Friday, May 30, 2008

Mantanmoreland: lessons learned

Yesterday one of Wikipedia's oldest and highest profile disputes led to the siteban of an account called Mantanmoreland. Without going into too many details about the dispute itself, here's an idea of its scope: it goes back as far as early 2006 on Wikipedia and is older than that elsewhere. Patrick Byrne, the CEO of, is directly involved. So is Judd Bagley, who until recently was an employee. Both of them have disclosed their real names and their conflict of interest. On the other side of the fence is Mantanmoreland, who hasn't disclosed his identity but is accused of being a financial journalist named Gary Weiss. The underlying dispute is about a financial practice called naked short selling.

It was I who proposed Manatanmoreland's siteban at the discussion that actually achieved it. Collectively, we Wikipedians weren't good at all at managing this dispute. Not a single person comes out looking wise and good throughout all of this (myself included), so rather than apportion blame and try to label good guys and bad guys this post looks at some things we can learn from this so that the site runs more smoothly in the future.

1. Communicate Wikipedia site standards proactively

Most of the world doesn't understand how Wikipedia really works, and most of the people who do understand how it works are publishing their understanding on Wikipedia in userspace essays and the like, where even the most brilliant essay reaches an audience of seasoned Wikipedians. The average person out there in the general public doesn't know how to find that wisdom and doesn't know which Wikipedian is knowledgeable and trustworthy. So they turn to the same sources Wikipedians refer to in content discussions as reliable sources, and that isn't all that effective a plan because the magazine stories and editorials are mostly getting written by journalists who have a flawed understanding and make a few honest mistakes, or by disgruntled people who can't publish on Wikipedia anymore. Misunderstandings are inevitable as long as that status quo continues.

2. Establish a clear path back to good standing for indefinitely blocked and banned editors.
Wikipedia has a blocking policy and a banning policy, but no corresponding unblocking/unbanning policy. Yes, we assume good faith and often give second chances, but on an ad hoc basis that's opaque to anyone who doesn't have long experience with the site. One of the things that would cut down on drama and sockpuppetry is if we articulated a clear path back to good standing for the average banned or indefinitely blocked editor. It would be good for the site if we worked out consensus standards to address the usual situations, so that people who get shown the door know the honest ways back in and so that our own decisions about bringing people back become more consistent and equitable.

3. Craft remedies within the realistic limits of volunteer resources
Sometimes the mantra remedies are preventative, not punitive has to weigh broader implications than the particular case at hand. For example, most experienced editors are capable of creating vote stacking sockpuppets. The reason they don't is because, historically, this site has taken vote stacking very seriously and treats deliberate vote stacking as grounds for a siteban: as long as one's entire reputation is at stake, few consider it worth the risk. And that's a good thing because a crafty sockpuppeteer is hard to catch and consumes a lot of volunteer labor. We don't have the resources to track them down in droves if that problem ever gets out of hand, which is why a short two week block would have been exactly the wrong message to send to the community when someone who has already vote stacked a request for administratorship and the arbitration committee elections gets gets definitively caught sockpuppeteering yet again. The editor community must not perceive a two week block as the worst case scenario for vote stacking, because to some people that will look like a worthwhile risk. Nothing less than the integrity of the site is at stake. In a conversation yesterday someone supposed that amounts to coming down particularly hard on high profile cases. Not at all: we should be sitebanning all vote stacking sockpuppeteers unless they have an exceedingly good reason why a lone instance was accidental and will never happen again.

4. Establish fair parameters for conducting community sanctions discussions.
There are several ways we can improve this, but for now I'll repeat the points I raised with the administrator who closed the Mantanmoreland ban discussion:
  • When an editor needs to be shown the door, they leave with less discontent if they know they've had a voice in the process.
  • When an editor abuses the opportunity of defending themselves, their own bad behavior is easy to block/revert/delete and the example makes the community's decision simpler.
  • Sometimes consensus does change as new information comes to light.
  • Since political animals exploit any exploitable precedent, giving a fair term for rebuttal in every case makes it harder for wikipoliticians to railroad a good editor off the site.


As a final observation, one of the more salient concerns raised by critics of Wikipedia in relation to this dispute is the tension between the Wikimedia Foundation's privacy policy and Wikipedia's conflict of interest guideline. Supporters of Byrne and Bagley argue that they got penalized for disclosing their conflict of interest, while--if one believes the allegations that Mantanmoreland was operated by Gary Weiss--there was a tangible benefit to not disclosing a conflict of interest. To set the dilemma in generalized terms, my answer is simple: people who exploit the privacy policy in order to circumvent the conflict of interest guideline do so at their own risk. Wikipedia's transparency is astonishing and nearly unprecedented: most of what happens here is public information available to anyone on the planet who has an Internet connection, and people who come there with an actual conflict of interest should bear in mind that deception can play out much worse than candor in the long run.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Arbitration Committee performance review, Part 1

This is the first of a series of blog posts to discuss Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee. If you're not already familiar with what that is, it's sort of Wikipedia's supreme court. Wikipedians call it ArbCom. It's not a fun place--it's where you go to solve problems that haven't gotten fixed anywhere else.

