What really happened to Wikipedia

What really happened to Wikipedia

Summary: The influx of money and talent has allowed Wikimedia to get its head up out of the day-to-day and focus on the longer term.

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TOPICS: Collaboration
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Money happened. Success happened.

Over the last few years the Wikimedia Foundation has built a board with some serious street cred, climaxing with the appointment of venture capitalist Roger McNamee to its advisory board  in January . Money has been rolling in.

Wikipedia long had to rely on the nickels and dimes of contributors to keep the servers on and the bandwidth bills paid, but now those nickels and dimes are turning into serious change, and it is becoming a darling of the philanthropic establishment.

On its own the Foundation raised $6.2 million worth in 2008. (Full disclosure. I threw in a few of them. About $50 if I recall correctly.) Such early money is indeed like yeast. It lets the dough rise. So here is $300,000 from the Ford Foundation. And $500,000 from the Hewletts.

The influx of money and talent has allowed Wikimedia to get its head up out of the day-to-day and focus on the longer term. Plus, with 3,000,000 articles and counting (just in English) the absolute growth rate is slowing.

It's not, as The New York Times snarked, that "as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable." It's more like a couple that owns its house and has come into some money. Out with the garage sale cabinets, let's make a serious Ikea run.

No one is making big money here. But some digital plumbers and electricians and framers and painters are getting some work, turning the resource into something that will stand the test of time.

The first bit of renovation will come on one of the most controversial and bug-ridden parts of the house, living people. The aim is to put a process together that can end the back-and-forth between friends and enemies on your Wikipedia page.

Or mine.

I had a personal run-in with a Wikibully. Someone who didn't care for me tore my reputation on Wikipedia to shreds. I finally rewrote the whole thing to my own liking. Recently the whole article was taken down.

But here's the good part.

All the official actions related to the page are, for the first time, transparent and identified as to who did what. This person took the page down first, this one restored it, this one took it down again. Processes are being built by which such decisions can be managed and defended. What was arbitrary is becoming arbited.

That's important because Wikipedia is becoming more than a source of articles on Japanese anime. As I found in rewriting my 2002 book on Moore's Law recently, Wikipedia is our best hope of fighting link rot. It's a source you know you can link to, an address that is unlikely to disappear, or go behind a paid firewall.

Like the Internet itself, like open source itself, Wikipedia is growing up. This is something to be celebrated. Regardless of what happens to your personal page.

Topic: Collaboration

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10 comments
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  • Well, not quite.

    :-) Nice piece.

    I'd question that the influx of money (which is still trivial - a few million dollars is NOTHING to run a top 10 website) has anything much to do with the processes such as the living people's bio policy. One is the Foundation, the other is the English Wikipedia community. These really are separate entities, though one provides infrastructure for the other. The Foundation is about 30 staff, en:wp is over a hundred thousand individuals doing things.

    The bios of living people (BLP) policy was put into place after the John Siegenthaler incident, which was a wake-up call to Wikipedia actually being really, um, quite famous. (I've been on Wikipedia since early 2004, when it was Alexa #500, and I was really impressed by that.) Jimmy Wales said to the community "look guys, we have a moral obligation to get this right" - but if the community as a whole hadn't agreed with him, it wouldn't be in place. It wouldn't work and wouldn't be in effect now. And he was saying that as "respected founder and elder", rather than as dictating from above.

    There's an ongoing media myth that the individual wikis and the Foundation are all of a piece and operate as a monolithic entity. This is a ridiculous notion - it's as if people's heads explode at the idea of a lack of firm hierarchy, so they make up a comforting story for themselves and think that telling as many others as possible will make it the case.

    The community on each wiki really does operate quite independently. Volunteers by the hundreds of thousands do whatever they damn well feel like. The Foundation leaves it the hell alone for the most part.

