Sunday, July 29, 2007
A stale Slashdot exchange
I did so today, because I read halfway through Milos article, "Re: Sounds like Wikipedia needs to study a few ideas" when my curiousity was incited to look once again at Slashdot. Where I found Georgewilliamherbert had an account, which led me to look at my own account. And found this thread concerning Wikipedia. I started out explaining the concept "notability", to which someone named "Anonymous Coward" (he sure makes a lot of posts to Wikipedia) wrote:
'Fess up. You LIKE being a pompous ass.
For a moment, I wished I had seen this much earlier so I could have responded -- even though sometimes I do like being pompous. Then I saw what someone else with the exact same name wrote:
That's what your mom said last night.
If Sean Connery continues to defend me on Slashdot, I might return.
Technorati tags: Blogging, Slashdot
Saturday, July 28, 2007
An update to my OSCON post
For the Jimmy Wales fans out there, Rogoway also speculates on Jimbo's birthdate, and blogger Robert Kaye offers a partial transcript of the "Art of the Community" Session.
I wonder if Technorati will pick up the fact I've updated my blog this time.
Technocrati tags: online communities, OSCON, OSCON07, Portland, Wikipedia
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
I'm interested in online communities because I believe that Wikipedia can always do this thing better -- but from some of the comments I heard, Wikipedia is years ahead of the other communities. All of the other groups interested in online communities and how to make them work are struggling with many of the same issues and possible solutions that Wikipedia has been: anonymity, evangelism, troublemakers, decision-making, inward-looking versuses outward-looking conversations, a reputation system and the problem of keeping the community conversation in one place. I'm not sure that Wikipedia has better answers than anyone else, only that we're struggling with them on a larger scale than anyone else. They're trying to make their villages thrive: Wikipedia is struggling to keep its city from imploding.
And, as might be expected, the most interesting comments didn't come from the well-known names. (DiBona left half-way through the BoF session.) Mark Dilley talked a bit about a tool used on AboutUs.org called consensus polling, which Mark said had been adapted from the Omidiyar network (now being phased out of existence). And Wm Leler, one of the founders of Zat.com, talked about his research into a new model of for-profit open source businesses, which he described as being similar to the "old-fashioned worker's cooperative." I'll repeat what I said at the session: if he can make it work, not only will it mean the arrival of Web 3.0, but that I want to know his secret.
If I manage to crash another OSCON event -- or event better, Dawn's Thursday session "Art of the Community", I'll try to share it here.
Technocrati tags: online communities, OSCON, OSCON07, Portland, Wikipedia
Saturday, July 21, 2007
I finished reading the Last Harry Potter an Hour Ago
- Harry doesn't appear in the first chapter.
- The last word in the book is "well."
- Almost every scene used in the previous six books appears in this book. Including Platform 9 3/4
- Almost every character who appeared in the previous six books appears in this book. Including Colin Creevey.
And having read the last chapter of the book, which Rowling wrote many years ago when she first sketched out the plot for this series, and which she admits she had rewritten because things changed changed as she wrote the books, I wonder how the first draft read. How did she originally plan to end the series, and who did she plan would live?
And Rowling never tells us what happens to the Dursleys at the end of the series. All of the Dursley fans are left hanging, wondering if they survived, and whether Dudley ever found a respectable job.
Technocrati tags: Harry Potter, spoilers, writing
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Thoughts on the Wikimedia Board Election
One problem this election faces is that for most of the volunteers, the WMF is a shadowy group. I more than understand this: beyond keeping the servers up and running, this group has very little undeniable impact on how the WMF projects (i.e., Wikipedia, Wikinews, Wiktionary, etc.) actually function. As an example, when I happened to look at the archives of the Foundation-l maillist a few days ago, I found that the topic most passionately debated there was ... whether or not Board members should be reimbursed for day care while travelling on WMF business. My take is that this is just a reminder that despite becoming an organization known throughout the world, the WMF still remains very much a small-scale organization where everyone argues endlessly over every item in the agenda. It may not be professional, but it is who we are.