A little background: in Wikipedia's earliest years Jimbo Wales was the only person who could ban anyone from the site. He was the final stop in dispute resolution. By 2003 that was getting too cumbersome for one person to do alone, so new solutions got brainstormed. ArbCom went into operation in April 2004. It's a panel of 15 people who are sort-of-elected by the community, but ultimately selected by Jimbo (the process is complex). Jimbo reserves the right to dissolve ArbCom, but it's largely a theoretical right and has never been implemented. Sometimes arbitrators resign before their term ends. So when a vacancy occurs Jimbo appoints a replacement. Usually he chooses from the pool of also-ran candidates from the last election, but not always. The most (in)famous instance of that was the short-lived tenure of Essjay.

A growing number of experienced editors within Wikipedia have expressed concerns about ArbCom lately. Complaints per se are nothing new--nearly everyone who gets sanctioned thinks their own case was handled badly--and because of this discussions about arbitration problems generally get bogged down in the intricacies of this or that particular case.

It is my opinion that the Arbitration Committee was never a very scalable concept, and that its responsibilities have expanded past the point of diminishing returns. In order to present this in an impartial manner I'll focus on trends, and present tangible numbers. Wikipedia's arbitration committee has never had a performance review before. Considering the important role they serve in what has become the world's seventh most popular website, it's time that they do.

First, a review of Wikipedia's growth:
Apr 2004: 250,000 articles
Mar 2005: 500,000 articles
Mar 2006: 1,000,000 articles
Sep 2007: 2,000,000 articles
May 2008: 2,391,955 articles (as of this writing)

Following is my research on the arbitration committee's caseload. The research method is simple: I counted the number of open cases on the last day of each month since ArbCom began. Each example is linked to the source where I gathered the data. Requested cases and recently closed cases are not included toward these figures. Cases in formal review do count. Please report any errors so that I can correct them promptly.

My finding is a significant and sustained dropoff in recent monthly cases, reaching its nadir during the three most recent months (March-May 2008) when the Arbitration Committee has heard the least number of cases ever, including its first three months of existence from 2004 when the Committee had no preexisting cases in its docket.

Apr: 4 cases
May: 6 cases
Jun: 6 cases
Jul: 9 cases
Aug: 12 cases
Sep: 12 cases
Oct: 14 cases
Nov: 13 cases
Dec: 13 cases

Jan: 6 cases
Feb: 7 cases
Mar: 12 cases
Apr: 4 cases
May: 12 cases
Jun: 12 cases
Jul: 15 cases
Aug: 13 cases
Sep: 15 cases
Oct: 18 cases
Nov: 16 cases
Dec: 20 cases

Jan: 26 cases
Feb: 14 cases
Mar: 12 cases
Apr: 12 cases
May: 11 cases
Jun: 14 cases
Jul: 19 cases
Aug: 18 cases
Sep: 12 cases
Oct: 11 cases
Nov: 11 cases
Dec: 13 cases

Jan: 11 cases
Feb: 12 cases
Mar: 7 cases
Apr: 12 cases
May: 12 cases
Jun: 13 cases
Jul: 12 cases
Aug: 12 cases
Sep: 12 cases
Oct: 7 cases
Nov: 7 cases
Dec: 4 cases

Jan: 7 cases
Feb: 6 cases
Mar: 5 cases
Apr: 4 cases
29 May: 4 cases

Several interpretations are possible based upon the data presented thus far. The introduction of community banning in mid-2005 and the 2007 expansion of community sanctions to include lesser remedies such as topic banning and revert parole is one factor worthy of consideration. In my opinion that does not fully explain the dynamic observed. Blog format is better suited to short presentations than long ones, and more relevant data will follow in future posts.

Image credits:

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The elusive geek goddess

This is not going to be my most politically correct post. So if you're easily offended you might skip this.

I was chatting with a male Wikipedian the other day. He had been dating a young lady who wasn't much interested in Wikipedia. She preferred music.

This was a problem.

There's nothing wrong with music, actually. And the lady herself is a fine human being. What he wants, though, is a geek goddess: gorgeous, and into the open source movement. Fascinating, plus able to code a brilliant bot. And it's not like that ought to be such an unrealistic goal for a fellow who's young, good-looking, affable, and educated.

So I told him my theory. And so help me, I'll tell you too: geekdom is basically a talent that develops when people can't get a date.

Just think how many marketable computer skills get self-taught by young males as they search for pornography.

