Seventh annual Wikimedia conference concluded in Haifa, Israel
Party after the first day of Wikimania in the gardens of the Rapaport Center in Haifa.
Wikimedians from across the world congregated in Haifa, Israel, last week for three days of intensive discussion of Wikimedia projects as part of Wikimania 2011, an annual gathering that has taken place every year since 2005 when it was first organized in Frankfurt, Germany. This year saw over 650 participants attend the main conference, accompanied by the pre-event meetings for developers, a chapters meeting and a meeting of the Communications Committee. (See also this week's "News and notes" and "Technology report")
On Wednesday, participants were welcomed to the event with professionally produced badges, lanyards, conference programmes, goody bags, T-shirts and very necessary cold drinks. The first order of business was a welcome from the organisers, and a welcome from a representative of the Israeli parliament. Outside the venue, a "tent city" had been set up, where young Israelis protested the rising cost of housing (see 2011 Israeli housing protests, the Wikinews story and media from Commons).
Yochai Benkler presenting at Wikimania.
Professor Yochai Benkler, the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard University and author of The Wealth of Networks, presented the opening plenary session on Thursday. Benkler was the first academic to write about Wikipedia, in an article in the summer of 2001 entitled "Coase's Penguin", and this time presented a highly optimistic lecture arguing that a fundamentally positive and co-operative vision of human nature is captured in projects like Wikipedia as well as free and open source software. He tied it to the housing protests, describing how "right outside, people are standing, sitting in tents, trying to claw back a sense of what a decent society and what a decent community can be within a market system beyond simply maximizing the returns for capital", and also went further to reference the protest movement in Syria. What then does the Arab Spring share with Wikipedia? The understanding of how "humans can work together to overcome structures of hierarchy, structures of markets that necessarily reduce us to supply and demand curves. According to Benkler, before Wikipedia, the principles behind open source were ignored with various attempts at special pleading: the theory went that one has nothing to learn from strange hackers writing open source software in a profoundly strange way. When normal people started writing encyclopedias for the same reasons hackers write open source software, that argument was undermined.
To show how academia was dominated by market thinking before Wikipedia, Benkler pointed to Information Rules, a 1999 book by Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, which described the disruption to the business model of Encyclopedia Britannica brought by Microsoft's Encarta. They could easily see how a modestly priced CD-ROM encyclopedia threatened an expensive printed encyclopedia like Britannica, but completely failed to see how much more radically disruptive Wikipedia was or could become.
Benkler goes on to describe how there now seems to be a shift in a wide variety of academic disciplines away from markets and selfishness to co-operation: in economics, evolutionary biology and the social sciences.
Perhaps appropriate for Wikimania in the tenth anniversary year of Wikipedia, Sue Gardner signalled the increasing maturity of the Wikimedia projects by quoting a French journalist who told her "Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007". Gardner listed two primary challenges facing the Foundation over the coming year: user retention and mobile. The new mobile version of Wikipedia is in development and promises great improvements over the old version, but Gardner also hinted at the search for new editing behaviours for a world where the vast majority of users will interact with Wikipedia less on desktop and laptop computers and more on phones (both smart and otherwise), tablets, and post-PC devices.
Following the presentation by Sue Gardner, the current board of trustees were introduced by Harel Cain, one of the main organisers for Wikimedia Israel, to take part in the customary Q&A session. Top of the agenda was the question of "Facebook-isation", a criticism raised following the rollout of both the Article Feedback Tool and WikiLove on English Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales harshly criticised the current trend in Silicon Valley technology companies for "gamification" or introduction of game mechanics on "check-in" sites like Foursquare describing them as "what you do when you don't have a good idea". Wales also said of WikiLove that the behavior of thanking users was already an established practice on Wikipedia, and that the extension simply makes this existing behaviour easier.
Kat Walsh also described one fundamental difference between the aspects of social networking being tested tentatively on Wikipedia by arguing that compared to Facebook, the social tools on Wikimedia have a purpose: to help produce free knowledge.
