Saturday, January 19, 2008


A thought about advertising on Wikipedia

My friend Phil sent me this statement by the founder of; it came from his welcoming message when he signed up with that website. (This has also been reprinted over at Dating with Children. (BTW, Phil's a responsible, warm and available guy, ladies, so I'll be happy to introduce you to him.) Parts (which I have italicized) are worth considering in the continuous debate over whether Wikipedia ought to accept advertising.


My name is Markus and I created because I was tired of seeing faceless corporations prey on people looking for love. Now a few years later Plentyoffish is the only major free site around and now happens to be the largest dating site in the english speaking world. Unlike paid dating sites, which have 500 to 800 employees whose jobs are to figure out how to get more of your money, this site is run by me myself and I. There are no employees.

This site is my pet project and runs far differently than a paid site.

1. If you are a jerk, are mean to other users, upload nude images, do not fill out your profile correctly etc you will be deleted and banned.

2. Over a million people use this site per day and I don't type very fast so please don’t get mad if it takes a while to respond to your inquiries :)

3. Cut and paste messages are blocked, be original.

4. Paid sites go out of business if you find what you are looking for quickly. This is because they have to be able to pay for all that mass advertising on TV. For a free site like this to get big we have to give you exactly what you are looking for so we get big word of mouth going.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008


Is Wikipedia Losing its Potential?

It's a familiar story, maybe bordering a little on urban legend: parents go out of town for the weekend, leaving their teenage son at home. Free of parential oversight, he throws a party and invites everyone he knows and more, and trashes the house. Then the parents come home.

In essence, this is why the case of Corey Delaney is notable, and worth a mention in Wikipedia. What many 15-year-old boys talk about doing, what their parents fear they might do, and what has become the plot of countless movies and television episodes, Delaney did. And it was a blow-out of a party: according to one source, this young Australian threw a party that attracted as many as 500 people, and required a platoon of police, supported by dogs and a helicopter to break it up. For a while, he was on the run from not only the authorities, who wanted to serve him with a bill for the damages, but an even more intimidating nemesis: his parents.

When I was his age, over here in the US, my wildest dream was getting my hands on a six-pack of beer and a cute girl to drink it with. As irresponsible as it is to say this, part of me admires him -- even though he looks like an ersatz pimp in his oversized sunglasses and unbuttoned shirt.

Yes, someone created an article about him in Wikipedia. And yes, the article was deleted, someone insisted that the discussion for deletion should be hidden (after all, Delaney is a minor), and the deletion argument continued to deletion review. (For those not in the know about Wikipedia culture, this is a process that, in some ways, is more like asking your dad for something after your mother has said no than appealing a judge's decision to a higher court.)

I didn't get involved in this argument, in part because I discovered it long after the battlelines had hardened and it was clear that the article would stay gone, but also in part because the battlelines over this notable event had been drawn far differently than they should have been. What is notable about this incident is not Corey Delaney himself -- but the wild party itself. In my, perhaps twisted, opinion the story would have been just as notable had this party been thrown by Delaney's best friend -- or the nerdiest guy in their high school class. However when people heard about this incident, their response was to create a new article about Delaney -- who might change his ways, and decide not to continue the path of being famous because he's well-known, and instead become something less notable like a fireman, an investment fund manager, a Microsoft employee, or a Wikipedia editor.

Instead, this was an incident that should have been added to an existing article. There, the entire matter could have been covered in a few sentences, properly sourced, handled and forgotten. (Maybe I'll make that very edit in a few months -- if I remember to.) These kinds of wild, teenager-created parties do happen; I remember reading how these kinds of parties were a chronic nuisence in the Hamburg, Germany area in a German newsmagazine. Further, many years from now when someone, who remembers that this incident did make the news, and wants to now more, the first place she or he will start looking will not be under this kid's name, but under something more generic, like "party".

But there's a more troubling problem here than just a fight over whether we should have an article. It is an amazing lack of imagination, a quality which continues to grow. In some ways, our choice of new articles -- and their treatment -- on Wikipedia betrays a very conservative approach to possible topics. Instead of organizing information in new and intellectually stimulating ways, Wikipedians are instead modeling their approach in the ways most familiar and accessible to them. Jimbo Wales made a call over a year ago to improve the quality of Wikipedia articles; for many, this apparently means making Wikipedia more like a circa-1955 version of Encyclopedia Britannica than the Encyclopedia Britannica!

Not to say that I have surpassed this race towards mediocrity: almost all of the new articles I have recently created are about settlements -- villages and towns -- in Ethiopia. One could say that I'm not writing an encyclopedia, but a gazetteer; I have the notes for writing an account about a religious dispute of the Ethiopian church, a subject I doubt exists anywhere else online or in print. And writing that article and making it available for free to everyone, would doubtlessly encourage someone who is an expert -- in other words, someone who knows something about the subject -- to write a better account.

