Sunday, September 30, 2007


Edit wars: an afterthought

Getting quoted in the LA Times definitely put a spike in my traffic. Unfortunately, I didn't know which one of the many topics I want to write about to write about -- so instead, I focussed my attention on improving a couple of Wikipedia articles: Tekle Giyorgis I of Ethiopia and 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia. I guess my stage fright is rooted in the knowledge that anyone can edit Wikipedia and is left with an impression about the project -- this sincere and heart-felt comment is one such example (the anonymous comment, not Kelly's post) -- but not anyone do it in a productive way. So rather than writing long, overly-rhetorical essays about how people should contribute, I guess I'm more comfortable just trying to do what I say.

However, there is one important thing after all this that I believe we need to keep in mind: talk about encyclopedia vs. community concerning Wikipedia is at best nonsensical, and at worst distracting from diagnosis of the real problems. We need both, because they support the project in different ways. I think of the encyclopedia element, what is being created, is like bone and the community, the group that creates it, like soft tissue: each supports the other, each protects the other, and one without the other will lead to the death of both.


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Friday, September 28, 2007


No more Portland DemoCamps

One of the things I learned last night was that Raven Zachary decided to put aside his hope for a quarterly Portland DemoCamp, where new startups would have a short slot of time to make their presentations -- without the help of PowerPoint. Instead, this 25 October, the first Ignite Portland session will be held at Wieden & Kennedy (224 NW 13th Ave, Portland, OR). (Have a look at the video on the Ignite Portland website.) This method of presentation appears to have its roots in something called Pecha Kucha.

Would it sound like I'm Yet Another Shill if I were to say this sounds interesting? Well it does sound interesting to me -- and I hope I can at least be in the audience next month.


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Does this mean I'm important, or I just have a big mouth

You decide: I was quoted in this article that appeared in the L.A. Times about the Mzoli's Meats deletion battle. (At least they quoted one person worth listening to -- Andrew Lih.) As soon as I get over the shock that someone actually takes me seriously, I'll try to form an opinion about the article.


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Sunday, September 23, 2007


But there are sometimes good things

My last post was probably too negative, implying that Wikipedia is, despite anyone's most heroic efforts, sliding into a quicksand of factionalism. Like most of humanity, I have a tendency to speak out more often to complain about bad things than to say anything about the good things.

One reason that I continue to contribute material to Wikipedia is in the not unrealistic expectation that my contributions will attract contributions from people who know more than me on the subject. It's not an unrealistic expectation, because it's often happened in the past. One example was, due to the effort Yom and I were devoting to Ethiopain articles at the time, when we received a querry from someone who wanted to write an article about the Sof Omar caves in that country, and after a little encouragement he wrote a nice little article, and supplied some images for it. This author just happened to have taken part in a formal British exploration of those caves in the 1970s, so he was undeniably an expert about what he was writing. (Unfortunately, due to the recent jihad against non-free images, one of the images he contributed with his article was removed because he forgot to include some statement needed to keep it in Wikipedia. I need to ask him to upload once again that image with the necessary legal verbage.)

However, a more recent contribution, one of those which encourages me to continue in my selfless and idealistic quest, was one I discovered last night. When I had originally started the article on Onesimos Nesib, who translated the Bible into the Oromo language, I found a mention of a one Aster Ganno, who is said to have actually done much of the work without receiving any credit for her contributions. I didn't think that I would ever find much about her -- women and their work in the 19th century tend to be poorly documented, and documentation on African women moreso -- so I simply mentioned her name in the article and moved on.

When I reviewed recent changes to the Onesimus Nesib article, I saw that several had been made by an editor who had not created a userpage. Often this is a clue that the person is a troublemaker, intending only to stay on Wikipedia long enough to either vandalize some articles -- or to stuff them with a rant for or against some specific point of view on a subject. Other times this is a clue that the person is new to Wikipedia, or not as familiar with computers as with the subject she/he wants to contribute to. It was the later in this case: Peter Unseth, who had co-authored the article on Aster Ganno for the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, a comprehensive reference work on Ethiopian history and culture, generously donated some of his learning to Wikipedia. As I traced the history of his contributions, I felt as if I were sitting at the same discussion with leading experts on Ethiopian history, clearly the same as auditting a virtual seminar -- and perhaps able to contribute my own opinion to the exchange.

Of course I left a thank-you note on his user talk page. It was a far more encouraging message to him than the two templates about improperly-contributed images left there before me.


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Thursday, September 20, 2007


If the first time around is comedy, and the second time tragedy, then what is ...?

It's hard to get back into the rhythm of blogging when one has drifted away. Writing on a regular basis requires not only discipline, but a certain amount of courage -- because one's mistakes in both grammar and logic are put out where everyone can see tehm. Yet sometimes, something happens that makes me willing to forget that I'm not that good of a writer and just post an opinion -- especially when it appears that everyone involved is going at the matter in the wrong way.

