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

Parallel “online” and “real world” Egyptian revolutions, or Wikipedia’s Tahrir Square

25 June, 2011 at 15:36 | Posted in Arab spring, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 7 Comments
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Illustration: PC-keyboard with arab letters, fotographed by ...

Keyboard revolutionists (Image via Wikipedia)

For the initial discussion of this subject see here.

The article about the Egyptian Revolution on 25 January 2011 is an example on how the editing of Wikipedia is sometimes used for sheer political interests. Of course, the events themselves are worthy of a Wikipedia article, no doubt about this, but the way the article was initiated and written demonstrates a serious problem in the editing policy, which allows users to promote events and opinions through Wikipedia rather than merely documenting and reporting about them, as the encyclopedic nature of the project requires.

The 25-January protests were planned at least a week in advance, mainly through FaceBook groups (see Is Egypt About to Have a Facebook Revolution?, by Abigail Hauslohner, reporting from Cairo for Time Magazine, 24 January, 2011), but these protests did not become a real actual event before around noon (Cairo time) on Tuesday, 25 January 2011 (see this news blog on the Guardian‘s website), when thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demonstrate.

The first version of the Wikipedia article about the demonstrations was uploaded on 25 January 2011 at 13:26 UTC (i.e. 15:36 Cairo time), by an editor who calls himself “The Egyptian Liberal“. Hence, the protests were “perpetuated” as a Wikipedia article 3-4 hours after they had been launched, and only an hour or two after their real extent could have been realized. Interestingly enough, only the English Wikipedia had an article about the protests at this point in time. Other major Wikipedias followed suit only about 24 hours after the onset of the events, and when their magnitude was already realized. The first few sentences of the Arabic-language equivalent (on ar-wp) were recorded about seven hours after the demonstrations started, by the same user who initiated the English-language article, and the Egyptian-Arabic Wikipedia (arz-wp) started its own version only on 28 January.

In fact, “The Egyptian Liberal”, who also has an account on Wikimedia Commons (Wikimedia’s media file repository), prepared the ground for them in advance, when he uploaded on the 24th of January some political cartoons calling on Egyptians to overthrow Hosni Mubarak on the 25th of January (see here and here for examples; the caricatures also depict the face of Khaled Mohammed Saeed, an Egyptian youth who died in June 2010 following his arrest while surfing the Internet, and whose birthday was on the 27th of January). Unlike Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Commons website, which is supposed to serve other Wikimedia projects, allows the upload of purely political images providing they are free-licensed.

Going back to the article about the recent Egyptian unrest on the English Wikipedia, its first version is short, but includes relatively advanced Wiki syntax. It would be fair to assume that this stub was prepared in advance, because the upload process lasted only one minute. The second version, by the same user, brought the article to its full initial shape. A single Egyptian user (he voluntarily revealed his identity) expanded the article for about two and a half hours. Within this period of time he made 14 edits, i.e. an edit every 10 minutes, in average. From the third edit onwards he merely added updates and journalistic references. In fact, he acted as a journalist rather than writer of encyclopedic article.

The person behind these first versions of the article, namely “The Egyptian Liberal” is somewhat mysterious, despite waiving his “Wikipedian right” for privacy. He offers quite a lot of details about himself, according to which he is English-Arabic bilingual by birth, he lives in the center of Egypt and defines his political-ethnic-religious affiliation as Pan-Arabist, Muslim and liberal. He is quite veteran on the English language Wikipedia, having edited articles since September 2009. In one of the older versions of his userpage he mentions that he started editing Wikipedia much earlier, but under a different username. Following the link to the allegedly alternative userpage shows a statement that the user has an intermediate level of English, which is contrary to the newer allegation that this editor is bilingual.

