Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part Two)

26 September, 2011 at 18:51 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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The following is the second part in a series of essays, which ellaborate my talk on Wikimania 2011. The first article is here.

Heated debates are not about the facts but rather on how to present them

Five cartoon images in various colors sitting or leaning on the Wikipedia puzzle-globe, engaged in deep reflections

Quo Vadis, Wikipedia?

How to call Ireland?

Looking at some of the heated debates on the English-language Wikipedia reveals that facts are never the core of such debates, but rather the way they should be presented. For example, in December 2008, the debate about Ireland culminated. The issue at stake had nothing to do with actual facts about this northeast Atlantic island, its people or the two geopolitical units on its land. Rather, the controversy was about how to name the articles about Ireland. With the name “Ireland” being used in the English language (and most other languages) in both political and geographical contexts, and considering the conflict that affected the island for several decades in the recent past, it is not surprising that the right way to present the facts about the island is a matter of controversy. It is not unusual to have polysemies like this, and there are simple ways to overcome them, especially with a flexible tool like a Wiki system (the software infrastructure upon which Wikipedia is built), but here, the decades old conflict reflects on the work of the Wikipedians. They can agree about the facts, they cannot agree on how to present them.

Is it “pro-life” or “anti-abortion”?

A similar case is the set of articles about abortion. In August 2011 the bitter debate about the articles on the English-language Wikipedia dealing with the termination of pregnency reached the “Arbitration Committee”. No one argues about the facts presented in the article or about the method in which they were collected. The controversy is about whether to call the movement that objects abortions “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” (see here and here) and whether the article about abortion should include this image of  a ten weeks old live fetus inside a uterus which was removed from a 44-old woman (for pure medical reasons, in this specific case, according to the photograph’s uploader). The lead of articles is often a matter of harsh debates, and this case is no exception. While Wikipedia is committed to fairly present all significant views about a subject, the lead is often perceived as if presenting the prevailing or most valid view. It is probably also assumed that many people read the lead and disregard the details that follow. Here, a question was raised several times whether the process should be described as “causing the death [of a fetus or embryo]” or “causing the termination [of a pregnancy]”. Once again we see that the facts are in consensus. It is how to present them that causes the controversy. 

English-language Wikipedia’s mechanism of conflict resolution 

At this point, and before moving ahead in my analysis, it might be worth while to shed some light on one of the ways in which the English-language Wikipedia resolves conflicts. In this partial overview, I will address one of the more recently developed methods, which seems to have gained prominence quite quickly. More details can be found in one of the excellent articles and presentations about Wikipedia written by Ayelet Oz. One of her peresentations about this subject is available on the Wikimania 2009 website.

Arbitration Committee: Popular idea that fails in most cases

 The English-language Wikipedia has an “Arbitration Committee” to which Wikipedians appeal when they think their debates with other Wikipedians have reached a dead end. The appeals are either against alleged misbehavior of another Wikipedian, or about a certain topic, at the center of one or several article, which seems too controversial. This whole system is quite peculiar. The Arbitration Committee is not supposed and usually not expected to act as an editorial board or a fact-checking committee. They actually act as a court of law judging where Wikipedia’s procedures of editing went wrong. The committee is supposed to offer remedies that would bring the procedures back on track and move away the “blocking element” that prevents the normal flow of the debate, when it heads toward a solution.

The Arbitration Committee method has become very popular for various reasons, even though it fails in most cases. In most of the cases, the Committee ends the heated discussion by repeating the main principles of Wikipedia in a general language, and declaring the topic in question a danger zone, so to speak. This means that Wikipedia’s administrators have the right to be much less tolerant toward editors who wish to introduce changes to these articles. They would be able to punish them in various ways, or even ban them completely from editing on the English-language Wikipedia, if they deem their edits contentious.

