On January 21, 2017, millions of people worldwide marched and rallied in support of issues including women's rights, abortion, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice as part of the Women's March. Across nearly 700 gatherings—at least one on every continent—people came together peacefully to rally around a cause they felt strongly about. Here on Wikipedia, I witnessed and contributed to a similar process, as nearly 700 new and experienced editors contributed to the English Wikipedia articles about the events, building them up city by city into a great overview (2017 Women's March) and list (List of 2017 Women's March locations). The articles were read by 700,000 people over the week centered on the march and received praise for their comprehensiveness on social media. We're often more interested in reading about the Wikipedia articles that are filled with drama, where editors argue and edit war until blocks and sanctions start getting handed out or the article has to be locked down, but it's worth highlighting the hard work and civil editing that goes into articles like these.
Prior to the day of the event, the article - then titled Women's March on Washington and written primarily by Vikkibaumler, Bjhillis, and GandyDancer - covered the planned event in Washington, its motivations, and expected participation, with only a handful of sentences hinting at the scale of events yet to occur. Over the course of the first day, as the marches took place and media coverage of them grew, users added sections covering the biggest marches, and while the article noted that over 400 marches had occurred, just a few dozen had been written about by the end of the day.
Over the following days, users new and experienced added a huge number of documented marches to the article, with experienced users searching out the largest and most well attended to include, alongside unregistered users and new accounts enthusiastically adding the marches they had personally attended to the list (with a surprisingly high number of citations!) Unregistered users contributed information on their marches from Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Norway, the USA, and many other countries. Outside of Wikipedia, calls were made (such as on Reddit and Twitter) to add images and (reliably sourced) marches to the article. By mid-morning the article contained more than 100 sections and the decision was made to convert the information into a table, a process which took over two hours (thanks to CaroleHenson!). The article listed more than 300 references by the end of the January 22, and more than 600 by the end of the January 23, with the table split out into its own list article shortly thereafter.
scrolling down the women's march wikipedia entry for the crowd numbers in every city in america is soul-warming - @Thefurlinator
@thefurlinator i can't tell if i'm more inspired by the giant hundred-thousand-plus attendance marches or the tiny ones with <10 people - @Morsecough
Wikipedia has the only real effort at a tally of participation for the nationwide #WomensMarch - @Janeinak
Vandalism remained surprisingly low, with only minor incidents (including the article briefly being titled the Sore Loser March), and minimal need for blocks to be handed out. Page protection was requested but editors agreed that the beneficial contributions of IP editors far outweighed the handful of negative ones, which were easy to revert; 16% of the article edits were ultimately made by editors not logged into a Wikipedia account. No substantial edit wars took place and no major disagreements occurred on the talk page, beyond some back-and-forth about splitting the article.
While this wasn't the only civil, collaborative, and productive article expansion that's ever occurred on Wikipedia, it is a great example of new and old users coming together over a topic they feel passionate about and writing a useful and comprehensive article with minimal drama, something that I think should be highlighted by the community more often. Consider this one big barnstar to everyone involved.
Can Wikipedia provide free truthful information to everyone?
Today marks the 16th birthday of Wikipedia, the lone holdout in the world of big-time Internet projects. Think for a moment about what an oddity Wikipedia is. It does not track its users as is the norm among Internet sites and thus it does not compile a dossier to sell to marketers or to use to create targeted advertisements. Again, nearly unique among information sites, Wikipedia does not have ads to appear next to its articles. Also Wikipedia is not dependent on algorithms in part because it does not have a profit motive to keep its users glued to the site.
It's interesting to look back to Wikipedia's early years when Google's algorithm promoted Wikipedia content despite its many inaccuracies. Wikipedia was treated by Google as the gold-standard encyclopedia because it was the only one really online trying. Encyclopædia Britannica's online content was not free to circulate. Google sent users to Wikipedia which helped Wikipedia get more volunteers, which led to more articles, which led to more volunteers, and so on and so on.
Wikipedia did not solve the problem of inaccuracy overnight but it committed to finding a solution as a community without the distraction of profits. This again separates Wikipedia from the the other large projects like Google and Facebook who need to find a scalable, algorithmic solution to inaccurate articles.
I just finished writing a book called The Know it Alls which is about tech leaders and their abundant confidence in themselves and their algorithms. They have wreaked so much disruption on our society in the last decade or so—men with names like Marc Andreessen, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their contempt for civic institutions like labor unions, local and federal governments, local businesses, newspapers, universities, as well as for concepts like mutual respect, reasoned discourse, agreed-upon truth has devastated our society in my opinion and brought us to our current precarious situation days before Donald J. Trump.
Wikipedia represents an opposite trend. It is a new civic institution which bolsters community values, promotes collaboration, and works off a shared belief in truth. Our panelists today are going to use Wikipedia as a leaping off point to explore what has become a pressing issue for our democracy. Are we living in a post-truth age? Should we be cool with that? And if not, how can Wikipedia point us in a better direction?
