News and notes
The year in review
Wikipedia Zero: students in Africa delight in their newly free access to Wikipedia
It is a difficult task to stand back and summarise what happened during a whole year for such a sprawling, complicated phenomenon as the Wikimedia movement. This was the year in which one journalist described the flagship site, Wikipedia, as "wickedly seductive". It was the year Wikipedia's replacement value was estimated at $6.6bn, its market value at "tens of billions of dollars", and its consumer benefit "hundreds of billions of dollars".
But it was also the year in which one commentator forecast the decline of Wikipedia—that the project and "its stated ambition to 'compile the sum of all human knowledge' are in trouble" from its shrinking volunteer workforce, skewed coverage, "crushing bureaucracy" and 90 percent male community (sure enough, the statistics for edits and editor numbers over the past year are looking queasy for most projects, although page views are holding up).
The Signpost explores one take on what 2013 was for the movement.
What was hot
In a video released this year, South African students asked their mobile providers for free access to Wikipedia through Wikipedia Zero
Countries last July where Wikipedia Zero had become available for all languages (blue) and for some languages (green)
The Wikimedia Foundation's Wikipedia Zero scheme was a stand-out success. Wikipedia Zero provides free mobile access to Wikipedia in developing countries, and during the year expanded into India, Kenya, and Myanmar, and nine other countries. While the Foundation's official Q&A page has been only sparsely updated over the past months, by April the program had potential to reach 517 million people.
The Foundation's first individual engagement grants (IEGs) were offered in 2013, with rounds in April and December. The scheme was introduced in January 2013 to empower individuals or small teams of volunteers to tackle long-term on-wiki problems, as opposed to the chapter-focused Funds Dissemination Committee. The scheme favours innovation, long-lasting impact, and the efficient use of funds. Diverse projects have been funded during this first year. Some examples: an ambitious workshop for women aimed at creating a new model for bringing them into the Wikimedia movement; a project that will enable more than 6000 documents in Javanese, spoken by about 80 million people, to be digitised in their original script rather than transliterated into roman script for uploading and use in Wikimedia projects; and projects that will significantly enhance the utility of Wikidata and VisualEditor, and maps on WMF projects; and an international collaboration to create an e-learning centre in an African village.
Wikidata, the new WMF project launched in 2012 and largely developed by the German chapter, has been edited more than 100 million times and now has some 14 million pages (edging up fast to the English Wikipedia's 30 million). Growth during the year has seen the creation of more than a thousand "properties", the key structures that allow sets of data to be linked to each other. Thus far, the MediaWiki software has proved quite capable of this scaling up. The Signpost understands that performance and software stability are regarded as up to expectations for this stage, and that it is becoming possible to build projects on top of Wikidata.
GLAM-Wiki (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) had a remarkably successful year, moving forward on several fronts. In the US, a so-called "Boot Camp" was held at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC; the same institution has also announced plans to create a virtual internship for Wikipedians and uploaded thousands of images. The Swiss Federal Archives has partnered with the local Wikimedia chapter to publish source materials online, while Fundación Joaquín Díaz has hooked up with Wikimedia Spain. On-wiki, a major individual engagement grant was awarded for the Wikipedia Library, which has continued providing free accounts for websites like JSTOR that are stuck behind paywalls.
Wiki Loves Monuments successfully completed its fourth year, with 52 countries taking part—up from 35 last year. With support from Wikimedia Argentina, Antarctica was even able to take part. The winner portrayed an electric train crossing a viaduct in the snowy Switzerland Alps, but overall more than 370,000 files were uploaded by nearly 12,000 photographers, totalling nearly 1,300 Gb (1.3 terabytes). The success of WLM, now the world's largest photographic competition, appears to have been underpinned by dynamic volunteer leadership.
The Chapters Association folded during its meeting at the Hong Kong Wikimania. In the Association's year-long existence it was mired in controversy: the use of the trademarked term Wikimedia in its name was contested by the Foundation; there was dithering on proposals to recruit a so-called secretary-general and several other employees, and to incorporate the Association and set up a physical office in a European country; and its inaugural chair, Ashley van Haeften (Fæ), resigned. Decision-making and organisation appeared to elude the Association from the start; even the votes at Hong Kong to dissolve it and abolish its constitution failed.
On the English Wikipedia, flops less spectacular were nonetheless frustrating to many editors. The perennial issue of admin reform still hangs over us despite a well-meaning series of RfCs in January that became so convoluted that they seemed to disappear up their own navel. The lead of the German Wikipedia remains a distant mirage—they just went ahead and reformed their admin system in 2009 (helped by a consensus model that requires only majority community approval). A similar fate met yet another attempt to redesign the main page of the English Wikipedia, by now a tawdry reminder of the way the internet used to be. Again, the anglophone tendency to have a good squabble in every direction got in the way.