Now when an actual female shows up in the world of geekdom, a bunch of guys gravitate to her. Years before I joined Wikipedia I participated in another online community (gasp...a MUD...yes I'm really a geek). And I ran a fansite for the game and the top two questions on my FAQ read as follows:

1. Are you female?

2. I mean really, are you female?

I survived that barrage because my own geek roots run unusually deep (named after a physicist, etc.), but normally a woman in this situation ends up spending her evenings at dinner and the movies and never achieves her full geek potential. Exceptions exist, of course. Hence the stereotypical female geek--the one who's been looked over by 400 pimply faced pornmonsters who each decided that even a pimply faced pornmonster has his standards.

Maybe that's not kind to women. But heck, it ain't kind to men either.

So what's a guy to do? Especially one like my buddy who's a pretty good catch himself (he even has clear skin) but just wants a woman whose interests are something like his own? He could soar across cyberspace like a hawk looking for attractive single female geeks, but it's crowded up there because he's riding the same thermals as thousands of other hawks, and his potential beloved is going to get snapped up as quickly as a white mouse on an asphalt sidewalk next door to the aviary.

"Look for a wannabe geek and teach her Dreamweaver," I suggested. "Or just listen to more music and read the movie listings. The one you're already with sounds like a sweet girl."

Image credit:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The official Soviet red herring

Maybe it hasn't been totally clear why I tread lightly in political disputes. It started in the fall of 2006 when an editor (apparently a Cuban expatriate) insisted that that I was a Russian Communist. When I blocked him for using the talk page of the Fidel Castro article as a blog he dismissed my assurance that the blog was based in policy: no, a Russian username transformed me into a supporter of Fidel Castro. He even supposed the time stamps of my edits suggested I was in Eastern Europe. (Gee, and I thought I was here in San Diego).

Never mind that I did cite valid policy. And never mind that I chose the username to honor the first female officer of the Russian Army who retired more than a century before the Communist revolution began, and that it's darned hard to find any Communists in Russia these days. I can claim to be anything on the Internet; I happen to have claimed consistently for years that I hold a degree in history from Columbia University and that I'm a female war veteran, and that the username might have something to do with a touch of mild feminism, but I'm not Russian in the slightest.

Really, I've never set foot in Russia. I speak maybe six words of Russian. I've never dated a Russian. I'm not Russian by descent. Nadezhda Durova published her service journal after she met Pushkin, and I think that's pretty cool. There ain't much more to be said there.

But sometimes editors are so darned certain...

One of the other more memorable occasions happened in summer 2007 when a Serb editor and a Croat editor brought a dispute to an administrative noticeboard. I looked at their arguments and their evidence and looked at the policies, and I decided the Serb was right. And then of course the Croat was furious.

You see, Russia is a historic ally of Serbia. Certainly that must have been why I agreed with the Serb. Never mind the policy I'd quoted.

This is all a great cover for my FBI work, or vice versa.

So in honor of moments like that I'm going to award the Official Soviet Red Herring to the best story I receive. I want your memoirs--the silliest incidents where an edit warrior has mistaken your politics or ideology just because you cited a policy that went against that person's wishes. The best account will win that cute Communist herring above--get yours straight from the apparat-chick herself in the Soviet Socialist Republic of California. Diffs earn bonus points, but I'll consider all fish tales if they're funny enough and you swear on Mao's Little Red Book that you're completely true.

Please post your red herring candidates in the comments section below.

Potential superpowers

Not the greatest idea for an article, if you ask me. Potential superpowers--what doesn't have potential? Let's see:

*Macedonia may not look like much today, but it didn't look like much before Alexander the Great either.
*Mongolia: same deal; see Genghis Khan.
*Corsica: not even an independent country, but who cares? Napoleon had bigger ambitions.

Actually the editorial disagreements at that page have more to do with countries that are kind of important such as Brazil. Today the discussion is about Russia. I noticed when a certain edit showed up on my watchlist. An IP editor made the edit note Removed slanderous, hateful comment.

That piqued my curiosity. When I read the talk page itself I noticed several signs of a discussion that was headed downhill. Actually the IP had removed the following:
Russia as a developing country...that's funny. I've lived in the US, and it's not more free or prosperous than Russia. I'd have to say, Russia is more of a role model than the US. India may look up to the US, but China hardly does. Nobody likes the US anymore, because of it's imperialistic, nationalistic, war-mongering, and ruthless foreign policy. Russia has better human rights than America, last I checked, America still has the death penalty, Russia has abolished it in practice. While the Russian people are subjected to the daily doses of propaganda we get over here, Americans get it too. The American media and education institutions are all about teaching kids how great America and how evil countries like Russia, China, and Cuba are. They're not. I've been to all three. If that's not propaganda, I don't know what is. Again, Russian propaganda may say it's a superpower, but it's not. Both countries have propaganda and human rights issues, so let's not try to put one over the other, that's just scaremongering and propaganda. [[User: Saruman20]] ([[User talk: Saruman20|talk]]) 12:53, 25 May 2008 (UTC)
Here's one of the challenges that goes hand in hand with an open edit encyclopedia: Wikipedia isn't a discussion forum or a blog--and that post drifts toward that territory. I don't necessarily like what this person is saying, but that's beside the point: when I log into Wikipedia I take it upon myself to log out of politics. Blanking another editor's comment is a serious matter onsite, and only acceptable under specific circumstances.

