Saturday, June 28, 2008

Request for comment on the Arbitration Committee

Was wondering how to start this post, about to head over to Commons to search for a portrait of Kafka, and happened to notice that one of the restorations I did a few months ago is on Wikipedia's main page: buffalo soldiers. Quite a bit of work went into that one. I had worried that people would complain about the quality when the nomiation opened, but there's something about the personalities of these men that shines through. First it's the big knife one rests on his knee front and center, then the pipe-chomping fellow at his side with a shovel on a shoulder. A whiskey flask makes its rounds, a couple of men brandish guns, and another peers shyly behind a tree. Somebody even decided to take a nap during the photo session--it's the most informal group military portrait from the nineteenth century I've ever seen. Also the most down to earth. I like these guys and want to talk to them, want to ask that one fellow why he's holding up a frying pan.

The whole scene says We're rowdy and disorganized but we get stuff done, and don't mess with us. A lot more than Kafka that's the spirit today.

Speculation has floated around about why this request for comment went live when it did. The people who were present for yesterday's Not the Wikipedia Weekly recording can confirm this chain of events: we got to talking about what was developing on the Administrators' Noticeboard and decided to do a breaking episode. Not the Wikipedia Weekly isn't quite journalism--some of us participate in the issues we discuss. It's a little bit like a group blog: we sensed that important developments were happening and wanted to document the experience of the events unfolding. That often gets lost after the fact on page archives.

Until Mbisanz joined our discussion I had been saying that Lawrence Cohen's draft request for comment on the Arbitration Committee was looking a lot more likely to go live, but I'd been saying not yet, not now. I wanted to wait for events to sort themselves out better. Then Matt announced he Lawrence's retirement and Lawrence's parting request to move the page into Wikipedia namespace and bring it live. Lawrence's wish was going to be fulfilled and soon; the only question was how. I asked Matt to let me do it at the end of our recording. When the wikidrama is running high even a short delay helps. That bought two hours, and what's more important it was an opportunity to start on productive terms: process, not individual grievance. I really hope that outlining procedural issues sets the right tone. One of the biggest dangers with opening this discussion is that people may try to hijack it to rehear their own cases. Yeah, we can rise above that. It's what's best for the site that counts.

Of course a few people interpreted the timing in the wrong light. So we wind up with this. I invited both Jimbo Wales and the Committee to participate. So far, the only current or former member of the Arbitration Committee to come to the page has not inspired confidence.

Concur with Cool Hand Luke. A cock-up (which this appears to be) is a terrible foundation for a discussion of reform. Hard cases make bad law. Mackensen (talk) 01:45, 28 June 2008 (UTC)

My understanding of history indicates otherwise... Exceptional cases make for bad laws in the general case... But it's long been evident that exceptional cases in regard to people in positions of authority make for some very good laws indeed. Many of the fundamental laws of modern society were born in such cases. Ask William of Orange. --Barberio (talk) 01:55, 28 June 2008 (UTC)

However, it is by no means clear what the authority is. Until and when the committee clarifies what's going on this is premature. Mackensen (talk) 01:59, 28 June 2008 (UTC)

With all due respect to the committee, clarification was asked for, the result was not compelling. Even assuming that the committee is too slow and over burdened to explain themselves, I think it's not appropriate to expect the community to let the arbitrators 'wait out the clock' till the next round of elections. As has tended to happen when issues of Arbitration Policy have been raised. --Barberio (talk) 02:06, 28 June 2008 (UTC)
The cock-up surmise was posted by a former arbitrator who still has access to the arbitration mailing list and whose input may affect current decisions. He appears not to have noticed either the introductory statement or the page history that demonstrates the request for comment could not have been structured around recent decisions: the page went unedited from March 14, 2008 until June 28, 2008 when I brought it live. With the Committee's own performance under scrutiny he posts this way; I wonder how this person evaluates case evidence.
Image credit

Friday, June 27, 2008

RFA Review boycott

With respect toward the good intentions of RFA review efforts, this boycott expresses principled opposition to mistaken priorities. Far too much talk goes into requests for administratorship itself and far too little effort goes into identifying and preparing worthy Wikipedians to become good sysops.

The numbers speak for themselves:

* Fewer than 400 edits ever to Wikipedia talk:Editor review, which has been active since May 3, 2006.
* Fewer than 400 edits ever to Wikipedia talk:Admin coaching, which has been active since February 10, 2006.
* Over 25,000 edits to Wikipedia talk:Requests for adminship since April 15, 2005. That's also 5000 edits from March 10, 2008 to June 26, 2008.
* 63 pages in Category:Wikipedians on Editor review/Backlog.
* 39 unfulfilled requests at Wikipedia:Admin_coaching/Requests_for_Coaching.
* 1137 pages in Category:Wikipedia_administrator_hopefuls.

Our current body of administrators is largely comprised of people who figured out what they needed to know by the seat of their pants: this is an extremely self-selecting group. Most of the people who would be suitable and motivated administrators need training. They need serious preparation in the processes, responsibilities, and pitfalls of administratorship.

We should direct our efforts toward the following:

* Establish best practices for admin coaching
* Create a coaching manual
* Make coaching a priority responsibility of administratorship

Good preparation is not about instructing people how to game RFA. It's about determining whether an editor has an outlook and temperament shared by good administrators; it's about seeing that they want it for the right reasons; it means ensuring they have enough field experience before they ask for the tools; it means cautioning them about the exponential rise in trolling they'll encounter once they get sysopped. Good training means familiarizing people with the work administrators do. In particular it means identifying and preparing people to help out in understaffed areas.

The author of this statement has been coaching Wikipedians for adminship for a year and a half. By preparing people to assume the responsibilities of administrators, every single one of the author's coachees was successful at RFA.

RFA reform has been endless talk with virtually no tangible results. It is time for this madness to stop. We need better training.

To sign, please visit this page.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals

It isn't often that a discussion about a featured picture candidate carries much significance beyond technical and encyclopedic merits. Systemic bias gets mentioned sometimes, but usually as a passing concern. Today was different. I won't show the image itself but I'll link to the discussion. The candidacy is called Moment of Birth and there's an ongoing discussion about whether it constitutes gender bias, privacy invasion, or a human rights violation.

It's a photograph of a caesarian delivery from a hospital in London without documented permission from the subject.

From a certain distance, heated Wikipedia debates can look hilarious. Immediately after I posted my second comment to the thread I actually messaged two people to ask whether it went too far.
Let's call this a matter of perspective. I am a woman. If anyone ever shows up in a delivery room where I am giving birth and attempts to use "she's lying down" as a pretext to take photographs without my permission, I will leap from the gurney, tackle the SOB, and eat the camera.

Two conversations later I haven't altered that post. Some women welcome photography in the delivery room; some even allow such images to be used in television and other mass media. That is a very generous choice from the people who make it. When I choose to do something generous in a medical setting I give blood. I've given a lot of blood. Nobody makes the mistake of supposing my decision to give blood gives them a right to stick a needle in your elbow and take your blood. You'd get angry if they tried that without your consent, wouldn't you?

So the image is under consideration for featured picture status, which means it would spend a day on Wikipedia's main page. To give a sense of what could result, so far this month Wikipedia's main page daily traffic had a low of 12.7 million page views on June 7 and a high of 20.1 million page views on June 23. That's a lot of eyes. We don't know whether she ever consented to have the picture taken, or uploaded to Wikipedia, and she almost certainly doesn't know that it's a candidate for featured picture: the editor who uploaded the image has been inactive since February.

Babies are cute; most people want to show them and see them. And childbirth itself is fascinating and encyclopedic. But wait--it's also a medical procedure--and one of the most personal moments in the world. A good number of people would no sooner show the world a photograph of their own child being born than a photograph of their own child being conceived.