The matter I'm thinking of is the ruckus over the Mzoli's Meats nomination for deletion. This is one of those exchanges on Wikipedia that leaves me shaking my head.

Ben Yates spoke up about the nomination, pointing to this post
on WikiEN-l, and tied it to another email in the thread about how the obsession about driving spam from Wikipedia can harm it: marginal articles on worthwhile subjects get flushed from the system before they can be properly reviewed. This is not a bad sentiment: there is a lot of enthusiasm -- often too much -- from some members over fighting spam, vandalism, and giving the troublemakers the bum's rush out. But this story is more complex than what it might appear.

First, there was this question posted to the Wikipedia:Administrators' Noticeboard. Note the identities involved: the question is raised by a veteran Admin who has been around for a while. The Wikipedians who respond are likewise all familiar with the Wikipedia culture. And the advice offered?

And if you look at the version of the article they were discussing, it's not hard to side with them:
Mzoli's Meats is a butcher shop and restuarant located in Guguletu township near Cape Town, South Africa.

It would have been helpful if there had been a sentence or two at the beginning to explain why this particular restaurant was worth an article in an encyclopedia.

Odd that no one there raised the point expressed in the Article for Deletion discussion:
The point isn't that it was Jimbo, the point is that it was someone who knows the rules. They aren't just adding their favorite restaurant to the Wiki, they're adding an article that they're honestly planning to source later. Most of the CSD tags are by editors who don't have such plans. We need to give our trusted editors a chance to source something they've added; otherwise, it becomes a race to see who can type the fastest, the prodder or the sourcer.

Instead, the original discussion appears to be more concerned about whether Jimbo Wales gets a free pass concerning this article, and I detect an implication that he might have made a mistake creating it. Especially when it comes to articles on restaurants, because the burden of proof is greater: far too often, articles on restaurants are little more than advertising, and the vast majority of restaurants are not worthy of inclusion in an encyclopedia.

However, the possibility that Jimbo had simply forgot how important it was to explain the notability of the topic is never explored because another veteran Admin deleted it out of hand. This is the same Admin who returned from a Wikivacation by posting a screed which read, in part:
I don't care what anyone says, the vast majority of administrators are pompous overbearing control freaks. They run around with this attitude that having +sysop is some sort of right, priviledge, or a permission to bully, harras and generally act like a dick, thinking they can get away with it. There IS a cabal, and it makes sneaky back-door decisions such as deletions, vote stacking, blocks, trying to force editors into 3RR, page protections, et cetera almost daily.

Well, his motivation is clear. And I have to respect his following comment in the deletion discussion: "Wasn't Jimbo the one who said we need to stop using {{fact}} and either source it or remove it? As it stands, we've got a non-notable restaurant with almost no sourcing." But why another Admin decided to fight to the death over deleting this article is less clear. Although it was discussed.

Too bad no one thought to discuss why the Admin, the one who had asked about this article back on the Wikipedia:Administrators' Noticeboard, had failed to contribute to the discussion over deleting the article. If I were in that Admin's place, I would have stayed away, too; the argument there soon stopped being about if the article should be deleted, it was about proving someone wrong, and no one was at their best in this argument.

Not even Jimbo, who lashed out with the following: "You can dispute the article on the merits of the notability (though not successfully, I think), but the assumptions of bad faith in this argument are just shocking. Some people should excuse themselves from the project and find a new hobby." Writing this, he failed to acknowledge that many Wikipedians honestly believe that there are groups of people with more influence than others, and treating this belief with contempt does not make it go away -- it only drives the frustration underground where it continues to grow. Maybe if he participated more he would see this sickness in Wikipedia -- but if he participated more, it might harm the ecology his careful laissez-faire strategy has created.

So why didn't I enter this discussion, and share some of these insights and help still the waters? Part of the reason was that I was busy part of the time this transpired undergoing an Alien Abduction special; but most the reason was that I was busy working on some articles. I had just discovered that through Google Books I could get a hold of a number of older, difficult-to-obtain works on Ethiopia, and was reading them. But the larger part of this larger reason was that I really didn't see any point in being part of this discussion: people were going to yell at each other, accuse each other of untrue motivations, and not try to listen to each other and find common ground.

When Wikipedia -- or any wiki -- works, it is truly a wonderful thing. (One example of this can be seen over at About Us, where they are implimenting a system called Consensus Polling. It's a directed conversation where the intent is to arrive at a conclusion that all members either agree with -- or can live with.) It is wonderful because it can get people to actually talk with -- rather than at -- each other, and leads them to form a consensus. But when it doesn't work, it is no different than pulling together any number of people selected at random, and giving them an acrimonious topic to discuss.

However many people remind us that Wikipedia is not an experiment in Wiki-culture, it is a project to build an encyclopedia. So instead of trying to make the Wiki stuff work, I'll take the easy way out and just work on the writing.


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