Kat also described one of the reasons why participation on Wikipedia may be slowing by saying that "it's just part of the Internet now", hinting that it is no longer a grand experiment in participatory culture and the original impetus to participate may have faded slightly as it becomes just a handy reference tool rather than an experiment.
Open source developer Benjamin Mako Hill asked the board why they haven't started any new wiki projects since the opening of Wikiversity in 2006, hinting at the potential benefits of creating Wikipedia-level, Foundation-blessed sister projects to collect material on genealogy (to break the hold of proprietary database services) and also to collate bibliographic material and annotations to academic papers and documents, perhaps to connect with the increasing quantity of open data being published by scientists. Board member Samuel Klein (SJ) described how the board "don't have a clear process" for deciding on the creation, closing and modification of scope for existing projects but pointed to work being done by the Movement Roles project.
Jimmy Wales took a different tack, not endorsing the creation of new projects and not ruling them out, but suggesting that the Foundation and the board could do a better job of focussing on improving support for the other projects including specifically Wikinews: "the Foundation has never provided much to Wikinews". Specifically on Wikinews, Wales noted that it "has not been the success it could have been", and compared it to the Huffington Post which has been much more successful using a partially volunteer-driven model even though "it's not high quality" in terms of fact checking and neutrality like an improved Wikinews could be.
The board were asked about improving outreach to academics and Phoebe Ayers pointed to the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit in Cambridge, Massachusetts earlier in the year, which celebrated the Public Policy Initiative.
From here, the questions became slightly more critical. One questioner welcomed the desire to increase participation in the Global South but questioned why Africa seemed to not be part of the plan in the way Brazil and India seemed to be. Board members pointed to infrastructure problems in Africa that prevented effective outreach, and board chairman Ting Chen welcomed the formation of a new Wikimedia chapter in South Africa. Another questioner asked about the sustainability of the Foundation with the increase in funding being requested as part of the fundraiser each year and stated that at the rates of growth the fundraisers have been operating, in 2031, they would exceed the current global GDP.
Joseph Reagle speaking at Wikimania.
The plenary on Friday was given by Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration, who gave a talk asking whether or not Wikipedia was inevitable and traced what he described as a "universal encyclopedic vision" that flowed down the ages from Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie. Many aspects of Wikipedia, Reagle argued, could be found in previous proposals. Even the metaphor of the jigsaw which forms Wikipedia's logo can be found in H. G. Wells's "world encyclopedia": "we can solve the problem of that jig-saw puzzle and bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding."
Reagle went on to describe a variety of network-based projects that followed the "encyclopedic vision" including Ted Nelson's Xanadu Project, Project Gutenberg, the Interpedia proposals, Richard Stallman's proposal for a "free universal encyclopedia" and then finally the development of Nupedia and then Wikipedia.
Reagle asked a number of questions about the historical status of Wikipedia and argued that it was inevitable as it has a number of innovative ideas built into it that previous proposals did not have. Reagle also poked a bit of fun at some of Wikipedia's critics: in 2002, Peter Jacso ridiculed the goal of getting to 100,000 articles from the measly 16,000 or so the project then had. Reagle also responded to Robert McHenry's famous criticism of Wikipedia as being akin to a public restroom ("[what] he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him") by pointing out that with talk pages and history listings, the reader actually "can see who pissed in Wikipedia". Reagle notes that criticism of reference works has a long history, and such criticism is a proxy for "culture wars" and other sociopolitical conflicts: the classic example being the criticism of Webster's for inclusion of the word "ain't" in the third edition published in 1961.
In the session on editor trends, some unnerving statistics were revealed about editor retention. In 2006, there were 244 new editors who became very active in the next year and made over 10,000 edits on the English Wikipedia. In 2009, that measure dropped to 56 users. This matches concerns expressed about the decreasing number of candidates suitable and willing to run for adminship on English Wikipedia. Similarly, according to the editor trends statistics, of new accounts created, the number who make one or more edits has been declining since the first quarter of 2007. The number of negative templates placed on user pages has also increased, a potential measure of the number of negative barriers for users.