Eventually, it is the politically motivated that are heard

The debates on the pages of the Arbitration Committee are open to all, but just in theory. First of all, you have to know such a committee exists. Then you have to read long pages of instructions and recommendations. Filing a request or commenting on an open case improperly can have unpleasant consequences if you wish to keep editing the English-language Wikipedia. The structure of the debates and their languages is a mixture of debating club sessions and juristic discussions. You have to be very acquainted with this structure, as well as the language and jargon in order to have a say in the arbitration process. Finally, you need to have a lot of time and dedication. These debates are long, tiring and often frustrating. In real life, we often hire lawyers to do this kind of works for us. Here you have to do it all by yourself. Those who have political interest in the phrasing of the certain article in question, are usually those who have the motivation to make the time and effort, and they are the ones who will be heard. Those who have an innocent wish to contribute some of their knowledge will give up.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part One)

20 September, 2011 at 19:28 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 3 Comments
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Notes These are the first few paragraphs of an article I write about the concept behind the editing of Wikipedia and how it has changed. I will publish the next ones shortly. In the mean time, comments are welcome. Please note that this is a draft, so it might include mistakes or inaccuracies. If you find one and would like to correct me – I’d be grateful.

The three principles of Wikipedia

Wikipedia's puzzle piece stands between Veritas, the goddess of Truth, and the Mouth of Truth, which she holds in her hand.

Veritas, the Mouth of Truth and Wikipedia

Wikipedia has three basic rules to govern its editing policy, namely Neutral Point Of View (commonly known as NPOV), Verifiability and No Original Research (commonly known as No OR). The first rule, which, for many years, was also considered the most important one, was NPOV. The other two were added during the early stages of Wikipedia’s emergence. No hierarchy was set for these three rules. Perhaps they were considered harmonious, and in some respect they are indeed. For example, the “No OR” rule caters for neutrality and verfiability by screening out new analyses and views that were not subject to thorough examination and criticism, hence, are likely to be unreliable or biased politically, commercially, ideologically or otherwise. The Verifiability rule requires that every statement be attributed to a certain person or body, so that controversial statements would not be presented as commonly accepted facts.

And yet, quite often do these three rules contradict one another. For example, in case a place or a phenomenon have two names, each of which carries some political or emotional meaning. In such cases, using any of these names harms the NPOV principle, while inventing a new neutral one is a violation of the “No OR” rule. Most of the examples for this problem come from the field of geopolitical conflicts. Is it “the Malvinas” or “Falkland Islands“? Should the leading name be “the West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria”? Is this port city on the Baltic Sea called “Danzig” or “Gdansk“? In the latter case, Wikipedians on the English-language Wikipedia debated for months and eventually developed a scheme matching between periods in the city’s history and the appropriate name to be used in the certain context. They figured that neutrality would be better served if the city be called “Danzig” when referring to it in the time between the two world wars (for example) and as Gdansk in the post-World War II era. Such a solution would be futile for the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and for the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, since the conflict is ongoing and any choice could be interpreted as siding with one of the parties.

The term “massacre” is sometimes used to denote events that did not involve mass killing. The Boston Massacre in 19770 is a good example. The loss of lives is regrettable ofcourse, and yet the number of people killed is not considered a massacre by commonplace standards. The name “Boston Massacre” is, however, the name by which this event has come to be known, and after so many years, and after time healed most of the wounds, no one really cares  any longer about the title given to this event. This, however, is not the case with recent events, especially those which still have political, emotional or ideological significance.

Sometimes, even using or rejecting a certain terminology in an article about seemingly innocent subject might be problematic in terms of NPOV. Is Pluto a “planet” or a “dwarf planet”? You may ask, who cares, but I won’t be surprised if this issue touches sensitive nerves in the astronomical community. If you are in the business of Linguistics, think of terms like “pro drop” versus “null subject”. The two describe the same phenomenon. The former is a Generative Linguistic term that assumes the existence of an abstract “pro” element in certain languages. Linguists who reject the Generative (Chonskian) theory might frown upon such a title for an article about what they prefer to call “null subject”. In all of these cases, you cannot satisfy both neutrality and the “no original research” principles.

