Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Friday, March 07, 2008

Oldak Quill, on the mailing list:

I'm no fan of Pokemon, but the deletion of well-written Pokemon articles demonstrate the motives of "deletionists". Pokemon characters have lots of media and sources associated with them, have a lot of fans who would be interested in reading these articles and editing them, and are "notable". They're also a great way to get people involved in Wikipedia: they come to the site, see how good our coverage of that subject is, and begin contributing/getting interested in the project.

So, Pokemon characters are "notable", verifiable, have the potential to become FAs, have a lot of users to support them, and may get people interested in Wikipedia. The only reason to oppose articles on Pokemon characters is that a traditional encyclopedia wouldn't have these articles (more succinctly: elitism).

This kind of deletion for no purpose but to appease some editors' notions of what is encyclopedic isn't helping anyone. It's driving away potential editors, it is driving away new editors, and it is driving away experienced editors.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Battle for Wikipedia's Soul. A top-notch inclusionism/deletionism article in the Economist magazine.

Wikipedia, laptops leap their way into rural Africa

Africa has demonstrated the "leapfrog effect" before, most notably in its adoption of mobile phones even before landlines. With luck, maybe someday a collaborative network of dedicated programmers in third-world countries will build software that can actually help alleviate the ever-unsatisfied need for textbooks and teachers, carrying out an equally significant "leap."

Update: this was over-the-top. I jumped way too fast at the symmetry of two wikipioneers at odds and didn't stop to think whether I was grossly inflating a very minor third-hand remark. Mea culpa, I'm stupid.

The inventor of the wiki (Ward Cunningham) is apparently not too fond of Jimmy Wales. One of Cunningham's co-workers says:

Putting the utter stupidity of discussing Jimbo's sex life at all aside, I will say that this episode rings true for me in one important sense. As an employee of a for-profit wiki [AboutUs], I've had the *entire* 20+ person staff agree unanimously that they love Wikipedia despite Jimmy Wales, emphasis on the "despite". Part of me recognizes that all this hullabaloo is a product of the media's inane focus on the cult of celebrity, but still -- wouldn't we just be better off without him? My moral compass swings to a resounding Yes. of [those staff members] is Ward Cunningham.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Question for Danny Wool

Well, two.

1. What's your ultimate goal?

As in, what's the outcome that would make you most satisfied when all the stones have been turned over? Jimmy getting kicked out of the foundation, denounced, and generally losing his status as Wikipedia's banner-carrier? Do you realize that any process leading to that unlikely outcome would have to be incredibly long and painful?

2. How do you feel about Wikipedia?

Don't pull any punches: are you only disillusioned with Wikipedia's leadership, or with the project as a whole?

Update: Danny answered question 2 -- he says he's trying to help wikipedia through a difficult adolescence.

Wikipedia hit counter

This is a little revolutionary. shows how much traffic every wikipedia article gets (page views, not edits). We've pretty much been driving in the dark until now.

Note: The graph shows one month at a time (the current month by default). The month selector is the baffling-looking second dropdown -- 200801 is January, 200802 is February, etc.

More generally...

The wrong articles are getting deleted.

There's hemming and hawing about whether to wipe out an article about a restaurant, which was viewed only once last month.

But not so much concern about deleting sleaze rock and mafioso rap, which each get 7000 pageviews a month.

(Thanks, sage.)

Well, Jimmy's troubles have hit the associated press, and trickled from there into places like BusinessWeek.

Erik Moller, Wikimedia's Deputy Director, defends Wales:

When he talks about bringing education to those who cannot afford it, he’s not just trying to impress. Anyone who spends 5 minutes with him will understand that this is his personal life goal.

He’s helped us connect with philanthropists here in the Bay Area — donations like the recent 500,000 dollars from the last fundraiser were only possible because of his outreach efforts. His international network of contacts has helped us to build our Advisory Board, really smart people who have supported us on many occasions.


Jimmy not only created an extraordinary project — he decided to base it on the principles of the open source / free software movement, and turned it over to a non-profit organization. This was, by no means, the obvious thing to do: Had events played out a little differently, Wikipedia would today be a dot-com with ads, probably a subsidiary of Google, Microsoft or Yahoo.

I think the public is going to be pretty forgiving.

(By the way, Erik brings up advertising revenue and blog incentives. Since I'm not making any money off the google ads -- damn you, non-clicking tech-savvy audience -- I'm going to take them down.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Final Wikipedia Article

Wikipedia Weekly is a podcast. (iTunes) It is also the single best source for Wikipedia commentary.

This week's episode is actually the first in several months, but boy is it worth it.