One of the recurring themes of Wikimania this year has been the growth and successes of "GLAM", the outreach to galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Liam Wyatt (slides) described how a few years ago, what have now become GLAM volunteers, ambassadors, Wikimedians in Residence, etc. were not able to get museums and cultural institutions to return their phone calls, and now the Louvre is on the waiting list. Liam listed some of the successes of 2011 so far: residencies at the National Archives and Records Administration in the US, the rollout of QR codes at Derby Museum and a twenty-four challenge at the Château de Versailles. The GLAM projects have also worked to increase self-organisation through communication by running the This Month In GLAM newsletter and a number of GLAMcamp events to share success stories among Wikimedians. Liam made a number of suggestions on how to improve GLAM in 2012: a GLAMcamp in Utrecht, Netherlands, creating national "outreach coordinators" to train volunteers and creating a short term Community Liaison post at the Wikimedia Foundation. The success of GLAM projects in the United States also prompted Liam to suggest the creation of a "USA GLAM Fellow" to coordinate the dozen or more Wikipedians in Residence programs at many more American art museums Liam expects to happen in 2012.
One aspect which Liam thought needed work was better management and development of tools to support GLAM activities: currently, there are lots of different tools, often hacky and custom-built for mass upload of images and metadata management, and it would make life easier if they could be improved and standardised. In addition, often institutions need metrics to show the effectiveness of image uploads, article collaboration and other activities, which are currently not provided as well as they could be.
Maarten Dammers (User:Multichill) from Wikimedia Netherlands gave a talk on the "State of GLAM in the Netherlands" (slides) discussing outreach with the Tropenmuseum, Wiki Loves Monuments and other GLAM outreach projects they conducted.
Jimmy Wales: State of the Wiki
Jimmy Wales at Wikimania.
As at previous Wikimanias, Jimmy Wales rounded off the event with a report on the "State of the Wiki". Wales responded to the reports that the number of editors was dropping by arguing that "Wikipedia is not dying". Increasing the number of editors is only of secondary concern; the primary concern is increasing quality. Pointing to WikiLove and the Article Feedback Tool, Jimmy argued that through software changes we can improve the experience of editing Wikipedia dramatically. He asked the community to help in this process: "we need to relax a bit and be less conservative".
Illustrating the complexity of the current system on the English Wikipedia, Jimmy described the process of trying to use Requested Moves (WP:RM) in order to seek consensus on moving John Hutton (British Labour politician) to John Hutton, Baron Hutton of Furness in March—Jimmy is well known for his interest in the House of Lords. He found it exceptionally complicated to do so and after making a mistake, a bot came and overwrote it, a process he described as feeling as if "a robot ate my homework!" If, he goes on, this is too complicated for a long-time user of the site to get right, how on earth do we expect ordinary users to get it right?
Campus ambassadors in Washington, D.C., the home of the next Wikimania.
Jimmy also announced the creation of an annual award—Global Wikipedian of the Year. This was given to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly of Kazakh Wikipedia and consisted of a $5,000 award to Wikibilim, the chapter in Kazakhstan, to pay travel expenses to Wikimania next year. This would be presented to Kezhekhanuly at a ceremony in Kazakhstan with the country's prime minister Karim Massimov. The Kazakh Wikipedia has been a dramatic success: the number of active editors has increased from 15 to 231 and has passed the milestone of 25,000 articles. Kezhekhanuly mentioned in an article in June that the Kazakh Wikipedia is adding 500 new articles a day and is aiming to get to 200,000 articles by the end of the year. At the time of writing, it has 68,935 articles.
Immediately following Jimmy's talk, James Hare made a presentation on behalf of the Wikimania 2012 team. Wikimania 2012 will be held on the Georgetown University campus in Washington, D.C. in July 2012 and will include an unconference day and a dedicated track for GLAM outreach.
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