Problems exist anywhere. If they are not too harsh, they make our life more interesting. The issue here is not whether Wikipedia encounters problems. Sure it does. It is bound to encounter problems. The question is how Wikipedia resolves these problems, and more generally, what is the new concept (if any) behind its editing policy. Such concept is, and will always be, reflected in the way Wikipedia solve such contradictions as the ones I mentioned above.

There is another principle, never formulated explicitly but very much present, especially in the early days of Wikipedia. This is the principle of collaborative work. Now, most of our lives we work with other people and cooperate with them. There is no other way to live, let alone build projects. But Wikipedia, especially after its inception, presented the idea of building a systematic corpus of knowledge without a strict blueprint or editorial line, but rather by constant productive negotiation among the various editors. This constant negotiation was supposed to be the solution, or at least one of the major solutions, to the abovementioned problems. Productive negotiation would highlight the points on which all agree, single out the controversial issues and lead to an accepted decision on how to present the controversies fairly. This concept is somewhat utopic, and in my humble opinion, it indeed failed. However, I also believe it was not given much chance. Wikipedia took a sharp turn and adopted a different concept before a system of real collaborative work could evolve.

TO BE CONTINUED

Second Wikimania report: The issue of language in Global South outreach

13 August, 2011 at 06:47 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Wikipedia policy | 1 Comment
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This is my second account of insights I have had following talks and discussions at Wikimania 2011 in Haifa, Israel.

New terms, old problems

language variety on cadbury's choc

Language is knowledge (Image by nofrills via Flickr)

Just to make things clear, the term “Global South” is equivalent to what we used to call “developing countries” or “the third world”. While I can understand why people are uncomfortable with the former terms, the new term seems too ambiguous. Imagine that we look for an alternative term for “ice”. First we come up with “water in a bad temperature state”, but who said cold is bad? So, we replace that term with “potentially liquid water”. When we realize that this term also implies the wrong attitude, we decide to call it “thing to be found at the South Pole”. So be it.

Why add a language barrier to a technological gap?

During the discussions about how to reach out to people in the Global South countries (particularly sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent), the question of language kept rising. Many people argued that we must provide people with free content materials in their own mother tongues. While this sounds very reasonable, especially for someone like me who comes from a culture that fosters the use of local languages, people in the Global South seem to prefer a different approach. As far as I could understand from people who had been to these countries, and from occasional talks with people who live there, the idea of having education in a European language (usually English, French or Portuguese, depending on the country’s history) rather than in one mother’s tongue is taken to be the right strategy, as it has many advantages. In a multilingual country it ensures one egalitarian educational system to all children, and it provides them with a nationwide lingua franca. It helps them to seek higher education in the universities of Europe an North America, or at least allow them to access to the educational and cultural material provided by these countries, which, like it or not, are today the center of the world.

In fact, the experience that Wikimedia Israel and the Ben Gurion University‘s Africa Center had in Santchou, Cameroon, proves exactly that – while there is a technological gap which people from Cameroon, Israel, Switzerland and other countries strove to level by providing offline versions of Wikipedia, there was no language barrier, as school children and adults can easily read the French-language Wikipedia, which has been enjoying contributions from Francophones all over the world. Why have extra barriers, when you are already coping with a serious one?

Writing in your own language is sharing linguistic knowledge with the rest of the world

And yet, developing free content projects (e.g. Wikipedias and Wiktionaries, and also non-Wikimedia free-content projects) in African, Indic and other local  languages,  is by no means redundant. The flow of knowledge must be bidirectional from the “Global North” to the “Global South” but also vice versa. Language is knowledge. The very structure of a language, its vocabulary, its semantic fields, the way it constructs words and phrases, is an invaluable corpus of knowledge. People who speak lesser-known languages must write in these languages, because they have to share this human knowledge with the the people “up north”.

So, even if you are educated in a European language and happy with that, and even if you can do with the English, French, Portuguese or Spanish Wikipedias or whatever other free-content project, you still have the obligation to share your linguistic knowledge with the rest of mankind, and the simplest way to do it is to write in your own native tongue.