Until I raised the consent issue nobody even mentioned it; I appear to be the only woman in the discussion. Fortunately once I voiced this concern some other editors joined the opinion. It's not unanimous though. The ongoing debate covers subject identifiability, latent gender bias, and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Image credits:

Think twink

Truth is stranger than fiction. I tried to dream up Biggest Bubblebutt in the Department as an example of an award that was too over the top to seriously exist. Reality outdid me. Here's the actual caption for a young man's portrait in a Wikipedia article.

"Young and smooth" pornstar Brent Corrigan was nomimated as "Best Twink Performer" for his work in Fuck Me Raw which was also nominated for a 2008 Golden Dickie "Best Twink Movie". else would you illustrate an article called Twink (gay slang)? In case you wonder why such an article exists at all, deletion has been tried. I don't make these decisions. Wikipedia is not censored so I coexist with this type of article, usually ignoring it until a dispute arises when I alternate between facepalms and wry laughter as I aim to apply the same policies and standards that work everywhere else.

Yeah, the caption is relevant to the image and the article. It's an outdoor photograph of a celebrity, properly licensed, that's pertinent to the subject. Could be more illustrative if we had a replacement that showed more of the fellow's body.

There used to be a different image. The alternate version is a redlink now because I deleted it from Commons. I'll explain why in a bit. But first it's worth noting that that a minor edit war and a noticeboard thread took place, along with a userblock that was not taken very well by its recipient. People get worked up about these things. I won't link to the page where this was posted, but here's a copy/paste of the text.

This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen on Wikipedia. A month block for restoring a free image to an article that had been there for months. What about all the other images of people on Wikipedia that are being used. Autofellatio is a good example. What about the guy in the article sucking his own cock?? Or Bear (gay slang) which features free pictures of people. I mean seriously, this is total bullshit. The only thing I'm guilty of is not knowing that a free image of someone can't be used in an article per BLP and that sure as fuck doesn't warrant a month block. You just came along and removed the image from the article, citing BLP but not explaining on the talk page or in the summary why it was a BLP violation.. so for people who don't know that a free image can be a BLP violation, how the hell are we supposed to know if you don't give a reason why. All you said on the talk page was BLP APPLIES but BLP doesn't say SHIT about images anywhere. This is a mountainous pile of bullshit because fuck, Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons doesn't have the word image in it anywhere. Total total total bullshit. And Gwernol called it vandalism?? WHEN the fucking image has been in the article for MONTHS????? Did I mention this was total bullshit??

The noticeboard discussion itself concluded that the block was too long and went into considerable depth about whether twink is a pejorative term. I had nothing to do with that conversation; somebody pointed it out to me today. The image had already been replaced at that article before I came along. I deleted it outright because, in my opinion, urgent deletion was necessary.

There's a priority of questions that need to be addressed when evaluating these matters. When the subject itself is a hot button issue people often lose sight of which questions take precedence.

1. What's the license? The shot itself was under free license and had been bot-uploaded from Flickr. That part was proper.

2. Are there personality rights and permissions issues with the image? Yes there were. This was an indoor photograph and the young man's face was recognizable, yet the upload lacked model permission. This renders it unacceptable per Commons hosting policy. I prioritized the deletion because the subject also was holding a cocktail in his hand and may have been underage.

So a significant part of the noticeboard discussion was irrelevant. The question of whether twink is pejorative really doesn't come into play until after the basic license and permissions issues have been satisfactorily addressed. With the earlier image they hadn't been, and the replacement image avoids that dilemma by selecting a public figure whose notability is a direct result of his twinkitude. So although the previous image was shirtless and somewhat more illustrative of twinkdom, there can be no question that the present model consented to become an emblem of twink pride.

This does leave me wondering about the permissions for the autofellatio photograph. It was taken indoors and I see no confirmation of model permission. Apparently it was previously deleted and restored. Although I've got lingering questions about its propriety (regarding model permission and policy compliance, not subject matter), the model appears to have reached legal majority and no alcoholic beverage appears in the shot. So I won't give it rushed handling the way I did with the previous twink illustration.

Now excuse me while I lean back and shake my head, muttering heaven help us for covering this stuff, and get on with other work.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Professor Gametheory

Somey makes an interesting comment regarding my last post:
The secret to winning Wikipedia: The Game is to convince others (especially admins) that someone who disagrees with you, but is otherwise relatively harmless, is actually either a spammer or hater.

These things have little to do with someone's "failure to understand the rules." They have everything to do with politics, personal alliances, refusal to compromise, wearing down opponents with ceaseless bickering, and so on.

He's articulate and his longstanding commitment to Wikipedia Review demonstrates sincerity. And although I don't like this, I've seen it play out. Not entirely in the way he describes, but sometimes.

The most common shape it takes is frivolous noticeboard threads. When I was an administrator I estimated something like 30% of the requests for administrative attention that came from accounts I didn't already recognize were initiated as political moves by the primary aggressor in a dispute.

People come to Wikipedia for a lot of reasons. I've known doctoral candidates who worked on articles as a study technique for their boards and dissertations. It's easy to see when those people are for real. We're lucky when we have them and I do my best to make the site a collegial place for them. On rare occasions I've also endorsed sitebans for people who have doctoral degrees. And no, I'm not thinking of a Wikipedia Review contributor with that description. Long before that, there was a mathematician from the Southern United States whose principal activity was to create and recreate a biography of himself. After enough iterations and enough failed attempts to communicate, we gave up. I'll call him Professor Gametheory.

There are some people that, if they don't know, you can't tell them. - Louis Armstrong

Was he harmless? Maybe some would say so. But the article didn't meet Wikipedia's notability guidelines. Facebook and MySpace are better suited to an assistant professor's purposes; open edit is a problematic format for low traffic biographies of living subjects. Those of us who volunteer for Wikipedia notice a pattern after a while: a large number of garage bands, mom-and-pop businesses, and ordinary people view a Wikipedia article as a status symbol and want a page about themselves.

Some of them reeaaaally want it.

And those diligent individuals set about creating the article they want, and canvassing the deletion discussion with family and friends, then recreating the article, and creating it again under a different account, then creating it under a slightly different name, and the cycle continues until one of three things happens.

1. Professor Gametheory's colleage Doc Sensible listens to one of us friendly volunteers when we explain about referencing. Hey Doc, did you get written up in the newspaper? Kept the clipping? Cool, that'll help. Got a couple more articles in your scrapbook...? (Caveat: after the tenth go-around the volunteer may sound more exhausted than friendly.)

2. Would-be rock stars realize that they are really truly not going to keep a Wikipedia article before the garage band gets signed. Land the label first. Wikipedia won't book your concerts.

3. A bunch of volunteers riding Professor Gametheory's delete-go-round for the fifteenth or twentieth time all shout in unison stop this ride! I don't get paid for this hassle! A ban ensues and the dizzy volunteers stumble back to solid land, wondering how an interest in day lilies ever led to this.

This is where Wikipedia's theater of the absurd begins. Because as Somey knows from long experience on Wikipedia Review, actually having a Wikipedia article about oneself isn't necessarily all milk and honey.

So Professor Gametheory gets sitebanned without an article and is hopping mad about it. Doc Sensible rummages through old boxes all weekend and salvages just enough newspaper clippings and dusty awards to become notable. Doc gets her article and is happy for a little while. Then she discovers that someone else other than herself and her Mom might edit the page. Someone who doesn't like her. Someone who's gunning for the same tenure position. Someone like that shady dude down the hall: Professor Gametheory.

