbound copies of Tom DeLay's book. So I decided to help them move it by moving them to the section the best belonged in -- True Crime.



Tuesday, June 12, 2007


On the depth of the Internet

It always surprises me -- a surprise that always leads me into hours of wasteful websurfing -- what there is in the Internet that I have never stumbled across before. I don't mean which company, organization, or government agency now has a website full of material to comb through; it's that there are complete, vibrant communities out there, which have been flourishing for years, and whose existence was unknown to me -- even when it shouldn't be.

Case in point is Wiki Wednesdays, an idea with a corny name. (My thanks to Mark Dilley for pointing me to this.) For years, a group of people (with a little help from SocialText) have been trying to encourage people interested in Wikis and their communities to meet face to face.

I haven't been very good about organizing face-to-face meetups -- mostly because I tend to concentrate more on content than social interaction. But the idea of an informal, once-a-month drop in appeals to me. Sometimes I just don't want to leave the house, and attend a gathering like this month's Portland Linux/UNIX Group meeting. But I find that knowing that these meetings will be held every month makes it easier for me. I don't feel guilty if I've had a busy day and need to stay home that night and vegetate.

I'm hoping that Portland will have these get-togethers on a regular basis.


Technorati tags: ,

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


"And so the problem remained"

Gosh, has it been truly that long since my last blog entry?

At the last Recent Changes Camp, Ward Cunningham pulled me into a conversation and asked me what I thought might limit the growth of Wikipedia. Always eager to pontificate, I said that it wouldn't be a technological problem -- because the Wikimedia Foundation could always buy a few more servers and solve that problem; it's not as if the average Wikipedia page was graphics-laden and required a couple of minutes to download. Rather, the problem lay in the people:Wikipedia could keep growing in size of articles, and in size of membership, until something came along that decisively fractures the community.

I was thinking about that comment this week, as I read about the struggles around the Bad Jokes and Other Deleted Nonsense pages (or BJAODN for short). This is a selection of the better examples of the deleted material Wikipedians remove from articles on a constant basis. (Yes, most of it is worse than this.) Some of the items are funny, although I'll admit that I failed to find enough of it to read its content more than once or twice. But some of the editors enjoy either reading or contributing to this collection, and since it doesn't either affect what I contribute or bother me I'm quite willing to let it exist.

Then, as the Signpost reports (well, I thought I saw it in the Signpost -- or
did they update pages on me when I wasn't looking?), Jeffrey O. Gustafson announces that he has deleted all of the BJAODN pages because it violates the terms of the Gnu Free Documentation License (GFDL). Actually, there have been a few other reasons given from time to time for deleting all of these pages, but that one seemed to be good enough for Gustafson to act on. As I just said, I don't give a lot of thought to BJAODN, but this seemed like a very callous move, which showed a lot of indifference to just what the rest of the community might think. After all, these pages have been around for as long as Wikipedia has. Further, there have been a number of other unilateral decisions to "tighten up" matters around Wikipedia that have gone unaddressed for "way too long".

After the noise around that act has quieted a little, Sj then decides to undelete these pages. This results in more noise: "Outrageous. Should be taken to ArbCom" says one. "I can see no reason for you not to block him." writes
. The murmuring resumes, discussions about the matter are opened and immediately suppressed, and WikiEN-l has several long threads on the latest developments.

To repeat what I wrote, I don't have a strong opinion on the matter, but looking at just the names of who's involved shows that this is not a case of one identifiable group of editors against another; Wikipedians who have been volunteering for varying periods of time and to varying degrees are lining up on either side of this controversy, and eyeing each other as if considering whether it is time to bring out the knives and guns. As I looked over WP:AN/I earlier today, it looked as if the matter is finding its way to a compromise, but there have been an increasing number of insensitive and unilateral acts on Wikipedia lately, so I wouldn't be surprised if the hostility erupts over something else soon.

Why is it always the silly, trivial matters that lead to conflict?


Technocrati tags: , ,

Labels: ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours? Site Meter