First Wikimania report: Achal R. Prabhala’s project: “People are Knowledge”

9 August, 2011 at 10:35 | Posted in Collaborative work, Israeli-Arab conflict, knowledge, Web 2.0, Wiki systems, Wikipedia policy | 3 Comments
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Achal Prabhala speaks to the group

Achal R. Prabhala, image via Wikipedia

It has been a long intensive week of fascinating events and this time,  this enchanted intellectual and social experience landed at home. Well, almost. I’m not a Haifa guy, rather a Tel Aviv one. To be more precise, I’m from a southeastern suburb of Tel Aviv, which makes me a “Tel Aviv wannabe”. Anyway, I came to know Haifa in the past several months and it is a beautiful well organized city. Tel Aviv has a lot to learn from Haifa.

I’m talking of course about Wikimania 2011, the annual Wikimedia conference that ended two days ago. My job at the organizing team was relatively minor, and yet I do feel part of this great success. Luckily there is plenty of pride to share… Pride is often said to be a sin, but in this case we truly worked hard for it, and the fact that people enjoyed and enriched themselves through this conference fuels this pride, so let’s allow it at least for the time being.

This year I served as an organizer, a presenter and a participant. It was way too optimistic and ambitious to think that I can play all these roles in one single conference, so actually I missed many interesting presentations. I gave three rather brief talks about Wikimedia Israel’s cooperation with the Africa Center of the Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, a cooperation that brought offline versions of the French-language Wikipedia to rural regions in Cameroon and Benin, and also about the flaws in the current editing system of Wikipedia and how they came to be (in my opinion). I also had many interesting talks at the conferences’ lounges and during its parties and tours. As for the “formal” schedule, I am waiting to see the video films of the presentations.

I will publish more information about the ideas raised in the conference, especially about issues related to my presentations and the topics I am interested in. In the meantime, I strongly recommend this film by Achal R. Prabhala, a veteran Wikimedian from India. He presented this film during Wikimania 2011, and I admire this initiative of his (and him personally): “People are Knowledge“. You can also read Noam Cohen’s report about Achal’s presentation.

Suska Döpp from Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR, West German Broadcasting) interviewed me about the Israeli-Arab conflict as it reflects on Wikipedia. It is not the first time I am interviewed about this issue, but Suska Döpp did a wonderful job and produced a concise straight-to-the-point report. Unfortunately my German is very basic, so I had to read it with machine translation and some help from German-speaking friends. Other reports about Wikimania and Wikipedia from WDR are available in this link.

Dostor-Wiki – A very modest attempt to “wikify” the Egyptian revolution

1 July, 2011 at 09:53 | Posted in Arab spring, Collaborative work, Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems | 3 Comments
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The "Dahd" maze on the web

The "Dahd" maze on the web (the "Dahd" letter is a symbol of the Arabic language and its speakers; image via Wikipedia)

The Arabic-language Wikipedia has a mailing list, in which some very interesting information is occasionally exchanged. The mailing list is public, and yet Modern Standard Arabic, despite being the language of some 20 countries, an official UN language, and used by more than 250 million people (at least to some extent), is still considered a “secret language”, unintelligible by people who enjoy rain in August…

By the way, this is an opportunity to warn all of you who carry their umbrellas well into July, that Wikipedia has two Arabic versions – the bigger more established one is ar-wp, which is in Modern Standard Arabic (a.k.a Fuśħa “the purer language”), the other one, arz-wp is written in Egyptian Arabic (a.k.a. Maśri, which is in fact the dialect of Cairo, Alexandria and the surroundings). Egyptian Arabic is the language you would probably hear in dialogs of Arab films and plays, but its use as a written language is still controversial, so many Egyptian Wikipedians prefer to write on ar-wp rather than on arz-wp.

Egyptian Wikipedians to establish Wiki project for collaboratively writing new Egyptian constitution

In a recent thread on the Arabic-Wikipedia mailing list, one of the Wikipedians suggested opening a Wiki project for drafting the new Egyptian constitution. This project is not supposed to be related to Wikimedia, but he tried to recruit people to the mission through the Wikimedia mailing lists (after all, this is where you would find a large group of Wiki-system enthusiasts).

