Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Saturday, June 24, 2006

List of youth subcultures

Well. I respect historians more now. One of the them wrote a great article -- the first I've read that's almost uniformly ... right. It gives insight on the usual topics, and manages to ferret out the really important issues, like wikipedia's impact on the 3rd world. (And it succeeds in being porn for wikipedia culture junkies.)

Your freedom both to rewrite Wikipedia entries and to manipulate them for other purposes is thus arguably more profound than your ability to read them “for free.” It is why free-software advocates say that to understand the concept of free software, you should think of “free speech” more than “free beer.”


Why are so many of our scholarly journals locked away behind subscription gates? What about American National Biography Online—written by professional historians, sponsored by our scholarly societies, and supported by millions of dollars in foundation and government grants? Why is it available only to libraries that often pay thousands of dollars per year rather than to everyone on the Web as Wikipedia is? Shouldn’t professional historians join in the massive democratization of access to knowledge reflected by Wikipedia and the Web in general? American National Biography Online may be a significantly better historical resource than Wikipedia, but its impact is much smaller because it is available to so few people.

The limited audience for subscription-based historical resources such as American National Biography Online becomes an even larger issue when we move outside the borders of the United States and especially into poorer parts of the world, where such subscription fees pose major problems even for libraries. Moreover, in some of those places, where censorship of textbooks and other historical resources is common, the fact that Wikipedia’s freedom means both “free beer” and “free speech” has profound implications because it allows the circulation of alternative historical voices and narratives.

It also further confirms the gist of that infamous Nature editorial...
I judged 25 Wikipedia biographies against comparable entries in Encarta, Microsoft’s well-regarded online encyclopedia (one of the few commercial encyclopedias that survive from a once-crowded marketplace), and in American National Biography Online, a high-quality specialized reference work published by Oxford University Press for the American Council of Learned Societies, written largely by professional historians, and supported by major grants. The comparison is unfair—both publications have had multimillion-dollar budgets—but it is still illuminating, and it sheds some favorable light on Wikipedia.

...and the purpose of this blog:
One noticeable difference [between Wikipedia and standard historical writing] is the affection for surprising, amusing, or curious details—something that Wikipedia shares with other forms of popular historical writing such as articles in American Heritage magazine. Consider some details that Wikipedians include in their Lincoln biography that do not make their way into McPherson’s profile: Lincoln’s sharing a birthday with Charles Darwin; his nicknames (the Rail Splitter is mentioned twice); his edict making Thanksgiving a national holiday; and the end of his bloodline with the death of Robert Beckwith in 1985. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia devotes five times as much space to Lincoln’s assassination as the longer American National Biography Online profile does. The same predilection for colorful details marks other portraits. We learn from the Harding biography that the socialist Norman Thomas was a paper boy for the Marion Daily Star (which Harding owned), that Harding reached the sublime degree as a Master Mason, and that Al Jolson and Mary Pickford came to Marion, Ohio, during the 1920 campaign for photo ops. It devotes two paragraphs to speculation about whether Harding had “Negro blood” and five paragraphs to his extramarital affairs. Meanwhile, key topics—domestic and foreign policies, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, immigration restriction, and naval treaties—are ignored or hurried over. We similarly learn that Woodrow Wilson belonged to Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and wrote his initials on the underside of a table in the Johns Hopkins University history department, but not about his law practice or his intellectual development at Princeton University.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Type I - A civilization that is able to harness all of the power available on a single planet.

1. Yet another reference to Wikipedia that calls it simply "Wiki". This is why Wetpaint didn't put the word 'Wiki' in their name: the battle for wikipedia != wiki is probably lost.

2. And yet another blogger (Fred Wilson, who coined the term "red hat wikipedia" 6 months ago) is nonplussed: "If I am not notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia, so be it. But I do think that the one Fred Wilson they include is hardly notable, particularly when compared to the artist, the chessmaster, the rockband, and me (probably in that order)."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Lukasz (a Seattle-ite) sent me an interesting email about why he's starting his own wiki about hiking trails (Hikipedia) -- and why he spent late nights rolling his own wiki software, using Python/Zope: Hikipedia has all sorts of metadata (stuff that only applies to hiking, like the length of the hiking season at a particular trail, or the ranger station address) built right into the editing interface.

I'm reminded of Clay Shirky's old point: making something completely generalized can be limiting. (But the difference between wikis and other web apps (discussion forums, say) is that all users of a wiki share the same collective space, and content in that space endures; it never gets pushed off the page simply for being old. So having a large userbase can enrich the collective space -- all of it. Trade-offs.)

A sixth sense (and a 7th).

Jimbo sums up the NYTimes thing.


New York Times Revises its Ill-Concieved Headline

The Times has issued a correction and changed the headline from "Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone Can Edit' Policy" to "Growing Wikipedia Refines Its 'Anyone Can Edit' Policy".

(Looking at it in a different light, I think the original headline was a misguided play on the fact that wikipedia itself is constantly being revised.)

--Previously: One, Two, three--

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Techcrunch article: Wetpaint just launched (so that's why I hadn't heard of it). It's a wiki host and wiki framework rolled into one.

The interface battle is on: check out the awesome functionality on this history page -- each edit is programmatically summarized, for example ("4 words added, 2 words deleted"). (I'm jealous. Someone make me an OS X wikipedia client.)

