In the news
The little online encyclopaedia that could
Benjamin Mako Hill
, free culture activist and Wikimedian, presented his findings on early online encyclopaedias at Harvard University last week.
In a speech to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board member Benjamin Mako Hill (userpage) outlined the preliminary results of his research into why Wikipedia ultimately thrived where seven pre-existing online encyclopaedias foundered; Interpedia, (1993–94); The Distributed Encyclopedia (1997–98); Everything2 (1998–present); h2g2 (1999–present); The Info Network (2000–03); Nupedia (2000–03); and GNUpedia (founded in 2001, later incorporated into Nupedia).
Covering the event for the Nieman Journalism Lab (reprinted in Business Insider), Megan Garber summarises how Hill, a PhD candidate at MIT, interviewed project founders and trawled archival data in an attempt to form hypotheses which would explain why this one project succeeded in attaining critical mass while the others failed. This methodology of using "failure cases" to understand the rise of successful collective action projects is a larger concern of the researcher; a subsequent project will test the hypotheses using quantitative database analysis.
While all examples he looked at shared a similar collaborative ethos, the critical factor Hill identified in Wikipedia's relative success was that it alone attracted masses of contributors. He attributed this in part to Wikipedia's self-characterisation as an encyclopaedia, which provided a model of a resource that was easily understandable by potential contributors, many of whom were highly literate infovores raised on an educational diet of Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book Encyclopedia. Not only were traditional encyclopaedias a familiar end-product; they were an "epistemic frame", a way of systematically conceiving of and presenting knowledge. This is what Wikipedia retains, where other projects sought to innovate and adapt to the new environment of the web in ways that were less successful in attracting contributors.
A second counterintuitive reason for Wikipedia's success advanced by Hill was its lack of technological sophistication and ambition; every other encyclopaedia built its own technology but neglected to seed its contributor base, expecting volunteers to flock to its attractive platform. Further explanations proffered include Wikipedia's ease-of-editing ("low transaction costs") and the emphatic absence of visible attribution of content to its creators, which Hill speculates discouraged an ownership mentality and a sense of expectation that every participant need commit to sustained engagement or high-quality contributions.
There’s some good food for thought for news organizations in those findings. If you want user contributions, build platforms that are familiar and easy. Lower the barriers to participation; focus on helping users to understand what you want from them rather than on dazzling them. Though gamification — with incentives that encourage certain user behaviors, complete with individual rewards (badges! titles! mayors!) — certainly has a role to play in the new news ecosystem, Hill’s findings suggest that the inverse of game dynamics can be a powerful force, as well. His research highlights the value of platforms that invite rather than challenge — and the validity of contributions made for the collective good rather than the individual.
addresses Wikimania 2011 in Haifa (video
). He writes
that Wikipedia's biggest gift is "a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes."
A new book by Yochai Benkler – Internet scholar, Harvard University lecturer, and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society – sets out to demolish the widely held notion that humans are motivated primarily by narrowly construed self-interest.
Reviewing Benkler's The Penguin and the Leviathan (2011) for The Atlantic, Walter Frick frames the question posed by the book as "Can the Internet bring the beginning of the end of selfishness?", noting the author's use of Wikipedia as the canonical example of a thriving culture of human collaboration that performs a complex task beyond the realms of commerce and government.
Benkler originally discussed the motivations of Wikipedians in his 2006 analysis of informational economics in the Internet age The Wealth of Networks – a pun on Adam Smith's canonical The Wealth of Nations (1776). In The Penguin and the Leviathan he elaborates on this to advance the case that selfishness alone cannot account for what moves economic agents. Frick, hailing Benkler as "one of the preeminent philosophers of the Internet", believes his thesis is something to which most readers are likely to be open to; at the same time, Frick says, Benkler's views are in stark contrast with the tenets of mainstream economics, which have long held to the assumption of rational self-interest.
Benkler's counterposes "the Penguin" (standing for voluntary mass collaboration and named for Tux, the mascot of the open-source operating system Linux) with market-based models ("the Invisible Hand") and the state ("the Leviathan"); in doing so, he calls for the adoption of co-operation rather than competition or coercion as the primary social paradigm. Benkler writes: "If neither the command-control systems dictated by the Leviathan nor the Invisible Hand of the free market can effectively govern society, where shall we turn? Can the Penguin deliver us more robust, working social and economic systems that break us out of this vicious cycle? I believe that he can."
Benkler offers "design levers" – guidelines for aspirant practitioners of co-operation; but Frick finds little in the way of a macroeconomic plan of action in the Penguin model, concluding that translating these design levers into a formal economic model is both daunting and utterly necessary. Perhaps this echoes the maxim that Wikipedia works only in practice, not in theory.
Costly robo-books in the spotlight
In The New York Times, Pagan Kennedy asked Do androids dream of electric authors?, in reference to the expensive print-on-demand books algorithmically assembled from Wikipedia articles by the notorious VDM Publishing. As well as highlighting the ethically murky practices of the publisher, whose modest disclosure of its source material can often go unnoticed by unsuspecting readers and librarians, the piece covered the growing phenomenon of artificial intelligence replacing traditionally human roles such as book editing. The journalist learned from managing director of the firm, Wolfgang Philipp Müller, that they sold 3,000 of these "wiki-books" of freely licensed content annually at an average price of $50.
