Archives for category: Wikipedia

Here’s some of my favourite coverage of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary.

For Inside Higher Ed, librarian and novelist Barbara Fister traces academia’s journey from skepticism about Wikipedia (“Those faculty who weren’t personally familiar with Wikipedia worried it was full of hoaxes and lies; those who used it regularly were nevertheless perturbed that students used it just as often.”) to embracing it (“Like much of scholarship, this is a big thing done not for money, but for its own sake, a project that will never end, that has no purpose other than to gather and share information freely.”). Inside Higher Ed: Happy Birthday, Wikipedia.

In the Guardian, historian Timothy Garton Ash describes his visit to the Wikimedia Foundation’s office in San Francisco, and celebrates “an American invention which, for all its faults, tries to spread around the world a combination of unpaid idealism, knowledge and stubborn civility.” The Guardian: We’ve seen America’s vitriol. Now let’s salute Wikipedia, a US pioneer of global civility. For all its shortcomings Wikipedia, now aged 10, is the internet’s biggest and best example of not-for-profit idealism.

In the Atlantic, NYU professor Clay Shirky argues that Wikipedia has helped our culture redefine authority. “An authority is a person or institution who has a process for lowering the likelihood that they are wrong to acceptably low levels. And over the last ten years, Wikipedia has been passing that test in an increasing number of circumstances,” he writes. The Atlantic: Clay Shirky on Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary. The Atlantic also includes short essays from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, press critic Jay Rosen, science journalist Mariette Christina, Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman, and others.

The Economist praises Wikipedia as “an astonishing success story,” “a useful reference work” that’s also “the most striking example of the idea that volunteers working together online can collectively produce something valuable.” It also raises three concerns: that Wikipedia contains too many inaccuracies; that it’s not financially sustainable; and that it’s lost touch with its founding ideal of being open to all. The Economist: In Praise of Wikipedia: Wiki birthday to you. A celebration of an astonishing achievement, and a few worries.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Oxford University Press vice-president Casper Grathwohl describes how his view of Wikipedia has evolved since its early days, and calls it “comprehensive, current, and far and away the most trustworthy Web resource of its kind.” He argues that the key challenge for the scholarly community is to “work actively with Wikipedia to build stronger links from its entries to more advanced resources that have been created and maintained by the academy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Wikipedia Comes of Age.

I wrote a column for the Guardian, in which I argue that Wikipedia represents the fulfillment of the original promise of the internet, that the conditions that gave rise to it may be disappearing, and that they are worth defending. The Guardian: Wikipedia at 10: a web pioneer worth defending. The greatest threat to this remarkable collaborative model of non-profit information sharing is not commerce, but censorship.

Agence-France-Press published a good solid overview of how Wikipedia works today, and describes our future plans. AFP: Ten years on, Wikipedia eyes a better world.

Wired UK’s Olivia Solon covers similar terrain in Wired UK, with a special focus on Wikipedia’s efforts to attract more editors: The battle to make Wikipedia more welcoming, part of Wired UK’s Wikipedia Week, which also includes a timeline of important Wikipedia milestones from Duncan Geere, and collects together reflections from people as disparate as Encyclopedia Britannica former editor-in-chief Robert McHenry, to Wikipedia adminstrator WereSpielChequers to Google Summer of Code boss Chris DiBona in Viewpoints: what the world thinks of Wikipedia.

In Lifehacker, Australian journalist and Wikipedian Angus Kidman describes his long-running dispute with a Wikipedia editor named Karen over the article about late-seventies Irish sisters band The Nolans, saying “what’s not always obvious are the social benefits you can derive from actually being a contributor to [Wikipedia],” and “I am not by nature a particularly tolerant or patient person, so I definitely chalk this up as self-improving.” Lifehacker: How Wikipedia Can Make You A More Tolerant Person.

Ten years ago today [1], Jimmy Wales typed Hello World! into a wiki, and Wikipedia was born.

