The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

by Henry on March 27, 2013

Tomorrow, as a belated contribution to the Real Utopias seminar, I’ll be posting a piece which talks about manipulation of the Wikipedia process. As soon as I’d finished writing, I turned to Twitter, to read this interesting story by Benjamin Mako Hill about his experiences with the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (an organization that I only know of because they relentlessly spam me with unsolicited emails about tedious-sounding events – apparently it is effectively impossible to get off their mailing list). In any event, it appears that some mysterious individual called icd_berlin created a Wikipedia page on the Berlin based Institute, which was then built up by a series of anonymous contributors with Berlin IP addresses. Critical comments about their intern policy were removed (again by an individual with a Berlin IP address). And then things get worse …

As Wikipedia editor, I was worried that Wikipedia’s policies on conflict of interest, advertising, neutrality, and notability were not being served by the article in its state. But as someone with no real experience or knowledge of the ICD, I wasn’t sure what to do. I posted a request for help on Wikipedia asking for others to get involved and offer their opinions. It turns out, there were several editors who had tried to improve the article in the past and had been met by pro-ICD editors reverting their changes. Eventually, those editors lost patience or simply moved on to other topics. … By raising the issue again, I kicked off a round of discussion about the article. At the termination of that discussion, the article was proposed for deletion under Wikipedia’s Articles for Deletion policy. A new Wikipedia editor began working enthusiastically to keep the article by adding links and by arguing that the article should stay. The new user edited the Wikipedia article about me to accuse me of slander and defamation although they removed that claim after I tried to explain that I was only trying to help.

On February 25, the Wikipedia article on ICD was recreated — once again out of process and by a user with almost no previous edit history. The next day, I received an email from Mark Donfried. In the message, Donfried said:

Please note that the ICD is completely in favor of fostering open dialogue and discussions, even critical ones, however some of your activities are raising serious questions about the motives behind your actions and some even seem to be motives of sabotage, since they resulted in ICD not having any Wikipedia page at all. We are deeply concerned regarding these actions of yours, which are causing us considerable damages. As the person who initiated these actions with Wikipedia and member of the board of Wikipedia [1], we would therefore request your answer regarding our questions below within the next 10 days (by March 6th). If we do not receive your response we will unfortunately have to consider taking further legal actions with these regards against you and other anonymous editors.

… although I did not participate in the discussion, Donfried emailed again with more threats of legal action hours after the ICD article was deleted … Donfried’s threat has scared me off from attempts to improve the ICD articles. I suspect I will not edit ICD pages in Wikipedia in the future. The saddest part for me is that I recognize that what is in effect bullying is working. There are currently Wikipedia articles about the ICD in many languages. For several years, ICD has had an article on English Wikipedia. For almost all of that period, that article has consisted entirely of universally positive text, without criticism, and has been written almost entirely by anonymous editors who have only contributed to articles related to the ICD.

There are a lot of Wikipedia articles out there that seem determined to present positive viewpoints on people or organizations who might be viewed from a variety of alternative perspectives … for example, the article on Jacques Attali seems to me to have what one might describe as a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. I’d be quite interested to know who in fact has written and edited it, as with others of its genre.

{ 77 comments }

1

Rich Puchalsky 03.27.13 at 5:26 pm

The wikipedia dispute that I’m most familiar with are ones around William Connolley, which resulted, as far as I can tell, from a noted climate science expert and random anonymoid climate denialists having pretty much the same edit privileges.

2

Steve LaBonne 03.27.13 at 5:36 pm

Wikipedia can be surprisingly decent as a handy quick-and-dirty reference for non-controversial (especially technical) subjects, but for anything remotely controversial- which in practice means almost any currently extant individual or organization, and even any technical topic with contemporary political ramifications- just forget it. The whole model is simply unworkable in such cases- effective quality control is impossible .

3

mpowell 03.27.13 at 5:50 pm

I wonder if they could improve the situation with some kind of editor peer review process. Spam of all sorts is difficult to combat however and that might just result in the problem areas spreading.

4

LFC 03.27.13 at 5:57 pm

@2
effective quality control is impossible

My impression is that quality control is a problem throughout, not just on controversial topics (though I can’t speak much about the technical or scientific entries). Some articles are excellent, others quite bad (i.e., badly written, poorly researched). Compare for example the very long, detailed entry on the July Crisis (of 1914) with the entry on the so-called ‘new monarchs’ in 15th-century Europe which I happened to stumble upon once: unless the latter’s gotten a makeover in the last several weeks, it’s like day and night, the contrast is astounding. Why? It’s not as if one topic is so much more intrinsically important than the other, but some people obviously cared a lot more about the July Crisis.

Moreover, there seem to be too few people keeping track of the overall state of things — thus, e.g, those boxes at the top of articles calling attention to defects or problems are liable to remain up forever, even if someone has come along and fixed the problem in question. Conversations are started and/or points raised on ‘talk’ pages which are never resolved or even responded to — they just linger there. I don’t spend much time with Wikipedia; these are just my impressions from occasional use.

5

Steve LaBonne 03.27.13 at 6:02 pm

Yes, quality control can be iffy anywhere on Wikipedia- caveat lector. I was just trying to say that on certain kinds of topics it’s flatly impossible, essentially in principle.

