March 30, 2008

Wikia Search Unhappiness

Wikia Search, the project to bring the Wikipedia-magic of unpaid labor, I mean, web collaboration, to search engines, has not been heard from recently. A digital-sharecropper of the electronic plantation, err, community member, is restless:

*Whats happening with the project. AFAIK overall (and i know somethings have happened) but *very* little seems to have happened since the launch. ... Many things have been promised by various people, which havent happened. Most specifically this has come from a certain member of staff, one specifically, that has said that they will do many things, but even the most basic of tasks seem to have not happened. so Broken/missed promises. ...

The project lead replies:

I feel and share your frustration, I know at least for my part I've done a poor job keeping going a steady stream of updates on the things I've been playing with. Of course, I've never personally been good at regularity, tend to step back and push things out in spurts... all I can do though is try to catch up for the last month or so of various chaotic activities. ...

Another reply

First let me say that if anything has been missed, or promised and then not delivered, it was not intentional. Second, I would agree with you that while we have been working to make changes to improve the accuracy of the search results, we have not been doing a very good job of keeping the community informed about those or other changes and that is something we need to work on. ...

Notably to my mind, I hadn't realized that the internal ranking algorithm was so primitive, not even having what's known in public about Google's technology (the launch was atrocious, but that could have just been time pressure). I guess no search experts want to work for free, for the dubious "fun" of making Wales rich.


By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on March 30, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
March 26, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia / Jimmy Wales scandals

"Wikipedia's school for scandal has plenty more secrets to reveal"

"In reality, Wikipedia is a poorly-run bureaucracy with the group dynamics of a cult"

Readers of my blog may find this column well-trod ground. Keep in mind that the goal was to put some recent scandals in context for a general reader, not those who have already heard me at length. In particular, Rachel Marsden got significant coverage in the British tabloid press, so there are likely now many newspaper readers who think of Wikipedia as the so-called encyclopedia that can be used to publicize a break-up (some of that tabloid stuff was pretty funny: "Jimmy would continually be on this website called Twitter where you write one-sentence updates on what you are doing at that moment, even small things like "I'm making a sandwich". I couldn't understand it.").

Bonus link: Wikipedia contributor "Durova" made a hilarious "Nymphs and Satyr" parody (nudity, but artistic). She meant it as a jab at the gossip blog Valleywag's writing of Wikipedia, but art sometimes carries a message different from the intent of the artist.

[For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein |]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in press , wikipedia | on March 26, 2008 08:53 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (16)
March 21, 2008

Google Roundup - Popularity, Books, Ads, Surveillance

Under-echoed Google items which have crossed my screen:

"Mr. Google's Guidebook" - A long post by Tom Slee explaining in literary-story style some of the problems with herd-mentality aspects of using link-popularity. Sites which are popular then become more popular, leading to a entrenched dominance of early winners (by the way, Google in particular and search experts in general do know about this issue, and try to add in some other factors, but that leads to other problems, etc.).

Competing books: What Would Google Do? (answer: index them and sell little ads on search) - Siva Vaidhyanathan notes that, including him, there's four books coming out on (my phrasing) the Google-and-society book bandwagon.

"Google's riches rely on ads, algorithms, and worldwide confusion - Cade Metz has an extensive irreverent piece on theses topics

The Externalities of Search 2.0: The Emerging Privacy Threats when the Drive for the Perfect Search Engine meets Web 2.0 - Michael Zimmer, "... this paper argues that the drive for Search 2.0 necessarily requires the widespread monitoring and aggregation of a users’ online personal and intellectual activities, bringing with it particular externalities, such as threats to informational privacy while online." (as I've put it: "The price of total personalization is total surveillance."). It's part of Special issue of First Monday: Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0, which is all probably of interest. And yes, I love the title of Søren Mørk Petersen's article there: Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on March 21, 2008 09:09 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
March 20, 2008

Debunking Wikimedia Foundation "executive chairman" story

[Real journalism here! Not an echo! Even if nobody reads it ...]

There was a gossip-blog story yesterday which claimed that Jimmy Wales secretly retains legal control of the Wikimedia Foundation (the owner of Wikipedia):

A Florida business registration for the nonprofit filed last May shows Wales's title did change -- but to "EC," short for "executive chairman," a worker in Florida's Department of State confirms. On paper, Wales still outranks Devouard. Could he have told her that "EC" stands for "emeritus chair," while secretly keeping legal authority over Wikipedia to himself?