I have been thinking about what happened between 2003 and 2017. Right now, we live in a time when the Web—which was once the utopia, the hope for so many people for how human communications could be—has now somehow turned into the dystopia, its opposite. If you wander around randomly on the web it is a vast wasteland of empty listicles, celebrity non-stories, random shit designed to get your attention for a microsecond, and videos that load for no reason that you want. With exceptions—Wikipedia being one of them, some well thought-out blogs being others, also a few of the old hobbyist sites still around - I think that we who believed that the Web would be something better have failed and need to look at ourselves carefully and ask what the hell happened.
Google was a fairly idealistic place in the early 2000s and mid 2000s. "Don't be evil" was their motto. They certainly had a taste for money but in their hearts they were do-gooders. They made this massive decision to go the path of advertising-based revenue—to become an attention merchant—thinking that, "We can do this, we'll accept advertising, but it won't corrupt us because we're different! We're better! We're smarter!" All of them did! Google was the leader and then everyone followed, saying "We figured it all out! Everything is going to be free and nobody even watches the ads anyway. Ads don't matter, and they're not going to corrupt us." Now I would have trouble naming a major online platform which has gotten any better within the last couple of years for users as opposed to advertisers. These chickens have certainly come home to roost and I think fake news is the strongest example. They set up a model and got trapped in the click world. Your worth on the web is how many clicks you get. It makes TV ratings look honorable by comparison. A whole world where it is all click driven really lowers our society.
The issue of fake news was on a lot of people's minds and I got invited to an event at Arizona University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism… I was sitting in this room with major publishers and the session was on transparency and the whole conversation was around, "How do we as major publications be more transparent so that people trust us more?" One of the publishers was saying that one of the first things they did in response to fake news once they realized what an issue it was, was publish a blog to explain the way that the newsroom sausage gets made. I think my response to that was, "If you need to explain it then you are not being truly transparent." You are speaking to a bunch of people who are already interested in the way that the Fourth Estate works, you are speaking to insiders and folks like me who end up reading the ombudspeople at The New York Times and Washington Post. Instead and if there is a lesson to learn from what Wikipedia has done—it was a weird moment—I said, "Look, I'm not a publisher but I am here representing the Wikimedia Foundation which supports Wikipedia. I have to tell you guys this is a really bad situation when I am sitting in the same room as The New York Times and you are not trusted and we are. Fifteen years ago no one would have predicted that we were going to be sitting across a boardroom table from each other and Wikipedia is giving advice on how to build public trust. Yet that is exactly what we have been dedicated to doing, for the past fifteen years particularly."
Wikimedians: the thing that I find so phenomenal about this culture and this community is that you are constantly asking who you are in competition with and the answer is always "yourselves to be better." It is always an aspiration toward the truth. It is always an aspiration towards evolving the projects to be the best that they can be. So we're sitting here and having this conversation and the thing that I kept coming away with is that Wikipedia does a couple things really well. There are the three core policies of Wikipedia: verifiability, no original research, reliable sources. … I think the thing that we do not focus enough on is the role of transparency at every level: policies, structural product, and the accountability that this creates to readers and to ourselves. That is the thing that I see missing from a lot of the conversations we're having about fake news, not just with the media institutions themselves, although I think they aspire to it imperfectly, but certainly with the platforms that have become the intermediaries for how we see the world.
Following the 2016 United States presidential election, perennial candidate Vermin Supreme might be described as the most reasonable, traditional, and conventionally electable politician who campaigned. Amazingly in such a heated and hostile election, Supreme progressed through the entire debate season with no criticism from any political party, except versions of his own party from various timelines in parallel universes. On Wikipedia Day 2016, without prior announcement, Supreme took the stage and called for the United States government to transition to a more moderate political system: fascism under his tyrannical rule as president. It was just as well that he came, as Supreme was probably the least controversial candidate with the most transparent political platform. His political positions included advocating for America's scientists to direct their attention to time travel research and spacetime repair, the American health care system to focus on issuing everyone more and much larger toothbrushes to counter the community burden of gingivitis, and for the American military to invest all resources to prepare for the imminent zombie apocalypse. With the presidential inauguration just days later, Supreme's presence was all the more relevant, as he among all presidential candidates had the most opinions and policy statements which were specifically about Wikipedia. As the assembled audience came to realize the weight of the personality speaking to them, Supreme called for free ponies for everyone as part of a plan for the United States to shift toward a pony-based economy.
Supreme, along with campaign manager Rob Potylo, led a Wikipedia sing-along with compulsory participation. Supreme went on to say, "Gingivitis has been eroding the gumline of our great nation for long enough and must be stopped." Potylo cut to the point and asked, "Does anyone know where the buffet table is?" Katherine called for applause for these guests in the wiki spirit of inclusivity. Even "post-truth" and "alternative facts" are welcome in Wikipedia when wiki editors use citations to neutral third-party reliable sources to clearly label such content as a group's own trip, propaganda, advertising, fringe theory, false memory, mental disorder, or lie. This goes for all marketers, political parties, or anyone else feeling a wiki wish to edit their own reality.