(On this "day-care-gate" issue, I will add my two cents: I think it's obvious that this affects one specific Board member -- who doesn't need to be named. I also think that the decision should be made in terms whether the contributions of this Board member are vital enough to justify this payment -- not whether it conforms to some other practice or precedent, either real or imaginary. But decisions that may benefit specific people are never made openly on such plain terms.)
Turning to the results itself, I am a little surprised at who won -- and didn't win -- this election. Point by point:
Frieda. I knew nothing about here before the election, and I still know almost nothing about her, beyond a vague and naive assumption that if she is the president of Wikimedia Italy, she must be qualified for the position. I am concerned that she answered so few questions during the election, similar to some of the other candidates, and in a manner that suggested she was having second thoughts about the position -- as it did for many of the ones who failed to be elected. I honestly would like to have Board members who communicate with the rest of us, and explain what the WMF is doing to help the volunteers and the projects.
Michael Snow. Michael had received several endorsements from bloggers, had an obvious track record (okay, obvious to us on the English-language Wikipedia) so I thought he would be elected. So why wasn't he? Was it due to fall-out from Gmaxwell's misunderstood solicitation to vote? (Which obviously failed -- in the end, less than 10% did.) Or perhaps fear of US domination of the WMF Board?
Oscar. Another person I knew nothing about here before the election, and I still know almost nothing about now -- except that he was a Board member.
Mindspillage and Eloquence. Both were re-elected incumbants, so there is no major groundswell of disatisfaction with the Board amongst those who care about the WMF.
However, Danny's and Kate's campaigns suggest that we shouldn't be so complaisant. At first I dismissed Danny's campaign as just the continuation of his personality conflict with one or more people in the Foundation; these things happen in every organization, and because it doesn't necessarily mean one or both people involved are bad, normally I wouldn't concern myself about it. Yet Kate's candidacy suggests that there may be more to this feud than meets the eye. It is unusual for an employee in a quasi-public organization like the WMF to run for office, and is almost always done in response to mismanagement of that organization. Combined with Brad Patrick's unexpected resignation earlier this year, and it's hard not to wonder if something wrong is happening with the WMF. Whether it's financial mismanagement, a lack of vision or a simple case of lousy communication between one or more people, this needs to be resolved either by bringing in a fresh set of eyes or more communication between the WMF and the grassroots.
I've touched on lots of problems and challenges in this post. I wonder which ones the Board will
address -- and work on.
Technocrati tags: Wikimedia
Friday, July 13, 2007
1.8 million articles
The bad news: Wikipedia has over 1.8 million articles. Not every article has been reviewed, perhaps not even most of them. One can't say that Wikipedia is peer-reviewed with a straight face anymore; we're on the verge of re-inventing the World Wide Web in all of its instability and unreliability in Wikipedia.
And Andew Lih once accused me of optimism.
In the last week, a number of us Wikipedia-related bloggers have ranted about dealing with deletion-happy Wikipedians. They include Andrew, Ben Yates, Kelly Martin, yours truly, and most recently Urpo Lankinen. The kinds of people who can quote policy at length, sometimes by the reference or shortcut (e.g. "A7, "WP:NOT") but can't explain what it means or how it applies to save their lives. I regret to say that it's just the tip of an iceberg of a problem -- caused by the challenge of managing over 1.8 million articles.
The problem with so many articles is that people turn to tools to cope with this growing monster. The one tool I've had an excuse to rant about -- but didn't because I honestly didn't want to post that much anger and bile about any one topic -- is using bots to tag images for deletion due to questions over their fair-use status. Yes, there is a problem with abuse of this intentionally narrow exclusion to the general Wikipedia policy of free content, but it is a problem that needs to be solved with a modicum of thought and care -- not with a bot following an algorithm created from if/then statements. However, taking 30 seconds to determine whether a given image is obviously within fair use guidelines, and the problem lies in an easily fixable omission or minor error, means that less images are tagged than if the bot is allowed to make an edit every 6 seconds -- and with hundreds of thousands of images to be tagged, editcount is the important thing. (Augh. I didn't mean to write this much, so I'll stop here.)
