In the media
The decline of Wikipedia; Sue Gardner releases statement on Wiki-PR; Australian minister relies on Wikipedia
The decline of Wikipedia
MIT Technology Review published a long article on what it called "The decline of Wikipedia". Editor involvement has decreased since 2007; according to the article, this has had an adverse qualitative effect on content, particularly on issues pertinent to non-British and American male geeks.
||Among the significant problems that aren't getting resolved is the site's skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project's own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don't earn even Wikipedia's own middle-ranking quality scores.
Noting that Wikipedia "threw out centuries of accepted methods" for compiling an authoritative and comprehensive reference work, the article goes on to detail efforts under Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner to decrease the gender gap and attract new editors, including the ill-fated VisualEditor and its associated calamities, trying to develop an overall more-diverse editor group. "Because Wikipedia has failed to replenish its supply of editors, its skew toward technical, Western, and male-dominated subject matter has persisted," the article says. Jimmy Wales commented, "The biggest issue is editor diversity." If there aren't confident, new editors coming to Wikipedia with a drive to write great articles about Wikipedia's underrepresented content, then the encyclopedia will not improve, and will be in an eternal state of "decline" in quality, while its popularity and use through outlets such as Siri and Google search results increases.
In summarising its view of the state of Wikipedia, the article concluded that Wikipedia –
||may be unable to get much closer to its lofty goal of compiling all human knowledge. Wikipedia's community built a system and resource unique in the history of civilization. It proved a worthy, perhaps fatal, match for conventional ways of building encyclopedias. But that community also constructed barriers that deter the newcomers needed to finish the job. Perhaps it was too much to expect that a crowd of Internet strangers would truly democratize knowledge. Today's Wikipedia, even with its middling quality and poor representation of the world's diversity, could be the best encyclopedia we will get.
Wiki-PR scandal prompts press statement from Sue Gardner
Media interest in the Wiki-PR sockpuppeting story broken first by The Daily Dot and then further reported on in Vice (see Signpost articles last week and the week prior) prompted outgoing Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner to issue a press statement which sparked widespread coverage in the mainstream media, led by the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent in the UK, and the Wall Street Journal, Time, Slate and the Washington Times (quoting coverage in The Signpost) in the US. Tech sites including Ars Technica, Web Pro News, Venturebeat, Tech2, CNET, Computerworld UK, The Register and many others also reported the story. (A more complete collection of related press articles is being compiled on Meta.)
Here is Sue Gardner's statement in full:
Editors on the English Wikipedia are currently investigating allegations of suspicious edits and sockpuppetry (i.e. using online identities for purposes of deception). At this point, as reported, it looks like a number of user accounts—perhaps as many as several hundred—may have been paid to write articles on Wikipedia promoting organizations or products, and have been violating numerous site policies and guidelines, including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest. As a result, Wikipedians aiming to protect the projects against non-neutral editing have blocked or banned more than 250 user accounts.
The Wikimedia Foundation takes this issue seriously and has been following it closely.
With a half a billion readers, Wikipedia is an important informational resource for people all over the world. Our readers know Wikipedia's not perfect, but they also know that it has their best interests at heart, and is never trying to sell them a product or propagandize them in any way. Our goal is to provide neutral, reliable information for our readers, and anything that threatens that is a serious problem. We are actively examining this situation and exploring our options.
In the wake of the investigation, editors have expressed shock and dismay. We understand their reaction and share their concerns. We are grateful to the editors who've been doing the difficult, painstaking work of trying to figure out what's happening here.
Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature. Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a "black hat" practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.
What is clear to everyone is that all material on Wikipedia needs to adhere to Wikipedia's editorial policies, including those on neutrality and verifiability. It is also clear that companies that engage in unethical practices on Wikipedia risk seriously damaging their own reputations. In general, companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public, with their actions widely viewed as inconsistent with Wikipedia's educational mission.
The Wikimedia Foundation is closely monitoring this ongoing investigation and we are currently assessing all the options at our disposal. We will have more to say in the coming weeks.
