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.


My Talk on Wikimania 2011

11 September, 2011 at 15:03 | Posted in knowledge, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 1 Comment
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You can now see (embedded below) my talk and two other interesting talks about Wikipedia’s policy and conflict resolution on Wikipedia as recorded last month in the Auditorium Hall of Haifa at the Wikimania 2011 conference. If you follow the film’s link, you will find the YouTube channel of Wikimedia Israel, where you can find some more interesting talks and views of Wikimania 2011.

It is advisable that you also follow the slide presentation of this talk while listening to it. You can find it in the following link. It is downloadable, but can also be viewed online. Wikimania 2011 website – “Where Wikipedia has gone wrong, what we can do to bring it back on track”

Enjoy, and feel free to post comments.

My previous posts about Wikimania 2011
Other news items and posts about Wikimania 2011

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.

The development of the NPOV rule on the English-language Wikipedia

24 May, 2011 at 15:44 | Posted in Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Explanation of the electric neutrality of an i...

Image via Wikipedia

It is hardly a secret anymore that my initial enthusiasm about Wikipedia has turned into a deep concern. This concern stems from Wikipedia’s inability to resist damaging trends in the world in general, in the business and academic worlds in particular, and most particularly in the high-tech business world (damaging, that is, in my humble opinion, though I think I’m not alone on that). Wikipedia is not commercial, but its promoters often treat it as a business or corporation that needs to yield as much profits as possible and overcome competition. I believe this approach is unintentional, resulting from the fact that we live our lives by pseudo-business models; and yet Wikipedia was meant to be different. Its drift along in global trends is perhaps not surprising but deeply disappointing.  This is just one example, and it is not directly related to the core issue which I would like to discuss in this post, so I’ll hold my horses here, and get to the main point.

A final note before doing so – My ideas here are influenced by the CPOV conference in Bangalore, India (January 2010), which is one of the most interesting conferences I have ever took part in (so far…). The products of that conference and several others are compiled in the CPOV Wikipedia reader, edited by Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (I gave a modest contribution to this reader together with Johanna Niesyto). I’ll give reference to articles on that reader in the course of the text.

Phrasing of the neutrality principle; then and now

While preparing a presentation for this year’s Wikimania conference, to be hosted in Haifa, Israel this August, I looked into the history of Wikipedia’s NPOV rule. NPOV stands for “neutral point of view”, and the rule basically says that Wikipedia, being an encyclopedia, is obligated to unbiased presentation of any subject, particularly when describing controversies.

I went to the archived first online version of Wikipedia and found the following phrasing of the NPOV rule:

The neutral point of view attempts to present ideas and facts in such a fashion that both supporters and opponents can agree. Of course, 100% agreement is not possible; there are ideologues in the world who will not concede to any presentation other than a forceful statement of their own point of view. We can only seek a type of writing that is agreeable to essentially rational people who may differ on particular points. (November 2001)

Ten years later, the rule is phrased in much more words, but the leading paragraph says as follows:

Editing from a neutral point of view (NPOV) means representing fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources. All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view. NPOV is a fundamental principle of Wikipedia and of other Wikimedia projects. This policy is non-negotiable and all editors and articles must follow it. (May 2011)

The differences are evident, and yet one may argue that this is simply putting the same idea in different words. I am going to explain why it is not the case.

Collaborative work

The 2001 phrasing emphasizes collaborative work as the meta-policy of Wikipedia[note below]. Wikipedia’s articles should be written in a way that is “agreeable to essentially rational people who may differ on particular points”. This wording brings to mind a vivid picture of people working together to find a consensual written version that would be acceptable on all. Also, like a good scientific principle (even though we are not talking about pure science here), this phrasing suggests a test by which the principle can be verified – If you are a rational person (more or less), and you feel uncomfortable reading a certain article, because it seems to be advocating for a certain opinion, then something must have gone wrong.

Of course there are problems embedded in this phrasing. First and foremost, the danger of avoiding hard truths because many people are unwilling to accept them. Even when people are willing to write about such hard truths, there is a risk that they would try to “soften” them by using unpointed words in order to account for the NPOV rule.


Andrew Famiglietti writes:

Wikipedia’s most important content policy, NPOV, also took shape to recruit labor. Based on Nupedia’s ‘Non-bias’ content policy, NPOV was one of Wikipedia’s first policies, and early versions of NPOV quickly evolved to meet the  needs of collective labor […] Textual evidence from later versions of NPOV, as well as early Wikipedia press releases, demonstrates Larry Sanger and others saw NPOV as a key to ensuring Wikipedia would attract free contributions. [Andrew Famiglietti, CPOV Reader, “The Right to Fork – A Historical Survey of De/centralization in Wikipedia” p. 305; Nupedia = A project that preceded and eventually developed into Wikipedia – DK]

Blurring the phrasing, subduing NPOV to other principles

The new presentation of the NPOV rule has done little, if anything, to overcome the problems embedded in that 10-year-old abandoned phrasing. In fact, it represents a strong drift into a different direction altogether, not necessarily a better one (and you can tell my opinion about this by now). First of all, while it seems well-phrased, the new version is actually highly ambiguous.

Saying that “neutrality” is “without bias” is a tautology

Since “neutrality” and “bias” are antonyms, saying that “a neutral point of view [is] without bias” is a tautology, or if you will, a mere play of words. You might as well write that keeping clean is avoiding being dirty. Interestingly enough, many people fall into the trap of tautologies when they try to define something for the first time. After several attempts, they realize the problem and come up with a more meaningful definition. Here we see the a process moving in the opposite direction – the first phrasing is more meaningful than the current one.

Of course one bad choice of words doesn’t make a whole phrasing inappropriate, and we often use “redundant” dictionary definitions just to make sure that people understand us correctly. However, even if we ignore this seemingly minor fault, we still find heavy problems.