6

AcademicLurker 03.27.13 at 6:11 pm

Compare for example the very long, detailed entry on the July Crisis (of 1914) with the entry on the so-called ‘new monarchs’ in 15th-century Europe which I happened to stumble upon once: unless the latter’s gotten a makeover in the last several weeks, it’s like day and night, the contrast is astounding. Why? It’s not as if one topic is so much more intrinsically important than the other, but some people obviously cared a lot more about the July Crisis.

Whereas the article on Star Fleet uniforms trounces both of those.

7

Rich Puchalsky 03.27.13 at 6:26 pm

“Whereas the article on Star Fleet uniforms trounces both of those.”

Eh — I’m not much on the argument from Star Fleet uniforms. You see it whenever the subject of wikipedia comes up in these kind of discussions. “Have you compared the work put into [serious academic subject] compared with [SF fan topic]?” To which I say, so what. It’s a community-built encyclopedia and the work put in is going to reflect what the people who make it care about. Maybe traditional-style encyclopedias should have much larger sections on Star Trek uniforms.

Of course, the articles on scholarly topics should get them right. That’s a different subject.

8

Anarcissie 03.27.13 at 6:43 pm

So, given Wikipedia is so defective, what would an alternative to it look like? How would it operate?

9

AcademicLurker 03.27.13 at 6:48 pm

One lesson that’s quickly learned from browsing wikipedia is that the set of controversial topics is much broader than one would think.

A few years ago I landed on an article about Mogul era architecture and there was an epic edit war going on between what appeared to be Hindu nationalists on one side and Indian Muslims on the other.

I would have expected that level of vitriol in an entry on the Gaza strip or global warming, but it came as a bit of a surprise for an article about 400 year old buildings.

10

Sandwichman 03.27.13 at 6:50 pm

I once tried to contribute to a Wikipedia article on a controversial topic I’ve researched exhaustively but the self-appointed ideological gatekeeper for that article deleted my edits on the grounds that he or she “had never heard of me,” that my peer-reviewed, published articles on the topic were not peer-reviewed (in his or her opinion) and that he or she was a “PhD candidate” (who evidently couldn’t spell). I have better things to do than spend hours bickering with a troll.

11

Steve LaBonne 03.27.13 at 6:59 pm

So, given Wikipedia is so defective, what would an alternative to it look like?

An old-fashioned encyclopedia (which presupposes users paying for the content). Amateurism has its limits. And free stuff is sometimes worth less than you paid for it.

12

Cranky Observer 03.27.13 at 7:08 pm

Steve @ 6:59,
The exact same influence & negotiation processes went on (and go) on with standard printed reference books; you (and we) just don’t get to see them.

Cranky

13

Witt 03.27.13 at 7:11 pm

I do find myself often turning to the “talk” page to try to get a more full-rounded perspective on an organization. Imperfect as they are, you can often at least get a pointer to what is considered controversial about an organization (or person).

It’s hard, though. Locally in my own community or professional field, I can often pick up the phone and get a very quick overview of an organization from someone I know. Outside that, I’m limited to what I have time to research via the web — and often there isn’t much there, especially as major newspapers retreat behind paywalls and local newspapers begin to abandon archiving in any real sense.

A recent example is the Hunger Project; I came across their name again recently and couldn’t remember why it was triggering such a strong negative reaction. The Wikipedia page and talk page were modestly helpful, but it would be enormously valuable to have somewhere to get a succinct, well-rounded summary of an organization’s roots, supporters, goals, achievements, and failings.

On another note, I’ve edited out a lot of casual racism from demographics pages, but I admit that formatting issues cause me to lose patience after a while. I may not be able to make a perfect-looking Census table, but my careful summary of publicly available data ought to count as an improvement and not be reverted.

14

Anarcissie 03.27.13 at 7:12 pm

We already have traditional encyclopedias, so if you like them and don’t like Wikipedia, why can’t you use them?

15

Steve LaBonne 03.27.13 at 7:13 pm

The exact same influence & negotiation processes went on (and go) on with standard printed reference books; you (and we) just don’t get to see them.

Nothing made by humans is perfect. But the problems with the best traditional encyclopedias, while far from non-existent, were quite a bit less severe. One can judge this from the quality of the final results without knowing the history of the process (and non-editor users of Wikipedia don’t normally see that either).

16

Steve LaBonne 03.27.13 at 7:14 pm

We already have traditional encyclopedias, so if you like them and don’t like Wikipedia, why can’t you use them?

Well, exactly. That’s what I’m saying. For any more than very casual use, if you don’t have access to (or the background to cope with) a specialist resource, you’re better off paying to access a more reliable general reference work than Wikipedia.

17

Witt 03.27.13 at 7:29 pm

The exact same influence & negotiation processes went on (and go) on with standard printed reference books; you (and we) just don’t get to see them.

I beg to differ. The process itself may have been (be) the same, but the ability of a few dedicated trolls or cranks to massively and permanently derail something of real social value is far greater in Wikipedia.

