Wikipedia turns 20. Let’s celebrate!

Join us for the One World Birthday celebration, Friday January 15.

Wikipedia launched in 2001, the same year America Online bought Time Warner. An Associated Press story covered the nascent encyclopedia project wistfully, as a project with high ideals but little chance of success in the face of a corporate takeover of the Internet.

We will discuss Wikipedia on the “Park Bench” (a series of one-on-one discussions).
Image by Nicholas Boudreau, licensed CC BY 4.0.

Twenty years hence, it stands as a testament to what loosely organized volunteers, sharing little more than a set of principles and a willingness to do some work, can accomplish, and how refreshingly different it can be from the corporate vision of the online experience.

Members of that loosely organized community—Wikipedians—traditionally celebrate “Wikipedia Day” every January 15.

Please join Wiki Strategies and friends as we continue this tradition with a free online event, which we’re calling “One World Birthday.” This is a celebration for all of us, as we all stand to benefit from the tools and vision Wikipedia offers. We will hold a “Park Bench” discussion with Ward Cunningham, inventor of wiki software, and several others, who represent diverse experiences as Wikipedians and as world citizens who appreciate Wikipedia. Following the discussion, we will hold a “Wikidojo,” in which we invite beginners and wiki veterans alike to share the experience of editing a wiki together.

Find further information, including registration and a time zone converter, on the One World Birthday page. The festivities begin at 4:00pm Pacific Time on Friday, January 15, 2021.

Looking for some reading to whet your appetite? Try these:

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Wikipedia’s lessons about collaboration

Collaboration is a key component of human activity, in fields as diverse as scientific inquiry, news reporting, the arts, and government. When we work together effectively, we can accomplish big things. We should always seek to improve our understanding of what conditions support effective collaboration. Wikipedia, I believe, holds many of the answers — not in the content of its encyclopedic articles, but in the story of its genesis and growth.

Wikipedia has supported an unprecedented level of collaborative activity in its first two decades. What conditions have permitted the site to become, and remain, such an integral part of our information landscape? That is the question I explore in an essay, “Trusting Everybody to Work Together,” for a forthcoming book celebrating Wikipedia’s 20th anniversary. I review some of the early discourse that drove Wikipedia’s software design. I propose that the proper mix of eight specific, mutually supporting software capabilities has played a significant role, and I argue that closer consideration of these software capabilities should inform future software design, both in the Wikipedia world and beyond.

The Signpost just published the essay. Please take a look.

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Merry Christmas! Simple things anyone can do for improved digital hygiene

The holiday season is a great time to talk to loved ones about how we can all improve the ways we use technology and the Internet.

There are many areas of concern around protecting your interests and information online. It gets worse every year; but there are also ever-expanding ways to control what digital fingerprints we leave in various places as we live our lives. (I don’t get into all those details here. For background, I suggest the December 20, 2018 episode of Preet Bharara’s podcast, “Stay Tuned,” in which he interviewed tech journalist Kara Swisher.)

Here are a few things you can share with family and friends to help them increase their online privacy, agency, and safety in an increasingly complex and dangerous information landscape. Continue reading

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WikiCite conference: Wind in the “Newspapers on Wikipedia” sails

The WikiCite 2018 conference in Berkeley, California was an exciting meeting of the minds. There were a number of good developments for the Newspapers on Wikipedia (NOW) campaign. Here, I’ll recap those that stood out to me, as well as a few points that are unrelated to NOW. (Most of the talk videos linked below are very short, 1-3 minutes.)

This was the third annual WikiCite conference. WikiCite is an initiative to ensure that citation data (broadly defined, including publications, articles, authors, publishing houses, etc.) is well represented as open data on the web. (See also my recent post on Wikimedia Executive Director Katherine Maher’s keynote talk.) WikiCite has a great deal of overlap with NOW; though the primary focus of NOW has been prose on Wikipedia, but we have been improving Wikidata in parallel, and we can see the increasing importance of structured data to our project’s broad goal of making information about newspapers more accessible. Continue reading

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Katherine Maher on Wikimedia’s evolving strategic priorities: Reflections on her WikiCite 2018 talk

Katherine Maher. Portrait by Gerald Shields, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

I relished the opportunity to hear Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, speak about strategic priorities at the November 2018 WikiCite conference. The organization has had its ups and downs in strategic planning over the years. This was my first glimpse of the products of recent strategic planning efforts; an opportunity to learn how the organization’s thinking and approach are evolving. Some of it was encouraging; some, less so.

The foundation hosts and supports Wikipedia, one of the world’s top websites, and up-and-comers like Wikidata and Wikimedia Commons. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers, however, build and own the sites’ contents, and have no formal affiliation with the organization. The foundation’s annual budget has grown tenfold over ten years; it now approaches $100 million. But there are things money can’t buy. The organization has often struggled to maintain strategic and tactical alignment with the values that drive its volunteer contributors; and those challenges have frequently come to a head around partnerships with other organizations, and around software development. Maher addressed both areas in her talk.

WikiCite, a conference that attracts both Wikimedia experts and library and data professionals, and that focuses heavily on technology and planning for the future, was a natural venue for Maher to debut a talk like this. Below, I’ll recap the major themes, interspersed with my own reflections.