The last is just a thought I have when I wonder what I should be working on for Wikipedia.


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Sunday, January 13, 2008


Another frontier for Free Culture to tame

The new forum WikBack, where a number of Wikipedia/Wikimedia regulars are meeting, so far has proven to have a very favorable message-to-noise ratio. One of the jems here is UninvitedCompany's post on the proprietary stranglehold on sheet music, which I quote in total below. (Thread here)


One of the last frontiers of the open content movement is sheet music, that is, the written form of music that is part of the western musical tradition from roughly the 15th century to today.

Musicians and musicologists have long been the captive of specialized publishing houses who produce sheet music. Initially, that was because of the difficult and specialized skill required to prepare musical works for printing. In current times, proliferation of open content is hindered mainly by the relatively small audience (most people cannot read music) and the difficulty of transcribing music into a grammar which software music typesetting programs can read.

The most successful project still operating is Mutopia, which has a small (1000 or so items), fragmented library of pieces hand-typeset from public domain scores using the Lilypond software, which is open source.

Project Gutenberg, primarily a text-based project, includes a handful of scores in its collection. Progress there is limited by the lack of support for music notation in the Distributed Proofreaders project that serves as the source for nearly all new PG material.

Until recently, a project that aimed to collect and organize high-resolution scans of public-domain sheet music ( was shut down after receiving copyright complaints from a publisher. The site has been off-line for approximately two months, and while discussion is reportedly under way regarding rehosting the site, no visible progress has been made.

The copyright complaints appear to me and to many observers to be without merit, and involve the web site (which is based in Canada) providing material that is still in copyright in Austria and a few other countries where copyright terms are unusually lengthy.

The IMSLP story is an example of the lengths to which the music publishing industry is willing to go to undermine free alternatives. Over half the volume of sheet music sales in the U.S. are low-end educational materials aimed primarily at teachers and the beginners they serve. These materials are inexpensive, and most are recently written and still under copyright.

The remainder is purchased by churches, performing groups, individual musicians, and teachers who work at college or university levels. These works, by and large, were composed prior to 1910, and music publishers have used a combination of semi-legitimate copyright and scare tactics to prevent an open content market from developing. Since the works themselves are no longer subject to copyright, publishers produce new "editions" which incorporate fingerings, interpretive notes, or graphic design purportedly under copyright. At the same time, industry groups have carried out a "copying is stealing" campaign, and place draconian notices on publications stating that any copying for any reason is a crime (despite the fact that this is frequently not the case).

The legal attack on IMSLP is part of this coordinated effort.

Progress on projects like Mutopia is hindered by the lack of a common grammar for transcription of music scores. Music is traditionally written in a freeform, two-dimensional, position-dependent format. Efforts to come up with a standard machine-readable format for music, like MusicXML, have not received widespread support. The best available formats are specific to individual music typesetting programs, be they commercial or open source. Matters are further complicated by the fact that no format has proven enduring -- both the open source and commercial products routinely invalidate older input when new software versions are released.

Wikipedia, Wikisource, and Commons sheet music content is limited to a handful of sample scores, due in part to a lack of editing support for music in MediaWiki.

The questions then are these:
  • What is the way forward on sheet music for the open content community
  • Should the WikiMedia foundation start a new project or otherwise provide support for the fledgling open-content sheet music community?
  • What technical initiatives make sense given the fragmented and difficult tools landscape?

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Friday, January 04, 2008


A grab-bag of links

Ignite Portland will have their next event 5 February at the Aladdin Theatre. Some of the proposed talks look as if they'll match the quality of the last Ignite Portland.

Pete Forsyth posted over at AboutUs a list of Wiki success stories. Amazingly, most of the examples he thought of were on Wikipedia -- and within the last few months. With all of the problems that get more publicity, it's nice to be reminded that Wikipedia does work for the most part.

Andrew Chen's post, "Public and private spaces, and why YouTube comments are so awful", could have been written in response to Moulton's comment on my last post. (No, I'm not trying to linkwhore myself here; it's just that Blogger, for some reason, doesn't allow me to link to individual comments.) In brief, Chen reflects on how anonymity and differences affect the culture of online communities. (Thanks to the Daily Buzz over at AboutUs for this one.)

Lastly, Chen's post led me (after a few jumps) to Chris Allen's post, "Dunbar, Altruistic Punishment, and Meta-Moderation", which discusses a few studies that look at the problem of why groups functions best at certain numbers of members, beyond the familiar Dunbar number thesis. (His other blog entries on this theme are also worth reading.) What I find fascinating are the dynamics he describes for the chronic problem of managing groups on Wikipedia: to have a functional group with more than 150 members (like the total number of active editors), one must not only have "punishing mechanism" to enforce cultural norms, but (to echo Juvenal's oft-quoted observation) a "punishing mechanism" for the "punishing mechanism" -- although Allen uses the language of "moderation" and "meta-moderation."


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