A sunnier perspective was provided by economist and inventor Philip Parker, who predicted that cheap texts automatically generated by artificial intelligence could play a vital role in literacy efforts, and whose Gates Foundation-funded efforts at producing machine-translated educational content in underserved languages is perhaps more congruent with the Wikimedia movement's goals.
Latest apps capitalise on free Wikipedia
digital media party: looks like Wikipedia is about to join the party.
Following last week's announcement that the new Kindle Touch
will ship with Wikipedia as its sole noncommercial Internet resource (see Signpost coverage
), news has emerged of two more apps that have taken advantage of the freely licensed encyclopaedia's convenience for adaptation. The technology company VentureBeat
, which started out as a blog, revealed
OpenPrep, the latest educational initiative from Internet startup firm BenchPrep
. The company's existing offering presents content from educational publishers such as McGraw Hill
and soon Pearson
, in the form of an interactive study guide app for Android phones, iPhones and the iPad; but in the future it will incorporate links to Wikipedia and YouTube for a broader learning experience for students. VentureBeat also showcased
the latest iteration of the Instapaper
bookmarking and reading service, which will also integrate Wikipedia content into its smartphone and tablet offerings.
Jimbo on tech, culture and protest
The London Evening Standard picked up on salutatory remarks by Jimmy Wales concerning London's potential to produce great technology leaders. Wales contrasted the "fabulous" cultural wealth of his part-time adopted homeland, and specifically its GLAM sector, with the "boring" Silicon Valley, while criticising Britons for "an excessive willingness to complain and knock things that aren't that bad". The Belfast Telegraph also seized on Wales' remarks, positing the cultural strength of its own city as potentially sufficient to attract the dynamic entrepreneurial spirit. At a press conference to promote London's Tech Entrepreneur Week in December, Sky News reported the self-professed libertarian's sympathy with Occupy London protestors' anger at corporate welfare over what he characterised as abuse of political influence by corporations to induce favourable state intervention. Sky also noted the Internet entrepreneur's prediction that the Net-assisted Arab Spring uprisings – which inspired the Occupy movement – had a long future, as well as his optimism for budding start-ups in pointing out that Wikipedia was "a child of the dot com crash" and that "[o]ne of the reasons we were so innovative in terms of letting the community control things is that I had not money to hire anyone". Elsewhere, Trinity College Dublin's The University Times announced Wales' imminent induction as an honorary member of the university's prestigious University Philosophical Society in November.
He was first apprenticed to a china dealer at Rotherhithe, but, finding that business too irksome, he left both his master and his home, and went to the Potteries, where he found some employment as a china painter. Finding this too monotonous, he came to London, and commenced a life of great privations and hard efforts to study the fine arts. It is said that at this period of his life he seriously injured his health by trying to live for a year on nothing else but potatoes and water.
– The archaic prose stylings of the Joshua Cristall article, derived from Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravings (1886–89), as quoted by Big Think.
- Zombified Britannica saluted: At Big Think, Austin Allen sings the praises of "Antique Wikipedia Entries" incorporated largely unchanged from the out-of-copyright 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica (see list), hailing the anachronistically romantic tone of the century-old text.
- Irate rugby fans vandalize their targets: Disgruntled by a decision of referee Alain Rolland to send off the Welsh captain Sam Warburton in the semi-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the resulting loss by Wales to France in a final score of 9-8, fans took out their frustration by vandalizing Rolland's Wikipedia entry. The Telegraph took note of the changes on the page, which was eventually fully protected. In a sub-section titled, "Big defence for Quade's wiki", The Sydney Morning Herald took a jibe at fans of the All Blacks (who bested Australia to earn a place against France in the final), calling on registered Wikipedians to edit Wallabies player Quade Cooper's semi-protected entry "to reflect that Cooper was cleared of any wrongdoing by a tribunal".
- International relations student scheme a dramatic success: In an article on the integration of technology and social media into international relations curricula, The Christian Science Monitor described the use of Wikipedia by assistant professor of anthropology Rochelle Davis for her Introduction to Study of the Arab World course at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. In a fall 2010 project facilitated by the Wikimedia Foundation's Public Policy Initiative, students created new articles in the subject area on topics until then uncovered by the encyclopaedia. The article conveyed the skepticism towards Wikipedia of the students, who had witnessed the turbulent rise of the site during their university years, and as Davis's modest hopes of the project being a public literature review, before revealing the dramatic success of the scheme, which had significant reader impact (including 5,000+ daily views of the student-authored National Democratic Party (Egypt) article at the height of the Egyptian Revolution) and which Davis said resulted in the greatest research papers she had ever seen at the university.
- Seigenthaler speaks out: Vanderbilt News announced the imminent appearance of John Seigenthaler, who was notoriously the victim of malicious editing of his Wikipedia biography in 2005, at Vanderbilt University. The journalist and publisher, described as "a nationally recognized advocate for the First Amendment also known for his criticism of Internet vandals who post false information on user-created sites like Wikipedia", is to give a speech entitled “Wikipedia, WikiLeaks and Wiccans: Historical Accuracy Online” in the university's Central Library on October 21st.