Wiki-PR's Jordan French in turn released a statement that was quoted in full by the Wall Street Journal and in part by the Washington Times as well as in PR Week. Here is the text as given by Wall Street Journal writer Geoffrey A. Fowler:
Thank you. We're as boring as any other research firm. The "PR" in Wiki-PR is a misnomer– we're a research and writing firm. We counsel our clients on how to adhere to Wikipedia's rules. We research the subject and write in an accurate and properly referenced way about it, filling a hole at Wikipedia for many subjects—concepts, companies, people—even astronomy—in which other editors lack an interest. Our people do a lot of work for free on Wikipedia, just because it's interesting and helpful to the Wikipedia community.
Rules at Wikipedia exist to thwart promotionalism and advertising and we follow those rules. If we don't, the material promptly gets removed and we see a "promotionalism" or "advertising" flag at the top. The system works efficiently. Most big PR firms have an agenda to get their clients ROI. Most big PR firms are also expensive. They don't know the rules as well because they do PR work, broadly, and try to promote. We don't have those incentives. Most of our arrangements are for Wikipedia consulting at an hourly or flat-fee rate for a period of time. To be fair, regular editors on Wikipedia do a stellar job. It's usually unregistered IPs that go on to Wikipedia to attack companies and people with views and ideologies they want to advance. What we do is get Wikipedia to enforce the rules so our clients are presented accurately.
We do paid editing and not paid advocacy. Our primary goal is to improve Wikipedia. We're part of the fabric of Wikipedia—an integral part—and useful where volunteers don't want to or cannot put in the time to understand a subject, find sources, code, upload, and professionally monitor a page. We say "no" to clients frequently—in a rigid effort to avoid promoting or advertising. We routinely temper client expectations on promotionalism and advertising and spend boundless time explaining Wikipedia's editorial standards to those who might not be familiar with them. We're part of the solution and not the problem. And I'll be the first to admit that we've made bad calls on "notability", which just means whether a subject has enough news coverage to support a Wikipedia page. We're always monitoring Wikipedia's official policies to ensure compliance.
Senior Wikipedia administrators closed the sockpuppet investigation after concluding that we were paid editors paying other editors. Volumes of Wikipedia pages we didn't work on were wrongly swept into that investigation. We do pay hundreds of other editors for their work– they're real people and not sockpuppets.
There is a rather silent majority on Wikipedia that supports paid editing. What we do isn't magic. Our singular mission is to respect other editors and follow the rules. Some rules overlap and conflict, but that's part of the process with any open-source project like Wikipedia. Designing a market and eco-system can be very difficult, though Wikipedia's leadership has done a pretty good job.
A community ban discussion at the Administrators' Noticeboard saw overwhelming support for banning Wiki-PR from the English Wikipedia. Administrator Fram closed the discussion on 25 October 2013 and enacted the ban. As of 26 October 2013, Wiki-PR's website looks unchanged.
Australian cabinet minister: "I looked up what Wikipedia said"
The Sydney Morning Herald notes that Australian Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt, a member of the centre-right Liberal Party, "uses Wikipedia research to dismiss links between climate change and bushfires". Hunt had admitted his use of Wikipedia in a statement made to the BBC.
||Environment Minister Greg Hunt has hosed down suggestions of a link between climate change and increased bushfire intensity, saying he had "looked up what Wikipedia" said and it was clear that bushfires in Australia were frequent events that had occurred during hotter months since before European settlement.
Hunt's comments came in response to concerns raised by scientists, environmental groups and politicians that extreme weather events—such as the current massive bushfires in New South Wales—were linked to climate change, and in the wake of statements by the head of the UN's climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres, and former US vice-president and climate change activist Al Gore criticising the Australian government for its decision to scrap a carbon tax.
In a follow-up article, The Sydney Morning Herald noted "Wikipedia's verdict on Greg Hunt: 'terrible at his job'." The fact that Hunt used Wikipedia to dismiss concerns over global warming was promptly added to his Wikipedia biography (in an edit that included some expletives), and then deleted again. This was not the only such edit, as The Sydney Morning Herald noted:
||The entry for a few delicious minutes on Thursday included the following pearl: "Since the 2013 election, Hunt has become the Minister for the Environment. He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise".