In other words, because it is easier to tack a tag or template on an article than to fix it, Wikipedians tend to make these kinds of edits over fixing the article. And if a Wikipedian can create a bot to do the tagging for her or him, these are the kinds of edits that Wikipedian will make to the exclusion of all others. A bot tags -- but a bot won't read the article. So typos and factual inconsistencies, some of which even the newest of all Wikipedians could see and fix with a click some typing and another click, persist for months. I have found simple mistakes like these in articles I wrote months ago, embarassedly fixed them, then wondered if this was evidence that no one reads what I write. Obviously it is not critically read, so any errors in the text are spread beyond just Wikipedia to the countless mirrors, and beyond into the various dark corners of the Internet where they hibernate until someone reintroduces them into the mainstream once again.
But good, critical reworking of an article takes time. Sometimes months, because sources have to be found, read, and understood. I've mentioned in an earlier post that I was trying another tactic of solving this problem -- extracting facts from books as I read them into relevant existing articles -- but this only speeds up the process in some cases. No two articles are structured in the same manner (beyond having a lead paragraph, a body, and sections providing links and sources at the end), even on similar topics. And once I start making one change to an article, I often find that other edits are needed -- typos and grammar fixed, wording tightened, maybe another fact or two added and sourced -- and links fixed. (I have this obsession about making sure that links point to the right article.)
However, I understand the other side of this problem: a newbie discovers Wikipedia, wants to prove that she or he not only belongs but is as good -- or better -- than the current crowd. Every new Wikipedian wants to compete in the marketplace of improving Wikipedia, and being human the newbie will find the most efficient -- or easiest -- way to compete. They tend to make more edits than better ones; and it's always easier to create articles than write Featured ones. They are attracted to policy issues, and try to formulate new ones and rewrite old ones -- okay, so do old-timers like me, but I see it as a break from the writing, not instead of it -- or enforcing policy. Fighting vandals, reverting spam and other bad edits and debating in Wikipedia: Articles for Deletion appear to be very popular for this reason. All of this is valuable work, but policy issues are best handled when one has experience with how Wikipedia works, after one has written a few articles, debated a few changes, followed a few threads about the problems of enforcing policy -- and learned that policy really isn't as important as it might first appear.
If someone joins Wikipedia to write encyclopedia articles, and makes the usual effort not only to conform to community standards (which are described, not legislated, in the policy pages) but get along with people, one really doesn't need to pay attention to what the policy pages actually say.
Another error I've seen these newbies exhibit is in thinking that all of those pages in the Wikipedia namespace are legislated rules, rather than descriptions of processes and considerations. If I could compare the ideal behavior of Wikipedia to a river (both are attempts to go somewhere), the guidelines are not an attempt to turn it into a channel confined between dykes paved with stone, but an effort to remove the worst of the sandbars and snags on one hand, while on the other discouraging people from settling in the floodplain. The first way will always be more efficient than the second, but not only does the first have less charm and often beauty than the second, it is less robust and adaptable than the second. This is something experience teaches, and a good reason why newbies should avoid involving themselves in policy until they gain experience.
(Someone might insist that there are exceptions to that last statement. Some Wikipedians can demonstrate that they possess clue with their first edits, and some of us are still newbies after many years of active participation. In that case, an argument based on reason why an exception should be made is the best way to decide. Perhaps to become a full-fledged Wikipedian, we should insist that candidates write an essay explaining what they believe Wikipedia is -- and convince us that they know. I'm not sure many of us would pass such a test.)
Returning to my point, when people compete it is natural for them to seek the most efficient or easiest way to compete. Competition itself is not always a bad thing; it is how the better eventually wins out over the good. However, this human tendency can sabotage the positive nature of competition; instead of playing the game, people game the rules. Instead of lowering prices and raising quality, both prices and quality are lowered and all players find themselves trapped in a race to the bottom. I see this happening in Wikipedia: far more effort is spent on arguing over things like original research and permitted fair use than improving articles. People may win those arguments, and pervail in their bot-enabled mass deletions, but the average quality of Wikipedia's articles will remain the same.