Wetpaint is going to be pretty big. Bigger than Wikia, I think.

It's hard to overstate the importance of usability testing, which Wetpaint has obviously been through and wikipedia/mediawiki obviously hasn't. Not that the Wetpaint interface is ideal -- it's apparent the let's-maximize-revenue folks won out over the let's-make-the-perfect-zen-website folks -- but Wetpaint gets an important part right: in one fell swoop, thanks to ajax-powered editing, the mechancs of the site are manifest in its appearence: This Page Is Put Together By A Bunch Of People Like You. And a bunch of smaller confusions are nipped in the bud (users are called writers, not editors, for exmaple). (Meanwhile, I've watched web-designer friends click on the wrong edit-this-section link on wikipedia. A few developer-hours improving the link placement could save thousands of community-hours reverting edits by confused newbies.)

We geeks don't realize it, but wikis, unless specifically designed, are hard for most people (excluding teenagers, tech writers, etc.).

Sidenote: the story brought out a great comment -- on Digg, of all places -- analyzing why established wikis are less vulnerable:

I believe (and see it since I spend a lot of time on wikipedia for school) that most articles are "crystalized out" on wikipedia. I'm not saying wiki has stopped growing, but most pages on significant articles are finished, and remain untouched by ídiots [vandals] because there is no reason to edit it. You can expect that an article about Bush will be incorrectly edited a lot of course.

I think you can compare it to graffititags: people spray their logos only on walls, almost never on windows, doors, or higways. Why not? because they have a "usable" function.

That is why Wiki[pedia] works. it has its weaknesses, but it still is one of the strongest inventions on the web.

Wetpaint is a wiki hosting service that provides a dead-simple ajax-y WYSIWYG interface. (I wish wikipedia/mediawiki had something similar.) Sandbox.

The List of World's Largest Roadside Attractions needs more pictures.

Monday, June 19, 2006

"Student, justify why you have come to class wearing pants of our most probable military opponent!" (here the teacher means jeans made in USA) The right answer, as mentioned sometimes, is: "Because they are a probable war trophy."

As the faulty New York Times article trickles into dozens of smaller outlets, a few news sources get it right.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The ripple effect from yesterday's incorrect and misleading New York Times headline is creating problems for at least a least one high-profile Wikipedian thousands of miles away:

--Previously: One, Two--

From the mailing list:

What is even more embarassing is that these stories spread all over the world. Journalists call locals (such as me) to say

"did you read the last NYT article ? Can you tell me more about the latest decisions ?"

Me : "there are no new decisions"

Journalist : "but it is written in the NYT !"

Me : "so what ?"

Journalist : "Ah...well... still, it is no longer open to everyone - I would like to explain to french readers that new articles can not be created by Anonymous any more"

Me : "well, I recommand you do not, because on the french speaking wikipedia, Anonymous can still create articles"

Journalist : "but Jimmy Wales said that..."

Me : "Okay. But things are not so simple. Maybe I could explain to you how decision making is done in the different language versions and maybe introduce you to our governance system. This is a fascinating topic you know ?"

Which reminds me... did we get press coverage for the hiring of the CEO ?

Aside from Wikipedia being open or not being open to editing, I think hiring a CEO should be food for thought and speculation from at least some of the magazines. Did any magazine question whether it would change the governance of the organisation ? Did anyone wonder if it would somehow impact the international dimension (such as would it impact latin america or india engagement ? would it impact the china block?). Could it change our relationship with service providers or potential partners ? Did someone wonder if that would change something in terms of staff ? What would be the related main benefits and threats ?

No ?

(The poster is a francophone; I've corrected some grammar.)

The more I think about it, the more I think this is what happened:

1. Someone at the Times saw Nick Carr's trolly "Wikipedia is Dead!" post about semiprotection, and the huge response it got, and thought "hey, time for an article about Wikipedia".

2. Someone else at the Times* volunteered to interview people and write a story.

3. The editors said, "Let's clarify this", and "Let's find the lead", several times, until what had been a complex issue was effectively reduced to "Wikipedia's no longer open becuase articles are protected". (You might even call the mistake ... an inherent flaw in collaborative content creation.)

And there was another big problem, which I didn't catch. The Times said:

It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.

This is true: admins do, technically, have the power to do all of these things. But they're not supposed to delete articles without community concensus -- it happens fairly often, but it shouldn't, and things might get tightened up over the next few months.

The problem with the article -- apart from the headline -- is that it elides out the difference between what the rules allow and what sometimes happens when admins bend those rules. It's as if it had said "The United States has a clear power structure that gives members of congress the authority to gerrymander their districts to preserve their power": technically true, but misleading because according to the rules, congress isn't really supposed to do that. Language like this might be acceptable in the humanities, but it's bad journalism. (On reflection, maybe I'm being charitable: I'm going to try to contact the Times and see if the reporter knew admins weren't supposed to delete articles on their own.)

* You might think the editors are the ones who propose stories and the reporters the ones who stomp out and cover them, but I'm pretty sure reporters and editors can both propose stories to go into the bin, and reporters are free to volenteer for the stories they want (within a newpaper subsection). (Not sure about this, though.)

Deleted Articles with Freaky Titles