Although both the post and the thread are problematic for other reasons, I don't specifically see slander or hate speech in that post. So I restored the post with this comment:
No slander in the statement; please discuss rather than remove. If an editor is misusing the talk page as a blog or soapbox then please raise the issue at a noticeboard.
National pride and politics are hot button topics to a lot of people. What experience on Wikipedia has taught me is that, in this type of situation, it can make all the difference if an uninvolved editor steps in and offers a better solution than what the page's participants have been pursuing. The key is to step in early with some mild and friendly solutions before things get too heated.

So I started a follow-up thread.
Please keep the discussion focused on editorial issues that relate directly to this article. If the editors here have difficulty reaching consensus, suggest [[WP:DR|dispute resolution]]. Best wishes.
If past experience is any indication of future performance, this will go one of two ways. Either the editors are reasonable and they'll follow the suggestion to try dispute resolution, or one of them will pick out my Russian username and accuse me of hating the United States.

We'll see how this goes.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Funding Wikipedias in Underserved Languages

Today's Not the Wikipedia Weekly discussion dealt with developing Wikipedias in African languages. The recording itself should be available for listening shortly, so a few issues I'll refer to the discussion there. One bottom line question is how to fund the starting effort for underserved populations.

I brainstormed one solution during the recording and I'll float it publicly now. The basic idea is this: it costs $50-$80 a month to hire a person full time to create basic content in a starting Wikipedia in a developing country. We're talking about seeding a project with basic articles so that it begins to get traffic and a community of volunteers. Question is how to raise that money.

I'll use my volunteer skills to help generate that funding. Here's an example of the work I'll do--Photoshopping Cary Bass of the Wikimedia Foundation onto an Albrecht Dürer painting. In return for a donation to a dedicated fund (and with no share of the money for myself), I'll edit a photograph onto a famous public domain painting.

If you like this idea, please comment and/or e-mail me. We need to set up the place to accept the funds. As a starting donation level I'm looking at $25 per picture. So two to three images would fund a full time person for a month to develop Wikipedia material in Africa.

A good cause, with a fun benefit in return. What do you say?

Friday, May 23, 2008


This blog has a new look today because of a request to change the format and improve accessibility. I take this seriously and hope the new presentation is better.

If you have any comment on the new appearance please let me know.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Interview with a young Wikipedian

When discussing the small Southern town where I went to high school, people have asked Was it the buckle of the Bible belt?

I've always answered It was more like one of the holes.

I still remember a particular afternoon when I opened the school newspaper. It was around the time when Madonna's "Like a Virgin" was getting maximum airplay. And although nobody's parents objected to her performance at the MTV Music Awards writhing on her belly while wearing a wedding dress, a brief item in the school paper stated that The Scarlet Letter and The Catcher in the Rye had been removed from the school library shelves due to pressure from a local church.

I did a very slow double take. The Scarlet Letter I'd already read, and I couldn't see how Hester Prynne's embroidery had beaten out Madonna's midriff-baring gryations on a gondola in the inappropriate-for-teenagers department. So...
Huh? Well, that was 1984. We didn't have Wikipedia then so the best I could do was head to a bookstore. I read The Catcher in the Rye that very night. And in some miniscule way I think of myself as a better person for having spent the evening with that book instead of whatever cattiness was happening between Krystle and Alexis on the boob tube.

I would have really enjoyed if someone had asked my opinion of the matter. Nobody did.

So after Chelsea Schilling published "Is Wikipedia Wicked Porn?" in WorldNetDaily where she complained about mature content I asked one of Wikipedia's younger volunteers for an interview. He's an articulate person with a good record as a Wikipedian who edits psuedonymously, and out of respect for his privacy I've removed potentially identifiable details from this interview.

Would his opinions be anything like mine had been? I wasn't sure, but I wanted to give him the opportunity I hadn't had.

Durova says: So you're one of our younger editors. Is that correct?

Young Wikipedian says: I would assume so. There are younger though.

Durova says: Would you share your age?

Young Wikipedian says: 14 years old.

Durova says: And you've written a couple of good articles.

Young Wikipedian says: Yeah, 3 of them.

Durova says: To protect your privacy I won't name the titles. I've read them.