Thanks to Andrew Lih, a video of the full talk, entitled “Essential Infrastructure of the Ecosystem of Free Knowledge,” and the Q&A session is available under a free license at YouTube.” The commentary below contains time markers throughout.

Continue reading

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Proposal for funding from the AI Ethics Challenge

I submitted the following project proposal for the Artificial Intelligence Ethics Challenge:

Unpacking Wikipedia’s Lessons for Journalism

In its 18 years, Wikipedia has established itself as a titan of the Internet, built on a model utterly different from other top websites; this project will help journalists understand it better, and empower them to better access its data, and to draw effective contrasts with other top websites. Continue reading

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A proven innovation could benefit Facebook’s users—and its shareholders, too.

Concern about social media and the quality of news is running high, with many commentators focusing on bias and factual accuracy (often summarized as “fake news”). If efforts to regulate sites like Facebook are successful, they could affect the bottom line; so it would behoove Facebook to regulate itself, if possible, in any way that might stave off external action.

Facebook has tried many things, but they have ignored something obvious. It’s something that has been identified by peer reviewed studies as a promising approach since at least 2004…the same year Facebook was founded.

Instead of making itself the sole moderator of problematic posts and content, Facebook should offer its billions of users a role in content moderation. This could substantially reduce the load on Facebook staff, and could allow its community to care of itself more effectively, improving the user experience with far less need for editorial oversight. Slashdot, once a massively popular site, proved prior to Facebook’s launch that distributing comment moderation among the site’s users could be an effective strategy, with substantial benefits to both end users and site operators. Facebook would do well to allocate a tiny fraction of its fortune to designing a distributed comment moderation system of its own. Continue reading

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“Open” everything, and minimal financial needs: Wikipedia’s strengths

What insulates Wikipedia from the criticisms other massive platforms endure? We explored some answers—core values, lack of personalization algorithms, and lack of data collection—in last week’s “How Wikipedia Dodged Public Outcry Plaguing Social Media Platforms.”

But wait, there’s more:

Wikipedia moderation is conducted in the open.

“The biggest platforms use automated technology to block or remove huge quantities of material and employ thousands of human moderators.” So says Mark Bunting in his July 2018 reportKeeping Consumers Safe Online: Legislating for platform accountability for online content.” Bunting makes an excellent point, but he might have added a caveat: “The biggest platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but not Wikipedia.Continue reading

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How Wikipedia dodged public outcry plaguing social media platforms

Everybody has an opinion about how to govern social media platforms. It’s mostly because they’ve shown they’re not too good at governing themselves. We see headlines about which famous trolls are banned from what sites. Tech company executives are getting called before Congress, and the topic of how to regulate social media is getting play all over the news.

Wikipedia has problematic users and its share of controversies, but as web platforms have taken center stage in recent months, Wikipedia hasn’t been drawn into the fray. Why aren’t we hearing more about the site’s governance model, or its approach to harassment, bullying? Why isn’t there a clamor for Wikipedia to ease up on data collection? At the core, Wikipedia’s design and governance are rooted in carefully articulated values and policies, which underlie all decisions. Two specific aspects of Wikipedia inoculate it from some of the sharpest critiques endured by other platforms.

Wikipedia exists to battle fake news. That’s the whole point.

Wikipedia’s fundamental purpose is to present facts, verified by respected sources. That’s different from social media platforms, which have a more complex project…they need to maximize engagement, and get people to give up personal information and spend money with advertisers. Wikipedia’s core purpose involves battling things like propaganda and “fake news.” Other platforms are finding they need to retrofit their products to address misinformation; but battling fake news has been a central principle of Wikipedia since the early days. Continue reading

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A peek behind the scenes in the $289M Monsanto verdict

Both sides in a similar Monsanto lawsuit tried to bend Wikipedia to their will

Image by Tori Rector, licensed CC BY-SA

On August 10, a jury hit Monsanto with a $289 million verdict, the latest in a string of lawsuits linking the agrochemical giant’s products and byproducts to cancer.

You may have heard that much; but you probably don’t know that, in the buildup this series of lawsuits, representatives of both the plaintiffs and the defendant worked to change Wikipedia content to favor their respective positions. The Wikipedia articles they worked on — non-Hodgkin lymphoma and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) — are viewed upwards of 75,000 times a month.

By the time a communications firm representing plaintiffs suing Monsanto sought advice from my business, Wiki Strategies, in 2014, they were entangled in a slow-moving “edit war” on Wikipedia. On the opposing side of the edit war: a Wikipedia user who asserted he was the social media team lead for Monsanto.

The central issue in that case was whether or not PCBs cause cancer. It’s exactly the kind of thing Wikipedia editors want to get right; people often turn to Wikipedia for scientific information, and despite Wikipedia editors encouraging readers to go to the sources before forming strong opinions, we know that they sometimes take Wikipedia’s word at face value. After advising our prospective client that we could not guarantee a favorable result, and that our goal must be to ensure that Wikipedia’s content adhered better to the scientific consensus on the matter (regardless of how well that matched the plaintiffs’ position), we gladly took on this new client, confident that the project would have a positive impact on Wikipedia. Continue reading

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