(Lest I sound like a total grouch, I think overall Wikipedia contributes much more to the world than the problems it causes [frankly, its problems are more often a symptom or reflection of the wider world]. I do think it occupies a unique and needed niche, separate from print encyclopedias or specialized reference works. I have donated financially to Wikipedia and will again. )

18

Rich Puchalsky 03.27.13 at 7:29 pm

“For any more than very casual use, if you don’t have access to (or the background to cope with) a specialist resource, you’re better off paying to access a more reliable general reference work than Wikipedia.”

The vast majority of people who would be tempted to use Wikipedia for any more than casual use can’t pay, so this is a kind of non-solution.

Wikipedia provides a living summary of current conflicts between capitalist, anarchist, and socialist views. The capitalist version is high-quality if you can pay for it. The anarchists got their self-organizing system running but underestimated the amount of sabotage that people would do. And the socialist version never got built.

19

Robert 03.27.13 at 7:36 pm

Economics is a particularly troublesome topic. “Reliable sources”, as defined by Wikipedia, include a broader range of sources and ideas than are taught to mainstream economists. Some of those reliable sources even say that most of neoclassical economics is some convex combination of wrong and not-even-wrong. So some academically-trained mainstream economists are constantly trying to ensure that the wikipedia articles do not have encyclopedic coverage of their topics. (As far as I am concerned, Sandwichman was published in at least one reliable source, the Review of Social Economy.)

I find debates on the entry for the Austrian School particularly amusing. (I think I wrote the original entry.)

If I want to find out more about a topic, I generally skip the Wikipedia entry and look at the references at the bottom of the page.

20

Anarcissie 03.27.13 at 7:45 pm

Actually, I hadn’t noticed that the quality of other encyclopedias was superior to that of Wikipedia. I wonder if there are any objective studies of the question. In any case, an encyclopedia is a second-or-greater-hand source, so (if I were doing serious research) it could only be one of maybe several jumping-off points. That was true even in the Dark Ages of my distant youth, when encyclopedias were made by grave men with letters after their names and published by prestigious institutions. One was warned about it in school.

But besides Wikipedia versus Britannica, I was wondering if any of you wanted to propose an alternative model for article and fact selection, editing, presentation, and so forth. As Rich P. says @ 18, we have the capitalist model(s) and the anarchist model. I suppose a capitalist model is one that draws money, either through access fees, grants from rich people and institutions, or advertising. I don’t see why that would be superior, but who knows? And I don’t know what a socialist model would be.

21

Patrick 03.27.13 at 7:50 pm

For most articles on living people, it is very hard to get anything negative to stick in the article because the sourcing requirements are very strict and in the event of a disagreement, the default is usually to remove the content until it is resolved.

22

Patrick 03.27.13 at 7:50 pm

23

Bruce Wilder 03.27.13 at 7:51 pm

I’m surprised that the New York Times didn’t elect to create an archive organized as an encyclopedia.

24

Robert 03.27.13 at 7:56 pm

My name links to a news article. This 2005 article is about a study concluding wikipedia is at least as accurate as Britannica.

25

Steve LaBonne 03.27.13 at 8:04 pm

Robert, Britannica’s response to that article was IMHO pretty devastating, and Nature’s reply to the criticism was weak.

26

The Raven 03.27.13 at 8:20 pm

What would be better is a funded non-profit organization that publishes a free encyclopedia and uses customary academic standards. But, oh, man, can’t you just hear the cries of elitism! The amount of funding required would be staggering and crowdsourcing it would be more difficult than Wikipedia, which is seen (more and more wrongly) as a product of a democratic process, and therefore popular.

Robert@19: economics is troublesome, because the peer-reviewed literature is full of garbage; the result of decades of right-wing funded economics. There isn’t a whole lot any encyclopedist can do when a whole discipline goes off the deep end.

27

MPAVictoria 03.27.13 at 8:23 pm

“And free stuff is sometimes worth less than you paid for it.”

My God how spoiled we have become. Wikipedia is a freaking miracle. The fact that from my phone I can look up information on almost any topic you can name for FREE is something out of a Science Fiction novel. Steve you need to gain a little perspective.

28

MPAVictoria 03.27.13 at 8:26 pm

“For any more than very casual use, if you don’t have access to (or the background to cope with) a specialist resource, you’re better off paying to access a more reliable general reference work than Wikipedia.”

Of course regular encyclopedias cover only a fraction of the topics covered by Wikipedia and are not updated nearly as quickly.

29

Steve LaBonne 03.27.13 at 8:27 pm

That was not intended as a dismissal of Wikipedia as a whole- I often find it useful myself. But it has serious limitations that the prudent consumer needs to bear in mind.

30

MPAVictoria 03.27.13 at 8:29 pm

“That was not intended as a dismissal of Wikipedia as a whole- I often find it useful myself. But it has serious limitations that the prudent consumer needs to bear in mind.”

Fair enough. It reads pretty harshly Steve.

31

Mao Cheng Ji 03.27.13 at 8:42 pm

“The fact that from my phone I can look up information on almost any topic you can name for FREE is something out of a Science Fiction novel.”

Yup. And everyone has a freakin phone. Which makes it next to impossible to bullshit anyone anymore. And how else can one have a stimulating conversation? Life sucks. Kill the damned thing; make it charge a nickel.

