In the news
A Wikistream of real time edits, a call for COI reform, and cracks in the ivory tower of knowledge
A truce in sight on COI?
In a post for social media professionals' review Socialfresh, marketer David King set forth a case for "Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers". Beginning from the observation that both numbers of new and active contributors are flagging while articles continue to grow in size and number, King pitched the idea that the encyclopaedia needs the content curating skills of paid marketing professionals "with the right policies, guidance and expertise". "[V]andalism, bias, outdated information and blatant factual errors will run even more rampant" should current growth patterns prevail on the site, King proposed, arguing that marketers inducted into the ranks of encyclopaedians with proper understanding and appreciation of the site's goals and guidelines would be highly motivated and capable contributors to the struggle to sustain and improve quality of coverage.
Acknowledging the editing community's antipathy to marketers who have hitherto tended to ignore policy, legal and social norms of the collegial contribution of neutral encyclopaedic content in their persistent drives to introduce promotional material on their clients' behalf, King asserted that his colleagues had lost the good faith that the project's policies had proffered to them, that they had never deserved it, and yet that it was in the interests of both the editing community and marketers that they earn this faith back. Citing the exorbitant costs of editorial combat between gatekeepers and marketers, and the latter's interpretation of the nuanced Conflict of interest policy as an all-out ban, King sought to establish that "Wikipedia doesn’t have anything against marketers, just against marketing content". His plea to marketing professionals intent on editing was to "Be humble, learn, listen and follow the rules. Take your time. Invest in Wikipedia. Earn our good faith back." To Wikipedians, his call for truce invoked the metaphor of prohibition of widely practiced activities, arguing that Wikipedians, like sensible regulators elsewhere, must come to realise that outlawing such behaviour is countereffective, and that the solution lies in tolerance, oversight and policing of it. He proposed as potential ideas to embrace certification schemes, conduct accords, and even a donations-for-participation program. Legions of frustrated and antagonistic outsiders under the status quo, he imagined marketers as a "most knowledgeable and motivated group of contributors" in this brave new world.
The Signpost asked King to elaborate on his proposal to the perhaps yet-wary volunteers of the editing community:
Today Wikipedia's most ethical COI contributors are literally fearful of Wikipedia, handcuffed by their legal department, scared of what the community might do. Maybe they should be. Meanwhile, our worst contributors are often rewarded with salvaged advert. On Wikipedia the system for COI appears to work, yet offline I see another story.
I see multi-billion dollar companies with some of the most ethical business practices in the world and a well-respected product getting slammed on Wikipedia by opinionated garbage and speculation written by a customer blowing steam four years ago. I see an angry ex-employee writing "next in line for chapter 11" on the article of a profitable multi-billion dollar company that's doing just fine. That fictional chapter 11 statement stayed up for weeks, was un-addressed by the community and read by thousands. I see a place where controversy and criticisms are well-covered, but stories of growth, culture, leadership and success are not. Where Apple and Google get quality articles, but other notable organizations are victimized by a community that breaks the rules for neutrality, verification and encyclopedic tone. A place where few notable organizations have the quality full-length article they deserve and the party most motivated to write it is afraid. Where community members with a negative COI against the organization are effective, but positive COIs are not.
COI contributors introduce bias, but I'm also concerned of the bias without them. Some of our most knowledgeable and motivated contributors are COIs. Does that mean we open the doors wide? Absolutely not. COIs are like political lobbyists. We're needed but our participation needs to be a delicate and well regulated one. But through teamwork, education, awareness, process, a better ecosystem we could change the tides. We can get more ethical contributions and less advert. We can improve the quality, completeness and balance of articles while reducing the volume of issues on COI noticeboards.
Most COI contributions are unhelpful, frustrating, require policing and drag the community into angry, venom-spitting conversations. The system is designed to police those edits after the fact. How can we make those edits better in the first place? I have some ideas and I think Wikipedia can become a better, more accurate, balanced, updated Wikipedia that will retain more quality volunteer editors if we discussed it and came up with ways to reward positive COI, punish bad COI, get more of the good and less of the bad.