    I've herded volunteers in various contexts for 25 years ... Anyone who's worked with volunteers on any level - fanzine, student organisation, political organisation, sports team, small charity - will recognise everything about how things work on Wikipedia and on other Wikimedia sites in practice. It's cat herding - volunteers will work ten times as hard as any paid employee, but only on what they damn well please. So you need to work out the local value of tuna.
    DavidGerard
    • Speaking of myths

      David Gerard makes up a comforting story for himself that "a few million dollars is NOTHING to run a top 10 website". Actually, it's plenty. The Wikimedia Foundation only a couple of years ago, when its sites were in the top 20, ran on a server and hosting budget of $900,000. You can't tell me that with server and bandwidth costs coming DOWN, that the same wouldn't be possible today, if only the bloated executive director and staffing budgets were brought back into line.

      The whole move to San Francisco (expensive) and increase to 25+ employeees (expensive) is ample demonstration of how things DO NOT HAVE TO BE, compared to the days in Florida (cheap) and less than 10 employees (cheap).

      I don't want to name names, but there are some Wikimedia Foundation staff members who are charged with very specific duties, and guess what -- they're letting the volunteers do all of the work... both the grunt work and the strategic aspects, too.

      David, stop adding to this myth that the Wikimedia Foundation is "lean" at its projected $10 million budget for next year. It is inherently wasting tax-advantaged dollars on a self-important bureaucracy that actually does very little of any importance. That stuff is all being done by volunteers.
      thekohser
      • RE: What really happened to Wikipedia

        All the official actions related to the page are, for the first time, transparent and identified as to who did what. This person took the page down first, this one restored it, this one took it down again. Processes are being built by which such decisions can be managed and defended. What was arbitrary is becoming arbited.<a href="http://ipadbagblog.com/"><font color="LightGrey"> k</font></a>
        zakkiromi
  • Further on BLPs and Dana's own article

    This is how BLPs are supposed to work. The below is talking only about English Wikipedia - I can't speak to other Wikipedias or other Wikimedia wikis. It's a bit like this:

    BLPs have to follow the basic content rules - neutrality, verifiability, no original research - but *really stringently*. With a science or history article, or one on a long-dead person, there's no real-time damage to people from the article being crappy in the same way there is with BLPs - we have the luxury of eventualism, and articles slowly getting better. With BLPs, they *should* be at least "not bad" at all times, and this is regarded as important.

    So when an article's bad, or has someone who hates the subject, or has someone who mistakes Wikipedia for investigative journalism, there's things to do about it.

    * There's the "Biographies of Living People Noticeboard," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:BLPN , which a lot of experienced editors keep an eye on.
    * If someone has an unacceptable article on themselves, an email to info@wikimedia.org is the best way to get quick attention - there's experienced volunteers dealing with crappy BLPs on there 24/7 around the world.

    (A frequent question I get: "what do I do about the terrible article on me?" My answer: "Email info@wikimedia.org, that's Wikimedia with an M. Someone will get on the case and make it at least not awful.")

    When there's dispute over whether a particular thing should be in a BLP, the general rule is "if in doubt, leave it out." This can result in somewhat grey and anodyne BLPs, but, as I said, it's an encyclopedia, not investigative journalism.

    If someone insists on putting in their righteous important incendiary information/hateful rubbish (depending on perspective), they may well end up blocked from editing while they persist. In some cases, they may end up banned from editing that article.

    That's all how it more or less works. Somewhat imperfectly, as you've seen. It's all done by imperfect humans trying their best, but rubbish happens and we apologise and try to do better ...

    The "flagged revisions" functionality won't change this process much, but it will mean that rubbish is less likely to be visible to search engines and casual browsers. Anyone logged-in should always get the current live version. The en:wp community is VERY concerned about how flagged revisions will affect the immediacy of the wiki. A lot of the volunteer motivation is being able to do stuff for real in real time. So the whole thing's being approached with great caution, attention to the lessons of German Wikipedia's experiences (long queue times, etc) and so on.

    Looking at the deletion nomination on Dana's own article, it's basically that there were no really good third-party sources:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Dana_Blankenhorn_%282nd_nomination%29

    One thing that's been happening is that if it's an article about a living person, people are becoming much fussier about whether there can be an article on them at all. This is because of the basic BLP problem: if you're minorly notable, Wikipedia mentions of you will likely be the first search engine hit on your name.