32

Rich Puchalsky 03.27.13 at 8:47 pm

Anarcissie: “And I don’t know what a socialist model would be.”

It would pretty much be what The Raven talks about in #26 — take tax money, use it to fund an institution that produces high-quality encyclopedias according to traditional methods, release the finished product freely to anyone. Like I said, never got built. In part because public goods that states like to buy are much more like armies, less like encyclopedias, in part because for-profit producers of information lobby very heavily against “competitors” that would essentially put them all out of business. It might even have bad effects, once they were all out of business and someone figured out that a state agency was the only remaining source of encyclopedias and hey shouldn’t they follow the state line.

33

Anarcissie 03.27.13 at 8:48 pm

The Raven 03.27.13 at 8:20 pm:
‘What would be better is a funded non-profit organization that publishes a free encyclopedia and uses customary academic standards. But, oh, man, can’t you just hear the cries of elitism! …’

According to what I’ve read, that is what Jimmy Wales tried to set up first. He found that credentialed experts wouldn’t write for it. (Insufficient payoff, I guess — same as answer to #23.) Then there’s the question of who’s going to do the funding, and what they will want in return.

I was trying to think of a socialist un-Wikipedia. Clearly, it could not be produced by a capitalist government , and there aren’t any socialist governments, so this leaves a cooperative practicing some sort of democratic centralism. Form a democratic cooperative, hire a bunch of servers and programmers, copy Wikipedia (Creative Commons), and you’re off!

34

The Raven 03.27.13 at 8:48 pm

Mao Cheng Ji@31: unless the bullshit is in Wikipedia, in which case it can become permanent.

MPAVictoria@27: good information, on the other hand, not so much. Damn planetary rumor mill.

35

rf 03.27.13 at 9:02 pm

But it’s a reference point, no one takes it as the gospel.. You wiki Bill O Reilly, see something juicy, google that juicy tidbit and begin your investigation..back under the old regime that juicy tidbit wouldnt even have gotten in to the encyclopedia. Nor probably would Bill O Reilly..the internet is the replacment for the Brittanica, wiki is just the index..no need to revert to the past lugging around your 20 volume britannica. Terrible days

36

The Raven 03.27.13 at 9:10 pm

rf@35: for a lot of people, perhaps the majority, it is the first and last place they look.

“I heard it on the internet, it must be true.”

37

xaaronx 03.27.13 at 9:18 pm

MPAVictoria:
My God how spoiled we have become. Wikipedia is a freaking miracle. The fact that from my phone I can look up information on almost any topic you can name for FREE is something out of a Science Fiction novel.

This. Exactly this. And as for ou Ir dear corvid, let’s not let Wikipedia’s real problems get too exaggerated. It gives you a good basic starting point on nearly any subject, but is not the final word on ANYTHING. That’s how I was always taught to use encyclopedias in general anyway. Wikipedia does this generally pretty well, and covers a broader array of topics than even Britannica could dream of.

38

William Timberman 03.27.13 at 9:22 pm

Information may want to be free (YMMV), but if you’re paying for it, and what you’re paying for is merely the promise that it never be contested, chances are you’re getting a raw deal. (And no, I don’t exempt Walter Cronkite, America’s Desire to Promote Freedom Everywhere, the Immaculate Conception, or even The Second Law of Thermodynamics.)

39

Sandwichman 03.27.13 at 9:28 pm

Lobsters are gregarious.

40

MPAVictoria 03.27.13 at 9:44 pm

Oh come now Raven. My experience with using Wikipedia has been almost uniformly positive. Is it the last word on complex subjects? No but it doesn’t claim to be but as a free source for basic information it is unmatched.

41

The Raven 03.27.13 at 9:48 pm

xaaronx@37: “It gives you a good basic starting point on nearly any subject”

Look up “Mahatma” in Wikipedia, and then come back and say that with a straight face.

Anarcisse@33: “a cooperative practicing some sort of democratic centralism.” But isn’t that what Wikipedia is? Part of the problem here is that web users have grown accustomed to invisible funding, which comes with invisible strings. I think, really, we have to work out an economic model where contributors get paid modest honoraria. I think that could work. It is not like publishing in academic journals pays hugely well, after all. If university departments encouraged their faculty to contribute to such a project, that might help, might even solve the problem, if the practice became widespread enough.

42

bianca steele 03.27.13 at 10:05 pm

@2 Yes, Wikipedia makes for a convenient search engine on some topics. It saves a few steps.

On other topics, including Star Trek costumes and say, Broadway musicals, it may be crowding out amateur and semi-professional communities, whose sites it rarely links to.

43

SusanC 03.27.13 at 10:51 pm

If someone had told me about Wikipedia, before I’d seen it in action, I’d have said those people were freakin’ insane. How can that possibly work? (Indeed, this was probably my initial reaction on finding out about it).

The issue is not that Wikipedia ran aground of unanticipated problems. The miracle is that the obvious problems with the model turn out to be less severe than the sceptics thought. The utopian optimists were proven kind of right, and Wikipedia sort-of works, for a domain of use that’s big enough to be interesting. (Controversial topics being outside the domain of things that it works for).