Professor Gametheory is socking and Doc Sensible is no longer happy.

Um, but wait. The page doesn't just automatically come down because Doc doesn't want it anymore. She is, after all, notable: she earned the East Georgia Academic Distinction of Biggest Bubblebutt in the Department (I pasted this from her biography just now--could that have been vandalized)? The volunteers who had been on this all got sick of the silliness and are running a featured article drive for the day lilies page. That's nice for day lily enthusiasts, awful for her, but what are you going to do? Dock a volunteer's pay?

There is a better solution: blame the administrator.

As of this writing, English Wikipedia has 1563 administrators to oversee 2,419,730 articles. (Check here for the latest numbers). On average that's 1 administrator for every 1548 articles--in theory. In practice about a third of the admins are AWOL on any given month because these chumps are volunteers. Or to put it another way, that's one administrator for every 4695 registered accounts. That's quite a chunk even if half of those regular accounts are operated by the same twelve people.

Doc Sensible wants to get rid of that article. She locates the list of administrators and e-mails one of the names under a.

User:Adminitis sounds like a responsible name.

Adminitis is expected to respond within twelve hours, having memorized the entire Doc Sensible biography and edit history. He returns a few lines a day later, having skimmed the introduction.

Strike one.

He does not delete the article instantly upon demand.

Strike two.

He mentions that Wikipedia has policies. And provides links to the pages where Doc Sensible might solve the issue herself. More e-mails from Doc Sensible follow, with the underlying expectation that Adminitis has nothing better to do than read whole talk pages in search of five words she happens to paraphrase. He asks for page diffs. Then, after Adminitis reads the original deletion discussion, he commits the fatal error: he mentions that Doc Sensible seemed to want this article two months ago.

Strike three. Adminitis is wicked and corrupt.

Doc Sensible, fretting over upcoming tenure review, posts a long and unprofessorial rant on Adminitis's user talk.

Meanwhile Professor Gametheory, who has been certain from the beginning that Wikipedia is indeed corrupt, creates a spoofing sock account via Tor node called Doc Insensible to leave obscene vandalism on Adminitis's user page.

Doc Insensible gets indeffed while Doc Sensible gets blamed and lands a 48 hour block for socking and personal attacks. Adminintis puts a "Wikibreak" sign on his user page and stops answering messages. Oblivious to each other's actual identities, both Professor Gametheory and Doc Sensible head to the same critical forum to lick their wiki-wounds.

They wonder who this Adminitis is? Why is he granted such power? Is he even an adult? Soon a plan is hatched to track the administrator like any other endangered species: by shooting his rumpus with a tranquilizer gun and stapling a radio tag to his ear. All good wikicritics everywhere must uncover Adminitis's whereabouts for the good of humanity.

Back at the university, at the end of the final exam a quiet sophomore pulls out a Blackberry. After the lecture hall has emptied he places a blue book directly in Professor Gametheory's hands. It contains only three lines of text.

Hi, we know each other better than you realize. Call me Adminitis. Let's talk about your tenure and my grade. G-mail chat, off the record.

Image credits:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Lucifer Effect

Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus in psychology at Stanford University, published a book last year called The Lucifer Effect. It's good reading for anyone who wants to understand Wikipedia dynamics.

Some readers will probably derive an analogy about the Stanford prison experiment. I'm more interested in Zimbardo's observations about the fundamental attribution error and how they relate to Wikipedia site organization. Faulty policies and processes contribute to onsite problems. Then particular disputes where those flaws play out get labeled as drama. Some Wikipedians get sucked into the minutiae of personalities and diffs while others regard it as an ethical responsibility to avoid all drama.

You may have seen the mantra. Get back to writing an encyclopedia.

Well yeah, that has its place. But when the policies themselves are flawed that doesn't do anything to fix them. We've had Wikipedians toddle along generating encyclopedic content until they encountered something or other that absolutely needed a policy level solution, and then thwack a bad policy hit the well-meaning editor upside the head like a week-old trout. From that point onward (wikisoap being in short supply) the whole situation stinks.

This ain't good. Too many of the people who have the capacity to fix policy and procedural level issues either get sucked into dramas and squeezed dry once they're there, or avoid the process side altogether.

I've got a bunch of ideas in this regard, but in order to keep things focused I'll work on one at a time.

Today's solution: a path back to good standing for sitebanned editors.

One real shortcoming in Wikipedia policies is what to do after somebody gets sitebanned. We handle returns in a piecemeal fashion, without clear guidance or guidelines. I've got a proposal for something to help straighten that out. And after floating it with a few people on various sides of the fence, it looks like a win-win situation.

1. One of the reasons English Wikipedia is such a wild and wooly place is that there isn't any clear route back to good standing after a community siteban. So some of the people who've been banned linger around the margins of the project.

2. Other Wikimedia projects complain about winding up with English Wikipedia's problem children. Actually Commons gets such people from all over, but demographics being what they are, English Wikipedia predominates.

3. Occasionally, editors who've been sitebanned from English Wikipedia can demonstrate positive reasons to have their siteban lifted if they do good work on a sister project.

Let's set up a formal cross-project mentorship system where editors in good standing on multiple projects can take an individual under their wing, as it were. Rather than wandering over to Commons with no help at all (or Simple English or Wikibooks or Wikinews, etc.), an editor who's on the outs with one project can go and seek a contact point for some other WMF project where he or she wants to contribute. The mentor would help introduce that person to the second site's policies and standards of conduct, and help guide contributions. If there are problems the mentor would be the primary point of contact (and hopefully would manage the matter himself or herself--at least providing background and helping to address the matter if the community needs to become involved). If all goes well, then after a sufficient time the mentor would open a new discussion at the original project demonstrating a good history at the second place as a reason to ease sanctions. So a siteban might become a topic ban with mentorship--something like that.

The advantage to the smaller projects of a formal program is that this would give a location where cross-project mentorships are known, and provide a reputable contact point in case concerns arise. The advantage to the larger projects is that this would offer a clear and productive route back to good standing for people who are potentially okay but just haven't worked out so far.

Obviously a few caveats are necessary: the kind of banned editor who makes violent threats is somebody I just wouldn't want anywhere. This solution is for square-pegs-in-round-holes situations and acceptance would be at the discretion of the potential mentor. Opening an unban discussion would also be at the mentor's discretion, normally in the neighborhood of 3 months if there's been good progress.

Image credit:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Countering systemic bias

Joshua is right: copyright is a lot more complicated than crayon analogies. So here above is one example. Multilingual readers take note: your assistance could have a far-reaching impact.

You see, that old panorama is a shot of the USS South Carolina in 1910. That makes it pre-1923 public domain according to United States law and makes it usable at the English language Wikipedia. With stitching and restoration it could become a very useful and attractive image.


This isn't a United States harbor. Wikimedia Commons hosting policy is somewhat different from English Wikipedia hosting policy. And half of all Wikimedia Foundation visitor traffic occurs on sites other than the English language Wikipedia. Images that are public domain in the United States aren't necessarily public domain elsewhere. The difference has a large impact at a global project.

To illustrate the difference, the image at right is a featured picture at English Wikipedia but is ineligible for hosting at Wikimedia Commons. The poster was created in 1921, which makes it public domain in the United States and perfectly good for local hosting on the English language edition of Wikipedia. Yet it cannot be hosted on Commons because it has not entered the public domain in France, its country of origin. The artist Geo Dorival lived until 1968 and French copyright remains in effect for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

Australian copyright law is similar in that regard. So the image at left of a nurse, which is currently a featured picture candidate, is available at Commons for use at all projects. The artist David Henry Souter passed away in 1935 and the image entered public domain in 2005.

