The Economist on the encyclopaedia's growing pains
Wikimedia Foundation staffer Brandon Harris, "a long-haired programmer wearing a full-sleeved T-shirt and a surly expression" whose successful donation plea was noted in the pages of The Economist this week.
In anticipation of the imminent resumption of the Wikipedia Foundation's fundraising efforts this month, The Economistprofiled the unusual donation drive of what it said had "a good claim to be the world’s most important provider of non-entertainment content". Acknowledging the Jimbo-centricity of previous years' efforts, the newspaper was keen to recognise the success of banners featuring other Wikimedians which had outperformed Mr. Wales', notably that of WMF software designer Brandon Harris. Greater attention was reserved however for the comparably less successful efforts at attracting contributors of time and effort rather than money; the article highlighted WMF chief of global development Barry Newstead's plaintive remarks that 90% of non-editing readers weren't even aware they could edit, and that as an editor he felt like "furniture in the room".
It went on to chronicle the Foundation's efforts at combating editorial decline, emphasising the particular set of skills and circumstances it takes to make a worthy contributor ("a scarce and hardy breed") – a working knowledge of the project's policies, respect from one's peers, the ability to navigate the MediaWiki's sometimes daunting syntax, and the resilience to resist the machinations of special interests and bad faith editors. WMF executive director Sue Gardner's ambition to eradicate the "psychological barrier" dividing reading from editing was noted, as was the Foundation's specific initiatives to tone down warning messages and reform of the editing interface. The articles also lauded as a sensible choice the Foundation's decision to concentrate its global ambitions initially on India, as a stepping stone to the opening of offices in Brazil and in the Arab world. The article characterised the Foundation's greatest ongoing challenges its mobile development, and – ten years on – the constant struggle to articulate its projects' "anyone can edit" ethos. University outreach in the Global South, as exemplified by the Indian Education Program, was singled out as an example of one solution to such problems (although this initiative has not been without its travails – as our "Special report" this week outlines). The article finished on an upbeat note
Wikipedia has suffered in the past from ill-informed criticism from outside, and complacency on the inside. Signs now are that both are diminishing. The idea that an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit can provide high-quality content is increasingly established. Wikipedia entries are rarely perfect, but their flaws are always open to instant remedy; that is a big plus. The outfit also seems to be moving away from its dependence on the charismatic Mr Wales, and from its over-reliance on a narrow caste of Anglophone enthusiasts. Wikipedia’s survival and expansion are also encouraging signs for those that worry the internet is in danger of becoming too commercial and closed off. Wikipedia is not just collating knowledge: it is making news too.
—The Economist, November 5, 2011
Wales outspoken on the future of the net
Right now there are about two billion people online and that’s essentially the bulk of the developed world. In five to 10 years the next billion people are going to come online. Last summer they dropped a cable from Europe into Nigeria that overnight increased the bandwidth to Nigeria by a factor of 10.
Suddenly people’s access to information explodes. And the possibilities for political change are enormous. It means they’re connected, that they can organise revolutions, they can learn what’s going on in other countries.
I think we are going to see in some of these perpetual basket-case countries with one tyrant after another that people are finally going to have the ability to demand change. It’s very exciting.
Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales this week addressed the Free Thinking conference on the topic of "How the internet will keep changing the world", attracting widespread media coverage, from The Guardian, Computer Weekly, Foreign Policy, The Telegraph, BBC News and The Independent. The typically reserved and diplomatic Wales was strident on the topic of Internet freedom and censorship, condemning UK Prime Minister David Cameron's suggestion during the 2011 England riots that the government ought to shut down microblogging service Twitter in times of emergency as a comment that could have come from a Chinese general (a remark that drew spontaneous applause from the crowd).
New undersea cables connecting Africa - Jimmy Wales:  "Remember the moment when you saw this map and understood what is about to happen in Africa..."
Wales, who is known for his libertarian political leanings, declared that the chief threat facing the Internet was not cybercrime but repressive governments, and proposed that governments could learn from the social model of Wikipedia, whose administrators "could be seen as the most powerful media barons that have ever lived" and yet are in effect constrained by community-determined rules and scrutiny. He criticised the United States' mooted Stop Online Piracy Act as poorly designed and dangerous legislation which could adversely affect Internet users like Wikipedia volunteers, and went on to pronounce the inevitability of a Chinese Spring to match the Arab Spring of 2011.
Thunkpedia: an inclusionist alternative
At the recent "Books in Browsers" conference held by the Internet Archive and O'Reilly Media, Gordon Mohr (User:Gojomo, former Chief Technologist at the Internet Archive's web archive projects), gave a talk titled "Infinithree: Beyond the Wiki Encyclopedias", where he presented a soon-to-be-launched collaborative website called "Thunkpedia", making good on an announcement from January where he had proposed such a project under the code name "Infinithree" ("∞³") (see Signpost coverage). While acknowledging Wikipedia's success, Mohr cited concern about deletionism and wikilawyering as a motivation for his endeavour. (The talk also contained a small jab at Wikipedia's Article Feedback Tool, calling a Wikipedia article "really the wrong unit for review", being too long.)
Inspired by Richard Feynman's famous 1959 lecture There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Mohr asked "what is the smallest thing that we could collaborate on" in terms of reference knowledge, dubbing it "thunk", short for "the thing unknown". These are to be collected in "a big pile of disaggregated knowledge" under the tagline "Thunkpedia - the sum of all human knowledge ... that fits", and released under a free license. A demo featured several such entries, some drawn from lead sections of Wikipedia articles. One listener called the concept "a Google-Wikipedia-Twitter hybrid". It bears some resemblance (but also differences) to Twick.it, a user-generated online glossary limiting article lengths to 140 characters, often seen as a mixture between Wikipedia and Twitter, which has received some indirect financial support from the German Wikimedia chapter.