I’d hesitate to point to academic publication as a successful model that Wikipedia might emulate. Academic publishing is suffering its own problems right now… (And the stuff that the professionals submit to refereed journals can outdo Wikipedia for badly-written/outright wrong… the referees manage to spike a fair amount of this before the general readership gets to see it, but some still gets through. And now I think of it, referee’s reports can start looking like Wikipedia on a controversial topic.).

44

Bill Benzon 03.27.13 at 11:19 pm

The Wikipedia is, well, the Wikipedia. I don’t hesitate to use it as a first source look-up for just about anything. But I don’t necessarily trust it. It depends. And on some things, e.g. philosophy, I’m likely to go elsewhere first (most likely the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If you’re interested in pop culture, it’s very useful. Star Fleet uniforms don’t happen in interest me, but I’m not sneering at someone who cares about them. I am, however, now working my way though episodes of Star Trek DS9 and I’ve found the Wikipedia Star Trek stuff useful.

I’ve also made a few contributions, mostly just minor edits here and there. And I’ve seen silly edit wars up close. I’m interested in manga, and friend and colleague, Tim Perper, is an expert on the subject. There was a period when he put in serious time working on Wikipedia entries on manga, but finally gave up in frustration.

For example, he spent a great deal of time on the main entry for manga, but was defeated by fans. That particular kind of entry — an introduction to a big subject that’s not well-defined because it lacks a literature (at least in English) — is particularly difficult to write. It can’t go on forever, so how do pick and choose what to cover and in what order? That’s not at all easy and there are no doubt many competent ways to do it. But there’s only one article to be written.

Tim at least has experience with that sort of thing. He’s written a lot and edited reference works. He knows how to do that kind of thing.

But manga fans mostly do not. They may know a lot, but they lack the discipline to organize their knowledge. And so they just picked the article a part.

One of the founders of the Wikipedia thought experts should have more authority and so started rival online encyclopedia, Citizendium:

http://en.citizendium.org/

But it hasn’t flourished, though it’s still around. And it’s got its problems too.

45

Anarcissie 03.27.13 at 11:35 pm

The Raven 03.27.13 at 9:48 pm @ 41:
‘Anarciss[i]e@33: “a cooperative practicing some sort of democratic centralism.” But isn’t that what Wikipedia is?’

Not as far as I know. A democratic cooperative would have identifiable members who would vote for a board of directors or directly on questions of policy, personnel, activities, structure, and so forth. Maybe it would be better, maybe not. If people wanted to do it, they could do it. But I suspect they will continue to continue. Because it is a miracle, and whatever works, especially if miraculous, is sacred. Also, the important problems it’s struggling to deal with, like veracity of contents and defense against vandalism and other aggressions — which authority hides but does not solve — are going to be present also for cooperative Demopedia.

bianca steele 03.27.13 at 10:05 pm @ 42:
‘… On other topics, including Star Trek costumes and say, Broadway musicals, it may be crowding out amateur and semi-professional communities, whose sites it rarely links to.

You know you can change that, right?

46

peggy 03.28.13 at 12:52 am

“I’d hesitate to point to academic publication as a successful model that Wikipedia might emulate.” – Susan C

As an unaffiliated intellectual, page charges prevent me from viewing the literature. Nature & Science personal subscription costs are not outrageously higher than The New Yorker, but if I wish to venture into sociology or history, I’m blocked. Incidentally, Wikipedia basic level science is usually accurate and up to date.

47

The Raven 03.28.13 at 12:57 am

Anarcissie@45: Wikipedia is governed by the Wikimedia Foundation, but as far as I know it is not particularly democratic, and does not seem to care very much about this kind of problem. The WM Foundation claims to be apolitical, and I don’t think that’s going to turn out to be a sustainable stance. I would be delighted if you turn out to be correct and Wikipedia survives as a successful cooperative, but I do not believe.

48

The Raven 03.28.13 at 1:19 am

peggy@46: there’s that, though there’s quite a bit available publicly, often on researcher’s own web sites; you just have to dig for it. If you’re a serious researcher in the USA without academic affiliation, and you are near a public college or university, those databases are often available if you go physically to their libraries.

49

Salient 03.28.13 at 1:24 am

Some of the amateur and semi-professional communities I contribute to owe the entirety of their infrastructure to Wikipedia, and are sooooo much the better because of it.

If it’s fair game to say that Amazon is a technology company that happens to run a retail store, then it should also be fair game to say that Wikipedia is a collective contribution metastructure that happens to host the world’s largest repository of… whatever we’re calling whatever it is Wikipedia has.

A wikia is a thing, now. The entire body of rules, guidelines and procedures underlying Wikipedia are publicly available and free for the taking. I don’t think any of us have, or even could have, the energy, will, and vision to construct this kind of comprehensive cooperative infrastructure for our communities on our own. Sure, it doesn’t fend off contributions made in bad faith, but nothing really does — and it does give those of us who wish to collaborate in good faith the comprehensive, thorough, manageable, and efficient infrastructure we need to do so without, like, killing each other. How else do you get 3500 people around the world to work together productively, building up a knowledge and media collection, on their spare time, about something they love to a fault, with the fault in “to a fault” being vehement and sort-of-hilariously earnest disagreements over particulars, themes, moods, etc?