In order to make a historic image available globally through Wikimedia Commons hosting we have to determine what the local copyright duration is. That changes from country to country, but Commons doesn't yet have copyright summaries for every country. This is a major barrier to countering systemic bias.

So what's the status of that 1910 harbor panorama? Although it might seem so old that it must be public domain, that's really not guaranteed. The image of a nurse dates from World War I and only recently entered public domain in its country of origin. If that harbor happens to be in a country that observes life + 70 years as the standard term of copyright, and if the artist lived until 1947, then this image wouldn't be in the public domain yet. We have to understand these issues before we can upload.

It turns out the 1910 panorama was taken in Havana Harbor. Commons has copyright law summaries available in English for only three Latin American countries: Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. In order to decipher this image's status I had to thread through Cuban copyright law. This one is public domain. I'd like to make a reference summary available for other Wikimedians who want to upload historical Cuban material, but I don't trust my Spanish enough for that important task. It's one thing to determine whether a particular image is public domain, another thing to summarize all relevant Cuban copyright law for the entire English speaking public. If your mastery of Spanish is better than mine, please help.

We need more people to translate copyright information for Wikimedia Commons. Right now Commons summaries are pretty good for North America and Europe, spotty for Asia, and seriously lacking for Africa and Latin America. When it comes to countering systemic bias, this is an issue that stops large numbers of people at the starting gate. So if you're fluent in Spanish, French, or any non-European language, please review the summary list at Commons:Licensing and see if your skills match the need. Online source references are available below.

*Collection of National Copyright Laws, UNESCO
*CERLALC copyright laws of Latin America
*ASEAN Southeast Asian copyright laws

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Everything I really need to know about copyright I learned in first grade

This week hasn't been the first time I've seen experienced Wikipedians confuse the difference between republication permission and license release. So at the risk of making this too simple, here's an analogy.

Way back in first grade my crayon box was missing an orange crayon. So when we had a coloring assignment and I needed orange, I asked the girl at the next desk if I could borrow hers. She agreed. When I was done I gave it right back.

The lack of an orange crayon was not an urgent concern to the adults of the surrounding universe, so a couple of days later I asked her and she let me borrow it a second time. This started to become routine. She was quite friendly and always let me borrow her crayon.

Then one day she was away from her desk when I needed the crayon, and rather than walk to the other side of the room and ask yet again I just reached for her supply bin. At this point the teacher intervened and accused me of stealing. I was insulted.

"I'm not stealing. I always use her orange crayon."

"You can't use it unless you get her permission."

"But she always lets me!"

At this point the teacher called to the girl, who immediately granted permission. In addition to the crayon I also got a brief lecture in private property.

She hadn't donated the crayon to me. She hadn't donated it to the whole class. It was still hers and she could keep it for herself if she wanted.

No matter how generous a person or organization is about reuse of their images, the material must be presumed to remain under full copyright unless the owner explicitly changes the license.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Grasping at straws

Seeking second opinions on something too cool to resist: have we seen the last straw on a featured picture candidate discussion?

An editor named Mattie found a really interesting archival image of a Vietnam War tunnel rat. People agreed it was well composed and encyclopedic, and also asked for some restoration work. I agree it's an important topic: dang brave fellows most of whom didn't survive the war. Sure, let's give them their due. This is worth my time.

So I stepped in to do my thing, while meantime another editor stepped in to do the same thing. Both of us were working at the same time without knowing the other was on it and we posted restored versions within minutes of each other.

And now we are having the only friendly straw man argument I've ever seen.

That dude in the tunnel, does he have straw in his hair? Or is that photographic decomposition? I wrote down my reasons for removing it as decomposition, but heck I might be wrong. A few more eyes on this would be good. So what's your call?

And if anybody has information on what those fellows' names are, and how many of them made it home, I'd sure like to know.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

With a little help from my friends

Warm thanks to the dozens of people who have been supportive. The group Gerard started has blossomed and my personal friends list hasn't grown this fast since I joined Facebook.

It wasn't an easy decision to step forward. And I hadn't intended to do it in quite this way. Sometimes a well-meaning misquote or two makes all the difference in the world.

But here it is. I'll be talking to the press soon. As in...erm....already. And tomorrow morning. The point is to speak up and represent the people who aren't in a position to step forward. Basically David Shankbone and I want to change things so that reporting serious online harassment is like reporting a stolen car.

  • If your car gets stolen, you don't have to explain to law enforcement what car theft is.
  • If your car gets stolen, people don't accuse you of being unwilling to defend your car.
  • If your car gets stolen, people don't laugh and tell you to turn off the car.
  • If your car gets stolen, people don't lecture that you'd still have your car if only you'd used better locks.
  • If your car gets stolen, it's a hassle. But society and the law know how to deal with the hassle.

We're talking serious stuff. Things a reasonable adult would understand as threats of violent assault. Not one-offs, but sustained. Or other actions that really endanger a person's safety or livelihood.

Part of changing things for the better means a handful of people want them just like they are. And are very aggressive about keeping things that way. It is an honor to report that several members of Wikipedia Review support the change. Thank you, each of you.

Please note that this is presently an off wiki dispute. I ask anyone who wishes to discuss the matter to please contact me rather than migrating the discussion onto Wikipedia.

Durova and friends

Responses have been overwhelmingly supportive since yesterday's events. Gerard Meijssen started a Facebook group called Durova and friends. To join it is a statement against Internet harassers and their enablers.

To all the good people who expressed basic common sense and decency, thank you.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Internet Privacy

I've learned that the delightful individual Daniel Brandt, Internet privacy advocate, has responded to my decision to step forward publicly about having been a target of Internet harassment by publishing the names of all my friends on Facebook. That just doesn't seem like the right thing for a privacy advocate to do.

After all, somebody (who is definitely not Mr. Brandt) has been e-mailing me for months telling me I'll get it when I least expect, and has written in vivid detail about how delighted that person would be to see acid splashed in my face, or if I were raped or killed.

I've never been anything other than courteous to Mr. Brandt. In fact, one year ago I did a real favor for him. He didn't like the fact that Wikipedia ran a biography of him and had been trying to get it taken down since 2005. Here's the first discussion. Now here's the 14th discussion, the one I nominated and the only one I participated in.

And here, in case somebody deletes the original, is the full text of my nomination:

Per changes at WP:BLP#BLP_deletion_standards, I request that the community expand the precedent of courtesy deletions to a slightly wider scope: these examples aren’t world leaders and both of them have expressed to me by e-mail that they would rather not be the subject of a Wikipedia article.

Bear in mind that some of the information Wikipedia publishes about these people comes from small presses and date from an era before either this site or the Internet existed. To paraphrase one appeal, the individual expected to wrap his fish in those papers the next day and certainly didn’t anticipate how those bits of information could be collected and assembled a few keystrokes away for anyone on the planet.

With respect for the editors who’ve contributed these pages, it’s always been my belief that ethical decisions where good people disagree should be placed in the hands of the people who live with the consequences. No one could have more at stake in this request than these articles’ subjects. We ask notable people not to edit their own articles; we insist that they don’t own the content and we stand by other site policies. On a human level – setting any personal antipathies aside – it’s fair that we extend one courtesy in return: although Wikipedia is not paper, some living people who began their careers in the era of paper publishing and prefer to lead relatively private lives.

I ask the community to replace these two pages with a template to the effect of “deleted per request of the article subject”, then Oversight the history and page protect, with equivalent action for the respective talk pages. I also ask we extend a similar courtesy in the future toward living persons who may be notable, but are neither celebrities nor criminals. DurovaCharge! 22:03, 9 June 2007 (UTC)

It's been a year and a day since I wrote those words. Daniel has spun some odd stories about that nomination, painting me as some kind of Machiavellian schemer, but that wasn't the case at all. And since I'm a rather nice person I let it go. Over on WikBack last winter I asked politely if maybe he could have misremembered the events a little bit, but he was unyielding. As I type this their forums are down, so I won't link there.