What was outrageous
, chairman of Wikimedia France ... intimidated by intelligence agents into deleting an article that allegedly contained classified information
In May there was a public spat
between Jimmy Wales and one of the chiefs of a US public-relations firm Qorvis
, who was reported
as saying that the English Wikipedia's guideline discouraging PR firms from editing articles on their clients is "inane" and "would violate the basic tenets of even the most partisan of small-town newspapers or the most crooked court rooms." This came after accusations on Jimmy's talk page of sockpuppetry by the firm. Wales tweeted
in angry response: "Your complaints are deeply dishonest to the point of being embarrassing. Your clients should fire you for it."
But this turned out to be a meek precursor to the storm that would erupt in October when an extensive network of clandestine sock-fuelled paid advocacy was uncovered. It appears that Wiki-PR had built a nice little earner through deceptive onwiki behaviour, and was boasting publicly about having 12,000 clients. Such is the potential of paid advocacy to affect Wikipedia's reputation for balance that the issue hit the talk pages like wildfire and was widely reported in the international press. The Signpost's own investigation turned up a tweeted bragging by one manager in which he named two major corporate clients whose custom he had just secured—a tweet that was disabled within an hour after our publication (we took a screenshot in anticipation). WMF executive director Sue Gardner released a press statement on the matter, followed in November by the WMF's cease-and-desist letter to Wiki-PR demanding that the company abide by our site policies.
April saw the extraordinary revelation that French volunteer editor Rémi Mathis had been summoned to the offices of the French interior intelligence service, DCRI, and threatened with criminal charges and fines if he did not delete an article on the French Wikipedia about a radio station used by the French military. This heavy-handed behaviour was all the stranger because the article apparently making cortisol flush through spooks' bloodstreams had remained largely the same for four years and contained similar information to a publicly available video showing a tour of the military base in question. Wikimedia France asked: "Has editing Wikipedia officially become risky behaviour in France?"
What was sad
Aaron Swartz: tragic loss
of a significant internet activist and Wikimedian
The movement lost to suicide one of the flag-bearers of internet freedom, Aaron Swartz
. Swartz hanged himself in his New York City apartment after two years of judicial and police action against him for downloading 4.8 million academic journal articles from JSTOR, which had taken a sharper turn in January. His writings on Wikipedia—particularly "Who writes Wikipedia?"
—are likely to remain important documents for the Wikimedia movement.
While Aaron Swartz was the highest-profile loss, each year sees the deaths of several Wikimedians whose contributions have had an impact on the movement. The sad loss of Jackson Peebles was a recent example. Jackson was a college student from Michigan who was a Teahouse host, an instructor in the Education Program, and the lead on a video tutorials project.
On a different level, sad was the fact that many national governments in the high-tech age are redoubling their efforts to block or restrict access to Wikipedia. This notably includes the Chinese block of the secure version of the project, and the passage of a new Russian law that allows the easy blacklisting of Wikipedia topics by government officials.
What was controversial
The most controversial topic on the English Wikipedia was the introduction and subsequent retreat of the VisualEditor. The tool, which allows users to edit Wikimedia sites without learning the complicated code of wikimarkup, was deployed as an opt-out beta in July. It almost immediately faced strong opposition from the established community, largely because at the time the tool was frequently breaking pages and lacked support for references, templates, and image captions. A later request for comment also went poorly, and the VisualEditor was rolled back to an opt-in basis in September. Having been prematurely launched as a beta, one of the most important innovations in the history of the movement remains a work in progress. It is already processing edits faster, overcoming an early complaint about its performance. The roll-out schedule for WMF projects is here.
Chelsea Manning in her former guise as Bradley Manning
Outsiders might be forgiven for wondering how one person's change of gender identity could provoke an editorial tempest of Hurricane Katrina proportions. Soon after US soldier Bradley Manning was sentenced for her role in the Wikileaks saga, she announced through her lawyer that she would henceforth assume a female identity as Chelsea Manning. With lightning speed, the Wikipedia article on Manning was renamed to reflect her new name, pronouns within switched accordingly. A rapid-fire edit war ensued: the article name moved back and forth between male and female versions, and there were multiple edits and reverts at the gender-identification section at the Manual of Style (MOS). The issue was ramped up towards scandal status with an arbitrator's blocking of multiple admins and fisticuffs about the whole scenario at ANI. Then the policy on editing through protection came under the spotlight when it appeared that the boundaries of acceptability had become rubbery. The furore ended up at ArbCom, which on closing the case was critical of "disparaging references to transgendered persons' life choices or anatomical changes [and] excessively generalized or blanket statements concerning motivations for wishing the page title to be 'Bradley Manning', [which] significantly degraded good-faith attempts to establish a consensus on the issue." The committee applied remedies against six individuals, including one for involved administrator actions. The case received considerable coverage in the outside media.