So maybe Wikipedia is not the accomplishment of a real utopia, but it’s detailed blueprints, and blueprints that are easy to be grateful for, at least in a limited and derivative way.

50

Cranky Observer 03.28.13 at 1:27 am

Reference to another discussion about Wikipedia today, this one taking a look at self-editing of entries by two large energy firms. Following some of the links and reading the related entries and their talk pages is instructive, as is the comment by thekohser [narrators can be unreliable, etc].

And I’ll continue to maintain, contra Steve, that this exactly same process (including heavy corporate interest) went on the 1980s (since I saw it happening then) and goes on today in closed, proprietary references. Not to say that Wikipedia entries are necessary “better” than those in proprietary references, because for some value of better they may not be or may be. But that every reference has its biases and preferences – but we don’t generally know what the biases of the closed sources are.

Cranky

51

Salient 03.28.13 at 1:40 am

You know you can change that, right?

Uhh, no, bianca probbbbably can’t systematically adjust the bias or predilection or tendencies of the Wikipedia community at large.

And if someone tried to do their part, they’d still be risking a ban/block/protracted fight on the Internet for repeatedly inserting links to a local community group’s website or whatnot into various Wikipedia sites. Or if you somehow dodge that, you’re still not doing something super different from what the petty wiki tyrants are doing…

52

bianca steele 03.28.13 at 1:43 am

@Anarcissie:

bianca steele 03.27.13 at 10:05 pm @ 42:
‘… On other topics, including Star Trek costumes and say, Broadway musicals, it may be crowding out amateur and semi-professional communities, whose sites it rarely links to.

You know you can change that, right?

I can change lots of things. A bunch of other things I can’t. What are you referring to?

53

PatrickinIowa 03.28.13 at 2:19 am

As a former bartender, I resent the fact that now, bets are settled by reference to Wikipedia, rather than asking the person behind the bar (occasionally with a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia).

It is what it is. It’s good for some things, utter crap for others. It will stay that way or change. But I guarantee that fixing it in the purposeful way will make it less interesting than it is now. And probably less useful.

It’s not a tool for academic knowledge production. Duh.

54

The Raven 03.28.13 at 2:50 am

If it follows the pattern I have seen before, the crap will accumulate, eventually become too much to wade through, and people will jump to another, probably commercial, platform.

Cranky@50: thanks for that; I kept meaning to link something about that, and never did.

Patrick@52: it would be nice if it were as accurate as the Baseball Encylopedia.

55

GiT 03.28.13 at 3:14 am

Much easier to be accurate about baseball than most things…

56

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 3:26 am

From the article that Cranky referenced at #50: “ConocoPhillips and Chevron have had PR people working on Wikipedia since at least 2009 (working together actually, since Chevron owns Conoco).”

Chevron does not own ConocoPhillips. Chevron bought some Conoco gas stations and rebranded them, but really I have no idea what the article is talking about here. That’s a bad sign, in an article that’s about accuracy.

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LFC 03.28.13 at 3:32 am

peggy @46

if I wish to venture into sociology or history, I’m blocked

You mean ‘blocked’ when sitting e.g. at a home computer, but that’s not entirely the case (though I’m not denying it is a problem). JSTOR makes some limited piece of its archive freely available. Some pdfs of articles are available for free via Google Scholar or otherwise. Also, if you had an institutional affiliation in the past, as a student say, you may be able to get access to certain online resources through the library of the school you attended. (There are probably other admittedly partial solutions, eg joining certain associations where access to publications comes as part of the membership fee. Etc.)

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Anarcissie 03.28.13 at 5:11 am

I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve added articles and changed others, and no one wiped out what I did, at least not immediately. Sometimes the material was later updated, but that’s what’s supposed to happen.

I would prefer a more ‘socialistic’ model of governance for Wikipedia, such as the one I fancifully outlined, because I don’t think it would be as susceptible to plutocratic takeover, but I can’t do it all by myself and I don’t think many other people are interested. So I think I’ll just have to go with the miracle we’ve got, as long as it happens to last.

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John Quiggin 03.28.13 at 7:34 am

I’ve had a mixed experience. On the one hand, working with other pro-science editors including William Connolley, I was pretty successful in cleaning up articles that used to be dominated by Fox News style talking points (articles about climate change health risks of smoking for example). The Reliable Sources policy works well, provided you have the determination to push on. On the other hand, it’s a pretty draining fight, like cleaning trolls out of a comments thread, and any mis-step can give the other side a stick to beat you with, as happened to William and, to a lesser extent, to me. So, I eventually got burned out.

Still, I think Wikipedia is now clearly better on almost all topics than the competing general encyclopedias. Specialist works like Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Palgrave Dictionary of Economics are better in some ways (more coherent, and generally more comprehensive), but the fact that the articles are single-authored means that they are often slanted in ways that would not be possible in Wikipedia, assuming a reasonable spread of editots.

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Alison P 03.28.13 at 7:52 am

There was a (mildly) socialist service which fulfilled a somewhat similar role to wikipedia. In the late nineties/early noughties the BBC produced and published a range of free digital content, much of it to support UK education. Basically publicly-funded services were supporting each other to save money and improve outcomes. BBC digital publishing was massively curtailed under pressure from commercial publishers, because they could not compete.