Yet even if by some act of God, every current editor in Wikipedia were replaced by a group of superhumans, who were endowed with sufficient wisdom and learning to work together harmoniously and write articles of such great quality as to make the Encyclopedia Brittanica look as reliable as the Weekly World News, the problem facing Wikipedia is that it has over 1.8 million articles. Unless this becomes their full-time job, by the time our super-Wikipedians are rewriting the last articles, they will find that the first rewrites will need to be reviewed and updated; human knowledge, natural phenomena and history wait for no one.
Technocrati tags: online communities, wikipedia
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
A delayed WikiWednesday in Portland
In attendence were Mark Dilley, Ted Ernst, Brandon Sanders, and a couple of other AboutUs employees whose names I did not catch. Kristin Thompson, whom I met at Recent Changes Camp earlier this year, was supposed to be there but she didn't show before Mark and I closed the offices down.
I heard a lot of Wiki-related news that I'll try to remember to share when I have the time. The most important bit to share is that we've scheduled meetings for the next three months. The August meeting will be centered around a remote link with Wikimania in Taipei, hopefully taking advantage of the Wikimania Lounge. At least that's the plan at the moment; so far, since the rest of the attendees will be in Taipei, I'm the only person who promised to show. Where ever I decide to have it.
Technocrati tags: Wikimania, Wikipedia, WikiWednesdays
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Instead of making useful edits to Wikipedia
Today I noticed on the Community Portal page a request for the whole community to participate in a discussion whether to delete an article about "Your Cheatin' Heart". I had thought the discussion was over an article about the better-known song by Hank Williams, so curious why anyone would want to delete an article about that, I followed the link. I discovered that it wasn't about the song, but about an episode to a television show I had never heard of. After a little research, I was about to cast my vote in favor of deletion, when I realized a rather humbling fact: no one had put forth an intelligible reason why this article should be deleted. There was a lot of jargon -- the string WP:EPISODE was invoked several times, as if it explained everything, but never in a way that an outsider would understand -- so in my good-natured naivete, I made a comment about what I thought were the points that should be addressed in this discussion:
(1) Should Wikipedia have an article on every episode of every television series & (2) What is a "notable" television episode?
Oddly, no one bothered to explain how these were covered by the magic words of "WP:EPISODE", something I had to figure out for myself afterwards. Instead, I had policy quoted at me in a manner very similar to a police officer brow-beating a criminal suspect.
Maybe my debate skills are not top-notch, but I had always thought the point of a discussion was to find common ground, explain uncertainties, and attempt to convert the undecided. And if anything, I made it clear (so I thought) that I was leaning towards delete -- if someone help me with my concerns and answer my questions. I guess I was just too muddle-headed for my own good, or ticked off that the first person to respond to my comments proudly boasted on his user page how many USCF points he had (but is correctly called his Elo ranking) as a chess player. (Although a bit of research after the fact shows that he's not as good as I thought he was, stating a number, rather than saying "I'm a strong player, and I have played tournaments", conveyed to me someone who was a show-off know-it-all, rather than an intelligent, logical person.) So my response to him was likely more aggressive than it should have been.
My response is met by someone who decides his best tactic is to
quote policy at me. Lots of policy. Okay, I've been an Admin for a few years now, but I haven't heard of the policy he quotes at me. So I tell him as much (leaving out the part about being an Admin), and encourage him to justify this policy he is quoting as if it were Holy Writ, or the law -- or even a personal email Jimmy Wales sent to him. To which he responds:
AfD is not the place to debate policies and guidelines. That's what policy and guideline talk pages are for. As of now, consensus is that individual episodes need individual arguments for notability. I don't see a reason why I should have to argue against that current consensus."
As I said above, maybe this wasn't one of my better days. I'm coping with the fact that although I have a job a number of people who are smarter than me who kill to hold, I don't really like it, and maybe I should move to another job at a time when they are depending on me -- so I'm not thinking as clearly as I should. Still, either of these clowns could have extended a bit of empathy towards me and explained the matter. Or had a peak at my user page to see if I was just a clueless newbie -- or to discover that I was an Admin, which might lead to asking me whether I considered my acts as being disruptive. Both of them have now given me a good reason to return to Requests for Adminship, just so I can puncture their balloons should they seek the Admin bit.