Anyone can suggest any kind of lesson to draw out of this interesting, somewhat amusing, Wikipedia affair. Many newspapers prepare reports about upcoming events in advance, in order to publish them as soon as the event occurs. I know about one case where a duty editor was fired, having accidentally uploaded a ready-made report about the happy ending of an event, seconds before that event ended in a tragedy. The poor editor removed the wishful-thinking report immediately, but it was intercepted by one of the news website’s readers who decided to go public with his outrage…

But Wikipedia is not a newspaper and the motivation here is not time saving or improving business efficiency. In this case the motivation is political and ideological, and the idea is to use Wikipedia for influencing the public opinion. There is an assumption here about average reader of Wikipedia, as if s/he attaches special significance to events described by the online encyclopedia. Whether this assumption is true or not, I cannot tell, but I do feel that Wikipedia is the new scene of “manufacturing consents“. This political process, described by Noam Chomsky, basically aims at limiting the public debate by instilling the notion that certain views and positions are inevitable. In this case – the fall of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt is a fait accompli even before the actual protests started. It is not as if it should fall, it has already fallen, and we have Wikipedia to prove it.

It has indeed fallen eventually, but who is going to remember that Wikipedia played a role in this Egyptian revolution rather than describing it after its completion.

A Tale of a Tub on Wikipedia, or from the Heights of Golan to Wikipedia’s Lowest Point

31 October, 2010 at 16:45 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Some are still left on the Golan Heights, some are being planted on Wikipedia - Beware of the mines. (Image by Randall Niles via Flickr)

Some are still left on the Golan Heights, some are being planted on Wikipedia - Beware of the mines. (Image by Randall Niles via Flickr)

Anonymous user introduces changes to the article about the Golan Heights

An anonymous user, known only by his IP, enters the English-language Wikipedia and makes some edits to the article about the Golan Heights (a geographical region of disputed sovereignty that straddles the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria). The changes are not too radical.  The term “occupied”, which entails support to the Syrian position is changed to the more neutral “administered”, the politically-charged term “settlements” is replaced by “post-1967 communities”. The words “Internationally recognized as Syrian territory occupied by Israel” are toned down to “Administered by Israel, claimed by Syria, subject to UN Security Council’s resolutions 242 and 338”. Whether or not you like the new phrasing, the edits are quite in line with Wikipedia’s policy known as “Neutral Point of View”, namely that Wikipedia does not take sides in disputes, and accurately describes the facts on the ground (the Golan Heights are under regular Israeli civil administration since 1981).

An editor fond of controversial topics intervenes and reverts

The edits are naturally contested, some of them maybe rightfully. The term “post-1967 community” does sound a bit enigmatic, and perhaps settlement is the preferable term here. The user who quickly reverts the edits is “Unomi“. Unomi is an interesting figure on the Wikipedian scene. He is relatively new to the English Wikipedia (since March 2009), although he claims to have been using the nickname “Unomi” on Wikimedia projects for several years. He is very much concerned about the ambiguity of Wikipedia’s policies and lack of neutrality, and indeed most of his edits are on controversial topics. He also contributes quite a lot on Middle East-related articles and usually sides the pro-Arab line in the description of the Middle Eastern conflict.

Two pro-Arab advocates end the discussion

Even though “Unomi” is an eloquent mouthpiece of a certain view of the Middle-Eastern conflict, he seems to have found an equal rival. The debate between the user identified by his IP address and Unomi gets longer and longer, several users even support the anonymous user’s edits. “Nableezy” and “Supreme Deliciousness” soon come to the rescue. These two users are Wikipedia’s worst nightmare. They have no interest in free content or free access to knowledge. They sensed the reputation Wikipedia enjoys as being comprehensive and impartial source of information (well, that’s the reputation, you’ll be the judges whether or not it is justified). Both Nableezy and Supreme Deliciousness are political advocates that realized that the introduction of their political perspective into Wikipedia worths thousands of articles in blogs and newspapers. Of course Wikipedia has some mechanism to make their work hard, but they diligently learned how to manipulate the system. When all fails, they resort to blocking. Look at this dialog from RolandR’s talk page (a personal page dedicated for posting messages to a certain editor). RolandR, by the way, is a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist, so he has a common language with “Supreme Deliciousness” and “Nableezy”. The former is an obsessive reader of Israeli sources in English, and he informs RolandR that he was mentioned in some talkback on an Israeli English-language website. Nableezy then raises the issue of how to “eliminate” the anonymous user that makes edits to the Golan Heights article. The solution is easy – alleging that he is a “sock puppet” of yours humbly (DrorK is my username on Wikipedia).