This ‘socialist wikipedia’ fiasco exemplifies the problem – communally resourced solutions like the BBC work in an abstract sense of creating worthwhile content for less cost, but commercial interests will use their power to undermine or co-opt them for profit. We can see it all the time in the UK, not just relentless attacks on the BBC but on the NHS and publicly funded education, coast guard service, the police, whatever. And then there’s a reaction within the institution of defensiveness and covering up problems, as a survival strategy, and quality is compromised.

I guess my overall point is that socialist solutions are undermined not by intrinsic flaws in the human species, or lack of good will, but by capitalist sabotage. However an environment of capitalist sabotage is the real world at this moment, and psychopathic exploiters do make up some of our species probably at all times, so perhaps communal solutions simply cannot be achieved by us, here and now: ‘You can’t get there from here’.

A more fully socialist solution (than the old UK state-funded institutions) would be one where a wider range of people have time in their week to contribute to communally edited public resources, and there is less coercion by vested interests, because economic power is less concentrated. That is even harder to implement of course. But that is the issue with socialism, it is a wide solution, which will fade in like the sun coming up. Or not I guess.

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novakant 03.28.13 at 9:14 am

There two aspects of Wikipedia that I find pretty annoying:

1.) It’s gossipy like the Daily Mail: often the most important thing in a biographical article (but not limited to these) seems to be the “controversy” as well as a heavy dose of “personal life”. And while taking up a lot of space on the page for the main entry, the “controversy” part is often promoted to it’s very own entry in which these things are described with an enormous amount of detail – one wishes the same amount of mental energy would have been dedicated to an analysis of the person’s work instead.

2.) Wikipedia suffers from a heavy dose of US/Anglo-centrism to the point of parochialism. The English language version tends to give for example authors not writing in English comparatively short shrift and one wonders why they don’t simply translate the much more detailed article written in the person’s native language into English. A mediocre US author on the other hand will tend to be featured prominently, especially if he writes genre fiction. Since English is the lingua franca it is important that Wikipedia’s English language pages are not culturally biased in this way.

3.) It’s hopelessly geeky, this is both a bug and a feature I guess.

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Robert 03.28.13 at 9:21 am

Nicholas Bourbaki was an amusing and successful (for its time) collective effort in mathematics.

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Helen 03.28.13 at 9:39 am

SourceWatch is a good adjunct to Wikipedia.
http://www.sourcewatch.org/

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John Warr (@sparkintheashes) 03.28.13 at 11:00 am

@Rich Puchalsky
“It’s a community-built encyclopedia and the work put in is going to reflect what the people who make it care about. “

It only it was just that sad. But there is the Jagged85 case. An editor with >64000 edits was found to have falsified upwards of 8000 articles in History, Mathematics, Philosophy (he invented an entire school), Medicine, Literature, Chemistry, Physics, and Religion. The falsification involved removing western achievements and substitution Arab, Persian, and Asian antecedents. Mostly with made up sources, or sources that did not support the assertions made. After discovering the issues did they ban him? No they let him continue for a few years more, to amass >100000 edits until he was discovered falsifying video game articles.

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bianca steele 03.28.13 at 1:57 pm

Anarcissie:
That’s my response? You wrote a vaguely though deniably insulting, one-sentence, ungrammatical comment, and left me to ponder what I’d done wrong to deserve it, or what? You have something against musical theater?

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Robert 03.28.13 at 2:31 pm

45: “You know that you can change that, right?”

I suppose the suggestion is that you can edit the Wikipedia entries with which you are concerned. But you might not be able to. Others might think amateur and semi-pro sites are not “reliable sources” and systematically delete them. You also might be linking to sites that host material that are arguably copyright violations – fan sites raise lots of issues, and, once again, might systematically delete these links from Wikipedia articles.

So you might find yourself getting into arguments on talk pages and then on administrative pages within Wikipedia. It quickly gets very tedious, even for somebody like me who is amused by Internet-based arguments.

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mpowell 03.28.13 at 3:36 pm


After discovering the issues did they ban him? No they let him continue for a few years more, to amass >100000 edits until he was discovered falsifying video game articles.

So falsifying video game articles was the final straw? That’s what it took to ban him?

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Sam Clark 03.28.13 at 3:48 pm

Peggy and other interested people without academic affiliations may find (near-final) versions of a lot of humanities articles on http://www.academia.edu, on institutional archives, or via academics’ staff web-pages. For philosophy (my subject) in particular, also try http://www.philpapers.org . If those fail, it’s worth emailing people to ask for a copy of something particular they’ve written.

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Brendan 03.28.13 at 4:32 pm

After discovering the issues did they ban him? No they let him continue for a few years more, to amass >100000 edits until he was discovered falsifying video game articles.

That’s not a fair representation. According to a quick skim of the the discussion on Wikipedia: After the initial falsifications were discovered the community assumed good faith and offered a warning. He was banned for continuing to make bad edits, not because the bad edits happened to be on video game articles.

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bianca steele 03.28.13 at 5:08 pm

Robert @ 45: I suppose the suggestion is that you can edit the Wikipedia entries with which you are concerned. But you might not be able to. Others might think amateur and semi-pro sites are not “reliable sources” and systematically delete them.