Right now the vote on this article is a bunch of fanboys for keep, and a muddled argument or two to delete. And a long-term Wikipedian -- me -- lowered himself to their level. The outcome doesn't look promising.
Technocrati tags: online communities, wikipedia
Another positive development
I was surprised to discover that the first organizing step was in Philadelphia. Back in january, I had thought NewYorkBrad would be the first to make it happen
Good luck to Whiteknight and his fellow founders. The only suggestion I have to offer is that they consider offering associate memberships to those of us who don't live in Pennsylvania, as a means to help encourage other US Wikipedians to organize.
Technocrati tags: online communities, Wikimedia, wikipedia
Monday, July 09, 2007
Just another link
Thanks to David Gerard, who posted a link to a link on WikiEN-l.
Technocrati tags: Florence Devouard, Wikimedia Foundation, wikipedia
Saturday, July 07, 2007
Instead of blogging
* Read some books that I ordered: I.M. Lewis' A Modern History of the Somali, 4th edition, and David Buxton's The Abyssinians. And as I read these books, I have the dawning feeling that I am building a better collection on the two countries than my public library has.
* Caught up with listening to The Wikipedia Weekly.
* Helped out with adding some sources to articles. That's more difficult than it might appear: I think I know which book to use to cite as an authority, then discover either that the author actually didn't write something useful or relevant or fail to find the passage I know is in the book. (One reason why I tend to just add to articles as I encounter the facts and their sources, and build up articles brick by brick.)
* Left a number of notes on articles pointing out things that need adding or improving on in the article. I hope that qualifies as useful criticism, especially as I suspect many Wikipedians don't have a strong idea what needs to be discussed when writing an article -- and which is the cause of the oddly unbalanced treatments in many articles.
Even though the election is over as I write this, I do believe something must be said to the people who lost their races; as I considered whom to vote for, I found that I had more than three qualified candidates to vote for, and a few more could have made my list had they simply followed a few important steps.
Technocrati tags: Wikimedia Foundation, wikipedia
Thursday, July 05, 2007
I didn't think I was contributing to the Wikidrama
So late last night, I thought I'd make the time to catch up on the always running commentary around Wikipedia, and was surprised to find Berto ed Sera writing that he had never "heard anything about Greg Maxwell and his emails until I read this" with a link to that email. Apparently, a number of people didn't like the fact that Gmaxwell (I call him this, and not as "Greg" or "Greg Maxwell" because I think of him by his Wikipedia user name, not his legal name) took it upon himself to ask people to vote. (The first shot was this letter to the Foundation-L mailing list. From there, you can follow the controversy.)
Gmaxwell was accused of such crimes as (1) spamming a lot of people, and (2) seeking to strengthen an alleged US-centric agenda in Wikipedia. In response to the last allegation, his focus on the English-language Wikipedia does not logically lead to the conclusion that he was promoting a US-centric agenda, despite the fact the majority of English speakers happen to live within the US (according to Wikipedia statistics, about 215 million US inhabitants claim English as their first language vs. a little over 100 million in such places as the UK, Ireland, Canada, the Caribeean, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa; maybe if we include the English speakers in India, the rest of the world might reach parity). With only a username to go by, it is very difficult to determine where a Wikipedian lives in the world. Further, even if his intent was to get more US Wikipedians to vote, this is a good thing: if we go by his guesstimate that only 5% of all eligible English-language Wikipedians vote, right now that tiny number is very vulnerable to being mobbed by a small, organized faction who has decided that they want to elect some notorious vandal to the board. It's not entirely unlikely: based on having stared too long at the statistics, I would say that the English Wikipedia has 2000 members qualified for voting and 5% of which would be 100 -- a number small enough to be vulnerable to this kind of gaming. Hey, rest of the world: you want the crazies here to come out and run things? Then discourage "get out the vote" efforts like this, and you'll find that it allows our true lunatic fringe to take charge -- the folks who make the Shrub look reasonable.