I was extremely skeptical, but since there's been so much dirt coming out recently I didn't ignore it entirely (which I should have). I wasted entirely too much time chasing it around Florida's Department of State. According to what I was told, the above quote is just wrong. A registration can have any set of titles that the organization wants. There's no legal standard. If they say "EC" stands for "emeritus chair", it's up to them. If they wanted to make up a title "Godking", they could. There's no big revelation, the form is exactly a trivial report.

Look, I understand that since the Wikipedia cult functions as a hype machine, with drama and scandal aplenty, figuring out what's reasonable and what's paranoia is not always easy. But this item was out into literal paranoia reaches. It was an accusation of major, major fraud, possible criminality. The number of Board members who would have had to go along with misrepresentation made it dubious on its face.

This sort of stuff is counter-productive for Wikipedia critics.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo , wikipedia | on March 20, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (0)
March 17, 2008

Roger McNamee, "Elevation Partners", and Don't Think Small on Wikipedia

While it may do no good for me to write posts about the pile of Wikipedia scandals, a New York Times article on its recent woes (no-reg link) contains an important mention bearing on a point I often make. The article discusses the involvement of the venture capitalist Roger McNamee, of the firm "Elevation Partners". I'm glad the _Times_ mentions it, as anyone of lesser status (especially mere bloggers) would simply find themselves personally attacked for raising the issue:

Ms. Gardner said that Mr. McNamee in the past had lined up a $500,000 donation, and arranged another $500,000 donation that came through last week. ... [snip]

Mr. Wales said that "existing on donations keeps us on a shoestring budget" adding that he was not opposed to leveraging Wikipedia's brand, consistent with its free-culture values, of course.

"There are some kinds of ways of using our brand name - a trivia game, a branded home-edition trivia game, that kind of thing seems to fit," he said. Perhaps a Wikipedia documentary TV show. He said that Elevation Partners "are flexible - they could be involved in that kind of stuff."

As I'm constantly telling various Wikipedia critics:


It's not about the minor Google-juice that the commercial digital-sharecropping startup company "Wikia Inc." gets from the nonprofit mothership Wikipedia (and that trick doesn't even seem to work anyway). It's not about overheated accusations of chump-change $5,000 donations to the Wikimedia Foundation for attention to a biography. It's not about trying to put a $1,300 dinner on a charity's expense account. It's not even about pocketing fat speaking fees, though that must be a nice perk.

Looks at millions of dollars, if you can wrap your mind around that. Anybody who is rainmaking a literal million dollars of donations has an angle where they're going to get comparable value back.

That's what it's about.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 17, 2008 07:11 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
March 12, 2008

Debunking Jeffrey Merkey Alleging Wikipedia protection racket

Jeff Merkey


"According to Merkey, in 2006, Wales agreed that in exchange for a substantial donation and other financial support of the Wikimedia Foundation projects, Wales would use his influence to make Merkey's article adhere to Wikipedia's stated policies with regard to internet libel "as a courtesty" and place Merkey under his "special protection" as an editor. Merkey later withdrew his financial support of the Wikipedia project after reviewing evidence of diversion and mismanagement of the charities funds by Wales and the Wikimedia Board of Trustees and was immediately banned from the Wikipedia site by the Arbitration Committee for frivilous and unsubstanciated claims after he terminated the payments of $5,000.00 per year to the Wikimedia Foundation."

Jimmy Wales

It's nonsense.

I've held back about posting in this, because I didn't want to even give an impression of fanning the flames from my supposed highly-read and influential blog (sarcasm). But given that this story has already made the rounds on media sites ranging from Slashdot to the BBC, my shouting to the wind can't even be alleged to have affected anything.

The irony is that while the circumstantial evidence looks bad, as to donations and action on the article, I think there's nothing in it.

Basically, I don't believe Jimmy Wales would ever be so blunt and crude as accused. He's far too sophisticated to have an explicit quid-pro-quo. This may not be the sort of defense he'd like, but it has the virtue of being a lot more credible than sycophancy. And what's the charge? $5,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation? It's not even a claim of $5,000 in honoria or as a "consulting fee" (which is roughly how I'd expect any hypothetical bribe to be handled), which would be money directly to him. Merkey may have thought a donation would buy him influence - and he might even be right there in an extremely narrow way - but nobody at this level is ever going to make it an outright contract.