An illustration of this theme came this week in Britain, with an exposé of London lobbyists Bell Pottinger Group by The Independent. The investigation revealed that among the 'dark arts' of the firm – one of the United Kingdom's largest lobbying outfits – was clandestinely sanitising negative coverage of clients in Wikipedia. Reporters from the newspaper posing as representatives of the reviled Uzbekistani regime succeeded in capturing on video executives of the firm describing the online reputation management services that they were willing to provide for the nation's president, Islam Karimov. Whether the episode lends weight to King's assertion that underhanded public relations operatives are thriving while their ethical colleagues are punished, or confirmation of the wisdom of a firm line on prohibiting interested contributions of any kind, remains an unanswered question.
Journals, archives and a new age of engagement
Cambridge University Press took a bold step towards opening up academic journals to public access this week as they announced a scheme to rent access to individual articles for as little as £3.99/$5.99/€4.49, Ars Technica reported. Although this access is to be restricted to one viewing session with no facility to save, copy from or print an article, it represents an 86% decrease in the cost of accessing journal articles for laymen without university or library affiliations. The Chronicle of Higher Education's Wired Campus blog elaborated on the publisher's motivations, which were principally concerned with improving the dismal 0.01% conversion rate of views from unaffiliated researchers to pay-per-view downloaders. Such viewers accounted for 20%, or 12 million hits, of pageviews for journal article abstracts on the publisher's Cambridge Journals Online site in 2010.
In another development that will warm the hearts of Wikipedia's article writers, BBC News showcased the launch of the British Newspaper Archive, an ambitious new initiative from the British Library in partnership with brightsolid to digitise for the online perusal of its readers its vast store of newspapers, periodicals and journals. Over one million pages of pre-20th-century publications are already available, with that number expected to rise to 40 million in the next ten years as the archive hopes to make available on the internet "every single newspaper, periodical and journal ever printed".
Global Wikipedia activity streamed in real time
Vandalism fighters and casual readers alike have relied on Wikipedia's recent changes feed to give them a general idea of all the encyclopaedia's edits. However, there are several drawbacks to this method, most notably the need to refresh the page to display new information. Enter Wikistream, an external service streaming every single Wikipedia edit in real time, heralded this week as an "absolutely amazing" tool by The Next Web. Including changes to every Wikipedia project, the stream is often too busy for a viewer to note a single edit. The stream is filterable, able to display edits from a single project, or a certain namespace on said project. The website supports a "pause" function, accessible by pressing 'P' on the keyboard, for users who feel overwhelmed by the content. The development was also noted by Geeky Gadgets and Ubergizmo.
- Alaskans inspired by Global Education Program: An article in the print edition of The Economist concerning the Wikimedia Foundation's Global Education Program sparked the imagination of Alaska Dispatch columnist Mia Bennet. Bennet foresaw potential aboriginal Alaskan implementation of the purported intent of the Indian pilot of the program (see Signpost Special report) to "encourage the indigenous creation of information and to lessen reliance on imports from outside" (The Economist). "Asking indigenous peoples in the Arctic to contribute to Wikipedia could be a great way to increase the flow of information between Aboriginal and Western traditions", she wrote. Such a project might be hampered by Wikipedia policy heavily predicated on Western standards of knowledge storing – specifically written, peer-reviewed and professionally published scholarship – but could be congruent with the contentious Oral Citations initiative which eschews such standards.
- Does Google still smile on Wikipedia? A post on search engine optimisation blog Search Engine Roundtable addressed the issue of Google's treatment of Wikipedia in their search results, presenting conflicting reports of the search giant's ranking of the encyclopaedia.
- UI revamp to dispel 'call centre' aura? In a précis of the recent story excoriating Wikipedia's "closed and unfriendly" attitude to outsiders (see Signpost coverage) for William Beutler's "The Wikipedian" blog, Jeff Taylor (Jeff Bedford) asked "Can UI Changes Transform Wikipedia from Call Center to Community?" Taylor drew on the analogy of the newcomers' dispiriting interactions with Wikipedia as those of a customer and an ineffective tech support call centre, an impression which is "the product", he wrote, "of Wikipedia’s user interface and overall structure, which is truly showing its age in late 2011". Taylor noted efforts by the Wikimedia Foundation to improve user experience of the site, but opined that these were hampered by inertia caused by the "very academic/university-like mindset" of the organisation, and wondered whether there would be a preview before the end of the year.