It starts with some reassuring financial news:

The foundation is now audited properly; I think it's doing quite well. They're running around San Francisco drumming up support, drumming up big donors ... it's being run more professionally ... There is enough goodwill out there, there are enough rich people who are willing to fund us if we ask. And the foundation is now going about doing that.

But the really awesome part is this discussion around the 40-minute mark. It was so good I transcribed it:

- There's only so many articles you can actually make -- a lot of people see wikipedia as being "finished", in a way. Once you conquer everything, what is left to conquer?

- "All the virgin areas have at least been addressed", right? In terms of the knowledge of humanity. And you're kind of replenishing things on top of it that are current events, and you might be shoring up some parts of it, but the major work has been done. So how does the project survive when most of the work has been done?

- I'll quote that back to you in 20 years, fuzzy, when wikipedia is -- you know, owns its own mountain. Like that famous guy who closed down the patent office in like 1890 and said "oh, there's nothing left to invent; it's just a classification scheme from now on".

- I understand that sentiment, but you have to admit that with 2 million-some articles, most of the sum of human knowledge has been put down on virtual paper in Wikipedia. Right? You can't argue against that. That is a fact!

- No. I argue against that.

- The sister projects also have a big reach that they have to cover -- wikispecies, wikiquotes, wikiversity.

- But I think that's one of the fallacies of the wikiprojects -- that you can suddenly turn to these people who are interested in writing about Pokemon and sex acts and cartoons and Naruto and say "now, take the time that you had, and start making a taxonomy of human life". No -- you just can't do that, because they're not interested in it. Or "come in and write definitions".

- It's because those people who were interested in those things were the first to arrive, the first adopters of Wikipedia. But millions of people out there -- think of the academics in religious studies. They haven't caught on to this yet, they haven't come to this. When the baby boomers all start retiring and have the time to actually edit Wikipedia, and they know it and they're used to the idea, they'll fill out all their stuff. There are whole areas that aren't nearly as covered as Naruto and molecular biology, and we're all aware of that. It doesn't mean that we're nearly finished, and we don't need to take those people who were on Naruto and divert them onto this new topic. There's lots more to be done.

- Well, I think there's more to be done. I'm not sure there's lots more to be done, that's the thing.

- There's heaps more -- we've just scratched the surface.

- No, I think we're 80% done with the surface (laughs). The sum of human knowledge is a finite thing, right? It's growing, but it's finite.

- No! No!

- What about the articles that'll happen about future events, crazy kids who have parties and get themselves arrested and stuff like that?

- But then that becomes current events, keeping up with the headlines. And that's my passion, I love writing articles about current events as a role in history of what's going on, but if we have 2-point-some million articles now, do you see it being 20 million articles in five years?

- Yes!

- You do? I actually don't.

- What else is there to write about?

- We're seeing the top of the S-curve already, Liam! We've already done podcasts about this. We're hitting the top of the S-curve, you can see that in the statistics. You can't make it to 20 million in five years given the curve we see now.

- Tell me in five years. Tell me the same thing in five years.

- Alright; this is a virtual handshake.

- You can't be the patent office man and say, "i know what's going to happen in the future". I can't tell you which articles haven't been made, because they haven't been made yet.

- The difference is that with patents, with creating inventions, that's synthesis. It's creating new things out of elements that you have right now. If you're talking about the sum of all human knowledge, that's a very different enterprise. You're documenting what is known in the known world. It's finite, but it's growing -- but it's not growing at the exponential rate all the time, it's not infinitely growing in exponential ways.

- But you're assuming that the only way wikipedia would grow is by adding new articles.

- Well, it has to, unless you think that the cat article should grow from five pages to ten pages to 20 pages to fifty pages.

- Or we get more loose with our standards and we allow every single thing ever to become an article.

- Quantity does not equal quality.

- I agree with you somewhat and I think there's going to be a new type of article. You already have articles about africa, then you have articles about the economics of africa; and then you're going to have comparisons of african economics to blah blah blah, or "the evolution of african economics through history". So you're going to have some "analysis" articles that are growing --

- -- precisely. Precisely.

- Those type of things might grow, but those are tougher to write. And that's why I think the growth will be somewhat limited.

- They'll be tougher to write and they'll be slower to write, but they're just as important!

- I agree.

- If not more important. We've got the article on africa, and we've got the article on cat, but we haven't got the article on all types of variants in the history of the cat, or the economy of africa, or whatever.

- We'll have a special gambling episode where we all bet on how much we think it's going to grow in the future. There used to be a pool on wikipedia that predicted when we're going to hit 1 million, 5 million, etc. I think it's still around, and we should take a look at that.

- And not just there was a page called the "millionth article pool", which was not just when it was but what that article would be entitled. (laughter)

- There's also the final article pool. (laughter)

- The final article pool. What is the last article in wikipedia going to be about?