But what bothers me more is the claim that Gmaxwell "spammed" his request for people to vote -- not to vote for this candidate or that one, but simply to vote. Now I clean out about 60-80 pieces of my spam from daily from one of my email accounts, so I think I know what spam is -- and this email was not spam. Further, when I responded to the letter he sent me, he wrote back. When was the last time you had a normal conversation with someone who spammed you? (I don't consider playing with a Nigerian con artist a normal conversation.)
In a humorous note, in this conversation there was one person who begged to be unsubscribed from this mailing list, because she was getting "50 emails a day which does not concern me at all". I wonder if someone wasn't just making a joke here.
Lastly, there was the proposal that only the Wikimedia Foundation should be allowed to encourage people to vote. In the long run, this would be counterproductive. I believe that much of Gmaxwell's success came from the simple fact that he was Just Another Wikipedian -- admittedly, one who's been around for a while -- contacting and connecting with people. Getting an email from a Foundation server asking people to vote would not create that kind of connection, and would have the same effect as a piece of spam -- ignored. Why shouldn't the various local chapters, WikiProjects, and other groups be allowed to encourage people to vote?
Feh, I'm probably thinking like a citizen of the United States. And just because I was born and bred here is no excuse.
Technocrati tags: Wikimedia, Wikimedia Board Elections, Wikimedia
Monday, July 02, 2007
Sharing my email
(P.S. -- As I told him, the only reason I haven't voted yet is that I'm still trying to decide whom to vote for. I'm way behind people like Berto ed Sera, who has written much about it -- for example this essay.)
Hi Llywrch, it appears that you have not yet voted in the current Wikimedia board election, although you appear to be eligible to vote.
There are many reasons why it is very important that YOU vote in this election. The board is responsible for oversight and direction of the Wikimedia projects, including fundraising, defining the mission, and determining foundation-wide policies, so though it does not have direct input into English Wikipedia day-to-day policy, you still are affected by what they choose to do.
The election process is simple, and because it uses approval voting, you don't have to figure out
who is best; you simply need to select all candidates who are acceptable.
You can find out more about the election at http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Board_elections/2007/en
The election closes at 23:59 on Saturday, July 7, 2007 (UTC, don't let the timezone catch you off guard!). That means you still have time to participate, although with thousands of words written in question and answer pages it will probably take you a little time to build a fair assessment of the candidates, so you should start looking now.
You can read the candidate statements at http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Board_elections/2007/Candidates/en and each candidate has a Question/Answer page linked from their statements.
Llywrch, it is critically important that you participate in this process.
As it stands right now substantially less than 16% of all eligible and recently active voters on English Wikipedia have participated in the election process. This is a lower turnout than previous years although enwiki has always had poor voter turnout.
Low turnout makes the election process dramatically more vulnerable to several types of bias; for example, people with strong emotions and potentially unreasonable feelings about the candidates are more likely to participate without encouragement. The impact of sockpuppets, small-POV groups, and parties with any personal or financial interests in the outcome is greater when turnout is low, because these parties will tend to cast a fixed number of votes.
Regardless of the election outcome, low turnout from English Wikipedia also sends the wrong message to the board. English Wikipedia is by far the largest Wikimedia community, and English Wikipedia has, by far, the largest readership. While it is very important that other Wikimedia projects be well supported and understood by the board, the importance of English Wikipedia should not be understated.
There are organized campaigns to increase turnout from some of the other projects, and the result appears that English Wikipedia's influence and interest in Wikimedia is far less than it actually is.
Even if you do not have an opinion on the outcome of the election, even if you think that all candidates are acceptable or that all are unacceptable, you can and should still vote. We use approval voting, and you can cast a vote approving everyone or even a vote approving no one. Neither of these two options will influence the direct outcome of the election, but both will still add to the total count of English Wikipedia voters and both will send the message that our project is important and involved.
Technocrati tags: Wikimedia, Wikimedia Board Elections, Wikipedia,