I think Jeffrey Merkey confused the Wikipedia jargon of protecting an article (restricting editing) with the sense of the word in "protection racket", hence misunderstanding "special protection".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 12, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
March 10, 2008

Sex, Lies, And Wikipedia Scandals Of Jimmy Wales

I go back and forth between thinking the lid is finally coming off the extremely seamy underside of the cult of Wikipedia, and a sympathy backlash when I see some of the severe errors which have been made in the reporting of the various scandals. I can't decide if it's all ending up as rough justice where multiple attention-mongers deserve what they get from each other, or if many wrongs don't make any right.

Here's one specific example from "The Sydney Morning Herald"
More woes for Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales

Earlier, an ex-girlfriend, Rachel Marsden, leaked instant messaging transcripts that purported to show Wales using his influence to improperly make changes to Marsden's Wikipedia entry so he could continue "f---ing [her] brains out".

In fact, that's a direct lift of phrasing from sensationalist blog ValleyWag, self-described as "Silicon Valley's Tech Gossip Rag", which has

While they were together, Wales promised Marsden swift action on edits so he could "continue fucking [her] brains out."

That phrases it as if Wales stated a quid-pro-quo, of edits for sex. But he didn't say that. The whole quote in context is: right so the way it is told now, hang on a second
let's actually do this right now
because the last thing I want to do is take a break from fucking your brains out all night to work on your wikipedia entry :)

Note there's no "continue" in the real quote. That is, he basically said he wanted to get the work done so it doesn't interrupt play, not that he's trading edits for trysts. The word "continue" shows that the _Morning Herald_ got it from ValleyWag. So an inaccurate gossip blog post has been reputation-laundered into a far more prestigious venue. And henceforth an edits-for-sex accusation-cloud is going to follow Jimmy Wales around forever.

Live by media manipulation, die by media manipulation?

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo , wikipedia | on March 10, 2008 10:50 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
March 05, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on lessons from the "Draft Lessig" campaign

"In politics, being determined counts more than being online"

"The role of intellectuals in politics is an age-old issue"

More relevantly, "a healthy respect for all previous failure is sometimes a prerequisite for any success".

For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein |

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in politics , press | on March 05, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
March 03, 2008

Rachel Marsden, Jimmy Wales - Wikipedia Sex And Scandal

Rachel Marsen vs. Jimmy Wales is, from one viewpoint a geek tabloid story. Apparently Jimmy Wales had a relationship with a media quasi-celebrity not known for graceful break-ups, and found his email and IM chat transcripts being posted, yielding something between a parody of transparency, and Too Much Information.

I'm not going to pretend I don't have a little schadenfreude here, but the uninteresting (to me) sex scandal seems to be providing an interesting spotlight for illuminating conflict-of-interests which would otherwise go unheard. That is, I don't care who he sleeps with. Anyone who knows of his previous work such as the "Bomis Babe Report" will not be aghast to hear of a bit of horndoggery.

But various other accusations aren't about sex:

At one point he owed the Foundation some $30,000 in receipts, and this while we were preparing for the audit. Not a bad sum, considering that many of those trips had fat honoraria, which Jimbeau kept for himself. (Florence will surely remember his explanation for one of these: "I don’t make any money, and my wife needs a washing machine." Her response was wonderful: "A gold-plated washing machine?")

So Jimbeau cancelled an upcoming trip to Italy, Serbia, and Croatia, and got to work finding receipts. I helped process them. Subway ticket in Moscow: $0.50. Massage parlor in Moscow: priceless. Some were accepted; others were not, like the $650 spent on two bottles of wine during a dinner for four at Bern's—I remember that one because he submitted it twice, once with the tip scratched out.

To me, that's a much more problematic allegation than his sex life or even article favoritism to his current girlfriend.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 03, 2008 08:30 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (10)
March 02, 2008

Google-Searching for "Barbie", or SEO as Socio-Economic Operation

Tom Slee on the [Barbie] Google results and how they've changed now:

... this search is basically owned by Mattel. Clicking the top link takes you to a pink page with "Think Pink" written in the middle of it, and the majority of the sites feature pink prominently.

No more defining the cultural symbols of our day for you, nine-year-old girl! Quit the self-aware political discourse and get back to dressing that doll in gender-appropriate colours (as selected for you by Mattel).

In other words, people who point to Google results as some sort of mass-mind or harbinger of popular will, often neglect (or wilfully ignore) that there's quite an industry around them. And that industry interacts with other senses of industry, bringing us back to where we were before in terms of corporate control of media.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on March 02, 2008 11:48 PM | (Infothought permalink)