- 42!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner: "Jimmy has never used Wikimedia money to subsidize his personal expenditures."

Danny Wool: "This questionable use of Foundation funds stopped in 2006, largely because Jimbeau's credit card was taken away. I do not believe, nor do I have any reason to believe, that it is continuing. If Jimbeau is still living the vida loca--and as you can imagine, he hardly keeps me posted--I have no reason to believe that it is at the Foundation's expense."

The Ballad of Jimmy Wales

So, the big news is that Wikipedia's celebrated founder, Jimmy Wales, had an "affair" with a conservative commentator (Rachel Marsden).

Juicy gossip, fading into boring intrigue (was his girlfriend's wikipedia article inappropriately edited? Quell horreur!). The real point is that Wales's aura is smeared with dirt, so insiders who would otherwise have been ignored can share stuff that's actually concerning.

Former treasurer Danny Wool talks about the receipts Jimmy sent back to Wikimedia for reimbursement:

Subway ticket in Moscow: $0.50. Massage parlor in Moscow: priceless. Some were accepted; others were not, like the $650 spent on two bottles of wine during a dinner for four at Bern's—I remember that one because he submitted it twice, once with the tip scratched out. I wonder if the students who gave up their lunch money to donate to Wikipedia would have approved of that expense. In the end he reached a deal with Brad [Brad Patrick, former foundation lawyer] —details unknown—and paid the Foundation about $7000 in two checks. I don't know what happened with the rest, but the checks can be found in the list of donors.

I remember how, in Mexico City, Bono explained to us how the band leaves the arena after a concert by running through a long plastic tunnel stretching from the stage to their limos. "I need one of those," Jimbeau responded, "because I am like a rockstar too."

Ouch. That's, um, not going to encourage donations. (Update: even if the allegations are false or obsolete.)

Before we raise the pitchforks, though, step back a second.

Jimmy's story is interesting and strange. He was a standard california entrepreneur in the first dot-com boom, running a sort of low-brow portal called Bomis. In the anything-goes atmosphere of the boom, he decided to start a web encyclopedia (Nupedia).

Then he and the guy he hired to edit the encyclopedia (Larry Sanger) thought up a tiny publicly-editable mini-encyclopedia to act as an incubator for nupedia: Wikipedia.

Wales and Sanger have fought bitterly over who gets credit, but this is worth underscoring in boldface magic marker: neither Sanger nor Wales had any idea that Wikipedia would even be robust enough to become a stand-alone project — let alone a successful project, let alone one of the most popular websites in the world (and a new form of social organization to boot). It was just a little gadgety spinoff for their business, a silly idea like thousands that people come up with in brainstorming.

Imagine if your boss said, "hey Ben, why don't we upload that smiley-face generator you made, maybe it'll draw some traffic". And then 5 years later it's grown into the biggest website in the world, and there's a whole society of smiley-face adherents, and a smiley-face school of art, with museum exhibitions and gallery openings and skinny hipsters drinking pabst, all of them centered on your creation.

That's what happened to Jimmy Wales.

I think Jimmy, being a web entrepreneur, realized that thousands of ideas like Wikipedia had been tried — different permutations of user-editable content dating back to the beginning of the web, all of which ran into speedbumps and fatal flaws at one point or another. He realized that the holy spark wasn't the act of using wikis, but the combination of wiki and encyclopedia, which spoke deeply to aspects of human nature like the construction of knowledge.

That was an important insight — a vital insight. It's the reason he didn't drive wikipedia into the ground (make no mistake, it could have happened). Jimmy's ceaseless talk about peace, love, and knowledge went right to the center of the human instincts that allow wikipedia to function and in themselves keep the demons at bay. He realized that Wikipedia is an inherently utopian endeavor. (People don't spend hours cleaning vandalism for nothing.)

And all of those things are true even if, in sustaining wikipedia's mythology, Jimmy's ultimate aim was pussy, and even if, after he'd given up ownership of Wikipedia, he cashed in his mystique for a giant hot tub filled with caviar.*

When studying anything big that hasn't been around forever — the U.S., animal life, Wikipedia — everyone wants to hone in on first mute instant, the tiny speck of time when it all began.

It's like in high school history, when you spend a year learning about the pilgrims — and it's boring, because nothing happened in 17th century america**, because there was nobody there. There are more people in my town than there were citizens of the 13 colonies, and students don't spend a semester talking about Ann Arbor.

In Wikipedia's case, the moment of conception was just another day in an officepark, and the flourescent lights were just as neutral as they always are. The real amazing stuff happened when people started editing articles together.

* Though it might explain the murmurs that the board was trying to push him out a couple years ago.

** There were native americans before smallpox, but we didn't talk much about them.