Today, Wikipedia’s the fifth most-popular site on the internet, and the only site in the top 25 that provides a wholly non-commercial public service, backed by a non-profit. It’s the largest collection of information ever assembled in human history: free to use, and free of advertising. If you’re reading it, it’s for you :-)

The anniversary’s an opportunity for us all to reflect on Wikipedia: its social impact, and what we want to accomplish in the next ten years. There’s been a lot of thoughtful media coverage over the past few weeks: you can read a lot of it here.

What makes me happy about the coverage is that it seems like people’s attitudes towards Wikipedia have finally turned an important corner.

In its early years, Wikipedia was one of our culture’s dirty little secrets: everybody used it, but very few were comfortable saying so. For the longest time, the only people who openly admitted loving Wikipedia were early adopters and iconoclasts.

Today though, journalists, educators and culture critics are finally embracing Wikipedia, acknowledging that its strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses, and that its fundamental premise works. (A reporter told me the other day that mocking Wikipedia is “so 2007.” LOL.)

So today, we celebrate all the people who built this extraordinary thing. The engineers who made the code. The people who write the articles, fix the typos, smooth the text, localize the software, answer readers’ mail, and fight off vandals and POV-pushers. The donors, who pay the bills.

I invite you to check out this page, where there are listed (at last count) 454 Wikipedia anniversary parties, conferences, film screenings and other events. If you can come to one –even if you’ve never edited or even ever met a Wikipedian– please do!

And if you can’t be with us in person, why not do a little celebratory editing? Wikipedia wants your help: here’s a really great place to get started.

Thank you to everyone who’s helped to build Wikipedia. What you’ve done is amazing. Happy anniversary!

[1] It’s the morning of January 15 in southeast Asia, as I write this :-)

I’m in Stockholm for the Swedish chapter’s third Wikipedia Academy, and I spent most of today with Swedish journalists.

I was talking with Robert Brännström, Editor-in-Chief of IDG Sweden, about the characteristics that distinguish people who edit Wikipedia from those who only read it. There are lots – I’d say that relative to the average person, Wikipedia editors are geekier, more curious, more introverted, they tend to be smarter, and are perhaps more inclined to be obsessive. But if I had to pick a single characteristic that’s common to all editors, I’d say it’s confidence. All Wikipedia editors share the belief that they know something worth sharing with others.

Robert immediately started laughing, and introduced me to the word wikipetter.  It’s derived from the Swedish word viktigpetter, which apparently means something like know-it-all, smarty-pants, smart-ass or “big head.” Wikipetter is apparently in fairly common use among Swedes — a quick search turned up quite a few definitions.

I hesitate to say this, because maybe Swedish Wikipedians consider the word wikipetter insulting. And probably they are tired of hearing about it, considering there have been no fewer than twelve lengthy debates about whether the Swedish Wikipedia should include an article about the Wiki Petter concept. (The outcome, I gather, is always no.) But nonetheless: I think it’s charming that the Swedish people have developed a special word for smarty-pants Wikipedians. If you know of other words like wikipetter, please tell me in the comments.

(By the way the title for this post was taken from a comment here, on this usability consultant’s blog. The Google translation made me laugh: it is “Long live Wikipettrar! (Is not a Wiki Petter self).”)

29 November 2010: I’ve just updated this post to correct the spelling of viktigpetter, which Lennart Guldbrandsson kindly informed me I’d gotten a bit wrong.

I’ve spent most of my career in public broadcasting, which is a very female-friendly environment. So the lack of women in Wikimedia / free culture / free software / Silicon Valley and the STEM world, has been a real culture shock for me. For anyone who doesn’t already know this: only 13% of Wikimedia project editors are female; less than 2% of free software contributors are female, and women are losing ground, not gaining it, in Silicon Valley tech companies.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why our space is so gender-imbalanced, and how we can make it better.

Mostly I’ve kept my thoughts to myself thus far, because gender is an emotional topic for lots of people, and I’m not all that interested in arguing about it. But I’ll probably post here occasionally about gender issues. The purpose of this post is to talk about one fantastic book on women in computing, and what we might learn from it.