What does “proportionately” means?

The other interesting word in this first paragraph of the contemporary NPOV rule is “proportionately”. This word, as far as I know, was introduced in order to account for “fringe ideas” and “conspiracy theories”. There is a just claim that Wikipedia, or any other encyclopedic source for that matter, should not present any far-fetched idea published or brought up by someone. Of course many things that we accept today as truths started as far-fetched ideas, but as long as we cannot be sure, the best we can do is to go along the mainstream view, with a pinch of healthy criticism and a watchful eye on new discoveries. Also, there is a just claim that Wikipedia should give precedence to majority views, because they are more likely to be true, especially when we talk about communities of researchers and experts in a specific field (if you take your car to a garage, and nine out of ten mechanics there tell you the problem is with the electricity, rather than the fuel system, then the problem might be with the fuel system, but it is still much more likely to lie in the electricity mechanism).

Playing down the collaborative work method by calling for “proportionality”

However, the current phrasing of the NPOV rule does not say “keep rational”, like the 2001 version did. It doesn’t say, if this idea surprises most people, or treated with total reject by knowledgeable people, then Wikipedia can do without it. I know these two suggestions sound rather blur themselves, but we can think of a more specific rule: Before mentioning an idea or theory, look for articles that criticize it, and see whether at least part of it is widely accepted. In fact, the word “proportionately” is not only equivocal in this context, it also leaves out the notion of collaborative work and its contribution to neutrality. It calls upon people to play down views that seem to them non-conventional, instead of trying to find words and phrases that would cover them as well, preferably with the help of people who actually hold these views.

Subduing neutrality to “reliable sources”

Perhaps the most dramatic change in the course of Wikipedia’s first decade is the fact that NPOV is no longer the first rule of editing. It is not even equal in importance to other rules, even though it is still presented as such. In fact the current phrasing of the principle subject it to the rule of “verifiability”. Now, one may ask where is the problem with that. After all, we want neutrality, but not on the expanse of truthfulness. I would have agreed to such claim, unless the current phrasing of the “verifiability” rule did not talk about truth.

The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think it is true. (Wikipedia:Verifiability; May 2011)

Unsurprisingly, this rule too had a different versions, that changed in to the current one more or less at same time in which the NPOV rule assumed its current shape. Here are two examples, shortly before the most recent major revision:

The goal of Wikipedia is to become a complete and accurate encyclopedia. Verifiability is an important tool to achieve accuracy, so we strongly encourage you to check your facts.  We also aim to be informative and neutral. (May 2005)

Wikipedia should only publish material that is verifiable and is not original research.  The goal of Wikipedia is to become a complete and reliable encyclopedia. Verifiability is the key to becoming a reliable resource, so editors should cite credible sources so that their edits can be easily verified. (August 2005)

As you can see, summer 2005, about four years after the creation of the English-language Wikipedia, saw the rise of the “verifiability” rule, and its detachment from its original purpose – to support truthful and accurate presentation. At the same time, “neutrality” lost power and become subject to the rule of “verifiability”, because the NPOV rule now states that neutrality should account for “all significant views that have been published by reliable sources” (emphasis added), namely only those that passed the “verifiability” threshold, which doesn’t really talk about verifiability, but more about bringing references, which is not exactly the same thing. In fact, this phrasing now calls upon Wikipedia’s editors to describe the discourse about reality rather than reality itself , in strong contrast the principles that underlay Wikipedia when it came into being.

It should not come as a surprise to learn that in the current state of affairs Wikipedia’s editors are not discussing issues, but rather debating about them. Furthermore, no one bother to ask what is actually out there, but rather, can you find a source that so says, and once such a source is brought forth, there start a debate whether it can be considered a reliable source (it is not it reliability that is usually contested, but rather the possibility to include it in the “reliable source” category).

The terminology dilemma

Things gets even more problematic when terminology is debated rather than facts. People can often agree about what is there, but disagree profoundly over how to name it. In this case, assuming you don’t have an editor-in-chief or a binding style guide, working collaboratively toward consensual terminology is crucial. Instead, the “verifiability” rule (or “providing reference rule” as it should be called) prevails, and send people to argue about which source carry more weight, hence should be used for borrowing terminology. The fact that source can be reliable and use biased terminology at the same time is ignored because the rules assume that anything brought by “reliable sources” is valid.

Truth and domination

In their introduction to the CPOV Reader I mentioned above, Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz say,

Living in the shadow of decades of postmodern,‘deconstructive’ thought, claims to neutrality, however qualified and reconfigured, still make us shudder. Humanities and social science scholars and generations of artists and activists  have been trained to be deeply suspicious of such claims. We look to truth’s power, not its enlightenment.

Has Wikipedia’s editors simply got “cold feet” and returned to the safe haven of “let’s not talk about truth”? Perhaps, but there is another issue that must be taken seriously, as Mathieu O’Neil describes:

Means of domination are not limited to the crude use of blocking tools. In fact, such measures are less effective than more subtle means relying on superior project knowledge. The easiest way to defeat an opponent is to assert that their views are not authoritatively backed up by a proper source, that they are violating the sacrosanct WP:NPOV (Neutral Point of View) or WP:RS (Reliable Sources) rules. By extension, all references to editorial, stylistic, and behavioral policies and guidelines serve as battle weapons. Every single action having to do with the project seems to be distilled  into a handy WP:SLOGAN, whipped out at the slightest provocation [Mathieu O’Neil, “Wikipedia and Authority”, CPOV Reader]

As George Orwell showed in his Animal Farm, changing the principles on the wall makes these means of domination even more effective. And yet, Wikipedia is supposed to be different.

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