Young Wikipedian says: Okay.

Durova says: Do you think it's fair to say those articles are on serious subjects?

Young Wikipedian says: No they are just about sports.

Durova says: "Good article" has a particular meaning on Wikipedia. Could you describe what a good article is, and how it's selected?

Young Wikipedian says: A good article is, an article of relatively good quality but is not up to the standards of Featured Article status. They are selected through a nomination process called, WP:GAC.

Durova says: What sort of standards apply to good article selection?

Young Wikipedian says: Sorts of standards that apply to good article selection are; good prose e.g. flowing sentences. Fully referenced from reliable sources, that it covers the majority of its aspects. That it isn't biased and doesn't have edit wars regularly, and images are always helpful.

Durova says: Would you say that you learned something about writing composition and research and referencing, when you worked on these articles? Or were the skills you needed at a level you'd already been taught in school?

Young Wikipedian says: Yes, I would definitely say I have learned a lot about referencing. I have learned about passive and active voice through this. Some of the skills such as writing with continuous prose I had learned at school.

Durova says: Have the skills you've picked up from editing Wikipedia helped your school work?

Young Wikipedian says: I would say so, I now write things with better grammar and more focus to the matter. And to research things which I need for homework/coursework.

Durova says: You've seen the recent articles in the conservative press about some of Wikipedia's content. As a young person, do you have any comment about that?

Young Wikipedian says: Yes I have seen the controversy surrounding certain content, and I think that if a child searches for that page, then he holds the responsibility for what he looks at, unless it is determined by Special:Randomarticle, which cannot be helped.

Durova says: How long have you used Wikipedia, as a reader and as an editor?

Young Wikipedian says: I have been registered on Wikipedia since 2006, yet only started editing in late 2007, I had read Wikipedia for research long before registering however.

Durova says: And what sort of topics, generally speaking, interest you?

Young Wikipedian says: Well my main topic is most definitely sports of which I create most of my articles on, though I do try to help other people with articles, which could be anything really. I am also interested in geography of countries, specifically European countries.

Durova says: You've also written some articles that made the "Did you know" selection on Wikipedia's main page.

Young Wikipedian says: Yes I wrote a DYK that got featured on the main page, though I do not generally focus on that area.

Durova says: I'm wondering what opinion your parents have of your participation at Wikipedia?

Young Wikipedian says: My parents don't really know much about Wikipedia, but they now know I'm an editor and just think it's a good place to get information.

Durova says: Have they expressed the kinds of doubts about the site that are in the recent news? I mean, are they worried about what you'll see and read here?

Young Wikipedian says: They very rarely read Wikipedia, so I doubt they would care as they know I am responsible for what I click on, and know I probably won't click anything daft.

Durova says: This interview is going to get published in my blog, as you probably know. Do you have anything that you'd like to say to adults who are concerned about this issue?

Young Wikipedian says: Hmm... I would say that the people that are concerned about the issue don't really trust their children, because chances are they probably won't try to access pages with innappropriate content.

Durova says: Interesting thought. Now sometimes my blog may contain questionable material. I don't think it does right now, but it may in the future. If you ever want a copy of this interview in its published form, you're welcome to contact me directly.

Young Wikipedian says: Cool.

Durova says: Thanks very much for sharing your opinions, and best wishes with your editing.

Young Wikipedian says: No problem, thanks.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nichomachean Wikipedia

Aristotle defined virtue as an equilibrium point between two vices. So courage exists somewhere between cowardice and foolhardiness, and if Aristotle were a Wikipedian, good administrative intervention would be a balancing act between interfering too much and acting too little.

Use the administrative tools too little and trolls run wild, driving away useful editors. Use them too much and you'll block the wrong people. (As everybody knows, I've been guilty of the latter. I'm sorry for it; live and learn).

So Hisperian's post reminded me of Aristotle's golden mean:
Half the posts to the admin noticeboards are exhortations to be less timid in dealing with these situations, and the other half are exhortations to be more careful. I'm not going to learn anything from this unless you spell it out for me. Hesperian 01:43, 20 May 2008 (UTC)
Shoemaker's Holiday had opened a thread where he estimated a 100 hour waste of his own time interacting with one disruptive editor, and noted that he could have written 6 to 9 good articles with that lost time if administrators had addressed the problem in a timely manner.

Raymond Arritt agreed and estimated the overall cost to volunteer time:
Yes, this specific case has finally arrived at arbcom after hundreds (thousands?) of volunteer hours were wasted. But the matter could have been resolved with less cost to the community. Let's learn from this mistake. Raymond Arritt (talk) 01:11, 20 May 2008 (UTC)
In these instances the community is all too apt to commit the fundamental attribution error and interpret the problem in terms of individual personalities involved in a case. This is what we malign as drama, and the solution to drama is not ignoring it but analyzing for signs of systemic flaws that can be corrected at the policy and process level.