The cabal convenes

You are mentioned

  • Hello, just wanted to make you aware that you were mentioned by the first poster in the comments section in this news article:[1] —Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 09:45, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Thank you. It’s clearly more of the same harassment I have encountered on- and off-Wikipedia for several years now; it doesn’t bother me. These juveniles are wasting their time, but at least this keeps them out of mischief. RolandR (talk) 21:19, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • What harassment have you encountered off-Wikipedia? –Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 21:27, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • The same person who stalks me on Wikipedia has created an offensive blog about me, and has sent countless comments in my name to loads of internet forums and blogs, trying to smear me as an antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab terrorist with homoerotic and anal fantasies. It says more about him than about me. Most websites (even thoise unsympathetic to my political views) delete them on sight. If you email me, I can tell you more; I don’t want to give more details here. RolandR (talk) 21:43, 19 August 2010 (UTC)

Return of Drork?

  • Hi Roland, I wasnt around when most of the IPs Drork was using were brought to SPI, but what do you think the chances are that this IP is another sock of Drork? nableezy – 06:37, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • I don’t think so. The IP is in the same range as several of Drork’s blocked socks; but these seem to be assigned to Bezeq, so many editors in Israel could be usiung them. Drork never edited the Golan article, and the style of argument does not sound like him. It is reminiscent, though, and I will see if I can recall who it reminds me of. RolandR (talk) 11:16, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Drork edited that article, see here where the same argument over “settlement” is made. Or here where a “retired” Drork edits as an IP and makes the argument that “occupied” cannot possibly be an accurate or neutral description (collapsed section on that page), a continuation of this (also collapsed). nableezy – 12:52, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Oh, I missed that. You may be right; but the tone and obsessions do not seem the same as Drork’s. Certainly no smoking gun there, as far as I can see. RolandR (talk) 13:00, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Im not sure either. The arguments over “occupied” and “settlement” have a Drork taste to them, but a lot of people are opposed to using those words. Combined with other factors such as a clear familiarity with wiki syntax though this is clearly not a “new” editor. nableezy – 13:14, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • I’m sure of that. But proving it is another matter. RolandR (talk) 13:20, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Drork returned some days ago on wikimedia [2] –Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 17:52, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
Final remarks

All the information given above, including the conversation from RolandR’s talk page, is available to anyone through Wikipedia and its mirror sites. All users I have mentioned could have been great contributors to Wikipedia had they come with a genuine objective to enrich this source of knowledge. In fact, they are all very diligent and possess information and perspective that I, as well as many other people, could benefit from. However, they do not care much about enriching Wikipedia. They have a political battle to fight, and Wikipedia is just another mean to carry on this fight. Such conduct was a threat to Wikipedia from its very beginning. Right now, the project is unable to protect itself from this kind of conduct because there are many rules, but little spirit. When breaking trivial rules like avoiding more than two reverts in 24 hours becomes the most punishable offense, then it means that the basic ideas behind the project are forgotten and the door is open to all kinds of manipulators.

By the end of its first decade – Quo vadis Wikipedia?

18 October, 2010 at 07:06 | Posted in knowledge, Wikipedia policy | 1 Comment
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Five cartoon images in various colors sitting or leaning on the Wikipedia puzzle-globe, engaged in deep reflections (Drawing by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal, originally for the 5th anniversary of the Hebrew Wikipedia).

Quo Vadis, Wikipedia? (By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal, orig. for 5th anniv. of Hebrew Wikipedia)

Victim of its own success

Wikipedia is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. If you asked me, I would do without celebrations. A decade after its creation, Wikipedia needs most of all a profound self-examination. Wikipedia is actually a victim of its own success. It has become so popular so quickly, that it grew faster than its ability to steer itself efficiently toward its initial goals. You can think about it as a car speeding up to 200 km/h while its driver never expected anything beyond 30, or as a cargo ship being loaded with double the weight it was originally expected to carry. Success can turn into a curse unless handled with care. I am going to list some of Wikipedia’s crucial problems (in my humble opinion) and some suggested solutions.

Less bureaucracy, more transparency

Policing Wikipedia - When in doubt do without ...