There's an interesting point: I nominated him under a principle I called the "dead trees standard." That means if the person isn't notable enough for an entry in any other encyclopedia--including specialty encyclopedias--then Wikipedia should extend a courtesy deletion upon receiving a request from the article's subject. I've nominated several other biographies for deletion for the same reason. Not only did Daniel Brandt accept that principle, he made it his rallying cry and offered to Wikipedia administrators who were on his "Hive Mind" page that he'd let them off if they pleged to raise the "dead trees standard" concept into formal policy in six months, or else quit Wikipedia. Daniel Brandt harvests information from his site visitors and a forum where he often posts has recently been hacked with a spyware script that attempts to take over a visitor's e-mail program. So I won't link to either of those places.

Here's how I proposed the courtesy deletion standard when I asked Wikipedia to delete Mr. Brandt's biography:

Actually I'm only proposing this option for living people who aren't famous enough to get coverage in traditional paper-and-ink encyclopedias. I consider that a fair exception to WP:NOT because Wikipedia is a new project and these people based reasonable expectations upon the limits of print media when they made disclosures about themselves. DurovaCharge! 01:12, 13 June 2007 (UTC)

But look at this. Yes indeed, there at entry number two under a Google Books search for Mr. Brandt's name is a book called Conspiracy Encyclopedia and it has an entry for Mr. Brandt himself on page 187.

DANIEL BRANDT b.1948 Researcher and webmaster Brandt has been at the forefront
of conspiracy research for decades and for the last 30 years has been ...

Yup, same guy. I've known about this for a while now although I hadn't pushed the point.

After 13 deletion attempts that kept Mr. Brandt's biography, he never actually qualified for the principle that finally got him what he wanted. The paper encyclopedia that lists him was published in 2005. And he goes out of his way to invade the privacy of the person who helped him protect his own privacy, and chooses the very moment when he discovers that I may actually be in real danger. Mr. Brandt is the man who founded Googlewatch, which makes it rather obvious that he knew about this all along.

And equally obvious that his ethics are somewhat...compromised?

On the principle that turnabout is fair play, I now give you the full unedited text of the most recent Internet Wayback Machine archive of Mr. Brandt's Wikipedia biography. This is raw wikimarkup, which is rough going, so readers may wish to peruse the more legible version in the link I've provided. I might dress this up if Mr. Brandt doesn't get my drift.