Sexism is a sensitive word in the Wikimedia movement given the gender skew of editors and coverage. An issue tagged humorously by some people as categorygate was started when American novelist Amanda Filipacchi wrote an op-ed for the New York Times expressing concern at a process of "moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the 'American novelists' category to the 'American women novelists' subcategory", noting that there is no category for "American men novelists". In a follow-up, she revealed that as soon as the op-ed had appeared, "unhappy Wikipedia editors pounced on my Wikipedia page and started making alterations to it, erasing as much as they possibly could without (I assume) technically breaking the rules." Filipacchi subsequently argued that sexism is "a widespread problem" on Wikipedia. This controversy also received wide coverage in the press.
Work in progress or completed
- The proposed drafts of the Foundation's privacy and trademark policies have been open for months for public comment. Both policies are likely to be resolved this month. The current version of the trademark policy is four years old and was based on Mozilla's; the proposed policy will be tailored for Wikimedia requirements, explicitly allowing the use of the trademark in wide-ranging scenarios.
- After community consultation, the WMF's senior counsel Geoff Brigham has announced that a recommendation will go to the board that it withdraw WMF trademark registration and protection of the Community logo.
- The Wikimedia OTRS email response system was upgraded, the first such upgrade in four years and important given the steady increase in the volume of traffic.
- The Foundation's tech department began redirecting logged-in users to its HTTPS version as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations of the US government's extensive practice of spying on Internet and telecommunications users. A draft Access to non-public information policy is still open for comment until 15 January.
- The new system of user notifications, Echo, was introduced—rather late but at least we have it and it works, said one Wikimedian.
The usual types of drama occurred throughout the year with the inevitability of a ticking clock. From a wealth of pass-the-popcorn events we selected just a few to remind readers of our phylogenetic origins:
- Just two months into his second term as an arbitrator on the English Wikipedia, Coren resigned from the Committee with a blistering attack on his fellow arbitrators. "I did not, could not guess how bad a turn it had taken. Despite the valiant efforts of some of its members, the institution is moribund, and cancerous", he lashed out.
- Long-term contributor and featured-article writer Cla68 was indefinitely blocked, snowballing into several other blocks, a desysopping by ArbCom, and a request for arbitration. The saga stemmed from a post by Cla68 on Sue Gardner's talk page asking her to comment on a Wikipediocracy thread that outed User:Russavia.
- In the second major "outing" controversy to hit the English Wikipedia in less than a year, the Chelsea/Bradley Manning naming dispute was dragged into the spotlight yet again when ArbCom desysopped and indeffed long-time Wikipedian Phil Sandifer. The surprising aspect of these actions was their basis solely on content published outside Wikipedia (Sandifer's personal blog had profiled the real-life name, location, and employers of a user involved with the Chelsea Manning renaming case, violating the outing policy).
- In what was not its most diplomatically handled action, the Foundation sacked all volunteer admins on its site in May, sparking a week-long war of words on the Wikimedia-l mailing list.
- At year's end, the starter's gun for ArbCom scandal was fired with alarming promptness—a resignation even before the new arbitrators took office on 1 January. 28bytes failed to declare to voters in the December election his active participation on the criticism site Wikipediocracy, whose participants were separately investigating a possible conflict of interest on 28bytes' part. To add to the drama, 28bytes had received the top vote in the election and was the only candidate to receive the support of more than half of the voters. Meanwhile Jimmy took the occasion to open a creaky cupboard door and dust off a primeval monarchical power or two, such as "my ability to remove someone [from ArbCom]", at the same time conceding that it would be "a drama route".
- Appeals by two chapters on FDC funding decision. The Board of Trustees has rejected appeals by the Indian and Israeli chapters to overturn the FDC's recommendation to allocate significantly less funding than they had requested.
- Commons moves to rationalize copyright policy: A new proposal on Commons would change the site's policies to allow for nominally copyrighted images to be hosted on the site, provided that the copyright owner has renounced their rights. This may come across as common sense to readers unfamiliar with the twisting morass of international copyrights, but it is the result of US law, which Commons must account for (its servers are located there). US law does not account for the copyright status of works in their source countries, and the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) restored copyrights on some works that are in the public domain in their home countries. The new policy, if approved, would allow such works to be hosted on the site if the copyright owner had disclaimed their rights.
- WikiSangamotsavam: The annual conference for Malayalam-language Wikimedians concluded on 23 December. Held in Alappuzha, Kerala (India), the three-day event included a bicycle rally, Wiki-Yuva Sangamam (a meeting of young volunteers), a photowalk, and an editathon. The final day included Wiki-Jalayathra, a boat ride where participants were able to photograph the wetlands around the city.