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

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Exploring basic bias on Wikipedia

13 September, 2010 at 07:02 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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An interesting way to examine the basic bias of editors in different Wikipedias toward a certain subject is to look at the initial edits of articles dealing with disputed issues. The first sentences of a new article resemble, in a way, a game of association. The initiator of the article tends to write the first things coming to he/his mind when he thinks about the subject. It is also interesting to see how long it takes before balancing information, or balancing changes to the phrasing, are introduced and how they are welcomed. In many cases

kineret

Sea of Galilee. Image by mprivoro via Flickr

such balancing information or edits are never introduced, and in some cases a fairly balanced text turns into biased one.

The followings are examples of initial edits of articles about certain subjects related to the Middle-East conflict from the Arabic Hebrew and English Wikipedia (all translated into English). Note – These are all obsolete versions currently found only in the “history” of the articles.

Jerusalem
Arabic Al-Quds is one of the biggest cities in Palestine, named Urshalim in the ancient scripts of the New Testament and the Torah. Its oldest remains go back to 3,000 before the Birth. Al-Quds is the most common name for Jerusalem among Arabic speakers. The use of Palestine could indicate non-recognition in Israel, but not necessarily.
Hebrew Yerushalayim is the capital of the State of Israel. It is one of the oldest cities in the world. The holiest city for Jews and Christians and third in sacredness to Muslims after Mecca and Medina. Yerushalayim is the Hebrew name for Jerusalem. The article seems to open with a political statement, though Jerusalem is indeed the Israeli seat of government. The remark about the status of Jerusalem in Islam might be an allusion to the Israeli-Arab conflict, but not necessarily.
English Jerusalem is a city straddling the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Prior to the 1967 War, Jerusalem was divided, with the Western half in Israel and the Eastern half in the West Bank. East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, and then in 1981 Israel declared the whole of Jerusalem to be its “eternal capital” and annexed East Jerusalem to Israel. This act however has not been recognized by the international community; therefore most countries have their diplomatic missions to Israel in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. The English text seems to be the most neutral; however it deals almost entirely with the political aspects of Jerusalem, rather than its geography or population, i.e. Jerusalem is perceived more as a “political problem” than an actual city.
Golan Heights
Arabic A Syrian land on the southwest part of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Israeli military managed to capture it and control it since the War of 1967. Israelis see great importance in controlling Hadbat al-Jawlan for its advantage in overlooking the State of Israel. It does not require more than standing on the edge of the plateau to cover the Israeli city of Tel Aviv with a naked eye, due to its height advantage. Hadbat al-Jawlan is the normal name for this region among Arabic speakers. The text includes an error – Tel Aviv is too distant from the Golan Heights to be seen from there in any way. Only political and military aspects are mentioned.
Hebrew Ramat Ha-Golan is a flat plateau located on the border between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli part of the plateau was captured from the Syrians in the Six Day War, then recaptured in the Yom Kippur War. Geographically speaking, the plateau is delineated in the west by a 1700m fall to the edge of the Kinneret and River Yarden. All geographical names used are the most common among Hebrew speakers. The political status of the region is described carefully. There is a geographical description of the region.
English The Golan Heights is a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. One of the territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights are currently under Israeli control, though claimed by Syria. Formed of volcanic rock it rises up to 1700 ft above the surrounding land, it drops off to the west to the Sea of Gallilee, the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, and to the south to the Yarmouk River. The Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret are two names for the same geographical entity. Mentioning them as separate entities is probably an error. It is unlikely that an Arab would use the name Kinneret.
Shabaa Farms
Arabic Shabaa Farms is a region at the southmost edge of Lebanon, within the official borders of Lebanon. The Zionist army refrained from handing it over to the government and state of Lebanon following the Israeli withdrawal from the south. The issue of the Shabaa Farms still triggers problems, opinions and discussions regarding the legitimacy of its occupation, while the Lebanese Arabs reject its remaining occupied and Hizbullah keeps public confrontation to liberate it. The official Lebanese-Syrian position is presented. There is no reference to the backstage conflict between Syria and Lebanon or to the UN position. The terms used when referring to Israel indicate non-recognition. The area itself and its population are not mentioned or described.
Hebrew The Shabaa Farms are at the border junction of Syria, Israel and Lebanon, between the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights and the Lebanese village of Shabaa. The region stretches on 25 sq km, 14 km long and 2.5 wide in average. The region’s height is 150-1880m. The land in this region is fertile and well-watered, and it used to include 14 farms growing barley, vegetables and fruits. The region is today under Israeli control, as it captured it from the Syrians in the Six Day War. The region was annexed to Israel in 1981 as part of the application of the Israeli law on the Golan Heights. The dispute over the region started in 2000 with the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the UN declaration that Israel had withdrawn completely from Lebanon. Hizbullah claimed that the Farms are Lebanese soil and saw them as a pretext to continue its attacks on Israel, despite the complete withdrawal.  Many international bodies asked Syria and Lebanon to All geographical names used are the most common among Hebrew speakers. The political status of the region is described carefully. There is a geographical description of the region.
English The Golan Heights is a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. One of the territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights are currently under Israeli control, though claimed by Syria. Formed of volcanic rock it rises up to 1700 ft above the surrounding land, it drops off to the west to the Sea of Gallilee, the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, and to the south to the Yarmouk River. The Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret are two names for the same geographical entity. Mentioning them as separate entities is probably an error. It is unlikely that an Arab would use the name Kinneret.

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