'''Daniel Leslie Brandt'' (born circa 1947) is an American book indexer based in San_Antonio,_Texas,Seelye, Katharine Q. (December_11 2005). A Little Sleuthing Unmasks Writer of Wikipedia Prank. ''New York Times'' and an activist Jesdanun, Anick (December_28 2005). NSA Web Site Puts 'Cookies' on Computers. ''Associated_Press''Goldenberg, Suzanne (December_30 2005) US intelligence service bugged website visitors despite ban. ''The Guardian''Velshi, Ali (December_29 2005). "New Information About NSA Domestic Spying Program Emerges", ''The_Situation_Room'', CNN on the World_Wide_Web, particularly in relation to Google Inc. and the Wikipedia encyclopedia project. Brandt's activism centers around demands for Accountability from organizations he believes are operating irresponsibly, or in an unnecessarily secretive manner. Thatcher, Gary (July_31 1989). Cloak-and-Dagger Database: Software Sniffs Out Secret Agents. ''The_Christian_Science_Monitor'' p. 8. In 1989, Brandt and Steve Badrich co-founded a Non-profit_organization called Public_Information_Research (PIR). Brandt launched Google_Watch in 2002, a Website stating his criticism of the Google search engine, and Wikipedia Watch in 2005, a similar site detailing his opinion that the Wikipedia encyclopedia lacks accountability and accuracy. ==Activism== ===Student activism=== Brandt was born in China to Missionary parents. Chasnoff, Brian (December_11 2005). S.A. man is chasing the secret authors of Wikipedia. ''San_Antonio_Express-News'' In his college years he was an anti-Vietnam_War activist while at the University_of_Southern_California (USC). According to the ''Daily_Trojan'', "Brandt was the editor and creator of ''Prevert'', a monthly student activist newspaper, and the ''De_facto'' leader of the student activist movement at this university in the late '60's." ''Daily Trojan'', January_12 1971. On October_4, 1968, he was one of three members of Students_for_a_Democratic_Society who burned what they said were their draft cards in front of television cameras following a speech by Senator Edmund_Muskie at USC. Kneeland, Douglas E. (October_5 1968). Muskie Urged Raid Halt; Muskie Confirms He Appealed To Johnson to Halt the Bombing. ''The_New_York_Times'' When Brandt's student deferment classification was withdrawn by the local Selective_Service_System in December 1968 due to his public non-cooperation with his draft board, Brandt was convicted of failure to report for a pre-induction physical exam and refusal to submit to induction. Brandt Appealed and his convictions were reversed on the grounds that he was entitled to student status as an Undergraduate at USC. ''United_States_v._Brandt'', 435 F.2d 324 (9th Cir. 1970). ===Political activism=== Brandt states that during the 1980s, when living in Arlington,_Virginia, he introduced a number of political activists and researchers to computing and how to work with databases, including former Central_Intelligence_Agency officers Philip_Agee Hand, Mark (January_3 2003). Searching for Daniel Brandt. ''CounterPunch'' and Ralph_McGehee, as well as John_F._Kennedy assassination researchers Bernard_Fensterwald and Mary_Ferrell. McCarthy, Jerry (January-March 1994). Mary Ferrell Profile. ''NameBase NewsLine'', cited on Spartacus Educational From the 1960s onwards, Brandt collected clippings and Citations pertaining to influential people and intelligence matters. In the 1980s, through his company Micro Associates, he sold a database of citations of these clippings, books, government reports, and other publications. He told the ''New_York_Times'' that "many of these sources are fairly obscure so it's a very effective way to retrieve information on U.S. intelligence that no one else indexes." Gerth, Jeff (October_6 1987). Washington Talk: The Study of Intelligence; Only Spies Can Find These Sources. ''New_York_Times'' These prior efforts were the basis of his NameBase website, described as "a quirky index of names cross-indexed," focusing on "foreign policy, spy, conspiracy, media, etc." Dedman, Bill (ed.). Power Reporting: Beat by beat: Military. via, accessed 19_April 2006. Currently the names are drawn from over 800 books, serials, and other publications. PIR website, "Why is namebase unique?" retrieved 15_April 2006. Between 1990 and 1992, three members of Brandt's PIR advisory board, including Chip_Berlet, resigned after complaining that another board member, L._Fletcher_Prouty, was openly working with and defending Liberty_Lobby and the Holocaust_denial group the Institute_for_Historical_Review, which republished Prouty's book ''The_Secret_Team''. Dan Brandt, "An Incorrect Political Memoir," ''Lobster'', No. 24 (December 1992); Chip Berlet, "Right Woos Left: Populist Party, LaRouchite, and Other Neo-fascist Overtures To Progressives, And Why They Must Be Rejected," Cambridge, MA: Political Research Associates, 1991. ===Online activism=== ====Government cookies==== In March_2002, Brandt was credited with finding persistent HTTP_cookies on one of the Central Intelligence Agency's websites that could be used to track users for approximately 10 years, in contravention of federal government rules. Associated Press (March_20 2002). CIA Caught Sneaking Cookies via ''CBS_News''Aftergood, Steven (March_19 2002). CIA cookies exposed and eliminated. ''Secrecy News'' On December_25 2005, Brandt found that the National_Security_Agency's website was using two HTTP cookies set to expire in 2035. Brandt contacted the NSA to remind them they were in violation of federal rules and the cookies were removed. The event gained worldwide publicity. ====Criticism of Google and Yahoo!==== {{main|Google Watch}} In 2002, Brandt launched the website Google_Watch through PIR, reportedly in response to Google's low ranking of deep content within, which is placed far below competing information. {{cite web |url= |title= Meet Mr. Anti-Google |author= |last= Manjoo |first= Farhad |date=2002-08-29 |work= |archiveurl= |archivedate=2005-03-09}} See Brandt's response at Google Watch documents Brandt's views on privacy, long-living HTTP cookies, and advertising policies within Google and Gmail. Brandt has also described the issue of "made for AdSense pages" — spam pages with content often scraped from other sites that sometimes enjoy high rankings in Search_engines due to sophisticated optimization technique. In addition, PIR has released Scroogle, a screen-scraping proxy that circumvents Google's tracking of user activity via HTTP cookies. Some writers have criticised the Google Watch website, such as writer Farhad_Manjoo, who stated: "... Daniel Brandt's arguments seem absurd. Because he has a personal stake in the squabble, he's pretty easy to dismiss: He doesn't like his Google rank, so it's not surprising he doesn't like Google." Brandt's PIR, in addition to other privacy and civil rights organisations including the Australian_Privacy_Foundation, Consumer_Federation_of_America, and Katherine_Albrecht's CASPIAN, have endorsed an open letter drafted by the Privacy_Rights_Clearinghouse and the World_Privacy_Forum requesting that Google suspend their Gmail service on account of privacy concerns, such as "the unlimited period for data retention that Google’s current policies allow." Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (April_19 2004). Thirty-One Privacy and Civil Liberties Organizations Urge Google to Suspend Gmail. via Brandt also maintains an anti-Yahoo! website, Yahoo! Watch. His principal complaint is that the Yahoo! feature Site_Match embeds paid links into the main index and search results. ====Criticism of Wikipedia==== Brandt launched the Wikipedia Watch website through PIR on October_13, 2005, {{cite web | title = Alexa traffic details | url = }} in response to a user authoring a biographical article on him within the Wikipedia peer-edited online encyclopaedia project. Brandt himself has been blocked from editing Wikipedia, Daniel Brandt Wikipedia userpage and Brandt has also published some logs from Wikipedia Internet_Relay_Chat channels on Wikipedia Watch. {{cite web | title = Wikipedia-Watch: The Wikipedia Hive Mind Chat Room | url = }} On the Wikipedia Watch website, Brandt advances his view that a website whose content is copied as widely as that of Wikipedia should have higher standards of accountability, and that members of the public who contribute or edit articles should make their identities public for this reason; this includes the facilitation of article subjects bringing litigation against editors, although since this multiple wikis now have articles about him. Brandt considers Wikipedia to be a privacy risk, and stated, "It [Wikipedia] needs to be watched closely." Brandt's view is that the creation of biographical articles on Wikipedia is broadly unacceptable due to the inaccuracy of information included and a lack of accountability. {{cite web | title = Public Information Research. Wikipedia Watch | url = | accessdate = April 2006 }} Since November_19, 2005, the Wikipedia Watch site has included a page stating personal details allegedly pertaining to individual Wikipedia editors and administrators who have edited Brandt's biography or responded to his complaints, to "discourage irresponsible editors from applying for adminship, and encourage others to be more considerate of those who would rather not have an article about themselves." Brandt states his reasoning of maintaining the list that, "if I ever decide that I have cause to sue, I'm not sure who should be sued." This is, according to Brandt, due to a lack of any party within the project claiming content responsibility. {{cite web | title = Wikipedia-Watch: The Wikipedia Hive Mind | url = }} Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy_Wales responded to Brandt in a letter to ''Editor_&_Publisher'', stating, "I don't regard him as a valid source about anything at all, based on my interactions with him ... He considers the very existence of a Wikipedia article about him to be a privacy violation, despite being a public person. I find it hard to take him very seriously at all. He misrepresents everything about our procedures, claiming that we have a 'Secret_police' and so on."{{cite web | last = DeFoore | first = Jay | title = Wikipedia Founder, Readers Respond to Seigenthaler Article | publisher = Editor_&_Publisher | date = 2005-12-01 | url = }} ====Seigenthaler Wikipedia biography controversy==== {{main|John Seigenthaler Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy}} In May 2005, an anonymous editor added defamatory information to the John_Seigenthaler_Sr. Wikipedia biography. In December 2005, Seigenthaler criticized his Wikipedia biography in a ''USA_Today'' column that generated considerable publicity. {{cite web | last = Seigenthaler | first = John Sr. | authorlink = John Seigenthaler Sr. | title = A False Wikipedia 'biography' | publisher = USA_Today | date = 2005-11-29 | url = }} Brandt found that the IP_address used by the editor was also used to host a website, with the text, "Welcome to Rush Delivery." Brandt contacted a company in Nashville, Tennessee known by that name, and the IP address on the email they sent back to Brandt matched that in the edit history of the Seigenthaler article. Within the week, Brian Chase, a manager at Rush Delivery, resigned and personally confessed to Seigenthaler. {{cite web | last = Terdiman | first = Daniel | title = In search of the Wikipedia prankster | publisher = CNET | date = 2005-12-15 | url = }} ==References== ''Note: Some external links to sites run by Brandt may redirect if the site detects a Referer from''
== Bibliography == * "Google Libraries and Privacy" by Daniel Brandt, ''Web Pro News'', 1_December 2005 * "An Incorrect Political Memoir" by Daniel Brandt, ''Lobster'', December 1992 ==External links== {{wikiquote}} ===Sites run by Brandt=== * NameBase: * Wikipedia Watch: * Google Watch: * CIA on Campus: * Scroogle: ===Media coverage=== * "Conspiracy Researcher says Google's no good" by Farhad Manjoo, '''', 30_August 2002 with Brandt's response at (down the bottom) * "Paranoid or Prescient? Daniel Brandt is concerned about Google Print" by Jim Hedger, ''Concept'', 2003 * "Scraping Google to see what's happening" by John Battelle, ''Searchblog'', 11_January 2005 * "Anti-Google campaign by Lenz?" by Keith Oibermann, ''Blog news Channel'', 15_May 2005 * "What's in a Wiki?" by Philipp_Lenssen, ''Blog News Channel'', 30_October 2005 * "Who owns your Wikipedia bio?" by Andrew_Orlowski, ''The Register'', 6_December 2005 * "Caught red handed" ''Sydney Morning Herald'', 12_December 2005 {{Persondata |NAME=Brandt, Daniel Leslie |ALTERNATIVE NAMES= |SHORT DESCRIPTION=Activist |DATE OF BIRTH=1947 |PLACE OF BIRTH=China |DATE OF DEATH= |PLACE OF DEATH= }} Brandt, Daniel Brandt, Daniel Brandt, Daniel Brandt, Daniel Brandt, Daniel Brandt, Daniel Eo:Daniel_Brandt Fr:Daniel_Brandt He:דניאל_ברנדט Hu:Daniel_Brandt Pl:Daniel_Brandt

Mr. Brandt, my Facebook friends are none of your business. Take down your post about them. Take Hive Mind down. All of it. If you do so promptly I will take this post down and I will not campaign for the restoration of your Wikipedia biography.

