Monday, December 31, 2007


I wish I had seen this far sooner

A fellow named David Wiley wrote this post, "OERs, Producers, Consumers, and Reuse", on the nature of open source and sharing knowledge. Applied to Wikipedia, it explains why the content on Wikipedia will always be uneven: Wikipedians "scratch their own itches", so we are left with such contradictions that the article on Xena (57,321 bytes) is longer than the one on Cleopatra (39,710 bytes) -- known as Wikigroanings.

This also offers a partial explanation why there are so many content wars on Wikipedia: because people are passionate about their subjects, they are also passionate about their contributions.

I've found a number of other thoughtful posts on Wiley's blog, Iterating towards Openness. Also check out this response to his post, which led me to it.


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Midway in Life

Saturday was my 50th birthday, and I celabrated it in a number of idiosyncratic ways with Yvette -- which included dropping about $100 dollars on Lego blocks at the local Lego store. (As a contrast, shortly afterwards we stopped by the Sharper Image store and despite the fact we are both nerds, neither of us found the gadgets currently for sale there worth buying.)

I've procrastinated over writing anything about this milestone event. One reason is that I wanted to say something profound and significant about it, but couldn't. Another is that admitting to my age means acknowledging a number of things, many of which would indicate that I haven't ended up where I thought I would be ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Yesterday I confessed to my friends that years ago I thought I would have a number of books published by now, be an established pundit of some intellectual stature, and be busy mentoring a new generation. Finding that my primary intellectual achievements has been a large number of positive, but certainly not important, contributions to Wikipedia and this blog, I can't help but feel that I've failed to fulfill the potential I know I once had, and my time to do so is now undeniably finite.

It would be easy to dismiss this as mid-life angst. Not everyone can be a Jimbo Wales (to name one example), travelling the world to speak to enthusiastic audiences, which would be a hard thing for any bright, ambitious person to accept; for there to be a top 1%, there has to be a lesser 99% who are denied recognition for their contributions.

However, I have my own achievements to be proud of. For example, many years ago I had a hand in defeating the adoption of UCITA in Oregon, which was a good thing that helped many, many people. And reflecting clearly on my past activities, I have to also acknowledge that many achievements are far more difficult than they might appear at first. I encountered a couple of simple, if not trivial, examples of this last night while working on Wikipedia: I spent a couple of hours integrating content into the article on Bonga, a town in southern Ethiopia, yet appears in the contribution history as only a pair of edits; and hours creating a new article on the Germama River which amounted to less than 1200 bytes. The reason both took so long was that my goal was to contribute usable content, integrated with relevant articles in Wikipedia, rather than simply adding text in a way that improves my editcount statistics, or argues a given opinion on a subject.

This insight does make significant achievements all the more impressive, even if careful research reveals that those achievements were accomplished with little effort. Still, I know I worry more now about how productively I spend time than I did when I was younger; I only hope that this worry does not erode either my sense of humor, or my sense of fun.


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Thursday, December 27, 2007


Andrew Lih gets quoted by the press again

Deletionists vs. Inclusionists in back in the news. Simon Pulsifer, one-time champion of having the most edits on Wikipedia, is also quoted. I find it notable that Simon has adopted one of my tactics in dealing with foolish editors; sometimes a quiet, yet persistent approach is the best tactic.

Andrew has been interviewed on this matter once in the past.


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Sunday, December 23, 2007


The next Recent Changes Camp

I've heard, unofficially, that next year's Recent Changes Camp will be convened to the south in the Bay area. (The link points to where "" currently resolves.) But I know little more about it, except that Eugene Kim was in charge, and that Brandon Sanders wants to organize a WikiBus to carry attendees from Portland there -- which made it hard for me to make plans, let alone invite anyone to it.

So I'm happy to share that I've finally found its website, where one can also find a link to its working mailing list. More details as I learn about them.