Yes, that’s what I guessed, but who knows what Anarcissie meant, when the whole discussion apparently irks him/her too much to give even a dismissive half-assed answer? At best, I can change a few pages on topics that interest me, where I already know about sites I like. I can’t use it to find sites I don’t know about on topics that interest me, and I can’t change the fact that I can’t. I can’t change the fact that the rules taken together may (as they seem) lead to those sites not being linked. Forgive me for being passive, but I can’t change any of those things.

And since my comment wasn’t a complaint about a specific Wikipedia page, it looks like the response “you can edit that page yourself if you don’t like the job other people already did on it” is out of line.

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MPAVictoria 03.28.13 at 5:27 pm

“And since my comment wasn’t a complaint about a specific Wikipedia page, it looks like the response “you can edit that page yourself if you don’t like the job other people already did on it” is out of line.”

But isn’t that the miracle of Wikipedia? That a huge group of volunteers will work together and through peer editing create a source of free, constantly updating information that, while it may not be perfect, is at least pretty good?

Let me provide just one example of the brilliance of Wikipedia. I usually walk to work and lately I haven been listening to the audio versions of John Mortimer’s Rumpole books. In one of the books he refers to a female character as “the Portia of our chambers”. I did not know what this allusion meant so when I got to work I typed the phrase “Portia of our chambers” into Google and up popped the Wiki page on the Merchant of Venice complete with a reference to Mortimer’s Rumpole books.

We have gotten so used to miracles that we don’t even notice them anymore.

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John Warr 03.28.13 at 8:20 pm

@mpowell

Yep on wikipedia video games are far more important than Science, History, Medicine, Philosophy or any of that crap. People can mess with all of that, but screw up video games and the Furies will be unleashed.

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LFC 03.28.13 at 10:18 pm

Sam Clark @68
…and SSRN

Brendan @69
It’s worth noting that they hide that discussion on the Wikipedia Administrators’ Noticeboard, or to be more precise they hide the Noticeboard itself — there’s no prominent or obvious link to it from the Wikipedia home page that I could see on a quick perusal.

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Anarcissie 03.29.13 at 3:43 am

bianca steele 03.28.13 at 1:57 pm @ 65 — I thought others had refuted me already. My apologies if I seemed rude or overly slangy. I am not used to being noticed much, hence I try to make my speeches as short as possible and get out of the way.

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djr 03.29.13 at 1:59 pm

LFC @73:
I think the administrators’ noticeboard is supposed to be a place for disputes to be escalated to, rather than the place to raise them in the first place. The latter wouldn’t sit very well with Wikipedia’s bottom-up, community approach, and would probably overwhelm the system in short order. The “Help” and “Contact Wikipedia” links in the sidebar do explain how to raise issues. (Not aiming to be blindly defensive of Wikipedia here – I would be the first to agree that their approach to disputes has problems.)

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LFC 03.31.13 at 2:24 am

@djr
Noted — thanks.

My objection was not so much to the way they handle disputes — I wouldn’t want to raise issues on the noticeboard in the first instance — as to the lack of transparency. But I guess publicizing the page’s existence to everyone may be inviting trouble. The fact is I don’t spend that much time w Wikipedia and don’t care enough about it to get too worked up about this. (I have occasionally edited entries as anyone can, usu. not always in minor ways. There are things I’d like to edit more substantially but I don’t have time or don’t want to take the time.)

I tend to doubt J. Quiggin’s assertion upthread that Wikipedia’s coverage of most topics is superior to that found in traditional, multi-volume (print+online but perhaps gated) encyclopedias. We’re both speculating — I assume JQ has not systematically studied this — and I usu. have occasion to consult more specialized ref works so I don’t know how often Britannica, eg, is putting out new sets or supplements. Anyway, for any random topic I think ideally I wd sooner consult a vol of Brittanica than Wikipedia, at least as a first cut if I were choosing betw general encyclopedias. But I don’t have a set of Brittanica on my shelves and b.c Wikipedia is so accessible I find myself going there semi-automatically, sometimes to be fairly disappointed in the result.

I do have various print ref bks on my shelves, incl one general encyclopedia: a 1983 [sic] edition of the one-vol Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. Being one vol and quite old, it has severe limits, of course, and it’s quite idiosyncratic in coverage: lots of famous people left out, lots of fairly minor (to my way of thinking) literary figures included. But though I don’t use it much, I have never gotten rid of it — partly b.c if my computer is off it’s sometimes easier to pull a bk from the shelf than turn it on, depending on what I’m looking for. And my computer sometimes is off and I don’t own a smartphone (just the type of cellphone from which I wd not want to do much of anything online unless it were some kind of emergency, basically).

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Katherine 04.02.13 at 1:52 pm

Another small, silly but relevant example – I’m another Crooked Timber thread on utopias people were throwing around the word ‘Mondragon’ and I didn’t know what it meant. Sure, I could make a decent guess from the context but what I actually did was plug the word into Google and have a quick squizz at the wikipedia entry.

I have no doubt that if I want better and more in depth information then I’d need to look elsewhere, but since I neither have space for nor can I afford a set of encyclopaedias, wikipedia is Teh Awesome.

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