Hello people,

This message has been sent to two mailing lists, that of the working group of the Arab celebrations for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary and that of the Arabic Wikipedia.

I came to know a person who encouraged me to undertake the idea of a Wiki for the Egyptian constitution, so that the Egyptians use the Web for writing a constitution collaboratively. We could bring forth a draft (or drafts) to the Egyptian constitution, as the Egyptians think it should be. I liked this idea a lot and became very enthusiastic about it. I was also encouraged by the fact that the brothers in Tunisia had already started such a Wiki for the Tunisian constitution, about three months ago, and it was very successful.

What do you think? Who should take part?

As this Wikipedian said, the idea is not new. In fact, he himself mentioned the Tunisian Wiki project – destour.org  – last March, which made me curious enough to look at it and report about it in the general mailing list of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The reactions to the idea were very welcoming, and a temporary website was soon set by another veteran Egyptian Wikipedians. A special domain name was later registered – dostorwiki.org – leading to the same temporary website. Dostor or Destour, by the way, is the Arabic word for “constitution”. There is not much to read on this website at this point, even if you can read Arabic (and by the way, it is Modern Standard Arabic, this is a political revolution, not a linguistic one…) And yet, as someone pointed out in a response to my report to the general mailing list, and another person, in a respond to the recent discussion on the Arabic mailing list, Google groups for the purpose of collaboratively drafting the new Egyptian constitution have already been established. These are the two mentioned in the aforementioned mailing-list messages:

http://www.google.com/moderator/?hl=ar#15/e=581e0&t=581e0.40&f=581e0.1501bd

https://groups.google.com/group/dostorna

Some of the debates on these groups seem quite naïve. For example, an article currently brought  to a virtual vote says “Limiting working hours to prevent abuse of workers. Setting a clear system for extra hours, and improving working conditions and salaries. Providing official bodies that would look into complaints within the shortest time”. There is also an invitation to a “real life” meeting about the status of women under the new regime and how it can be improved.

The “good guys” are always a step behind

So, do we witness a real Web 2.00-induced revolution in Egypt? I doubt it. Most of the Egyptians do not have access to this new medium, and it is well reflected in the relatively small number of participants, and the fact that almost all of them come from the same background more or less. And yet, even if the Internet became the new medium of communication of Egypt, and even if we adopt the assumption that Wiki systems and Google groups allow debates which are more democratic than those held in other media, at the end of the day, it is not the medium that makes the revolution. Iran uses the Internet as a main medium of communication, and yet the abundance of Iranian blogs, forums and FaceBook accounts did not make the recent protests there successful. The Iranian regime quickly learned how to control this new medium. Also, what we currently hear and read on Egyptian websites is a lot of antisemitic and anti-Israeli commentaries and conspiracy theories.

The Islamist movement of the Muslim Brothers has been using Media-Wiki systems to spread their propaganda for several years now. Here is one example called in Arabic “The Wikipedia of the Muslim Brothers” or “Ikhwan-Wiki” in English. Jihadist web-forums in Arabic teaching people how to carry out terrorist attacks are also hardly new. The “bad guys” are always one step ahead.

There is an Egyptian FaceBook group called “I am the first volunteer to the Egyptian Army in case of a declaration of war against Israel“. 141,950 people “liked” this group. Surely not all of them fully understand the idea behind this group, but still, comparing this number to the number of participants in those Wiki and Google projects is depressing. There is an Egyptian website which translates reports and articles from the Hebrew press into Arabic and adds harsh anti-Israeli propaganda to them, occasionally also hideous anti-Semitic essays. The talkbacks are always supportive. No criticism is heard below these writings.

So the future does not look too promising. The new medium is there, its use is often inspiring, but those who make positive use of it are still quite scarce. On the other hand, we should seize and encourage every sign of hope, shouldn’t we?

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