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Thursday, December 20, 2007


Admin burnout

A copy of an email I wrote to WikiEN-l:

George Herbert wrote:

> It's been a recurring theme, but the point is that we still haven't
> figured out how to detect and head off (talk to, counsel, convince to
> take a stress-break and come back, whatever) flameouts by admins and
> longtime editors.
> There's a difference between people chosing to leave the project, and
> a project where the usual mode of leaving for experienced participants
> is an antagonistic conflict incident blowing up.
> That we haven't really come up with good solutions doesn't mean that
> we should stop noting incidents as they happen.

"Admin burn-out" is one of those topics that I've been interested too -- especially since at any given moment I post on WP:AN (or related pages) I am the Admin who's been on Wikipedia the longest; I once described myself as starting on Wikipedia back when Jimbo Wales was not even a "God-king" but just an aristocrat who bought himelf a magic book. In some cases, I have been an Admin longer than some Admins have had Wikipedia accounts. (This has been the case since Zoe bailed earlier this year.) And this is a distinction I'm not especially happy to hold.

(Note: there are a number of Admins senior to me still active on Wikipedia; occasionally I'll wonder what happened to someone, look at their contributions page, & see that she or he made a few dozen edits -- often more -- in the last couple of days. However, they keep an even lower profile than me, rarely, if ever, appearing on the Admin Noticeboards & related pages. Why is that if an Admin doesn't burn out, he retreats to an obscure corner of Wikipedia or just limits himself to Wikignoming? Your guess is as good as mine.)

I don't know whether my longevity is because I *don't* try to handle the hard cases, edit controversial articles (at least not after I learn the hard way that they are controversial) or work very hard at fighting vandalism or spam -- in other words, maybe I'm just Admincruft -- or its because I stumbled across the secret at surviving the often vicious atmosphere at Wikipedia. For anyone who's curious, my strategy has been to remember that the problem people always, in the end, get themselves kicked off of Wikipedia, & act accordingly. For example, when I'm in conflict in an article, & I'm convinced that the other person is a (insert here your favorite term of abuse) who is entirely, undeniably wrong (or has been doing most of her/his research with the help of illegal substances), what I do is ... sit back & wait 3 months, then go back & edit the article. Sometimes I make the changes I was originally fighting for, but more often I realize that the section in dispute ought to read another way -- sometimes the exact text what my opponent was arguing for, but for one reason or another I wasn't persuaded. Amazing what a curious mind can learn in three months!

For this admittedly passive attitude towards Adminship (if not Wikiepdia in general) to work, obviously I rely on other Admins to do the dirty work. For this reason, it would be useful to know how I can support the harder-working Admins so they can keep doing what they do. Telling me to "keep an eye on them" is not a good solution, since much of my work for Wikipedia is researching content -- out of 8 hours I might spend on Wikipedia, at least half of it is reading various sources, more often books than webpages, & trying to figure out how to usefully integrate it into the relevant articles. (BTW, even in my most focussed moments of researching, I find that 90% of what I find is not immediately usable for one reason or another -- most often because I don't see how I can add it to an article.) This means I often learn about the latest "blow-up" several hours -- if not several days -- after it appears to be all over, & someone has put a "Topic closed" notice on the thread.

If anything, I find myself more & more arguing with other Admins over how to deal with a perceived troublemaker; either there are an increasing number of people on Wikipedia who think in black-n-white, think anyone who criticizes Wikipedia is more dangerous than _The Register_ (or whoever is this week's most dangerous threat), & are upset that we are "too easy-going" on the troublemakers, or I am far too laid back. Since I have no problem dropping an indef block on people who are clearly troublemakers (anyone can look at my Admin log to see that I have dropped the banhammer from time to time), I don't think it's the latter. Most of the people who claim that Wikipedia's not honest about the claim that "anyone can edit" are, undeniably, the ones who got banned for good & understandible reasons; but I'm finding an increasing number of cases where newbies are getting the bum's rush for obvious newbie mistakes, & end up complaining about how Wikipedia is run by some inner circle.


(Sorry, I don't have anything new to say about Carolyn Doran -- except to note that I received around 500 hits on my post "Uh, what?" yesterday, which is not only far more than any other post I've written, but more than any five other posts I've written. I guess this story has legs.)