New study on Wikipedia accuracy: Networkworld took note of the Wikimedia Foundation's decision (see "News and notes") to commission a new study on Wikipedia's accuracy. The study, which is to be conducted by e-learning company Epic in conjunction with researchers at the University of Oxford, is intended as an update on the widely-cited but contentious Nature study from 2006, which judged Wikipedia's science articles to be comparably reliable with those of the prestigious Encyclopaedia Britannica. An entry on Meta-Wiki will chronicle the developments of the initiative, whose results are expected to be published next April.
WMUK achieves charitable recognition: Third Sector Online picked up on the decision of the British Charity Commission to recognise Wikimedia UK as a charity on the grounds that Wikipedia's information provision constituted a "public resource" (see "News and notes"). The promotion of open access to educational content had not previously been recognised as a charitable mission, making this a significant landmark in UK charitable law, WMUK's lawyers told the publication. An earlier attempt by the organisation at achieving charitable recognition for having educational activities was rejected by the Charity Commission and HM Revenue and Customs. WMUK's fundraising drive, which aims to amass £1 million in donations, will be helped by the tax advantages its new status confers.
Canadian university outreach goes from strength to strength: Profiling the ongoing Canadian participation in the Global Education Program, Jordan Press of the Vancouver Sunproposed that Wikipedia was "gaining respect in places of higher learning" since the trailblazing efforts of Jon Beasely-Murray (Signpost interview) in integrating Wikipedia contributions into student coursework. The article went on to chronicle the growth of the university outreach program in North America.
Harold Kroto in front of textbooks (earlier this year at the global Nobel laureate symposium)
Wikipedia gains credence in chemistry but faces significant obstacles: The Reflector, student newspaper of Mississippi State University, recounted a recent address to the college by chemistry Nobel Laureate Harold Kroto, who declared that in his field, Wikipedia was "more reliable than the textbooks". In response, university academics spoke critically of students citing the encyclopaedia in their papers, revealing that it gave an impression of laziness, and maintained that the site faced an uphill struggle with academic recognition: "It's going to take some wholesale adoption," said professor Deborah Lee. "It's going to take people not being penalized for grants when they use it. It's going to take reviewers who are not going to give bad scores to writers when they see these articles in there. So I think you're going to have to see it adopted into the scientific literature stream and then see it become a more acceptable source for others. That may come with time, but my guess is that there's always going to be some people that have a problem with it … So it will really probably never be a primary source for people in terms of information like that."
Wikipedia: as important as the Pyramids? In the pages of Wired, Jonathon Keats held forth on the ongoing German-led efforts to have Wikipedia recognised as the the first digital World Heritage Site. Criticising UNESCO's dismissal of the bid, Keats illustrated the obscure and dubiously worthy artefacts currently listed (such as the Upper Harz Water Management System), and declared "But however much it may deserve designation, the truth is that Wikipedia doesn’t need the World Heritage List. The World Heritage List needs Wikipedia." Calling for the agency to adapt to the modern world or risk obsolescence, he proposed that its "static concept of physical heritage" was incompatible with a changing world and maintained that Wikipedia, which "protects the past without impeding the future", was a model UNESCO would do well to emulate.
Signpost editorial causes stir: ReadWriteWebpicked up on last week's opinion essay by the Signpost's own Sven Manguard. The piece, which warned of the need to acknowledge and combat Wikipedia's ever-present administrative backlogs, moved reporter Marshall Kirkpatrick to opine that "it should probably be no surprise that the world's largest and richest encyclopedia struggles with a backlog of editorial refinements and improvements that need to be performed". Nevertheless, Kirkpatrick maintained that "Wikipedia is an awesome world-changing phenomenon that represents a huge net win for humanity. Everyone who works to keep it that way deserves meaningful commendation." A little more sensationalist piece ran inTechleash, from whose title correspondent Radu Tyrsina warned "Be Careful, 700,000 Articles on Wikipedia Are Not Trustworthy!" Tyrsina went on to conclude that "Despite the many problems that threaten Wikipedia’s reliability, the site is still valuable as a cultural barometer for those in the know and a starting place for those who aren’t."
VandalLove: In a remarkable display of journalistic irreverence, unrepentant vandal Terri Psiakisrecounted her mischievous Wikipedia contributions in a column for The City Weekly. Psiakis' misinformation, which included inserting into the Elizabeth Barrett Browning article a spurious claim of the poet having a penchant for Ikea meatballs, attracted the swift and diligent attention of the Counter Vandalism Unit, as well as the edit filter. Unabashed, the columnist proceeded to puerile vandalism and targeting of vandalfighter Trusilver with professions of regret and love. She was summarily blocked. Asked to comment, Trusilver remarked "While I can't say I'm happy to see a journalist intentionally vandalizing the encyclopedia, I think it reflects well on the project as a whole. Despite studies repeatedly showing the accuracy of Wikipedia, there are still many professionals and educators that view what we do with derision. Stories like this show our vigilance. They show that despite Wikipedia being the encyclopedia anyone can edit, factual inaccuracies are quickly caught and dealt with".
Plagiarism study fingers Wikipedia as a key target: A new study from anti-plagiarism outfit Turnitin drew notice from NPR MindShift, the Washington Post Post Local blog and Campus Technology. One of the findings of the study was that Wikipedia tops the list of plagiarized sources among both secondary and tertiary students, being used in 7.99 percent of the cases of matched text by the former and 10.74 percent of cases by the latter. Other oft-abused sources were Yahoo! Answers and Slideshare. The report, which analysed 33 million student papers, is available as a freely downloadable .pdf file.