    I wouldn't sweat it - you're probably borderline article-eligible, and will become so in time if you're going to. And then someone will write an article and it will stick. Get a famous newspaper to write a long biographical piece on you and you'll probably get in ;-)

    (Looking at that article, it appears I actually restored an old version of it myself last year - after it had been deleted the first time around. I didn't remember doing that ...)

    DavidGerard
  • Bouncy Wikipedia logo from Uncyclopedia

    Ha, I've just noticed you used the bouncy Wikipedia logo! The original is from Uncyclopedia, by Splarka: http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Bouncywikilogo.gif (he actually misspelt his own username on Uncyc ...)
    DavidGerard
  • RE: What really happened to Wikipedia

    Dana, you may be unaware, but your story probably should have pointed out that when late last year the Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund gifted the Wikimedia Foundation with over $800,000 for a Usability Initiative, one of the first things the Foundation did was to run a lopsided "office space search", where -- SURPRISE, SURPRISE -- the winning bid (though not the lowest bid) went to... Wikia, Inc.!

    So Jimmy Wales sits on the Board of Trustees that oversaw the award of monthly rental checks to the new landlord -- a privately-held company co-founded by Wales himself. Talk about self-dealing! If this is serious "street cred", I want no part of it, and this sort of financial subterfuge is why I no longer donate money to the Wikimedia Foundation.

    As for the editorial claim that "Wikipedia is our best hope of fighting link rot", there used to be a fully referenced article about former COO of the Foundation, Carolyn Doran. The powers that be made that particular article "disappear". You literally cannot find any trace of it prior to December 14, 2007, when it was converted into a "redirect":

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Carolyn_Doran&action=history

    Do you STILL trust Wikipedia with your money?

    Do you STILL trust Wikipedia with the truth of content?

    I don't. And I think anyone who still would is quite gullible, fancy foundations and venture capitalists included.
    thekohser
  • RE: What really happened to Wikipedia

    Dana, for whatever reason, you're hitting all my buttons lately; that's OK though, because they're the RIGHT buttons<g>!
    Good article, good background actually, and laudible in general IMO.
    As far as I'm concerned, Wikipedia is a GREAT resource! The majority of the time I find verifying and clarifying the data at Wikipedia a simple process and faster than from any other resourece. Should something be a little "iffy", it stands out pretty quickly but those are the rare exceptions to the rule for honest data searches. Usually I find the results at Wikipedia outstanding and fully compatible with my needs.
    Yeah, there are a couple bass turds running around in the system, same's any other place, but they're pretty quickly outed as long as the querant remembers the most important part of any research: VERIFY AND CLARIFY FIRST, then proceed. The easy verification/clarification of Wikipedia results is what draws me so faithfully to the site for several different research efforts.
    I'm often tempted to offer a bit of my own clarification for many of the articles but never have. Someday I'll quit threatening and actually do it; it matches well with my present life goals.

    Good work Dana, and also some of the best responses to any article I've ever seen here. KUDOS.
    twaynesdomain-22354355019875063839220739305988
  • RE: What really happened to Wikipedia

    I use Wikipedia sometime, mainly for scientific subjects. However, it is too frustrating to be of much use.

    A good example is statistics, because although the concepts are fiendishly difficult, the subject matters to everybody. A while ago, the section was ruled by people who would not allow anything below PhD level. Now, it reads like a bland and uninformative student essay.

    My own opinion is that contributions like this should start like the missing Chapter Zero of 'Statistics for Dummies', and work on from there.

    I don't see how the Wikipedia model could ever achieve this.
    Daddy Tadpole
  • @Dana Thanks for including the...

    ...links. They are almost as good as citations and quite useful. Nice work.
    Isocrates
  • RE: What really happened to Wikipedia

    Nitpicking here, but it's "arbitrated", not "arbited".

    Tom
    Tom-P