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007


More on a vanished Wikimedia employee

Reading the usual flashpoints where the Carolyn Doran surprise has been discussed -- the WikiEN-L and foundation mailing lists, the Village Pump, Jimbo Wales' talk page, and the Administrator's Noticeboard -- it would appear that the discussion is over, that everything has been said, and everyone (well, everyone whose opinion counts) agrees that the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) has handled this incident quite well. Despite all of those words, there has been a lot of talking around the point that most concerns me, a rank-and-file volunteer who honestly doesn't want to bother with keeping informed about Foundation matters. That point, put as simply as I can,
is as follows:

Reading a bit between the lines of the material that WikiNews has collected, it is clear the first that anyone at the WMF knew about this part of her history was no earlier than the moment she returned to US soil, and was detained by Federal authorities. Further, can anyone doubt that she was let go for cause: omitting to tell your employer that you have one or more felonies in your record is grounds for being either fired -- or told to quit.

The point I want to draw attention to is that while the Foundation was well within its rights to terminate her employment, they handled it in the most clumsy manner possible. There is, we all will admit, the problem that had someone done some kind of a background check, she would not have been hired; you don't want someone with a criminal record of passing bad checks handling money in your business. Now Florence Douvard has pointed out, quite plausibly I'll concede, that it was reasonable to assume that the temp agency which placed her at WMF should have done a background check; lots of temp agencies do this for the simple reason that their credibility is on the line each time they place an employee. Still, to take a bookkeeper who had no management experience and make her a "Chief Operating Officer" is putting far too much faith in an unknown quality. (Why didn't they simply call her job "Office manager"? Except for Jimbo "God-king" Wales, no one involved with Wikimedia has such a grandiloquent title.)

Instead, the WMF handled her departure in such a clumsy manner that until the details came out, no one who hadn't been present at her last interview could be sure whether she was the victim here (for example, she had been subjected to some nasty sexual harassment) or she was a brazen criminal (for example, the Foundation caught her with a large bag of Foundation cash in the parking lot). Now at the time her employment was ended had the Board simply issued a statement that she had left "for personal reasons", when the average Wikipedian learned of The Register's expose I believe she/he would have simply shrugged and said, "So that's why she left" -- and the matter would have been a non-starter. It would have indicated that the Foundation believed they had handled the situation as well as they could have from the beginning, instead of attempting to convince a shocked community five months later that they had.

Note: the phrase "for personal reasons" explanation was just the first that came to my mind. One could indulge in a game of informed speculation, and arrive at reasons -- other than concealing her background -- for why she left. Some of these would include her performance (i.e., it became obvious that she just couldn't handle the job), personal reasons (e.g., she told them she had a sick relative to look after), or that the board had decided to redefine the duties of "Chief Operating Officer" and she was not qualified. However because the Foundation was evasive about why she left, human nature is to assume the worst. Now the unavoidable explanation is that they found out about her criminal past and let her go, and out of embarassment tried to cover this up.

Further, the board is still evasive on this matter: access to their resolution concerning her departure still remains confidential, unlike the one a few months before for Brad Patrick. Since the one for Patrick is so bland -- just an announcement that he is leaving and a polite thank-you for his service -- and they had no reason not to pass a resolution equally as bland, here again it is hard not to see that this cover-up continues. What could this resolution contain that no one outside the Foundation is allowed to see? And if this is personal information, who insisted that it should be included -- and why?

Getting rid of an employee like Doran is a tricky position for any employer. One has to get rid of an embarassment as quietly as possible, with as little trouble as possible -- otherwise, the problem only gets worse. Sometimes the problem employee is given a "carrot or stick" choice: take a nominal separation package and quit, or be fired and face some nasty penalties. In the Foundation's situation, there were few resources to use as a stick, and none for a carrot -- yet, she walked away from the situation far better off than any other party did. The Foundation lost credibility in how it avoided -- or forgot -- to tell anyone she had left, the Foundation raised unneeded suspicion by evading questions when people belatedly noticed she was gone and asked for details -- any details -- and I feel now it is losing more credibility by not stepping up and clearly saying something along the lines of, "We admit that made made these mistakes, we've since made these changes so that this won't happen again, and we've done all of this because we know we are responsible to the Wikimedia community: the volunteers, the donors, and the users."