Monday, June 09, 2008

If you're talking about Area 51, you're obviously not playing with a full deck (hides ace in sleeve)

Last night Wikipedia Weekly recorded Episode 51, where we joked about Area 51 and had a serious talk about cyberstalking. The two concepts are not comparable.

Reposting something I wrote at the Digg page on David Shankbone's article:

So what's behind this? Some of Wikipedia's systems are seriously flawed and we've got negative feedback loops. That doesn't cause the problem but it makes it worse. Wikipedia is counterintuitive in a lot of ways, but it's counterintuitive in more ways than it needs to be. And in the long run it does not help us that our blocking and banning policies are constructed in the way the presently are.

Because it's flawed we get uneven results. Obviously uneven results. We leave people in a poorly defined limbo between indefinite blocking and banning. Often we block first, then decide whether to ban them, and shut the person out of the discussion. Our usual template (the unblock request) implicitly encourages people to say they've done nothing wrong at all, when obviously there have been problems, and sets up a binary discussion when an open-ended one would be more appropriate. And some of our best contributors have been so frustrated and overworked that they've gotten rude. It's one thing to show a person the door, which is sometimes necessary. It's another thing to kick them on the way out.

None of this justifies the stalking David endures or the harassment I face. Yet it contributes to poisonous atmosphere that makes our problems happen. Those factors (and a few others) leave people who might otherwise accept a lengthy hiatus frustrated and angry. It defies elementary expectations of justice and fair play. It is easy to construe that situation as bullying or corrupt, from the point of view of the person on the outs. And unfortunately the site's regulars fail to appreciate that in sufficient numbers. We also need a clear path back to good standing for banned users. Not for ones who threaten violence, but for most of the people who get banned—the situations that just didn’t work out. I have volunteered for over a year and a half to work toward a better system in those areas.

So what that means is the pool of people who have been ejected from the site is angrier than it needs to be, which encourages them to network. Some of them might adjust to site standards, more wouldn't, and a minority are really deviant people. When a person who cannot think rationally gets shown the door politely, that person may go quietly. But the chances of a quiet departure are significantly diminished if a Google search quickly turns up a series of sites that complain about the individual who showed that person the door. Whether those complaints are sound or baseless, it's very tempting to a person in that position to believe the complaints are true.

We need to stop joking around and fix this stuff.

Image credit:

Saturday, June 07, 2008

What if the target were you?

Suppose this image were your userpage and you logged in one day to discover a randomized IP had written all over it. You knew the person who was using it operated out of a set of IP addresses that all resolved to location within driving distance of your home and workplace. The text appears small in thumbnail so I'll quote.


Looking at the things that have been said throughout WP about you and to you over the last several weeks, it's apparent that somebody really doesn't like you or something you've said or something you've done or the company you keep, or some combination of these. The overall tone of what's been written conveys more than simple mischievousness.

If I were you, I would be particularly wary and vigilant, and careful of where I go and who I meet. Further, I would not advertise my whereabouts or plans to attend any event open to the general public, or where the public would have easy access. In particular, I would not attend the Wiki event at Columbia this Sunday -- anyone wishing to do you harm would have no trouble getting to you and then getting away.

Within WP you've written about the general area where you live in the city, though wisely you've never pinpointed it. Nevertheless I would be cautious in my dealings and encounters anywhere, particularly with strangers. You really never know.

Keep a watchful and suspicious eye wherever you go. I sense that you are not safe.

Special note to anyone considering deleting this post: This message is intended for David Shankbone and should only be removed my him. Should any harm befall Shankbone, and this message is removed without his seeing it, the person removing the message would be complicit in whatever happened to Shankbone. Forewarned is forestalled.-- 16:40, 14 March 2008 (UTC)

David wasn't the person to log in and find that message; I was. And in spite of the warning I went ahead and removed it. Then I notified a Wikinews administrator, who protected the page from further editing, and I contacted David. Usually I keep quiet about this sort of event. Now that David has gone public about his experience I'll say that this example was far from the only disturbing message that targeted him. David did attend that event at Columbia University in spite of the problem.

But it's not really a simple matter of go or don't go. Messages like that one turn an ordinary outing into an undertaking of tactical logistics. First one plans notifications: friends, event organizers, campus security. Then there's the question of how to get to the event and away from it while minimizing the chances of being followed by a malicious stranger. Of course there's also the issue of what to do if a physical attack actually happens, and balancing that there are doubts about whether the danger is serious or only a bluff.

It's not a fun way to live. And it's especially not fun to interact with people who are usually sensible and ought to know your character well enough to trust your judgment, but who treat the problem as a figment of your imagination. Or worse, who dismiss you as a liar and a selfish bluff.

Another dilemma that David faced, and I face, and a core of Wikipedia's most productive and dedicated volunteers face is the question of how much of the situation to disclose.

If you don't expose the problem, dismissive people accuse you of being a drama queen.

If you do discuss the problem, some of those same people play a game called It Isn't Bad Enough. Did you actually get knifed? Did he actually break into your home? No? Pshaw.

If you expose the whole problem those naysayers may stop nettling you, but they won't help you. They'll say the law ought to handle it even if it doesn't. Then they'll walk away. Those naysayers won't care that the trouble you've taken to persuade them a problem exists at all actually worsens the problem. The stalker becomes more engaged and the real danger increases. New individuals who are fundamentally parasitic take an interest in you too.

So I look at Dan Tobias's response to my last post.

Neither David's article nor your response, however, get into the prevalent use of exaggerated accusations of "stalking" and "harassing" that are used constantly on Wikipedia as a "Get Out of Criticism Free Card" by certain people who like to cultivate their victimhood and wear it on their sleeve.

Dan, I agree with you up to a point: outright false and frivolous claims are destructive. Those aren't unknown. Yet we don't have the data to draw a conclusion that exaggerated accusations are prevalent. Nobody has ever done a scientific or scholarly study of Wikipedia with regard to stalking and harassment. And as I outlined above, there are powerful dynamics that discourage open discussion. My firsthand experience and anecdotal data say that harassment and stalking affect a very small portion of Wikipedia's volunteers overall, but among prolific contributors to controversial subjects it is not nearly as rare as you suggest. The problem is real, serious, and underreported.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The secret Wikipedia cabal

A classic - something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. - Mark Twain

Picking up on a comment about cabals and conspiracy theories, I've wondered for quite a while why it's Wikipedia that attracts the attention. To put this in perspective, a recent story at SEOmoz detailed how 6 corporations own 60% of the Internet's 25 most visited sites. At number 8 according to Alexa, Wikipedia is the most popular nonprofit on the Web. So why all this scrutiny on the little guy and its volunteers?

I say it has to do with paradigm shifts. People are used to the idea that corporations run popular media. In the big picture that's more problematic than Wikipedia, but corporate octopuses are a familiar problem that lost its shock value generations ago. We know most of the movie theaters are run by a few corporations and most of the films they show are produced by a few corporations, and if we miss something interesting in its first run we rent the DVD from a chain store.

Wikipedia wouldn't be so unsettling if it were just a nonprofit site. Everyone's used to outfits like PBS: the good-for-you option that normally languishes in the marketplace of ideas like six dusty cans of V8 juice down the aisle from the Coca-Cola. The world would be a better place if V8 juice sold as well as Coca-Cola, and I doubt conspiracy theories would arise about the V8 rise to power, but I certainly won't be the one to help its market share. My lifelong hatred of tomatoes has gradually softened into tomato snobbery and I still think tomato juice is made from tomatoes who flunked out of ketchup school.