For example, this chain of events:
  • An established but difficult Wikipeidan gradually alienates most of the community.
  • Dispute resolution, friendly warnings, and perhaps an arbitration case ask the editor to reform.
  • Despite these efforts and the passionate defense of a few supporters, the problem behavior gradually worsens.
  • The editor becomes essentially unstoppable: someone from the small core of supporters always steps forward to undo a block.
  • The problem festers and more people notice; frustration builds on both sides.
  • Finally the community holds a discussion to enact a ban.
  • One admin blocks.
  • Another unblocks.
  • The business degenerates into a game of chicken with one side citing banning policy and the other citing wheel warring policy.

If you think I'm talking about some case you know, I am. And a lot of others too. This plays out a couple of times every month because the banning policy and wheel warring policy intersect in ways that aren't well defined, and because nobody has found an effective solution for this type of editor problem.

We ought to be studying these recurring problems on a process level and analyzing them with quantifiable data. One great weakness of the present situation is the lack of organized data collection. We list and categorize bans, not the sanctions discussions themselves, and there's no effort to organize the discussions that didn't end with sanctions. The community has been short-sighted in that regard: preoccupied with keeping track of existing remedies without thought to long-term followup to see which solutions work better than others. The community sanctions noticeboard was a step in that direction because at least it kept a centralized archive, but then the community decentralized those discussions again and then disbanded the board itself.

This leaves us ill-equipped to study cases like the one Shoemaker's Holiday complained about that resulted in hundreds of hours of wasted time. And except in the narrowest of senses, we don't satisfy either Hisperian's or Raymond Arritt's call for data to learn from the experience. I'd like to conference with a statistician and a coder and parse a few hundred of these cases.

We've been relying on rumor and anecdote and drama. We could step up from that and do research.

Monday, May 19, 2008

An interesting development

The account that started the Obama thread has been blocked as a sockpuppet of a banned editor.

Rosalind Picard or Barack Obama?

Who's more important, an MIT professor or a presidential candidate? To most of the world that's an obvious call, but over at Wikipedia's Administrators' noticeboard today Senator Obama is playing second fiddle to Professor Picard.

In terms of encyclopedic priorities, I rate the Obama thread a weighty concern. Yet although that's been up for nearly a full day, only three people have answered. The poster followed up promptly attempting to explain the biograpies of living persons and potential conflict of interest issues, and got the brush-off.

Yet at the same time the community has devoted 174 kilobytes to a discussion that relates to Rosalind Picard. Specifically, the debate is about whether to unblock someone who has a declared conflict of interest and used to edit her biography.

Number crunching = common sense

The Rosalind Picard thread started on 15 May. Concurrent page views to the Picard biography itself are as follows:

15 May: 86
16 May: 48
17 May: 28

This suggests that a good share of the people weighing in on the discussion aren't paying much attention to the page. It's normally a very low traffic page.

January 2008: 266 total page views
February 2008: 237
March 2008: 252

And to underscore the contrast, here are the corresponding numbers for the Barack Obama biography:

15 May: 25.8k
16 May: 18.4k
17 May: 20.3k

January 2008: 2,169,205 total page views
February 2008: 2,625,243
March 2008: 1,107,123

So based upon the above, I estimate the Obama biography has gotten 13,000 page views during the 14.5 hours since the noticeboard thread opened (until now as I write this post), which is equivalent to the projected page views of the Picard biography over 4.3 years.


Volunteer energy is finite. It's time we realigned our priorities so that a handful of minor flashpoints stop consuming inordinate amounts of attention.


Image credit:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Underexposed - Anti-Israeli Subversion on Wikipedia?

Another story that misrepresents Wikipedia to the public: "Exposed: Anti-Israeli subversion on Wikipedia" by During my 30,000 edits on Wikipedia I've done a lot of dispute resolution. Ethnic/nationalist disputes of various kinds are among the most difficult areas to volunteer. It doesn't help when partisans publish factual errors to targeted audiences in outside fora. Without taking any position on the underlying merits of Israel v. Palestine I'll parse some of this piece from a Wikipedian perspective.

The person who wrote it doesn't understand Wikipedia very well. He or she may be sincere, but the facts that have been misconstrued make the situation appear worse than it is.

Take the Norman Finkelstein example. The author points to WikiProject Palestine

In its hall of fame for best articles, the Palestine Project page lists four best biographies. One is by Norman Finkelstein, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, whose controversial bestseller "The Holocaust Industry" accused Jews of exploiting the Holocaust for financial and political gain.

What actually happened was WikiProject Palestine volunteers worked on the Finkelstein biography: they improved that page enough that it passed independent review for neutrality, referencing, comprehensiveness, and other standards required for Wikipedia's formal designation as a "good article".