When I started reading and thinking about women in technology, I kept coming across references to Unlocking the Clubhouse, by academics Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. Here’s how it’s described by the American Library Association.

Margolis and Fisher document the astonishing gender gap in the field of computing by answering the question of why female interest in technology begins to wane in middle school and all but dies in high school. The authors argue that male dominance in information technology can be traced directly back to cultural, social, and educational patterns established in early childhood. Women, therefore, are vastly underrepresented in one of the most economically significant professions of the twenty-first century. After countless hours of classroom observation and interviews with hundreds of computer science students and teachers, the authors offer an array of formal educational reforms and informal practical solutions designed to rekindle and to nurture female interest in computer design and technology.”

Unlocking the Clubhouse is canonical, maybe because it’s unusually solutions-focused. It studies Carnegie-Mellon, which over a five-year period managed to achieve a 35% increase in female admissions to its computer science school (double the rate of increase for comparable research universities), and brought down the rate of female attrition from double that of men, to nearly the same. If you’re interested in gender in computer science, I highly recommend it. (If you’re on the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation, it’s in our library.)

Below, I’ve extracted bits that I think are particularly helpful for us. Try reading it as though “computer science” meant “Wikimedia,” and “teachers” meant “experienced editors.” I wrote the bolded text; the remainder is direct quotes from the book. Emphasis in the original.

  1. Deliberately focus efforts on recruiting women. Don’t assume that general outreach efforts will motivate women. Encourage women to recruit other women. Boys have staked their claim at the computer very early both at home and in schools. Girls who are interested but intimidated, or girls who don’t know what computer science is but could be very interested, need an extra word of encouragement from teachers, parents, or counselors. Rule number one, then, is that teachers have to deliberately focus efforts on recruiting girls. If teachers issue a generic recruitment call, boys turn out. Girls must know the teacher is talking to them. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of encouragement to fire a girl’s interest. … Some of the best recruiters of girls are other girls. … two mottoes emerged: “Recruit friendship circles” and “Recruit a posse.”
  2. Stage and support women-only activities. These events attract girls who would normally stay away from the classes where they fear being left in the dust or shouted down by more experienced or just plain louder boys. They provide learning environments where girls take risks, take leadership, ask questions, stop worrying about what they do not know, and build confidence.”
  3. Don’t get dissuaded by opposition. When teachers begin to make a special effort to recruit girls, they often encounter some opposition. Other teachers, boys, and sometimes girls may object that special efforts to recruit girls are not fair. … This is an important teaching opportunity: an opportunity to explain how boys have already been recruited into computer science. Public image, media and marketing of computers have been specifically focused on boys. The gender stereotypes associated with computing tend to pull boys in and push girls away. To balance the influences, a concerted campaign to recruit girls is necessary.“
  4. Work to create and protect a female-friendly environment. Computer science classrooms often have the feel of a boy’s locker room. The humor and banter usually reflect the male demographics. Donovan Williams of Madison, Wisconsin, told us of a computer programming contest, organized by a recent high school graduate, that included problems titled “Don’t Forget the Beer” and “Checkin’ Out the Babes.” He wrote to the contest organizer, explaining how the contest call assumed a male audience and could alienate female students. … Much prior research shows that female students in technical disciplines, perhaps because of their “outsider-ness,” are especially vulnerable to poor teaching, inhospitable teaching environments, and unhelpful faculty. Even a small proportion of such occurrences against an otherwise welcoming and supportive background can have severe negative effects.”
  5. Emphasize social impact. Women students’ descriptions of why they are majoring in computer science are a “counter-narrative” to the stereotype of computer scientists who are narrowly focused on their machines and are hacking for hacking’s sake. Instead, these women tell us about their multiple interests and their desire to link computer science to social concerns and caring for people. These women may or may not qualify as ‘people people’ on a psychological inventory exam to the same degree as those involved in nursing, social work, or child care, but they need their computing to be useful for society. … A metaanalysis of research on gender and science by Marcia Linn and Janet Hyde concluded that a major sex difference in interests in math and science is its perceived usefulness. … University of Michigan researcher Jacquelynne Eccles reports that the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions, a longitudinal study of approximately 1,000 adolescents from southern Michigan, found that “women select the occupation that best fits their hierarchy of occupationally-relevant values,” and that helping others and doing something worthwhile for society is high in that hierarchy.”