When in doubt do without blocking (Image via Wikipedia)

Has anyone ever tried to read all the rules and guidelines that govern the work on Wikipedia? By size and complexity, the bylaws of the English-language Wikipedia resemble the code of law of a big province, or perhaps a small country. If it keeps growing, it would be recommendable to train special wiki-lawyers who would advise users about the legal consequences of their edits and defend them in trials. Don’t laugh, trials are already conducted on Wikipedia on a regular basis. There is an arbitration committee that functions like a tribunal, there are mechanisms for trying users for breaking rules. Remember, this project started with five pillars, the fifth of them stating “ignore all rules“. There is too much to “ignore” these days, and too many penalties to those who boldly follow this fifth pillar.

At the risk of sounding too romantic, I am going to cite Jimbo Wales’ Statement of Principles:

There must be no cabal, there must be no elites, there must be no hierarchy or structure which gets in the way of this openness to newcomers. Any security measures to be  implemented to protect the community against real vandals (and there are real vandals, who are already starting to affect us), should be implemented on the model of “strict scrutiny”.

These pages are hardly in line with the statement above: Editing Restrictions, General Sanctions. Here are some examples for cabals: WikiProject Palestine, WikiProject Israel (the former seems to be more efficient as a cabal, at least in recent time). Here are directions on how to apply for the elite of English-speaking Wikipedians: Guide to Requests for Adminship. It is slightly easier than applying for a US “Green Card”, but only slightly. Admins hold power that any “real world” judge in a democratic country could only dream of. And remember, there are mailing lists too.

Possible solutions
  • Abolish rules Reduce the number of rules to the minimum necessary.
  • Administrators – (i) Adminship should be restricted in time. (ii) An admin should reveal her/his real name, location and occupation – It is unethical to judge people hidden behind a mask. (iii) When in doubt do without blocking – “He seems a vandal to me, so I decided to block him” is not a legitimate justification.
  • Arbitration Committee should not produce new rules. It should accept requests for solutions to ad-hoc problems. It should deal with them in plain simple language and procedures. It should not impose restriction on users or define conditions for such restrictions.
  • Abolish “project pages”, these are nothing but substrate for cabal culturing. In general, redundant talk pages should be avoided. An article needs a talk page, a discussion page does not need a talk page for discussion about the discussion.

Excessive size and visibility

Perhaps the most crucial problem of Wikipedia these days, especially in Europe and the Americas, is excessive visibility. What seems to be a huge success (and it is, actually), is on the verge of becoming a curse. As I type this blog, links to Wikipedian articles pop in on my dashboard, suggesting I add them to my article. Seldom do I see non-Wikipedian link suggestions. The comprehensiveness and accessibility of Wikipedia is indeed very impressive, especially if we consider the fact that it is all the work of volunteers, but this is becoming too much and counter-productive. It reminds me of the time Israel had a single TV channel. When I said, I saw it on TV, it was obvious where I collected the information, and yet people rightfully complained that they want more TV channels in order to have more sources of televised information. Wikipedia was never meant to become a monopoly in the field of providing knowledge and information. Quite the contrary. The idea was to set Wikipedia as a model to more projects of free content. This is why the whole infrastructure of Wikipedia is code-free and free of charge. This is why Wikipedian activists enthusiastically try to convince institutions to publish their material under free license. People sometimes ask me, as a “veteran” Wikipedian, how to introduce their material to Wikipedia. I tell them to leave Wikipedia alone. If you have good stuff at your disposal, publish it under free license, or even better – release it to the public domain, put it on your own well-designed website, and let people read it there. If it is good enough you will become a source to Wikipedia, rather than becoming dependent on it.

Possible solutions
  • Play down the public relations for Wikipedia, it has had enough. Make Wikipedia more visible in places where people are still not very acquainted with it, like Africa, the Arab World and Eastern Asia, but in other parts of the world, it is free content and free access to sources of information that should be promoted rather than Wikipedia per se.
  • Encourage people to establish competitive projects. Wikipedia is not a commercial business, it can benefit from competition and should encourage it for the sake of its mission. Niche projects should especially be encouraged. People who are interested in a specific subject should be encouraged to start a new independent Wikipedia-like project about this specific project. This would also create smaller more consolidated groups of editors and reduce frictions and disputes among editors on Wikipedia itself.

TO BE CONTINUED

Continue Reading By the end of its first decade – Quo vadis Wikipedia?…

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