As I said above, no one is talking about this repeated failure to show that the Foundation can effectively solve a problem -- which would show that the board and staff of the WMF can be entrusted with handling money given for charitable purposes. All I have seen are arguments over whether Wikipedians should even give The Register the time of day, and how the Foundation should cover its ass the next time this happens -- which either trail off into the usual exchange of venomous language between its participants, or with a chorus of Wikipedians repeating that they still have faith in the project.

As much as I believe in the vision of the WMF, this does not mean that I automaticaly believe in any one individual involved in its projects. They have to work at either gaining or keeping my trust. If someone screws up, and doesn't make a sincere effort to fix the mistake, I will begin to lose faith in that person; this is human nature. This also means, if I find that I can no longer assume good faith in large numbers of the people on this project -- by this I mean the people I need to assume good faith in so I can spend my time writing articles -- either I will find another project or simply leave Wikipedia. And I doubt I would be the only one who will contemplate a decision like this.


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Friday, December 14, 2007


Uh, what?

Like the rest of you, I just read about the fate of Carolyn Doran. And like most of you (except for the few who revel in schadefroh over any mishap involving Wikipedia or its associated groups), I'm shocked.

I've never quite understood just what Doran's role in the Foundation actually was, and never did shake the assumption that she was little more than a glorified office manager -- someone whose duties consisted of ordering supplies, answering the phone, and reminding other employees about their appointments. Outside of one fluffy but friendly message announcing herself to the Wikimedia community towards the beginning of her brief tenure, her presence was otherwise remarkably unremarkable. It could be said that this was a good thing, that her presence didn't harm the Foundation -- but that's just spin. If nothing else, she received a paycheck that could have gone to someone who actually made a tangible contribution -- so her presence did harm the Foundation by squandering scarce and badly needed resources.

Then there is the problem that she was hired in the first place. Not too long ago, we Americans learned from the legal experiences of Martha Stewart that felons could not legally become corporate officers -- so I am puzzled that no one made the effort to determine whether Doran was one. Yes, the Foundation is currently strapped for money, but at the very least they could have asked her, on penalty of losing her job immediately, if she was one. And instead of providing a non-answer when someone belated noticed she had vanished and asked what happened to her, the Foundation could have simply stated at the time that she left "for personal reasons" -- which is true. Those three simple, intentionally ambiguous words would provide enough of an rationale the faithful would accept when the truth surfaced, something that Wikipedia's many hostile critics Wikipedia could be expected to make happen.

Maybe they knew about her past, but hired her anyway -- for skills that she never had a chance to demonstrate. If they did, didn't it occur to anyone that there are a number of restrictions on her ability to travel? A number of countries (for example Canada, and ironically Australia) do not permit felons to legal entry -- there are a lot of places Doran could not go. Then there is the fact that some legal official would expect to be informed when she left the country, if not his jurisdiction -- which is what landed her in jail.

I'd like to hope that this scandal will be handled much better than it has been because I know there are good and intelligent people at the Foundation, but I find this hard to do. In the past year, Jimbo Wales has twice demonstrated a disturbing lack of skill in handling a situation, and I have enough of an inflated sense of self-worth that I half-expect to receive some angry words from him for my frank post. Even if Wales and the board were to avoid the familiar bunker mentality and publicly say something along the lines that they made a mistake, that they learned their lessons and now they want to move forward -- this is not enough.

I have several posts I've been working on but not yet posted; my reason until now is that I have a hard time deciding which is more important. So if I lapse back into silence on this blog, the reason is that I'm still trying to process this latest challenge to my faith in Wikipedia. If I were truly ready to toss in the towel on this important undertaking, I'd instead end this post proposing a pool to see which Wikipedia critic would be first to make a joke about the dangers of inviting Doran to the Foundation Christmas party.


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