Further reading: Vel Henson’s classic essay HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux

Tonight I went to see historian Timothy Garton Ash talk with his friend Tobias Wolff at Stanford. The occasion was the publication of Timothy’s newest book, a collection of essays and reportage loosely built around the idea that “facts are subversive.”  Timothy’s premise seems to be –roughly, loosely– that people in power are often trying to construct narratives in support of a particular economic, political or culture agenda, and that facts –even very small ones– can sometimes trip that up.

One thing they talked about was about honesty in memoirs — for example, Mary McCarthy’s 1957 autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, in which McCarthy disarmingly confesses that “the temptation to invent has been very strong,” and “there are cases when I am not sure myself whether I am making something up.” And about George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, in which Orwell wrote:

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.” (1)

This brought into focus for me something I’ve long half-recognized — both in my own experiences of reading Wikipedia, and the stories people tell me about how they use it themselves. Article after article after article on Wikipedia is studded with warnings to the reader. “This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party sources.” “This article needs attention from an expert on the subject.” “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand.”  On this page, you can see 24 common warning notices — and there are many, many more.

And I think that’s one of the reasons people trust Wikipedia, and why some feel such fondness for it. Wikipedia contains mistakes and vandalism: it is sometimes wrong. But people know they can trust it not to be aiming to manipulate them — to sell them something, either a product or a position. Wikipedia is just aiming to tell people the truth, and it’s refreshingly honest about its own limitations.

Tobias Wolff said tonight that sometimes such disclaimers are used manipulatively, as corroborating detail to add versimilitude to text that might otherwise be unpersuasive. I think that’s true. But in the case of Wikipedia, which is written by multitudes, disclaimers are added to pages by honest editors who are trying to help. They may not themselves be able to fix an article, but at the very least, they want to help readers know what they’re getting into. I like that.

(1) I looked that up on Google Books when I got home. Yay, Google Books!

Jay Walsh already wrote about these new videos on the Wikimedia Foundation blog, and I want to write about them as well. I really, really love them :-)

One of my main functions is to be a face and voice for Wikipedia — telling our story to all kinds of people, including potential partners, donors, critics, and so forth. And the least-visible part of our story has always been the editors — the people who write the encyclopedia. That’s because most readers don’t actually think much about how Wikipedia gets produced: they tend instead to imagine it as a kind of utility, like their web browser or ISP or hydro-electric service. (Like, “I turn on the faucet and information comes out.”) So from the beginning, I’ve aimed to tell that untold story — to, in effect, take readers backstage.

Why?

Partly it just seems fair: when people are reading something, they deserve to know who wrote it and why. But also, I want people to use Wikipedia, to trust it and support it. And the more they know about our editors, the likelier they are to do that.

Wikipedia’s written by smart people, 99% of whom have no motivation other than a love of knowledge and sharing. They’re not trying to sell anything, or make readers vote a particular way or believe a particular idea, nor are they trying to enrich or benefit themselves. As Jimmy said once long ago, they’re just smart geeks – the kind of people who think writing an encyclopedia is a fun way to spend their free time.

So, up until a few weeks ago, I used to tell the stories of Wikipedians by running a little slideshow of photos that I pulled off Wikimedia Commons, in decks like this one. I’d talk over them, giving the basic info – that the average Wikipedia editor’s male, in his mid-twenties, typically a graduate student, and so forth.

But now, Wikimedia’s Head of Communications Jay Walsh has made four lovely videos in which Wikipedians speak for themselves.

This first is just a kind of teaser / proof of concept — it was strung together in the edit suite to see what it would look like.

“Nice People” is intended to introduce viewers to typical Wikipedians.

“Edit Button” is part of a set of outreach materials the Wikimedia Foundation’s creating, aimed at encouraging readers to try editing.