It takes more than sudden popularity to rattle people. Paradigm shifts are unsettling and wikipedia requires multiple pardigm shifts. For starters, it's a wiki. Not an unknown concept entirely, but the first wiki to go mainstream--geek culture run wild. Imagine how the world would react if Isaac Mizrahi ran a fashion show full of horn rimmed glasses and t-shirts that quoted Einstein. It wouldn't work, you say. Wikipedia wasn't supposed to work either.

The saving grace of bad fashion is it eventually goes out of style. We're stuck with Wikipedia, or at least stuck with its content. That's paradigm shift number two: copyleft licensing. Anybody can reuse it as long as they credit the source. Most people really haven't wrapped their heads around what that means. Take the Isaac Mizrahi biography, for instance. The fellow's a leading fashion designer. He's undoubtedly commissioned enormous quantities of professional photography, yet the Wikipedia article about him doesn't have a single image. It's the number 5 Google return for his name; he's got something to gain if he would loosen up the license on a couple of photographs he owns. That's 5500 page views in May: over 60,000 page views a year where his brand would be visible at no additional cost to himself. It's the most obvious opportunity--actually the tip of the iceberg--but he's missing out and Wikipedia is missing out because he hasn't seen the value of a CC-by-sa license.

A third paradigm shift is the definition and scope of encyclopedic. That one stumps a lot of people. Anyone who's old enough to hold an undergraduate degree grew up accustomed to certain general ideas of what encyclopedias covered, and that scope was grounded in the economics of book publishing. Denis Diderot wanted to cover everything when he began his Encyclopédie, but that wasn't actually feasible in a world where publishing an encyclopedia meant slicing up a bunch of dead trees. For over two centuries the same technology published encyclopedias and those limitations--which were actually imposed by bean counters--acquired a hallowed aura because everybody alive was used to them. Now we publish on electrons and we're getting closer to Diderot's dream. We have to rethink that scope. Lively discussions are ongoing about what it should be.

This is Diderot, a classic proto-geek. You can tell by the uncombed hair and the rumpled shirt. That's a quill in his hand, not a stylus. What he needed was a good laptop and a wireless connection.

We haven't worked out all the kinks yet. A situation this new requires innovative solutions. One thing is certain, though: the average human being has a tough time adapting to one new paradigm, let alone three simultaneously (more, actually--they unfold as you go). So there are people who hate Wikipedia intensely because it doesn't behave the way they expect it to, or the way they think it ought to. Some of those criticisms are valid and deserve to be addressed. Others are simply the umpteenth iteration of something the site's regulars have already explored in depth and rejected.

Certain proposals have been discussed so many times that only a significant change in external circumstances would have much chance of changing how Wikipedia operates. Take unregistered editing, for example. Allowing it was probably a key decision that helped the project achieve critical mass, but is it necessary anymore? Is it worth the downside? So far Wikipedia's changes have been mild: implementing semiprotection, tweaking its parameters, and the like. That doesn't get close to the position of vocal critics who argue that even pseudonymous editing shouldn't be allowed.

That isn't likely to change until this graph alters. If you're serious about changing the Wikimedia Foundation's privacy policy, the most effective thing to do is head over to Citizendium where they already have a real names policy and shelf space in the marketplace of ideas; what they need is more product. If they become a serious contender for the public's attention then the Wikipedia community will take notice. So long as Citizendium hovers at a traffic rank near 100,000, Wikipedia's success will reinforce its present consensus.

So what about these conspiracy theories? Having gone through a phase where I was reputed to have been 'cabal central' myself, the signal to noise ratio on these things really is pretty low. Wikipedia's quirks can be explained by assuming that most of the people who run the place are well-meaning geeks. Somehow a bunch of geeks managed to take this project all the way to one of the world's ten most popular websites and we're dealing with growing pains. There isn't a good model to copy for the challenges we face. We're not paid to do what we do so important stuff languishes for lack of attention, and sometimes (being geeks) we're short on social skills.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a black velvet robe to pack and a Lear jet to catch. If I leave now I can arrive at tonight's meeting in the secret crypt beneath Wall Street while they're still passing out the Cohibas.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

J'Accuse or jacuzzi?

Received two posts last night that I rejected for a particular reason. One had alternate ways of contacting the person so a slight modification on the comment could be published afterward. The other didn't provide a way to solve that problem so I rejected the post--not because it was a rude snark (although it was) but because it used my name. At this blog call me Durova. I reserve the right to reject rude snarks too; this time it just wasn't the deciding factor.

So to reply to the snark, the reason why my (ahem) investigative instincts went off regarding Mantanmoreland in September 2007 and not sooner is because...

...drum roll... was September 2007 when I first paid any attention to l'affair Mantanmoreland. The matter already had plenty of eyes on it; I had been busy with other things that were in need of help.

And, heck, California is a pleasant place to live; I'm not a slave to Wikipedia and I'm especially not a slave to snarky people who insinuate that a nonprofit charity's volunteers are incompetent or corrupt unless we drop everything else at the snap of an imperious pair of fingers. I enjoy lavender bath salts; I make my own. Herbal soaps, too. Nice people sometimes get them from me as gifts.

What caught my attention was in late July 2007 when an absurd conspiracy theory about Wikipedia's editor SlimVirgin got published in a little citizen-journalism venue. It claimed that she was a spy for MI5 because, among other things, Wikipedia's Operation Entebbe article wasn't open for editing.

That's known as page protection, bub. We do it to stop edit wars. Wikipedia articles get full protected at the behest of MI5 just about as often as penguins go diving for orchids. The edit war had ended so I unprotected the article, then posted a comment at the silly conspiracy theory blowing holes through that and several other really gaping and obvious lapses in the fellow's research.

To the conspiracy theorists: MI5 did haul me out of the jacuzzi for questioning, much to the chagrin of my FBI boss, until I bribed the MI5 operatives with lemon balm body lotion.

Like any true conspiracy theorist, rather than abandon the ridiculous fantasy the fellow simply plugged some but not all of its most obvious holes and republished. And then--truth being much stranger than fiction--the thing made it all the way to the front page of Slashdot.

SlimVirgin wasn't exactly my favorite Wikipedian; she and I had disagreed vigorously on several policy and process debates. But this Slashdotting was too much. So I set aside our differences and stood up for her. And in the aftermath I looked into the Mantanmoreland thing; she was heavily involved in that also and the same set of people who had been claiming that she was a spy were also claiming that Mantanmoreland was Gary Weiss. That didn't do wonders for their credibility.

So to the gentleman who sneered at my investigative skills for suspecting that Mantanmoreland was a sockpuppeteer in September 2007 and not sooner, a little basic research into my Wikipedia posts regarding this matter would have shown that September 2007 was just about as soon as I started to look into to the case. Taking the low road slowed things down; both SlimVirgin and Mantanmoreland had been targeted by malware. It was strong distaste for those methods that led me to deprioritize the Mantanmoreland sockpuppet suspicions for several months. A lot of people tug at my sleeve regarding Wikipedia matters. Those who tug politely get what they want.

And for the record, every Wikipedian I encountered who supported Mantanmoreland (other than Mantanmoreland himself) appears to me to have been a sincere volunteer acting in good conscience. Mantanmoreland had superb people skills and was very talented at garnering sympathy--not that it would have taken particularly much skill to distract attention from one's own behavior when e-mail attachments arrive with embedded scripts and conspiracy theories make the front page of Slashdot. In the end I developed at least as much distaste for Mantanmoreland as for his critics, because Mantanmoreland joined a list that had been created to deal with cyberstalking and he exploited it. He joined it under two different names and agreed with himself. He called upon our good faith when he didn't deserve it, and what I find obnoxious is that he played me at a venue where I had come to protect my family. Which is lower, that or malware? For some reason I don't entirely understand, not many of the list's participants resent him for the deception and that's why I say he has superb people skills.