This doesn't mean Norman Finkelstein is a good guy or Norman Finkelstein should be cited as much as possible. It means Wikipedia has a good biography of this fellow. And it makes sense to prioritize a well-written biography for a controversial figure, because good article status means more volunteers watch the page. Thorough referencing and and more eyes watching the article make it resistant to ideological manipulation of any variety.

Love him or hate him, Norman Finkelstein is a living person. Wikipedia does its best to see that living people's biographies are handled with due care. Our pages usually rank very high on search engines--often higher than the subject's own personal site--and we want to offer a fair presentation of reliably verified data.

Of course there are problems with editorial disputes between editors in the Israeli-Palestinian debates, and despite the recent CAMERA news as reported by Electronic Intifada, I doubt the policy violations are entirely on the side of Israel's sympathizers. If you're going to make accusations, though, it's important to to have rigorous research and documentation. There might be a good case to be made about manipulative action by Palestinian sympathizers, but a superficial critique of the Norman Finkelstein biography isn't it.

I'll repost a statement I made last month while the CAMERA incident unfolded:

Statement of principle

  1. Wikipedia exists to reflect expert opinion, not to shape public opinion.

  2. Wikipedia seeks to be neutral and values editors who set aside personal creeds when they contribute.

  3. Deliberate manipulation of content in pursuit of any ideology damages the project.

  4. Coordinated campaigns of manipulation strike at the heart of this site's purpose and its goal of credibility.

  5. We Wikipedians promise to halt all coordinated manipulation that we are able to adequately verify, regardless of its motive or purpose.

  6. We also promise to balance this effort with appropriate restraint and good faith.

  7. We promise to pursue these matters without reference to our own beliefs.

  8. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and we intend to keep it one.
For the record, I have spent the last eight months mentoring an Israeli editor who is actively involved in the Israeli-Palestinian disputes. I assisted him when he created the Shnaim Ohazin and Bli Sodot articles that recently ran on Wikipedia's main page. I also led the good article drive for Palestinian costumes and restored two historic photographs about Palestinian culture that have become featured pictures. I am currently working on a photo restoration for a portrait of Louis Brandeis.

Editors who wish to work toward improvements in a bipartisan setting are welcome to check out WikiProject Israel Palestine collaboration.

This is the home page of '''WikiProject Israel Palestine Collaboration''', a bipartisan effort to improve collaboration on and coverage of Israeli-Palestinian topics. This project has been inspired by the Sri Lankan reconciliation project.
لسلام عليكم
שלום עליכם
Peace be with you.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


'Twould drama generate
and mountains of hate
consuming the kilobytes endless,
all indexed by Google
to boggle your noodle.
So this is one time when more is less.

Most of the world still has no idea how Wikipedia operates. People read it because it's the easiest way to find information, and the information is usually pretty good, but the place sure is quirky.

An equally salient fact that most Wikipedians forget is that Wikipedia's structures--although transparent--require a significant investment of time to understand. I have conversed with three different Ivy League students, none of whom had a reason to feign ignorance, and none of whom understood what a featured article was until I explained the concept to them. Two of them were writing theses about Wikipedia, so it's a fair bet they were doing their darndest to comprehend the place.

Yet there it was: Today's featured article, front and center on the main page, and they had never realized what they were looking at. Information overload does that to people.

Wikipedians work by consensus, yet rarely do we consider to what degree we constitute a self-selecting population. I've often speculated that certain people's brains are hard wired to thrive in a wiki environment. Those of us who manage the site's day-to-day operations tend to be self-taught in wikidom.

So by consensus, the site's regulars generally deevalue organized training. I've been advocating admin coaching for well over a year (that means matching up administrators with editors who would like to learn administrative skills for mentorship), and it regularly get the counterargument that some people want adminship for power and status rather than to help the site.

Well that's not entirely false: some people do seek the admin bit for the wrong reasons. But what makes anyone suppose that people who don't get mentorship act from purer motives than those who do?

If I were a social scientist I'd construct a study right now to compare Wikpedia administrators against a control group. Seeing this place from the inside gives me a strong hunch that certain personality traits or talents operate synergistically with Wikipedia, and that a relatively small share of the general populationhas them. If so, that may skew a portion of our consensus discussions.

So getting back to the piece of doggerel above, Wikipedians often lose perspective when a particular page becomes a locus of contention. The reasons certain pages become flash points is another matter entirely, but I'd like to remind fellow editors that sometimes when we attempt to solve a problem and get frustrated with each other, we inadvertently make the problem worse.

A gift to the poor

Somehow this thing slipped past my spam filter. I couldn't resist...

Your Ref.

Attn; Sir




NAME: Dr Desmond Duru
PHONE NUMBER; 234-1-7367650.