“Great Feeling” is I think most people’s favourite — definitely, it’s mine :-)

I think these videos are really lovely. Many thanks to Jay for commissioning them, and to Jelly Helm for directing them. Jelly’s talent is shiningly, thrillingly obvious here — I’m really happy that Jelly loves Wikipedia, and that he wanted to help its editors tell their stories :-)

All four videos are on Wikimedia Commons and YouTube. They’re all CC-BY-SA. For the YouTube version, please consider supporting the open web by opting into YouTube’s HTML5 beta. And many thanks to the people who are currently translating the videos for subtitling and closed-captioning. The translated text is linked to from these pages on Commons.

I spent this past weekend with Wikimedia trustee Phoebe Ayers at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California, attending a workshop called Business Among Friends: Clerking as a Spiritual Discipline.

Neither Phoebe nor I are Quakers, but we’re curious about them. I first read about the similarities between Quaker and Wikimedian decision-making practices in Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new analysis of the Wikipedia community Good Faith Collaboration – and since then, I’ve read a dozen or so Quaker books and pamphlets. I’ve been especially interested in the practice of “clerking.”

The job of the Quaker clerk is to facilitate Quaker meetings – to create the agenda, set the tone, traffic-cop the discussion, listen, help resolve conflict, and understand and document agreement. It’s a role that reminds me a lot of leadership (both formal & informal) at the Wikimedia Foundation, and so I’ve been curious to learn more about it. The purpose of this post is to share some impressions and identify a few Quaker practices that I think Wikimedia could usefully adopt.

Disclaimer! Experienced Quakers will probably find that my grasp of some practices is shaky, and I may have mischaracterized things. People who attended the workshop may remember things differently from me. And, I am going to use words like “consensus” in the non-Quaker sense, so that they’ll make sense for readers who aren’t familiar with Quakerism. My apologies for errors and misunderstandings.

Based on what I’d read, I expected the Quakers to be mostly middle-aged or older, mostly white, and really, really friendly. They were exactly that.

But I was surprised to discover also some unexpected commonalities with Wikimedians. Both speak in acronyms (WP:NPOV, meet M&O, FCL and FAP). Both are really proud of their work, and yet tend towards self-criticism rather than self-promotion. Both talk a lot, and are precise and articulate in the way they use language (the Quakers I met spoke in complex sentences, studded with caveats and parentheticals). Both resist speaking on behalf of their group. And both have a strong individualistic streak, and describe themselves as skeptical about leadership and authority.

(To that last point: On Saturday night, Quaker adults and teenagers played a game called Big Wind Blows, which is kind of like musical chairs. Everyone’s in a circle and the person in the centre, who doesn’t have a seat, calls out “Big wind blows for everybody who [has X characteristic].” Everybody without the characteristic stays in their chair; everybody with it runs around looking for a new seat. On Saturday night, the first person in the centre said something like “Big wind blows for everyone with brown hair.” Second was “everyone who’s wearing blue jeans.” Third was “everyone who’s gone to jail for a matter of conscience.” Four Quakers in the group had chosen jail rather than, say, serving in the military or paying taxes. And doing that was considered ‘normal’ enough to be fodder for a game.)

Tomorrow, once I’ve cleaned them up, I’ll post some detailed notes I took. For now though, I’ll elaborate on a few Quaker practices that I think we Wikimedians could learn from. Most of this will be applicable for face-to-face meetings (i.e., our board meetings, Wikimania, meet-ups), but there may be relevance here for on-wiki work too.

Everybody who’s part of the movement shares responsibility for helping it succeed. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and watch things fail.

The Quakers talk a lot about “clerking yourself,” which basically means taking personal responsibility for the group’s collective success. People are expected to behave in a disciplined fashion, including managing themselves emotionally. They’re expected to be open-minded, open to learning and changing their minds. They’re expected to pay attention and listen carefully to each other. They’re expected to avoid the temptation to get mad or show off, and to instead speak “with love rather than judgment.” They’re expected to restrain themselves from talking too much, from interrupting other people, and from repeating the same arguments again and again. Quakers are expected to be willing and able to calmly, thoughtfully, explore areas of disagreement. If they’re feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they’re expected to say that, so that other people can find ways to support them and ensure they’re heard. And if other people are behaving badly, everyone is expected to try to help them behave better.