We can't be entirely sure whether this is accurate. Just about anyone with an opinion, wicked or otherwise, can edit Wikipedia.
Hunt's biography was semi-protected as a result. The affair, also covered in the UK by The Telegraph and The Guardian, sends a curiously mixed message about both the perceived authority of Wikipedia, and its perceived lack of authority.
- Chapter funding: Sue Gardner's warnings of the potential for corruption in FDC funds allocation and her doubts that chapter spending contributes adequate value for money to Wikimedia projects attracted further coverage, especially in Europe and Latin America—including Webwereld and Computerworld in the Netherlands, Wired and Downloadblog in Italy (with a response from the Italian Wikimedia Chapter), Silicon News in Spain, Marlex in Mexico, El País in Uruguay, Entorno Inteligente in Argentina and 163.com in China. Slate too touched on the topic, in an article that also reviewed the sockpuppet case and the MIT Technology Review article covered above.
- Behavioral ecology on Wikipedia: The St. Louis Beacon reported on a Washington University undergraduate course in behavioral ecology that "is an officially designated Wikipedia course, where students learn not only about subjects like social insects but also about how to translate their scientific knowledge into terms the Wikipedia-using public can understand."
- Big data: CIO Magazine ponders the idea of Wikipedia as an originator of the modern big data movement.
- University of Texas editathon: The Daily Texan reported on the first editathon at the University of Texas, and the problems of accessing sources hidden behind a paywall.
- Fundraising. ThirdSector reports on a talk by Zack Exley, former chief community officer of the Wikimedia Foundation. Exley described the Foundation's strategy of testing different fundraising messages to determine the most effective one. Among the new information shared was the fact that testing showed that highlighting keywords in a solicitation increased donations by up to 22%.
- Pundits on Wikipedia: Invezz.com commented on how important it is to investment pundits to have a Wikipedia biography.
- Jimmy Wales at Ideafest: Flanders Today covered Jimmy Wales' participation in the Ideafest seminar in Brussels, where "experts will discuss whether the free sharing of research results, so-called 'open science', could counter plagiarism and fraud."
- Editors worn down: The New Statesman had a piece on editor fatigue, touching on the Wiki-PR story and Wikipedia's editor and admin retention problems. The article contained a number of errors though—the last admin was not appointed in September 2011, and it is somewhat misleading to say that admins—who can be as anonymous as all other editors—are only "appointed after a rigorous screening process which includes background checks and a written test."
- Sex cult tries to invent 1000-year history through Wikipedia: The Kernel reported on an elaborate hoax involving fake newspaper articles and spurious historical references to a "Secret Order of Libertines" inserted in Wikipedia. A related file on Commons has been nominated for deletion.
- Airtel partnership: IT News Africa announced a new partnership between the Wikimedia Foundation and Airtel to provide free mobile access to Wikipedia to Airtel customers in Africa.
- Arbitration Committee criticised for handling of Manning case: The Guardian reports that the arbitration committee has received criticism from British campaign group Trans Media Watch for its handling of the recent Manning naming dispute. The Guardian article, which erroneously claims that the arbitration committee was "called in to make the final decision on which name should be at the top of Manning’s page", quotes a Trans Media Watch statement saying, "We feel that Wikipedia's banning of certain editors for calling people transphobic reflects a wider cultural problem whereby identifying someone is prejudiced is seen as worse than being prejudiced. If the arbitration committee thinks that 'transphobe' is a slur, it might want to reflect on why that is." The arbitration committee had sanctioned a number of editors on both sides of the divide, some for engaging in discriminatory speech, and others for accusing other editors of transphobia. Trans Media Watch continued, "We would like to see Wikipedia demonstrate more self-awareness in its approach to social issues and more consistency in its treatment of cases like this. There are hundreds of pages on Wikipedia about notable people known by names other than their first names, yet we don't see this kind of fuss made in relation to those about, say, George Osborne or Jodie Foster, or even other trans people like Chaz Bono, who was also well known to the public under a different name."