My reply:

Hello Mr. Mark,

Thank you very much for your generosity, honesty, and diligence. One good turn deserves another. Your country is poor; I donate my full inheritance to the people of Nigeria.

And he wrote me back!



Okay, seeing if he understands...

Hi, my family and I are quite well, thank you. I hope you put the money to good use. Schools and clean water, perhaps a hospital. A few million goes pretty far in Nigeria, I suppose?

Best regards.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Anemone of the state

With apologies to Moulton for the technical glitches of Not the Wikipedia Weekly, Episode 11, here's the transcript of our text chat that ran concurrently with the voice recording. Moulton has given reprint permission, and he's agreed to the tongue-in-cheek title for this post.

Moulton (who appears as Barry Kort in the transcript) is currently sitebanned from Wikipedia (or indefinitely blocked; the distinction can be a little vague). He's a highly educated fellow--the sort of person I'd like to bring back if it's possible. Not to get into the details of that here, I think he offered some of the best questions in the session. The "Brian" we're referring to is Brian Bergstein, a reporter for the Associated Press who joined the Skypecast. So here's our correspondence.

Bear in mind with the text below that I was doing the hosting for the Skype chat at the same time: inviting people to speak, bringing back people who dropped out due to weak connections, and monitoring a second text chat simultaneously. Plus I could only type while my microphone was muted.

[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:49:52] Barry Kort: In doing investigative reporting, Brian, a journalist has to be competent at finding and examining the evidence, determining how reliable it is, and reasoning accurately to whatever conclusions and insights are revealed by the evidence. How would you rate Wikipedians at doing that, either in writing articles or in investigating conduct cases?
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:51:03] Durova: I've read that to Brian.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:51:09] … Good at the latter
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:51:09] Barry Kort: Thank you.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:51:16] Durova: all over the map on the former.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:51:26] … Some things have weak evidence and it's duly noticed.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:51:53] … Wikipedia is getting better at - as a reader - getting tipped as a reader that evidence might not be there to support every point an author has made.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:51:59] … Maybe the latter part varies too.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:53:24] Barry Kort: Thank you for mediating that, and his response. I appreciate it.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:54:57] Durova: gah
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:55:04] … I think our recorder was off during it!
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:55:08] … sorry...
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:55:26] … so much to keep on top of.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:55:30] … He had a good answer.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:55:40] … talking about how he learns about Wikipedia stuff.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:56:56] Barry Kort: Oh, bummer.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:57:17] Durova: Try another?
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:57:20] … We're recording now.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:59:18] … We're taking a question from Brian about why we participate in Wikipedia,.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:59:26] Barry Kort: OK. Similarly, in journalism, there arise conflicting views about what constitutes a professional level of storycraft before breaking a story. Can you compare how AP editors hash out what's publishable vs how WP editors resolve their editorial conflicts?
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:59:27] Durova: What brought us in, why we stay.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 15:59:30] … ok
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:00:10] … good question!
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:01:54] … He says it's similar but simpler.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:01:58] … fewer people weigh in.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:02:57] Barry Kort: I can ask one more, if there's time.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:03:32] Durova: sure
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:04:28] Barry Kort: Professional journalists have a code of ethics that they follow. How would you compare the ethical guidelines to which professional journalists adhere to the level of ethics manifested within the WP community?
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:06:43] Durova: hard to say
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:06:53] … every day things get written on Wikipedia that would get him fired
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:07:01] … but other editors take evidence extremely seriously.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:07:06] … very broad category.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:08:14] Barry Kort: Should editors who write WP BLPs be obliged to pledge to a normative standard of journalistic ethics?
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:09:14] … ... Such as the one Doc Glasgow proposed, for example. (If he is aware of that.)
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:09:50] Durova: very interesting question
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:10:07] … Brian says it's not just some arbitrary nebulous code
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:10:17] … whether a lawsuit could happen
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:10:33] … if he writes about a living person, it could be a career killer to do it wrong.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:11:15] … Wikipedia hasn't been sued yet, so the boundaries aren't fully defined.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:11:30] … Filll is adding that he goes by what's been published previously in mainstream media sources.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:11:40] … He's cautious about being too innovative, especially on biographies.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:11:46] … He's rather rely on their filters first.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:12:01] Barry Kort: This might not be a suitable Q, but consider it... Does Brian think WP is likely to be sued over defamatory BLPs?
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:14:11] Durova: Brian has to go in a moment. We've run over.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:14:27] … We were talking about where the limits of journalistic standards are, and where they sometimes fail.
[Thu Apr 24 2008 16:14:46] Barry Kort: Many thanks for relaying those Qs. I appreciate it. And give my thanks to Brian for his thoughtful answers.

Thanks, Moulton, for being a good sport. At Not the Wikipedia Weekly we're learning as we're going.