All this, obviously, is aspirational. As someone at the workshop said, Quakers aren’t paragons, and they’re just as likely as anyone else to be childish and whiny and egotistical. But they’re expected to try really hard not to be.

Setting the right tone is critical for success.

All weekend, I was struck by the Quakers’ skill at establishing and maintaining a rich, healthy emotional tone.

The most obvious example of this is the Quakers’ use of silence. Quakers really value silence: it’s built into all of their religious meetings and their discussions, and during the weekend, we probably spent a combined total of two or three hours together in silence — sometimes for long stretches, and sometimes just for a few minutes. That does something really interesting: it makes everybody more judicious. You have time to reflect, to organize your thoughts, to calm down. You get to listen to other people, rather than using their speaking time to plan what you’ll say next. What you say is smarter and more thoughtful than it would’ve been otherwise.

That’s just one technique the Quakers use: there were lots of others. Elizabeth and Eric, who facilitated the workshop, modeled warmth and patience and respect. They thanked people, a lot. They acknowledged and welcomed the new people. They opened the meetings in a circle, with everyone holding hands.

It reminded me of something Sal Giambanco of Omidyar Network once told me – that he recommends non-profit boards kick off their meetings with a recitation of their mission statement. It’s the same kind of thing – rituals and practices designed to remind us that what we’re doing together is meaningful, so that we can approach it in a spirit of love and respect.

Sometimes you have to kick out difficult people. Maybe.

The people attending the workshop were all experienced Quakers. And it was clear from the stories they told and the questions they asked, that Quaker meetings suffer from difficult people.

This reminded me of Wikimedia. Because it didn’t seem like difficult people were necessarily over-represented inside Quakerism. Rather, it seemed like a normal number of difficult people created stress and anxiety disproportionate to their actual numbers. Elizabeth says that many clerks have shared with her stories about a single problematic member in their meeting, who wants attention or influence and takes advantage of the consensus process to grandstand and delay or block action for months or even years. Quakers call these people ‘dissenting spirits’ or ‘chronic objectors,’ and characterize them as “needing to hold themselves out of alignment with the group.” Elizabeth describes them as people who, no matter how much trust is extended to them, are unable to develop trust in others. Their disruptive presence can drive away others, and sometimes even threaten the survival of the group.

Which sounded sadly familiar to me.

Here’s what I think happens. Where other groups might unhesitatingly excommunicate a person who repeatedly broke their rules, it seems to me that the Wikimedia projects and the Quakers both tend to agonize instead, presumably because both groups pride themselves on being highly inclusive and tolerant. (Remember I said the Quakers are strongly individualistic? I suspect that, like some Wikimedians, some Quakers have a history of getting kicked out of various groups, and so they have a lot of empathy for people having that kind of difficulty.)

But even the Quakers, it seems, have their limits. As Elizabeth wrote in her book on clerking, “A healthy meeting will provide spiritual nurture for the ‘difficult’ Friend, but will understand that protecting the safety of the meeting has priority. It will not confuse ‘being loving’ or ‘being Quakerly’ with tolerating the destructive behavior of an individual, but will understand that setting firm limits is loving.”

This was probably the most uncomfortable topic that got addressed during the workshop, and it was the only time I remember when Elizabeth and Eric seemed to disagree. It’s a tough topic, both for the Quakers and Wikimedians.

I want to thank Jacob Stone and Gretta Stone, directors of the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, as well as Elizabeth Boardman (Davis Meeting) and Eric Moon (Berkeley Meeting), facilitators of the workshop. Everybody at the workshop was enormously welcoming to Phoebe and me: we are really grateful. Seriously: it was lovely.

I’ll publish more notes –rougher, longer– probably tomorrow.