April 30, 2008

Wikia Search : A Media Case Study on "the human touch to outsmart Google"

There's a Wikia Search puff piece in the Los Angeles Times: Wikia's Weird Dream: "A new search engine from the minds behind Wikipedia relies on the human touch to outsmart Google. Does it stand a chance?"

It won't do any good for me to rant about this to my tiny audience, but I'll do it anyway in vain hope it'll show some of my critics that the hype I'm talking about does indeed exist:

Wikia, working from modest headquarters in San Mateo, Calif., is attempting something at least as audacious as Wikipedia's launch was in 2001: It is building a for-profit search engine to compete with Google. There are no legions of engineers. Instead, the endeavor is powered as nonprofit Wikipedia is: by volunteers. (Wikia and Wikipedia are different companies; all they have in common, besides a "by the people and for the people" philosophy, is their co-founder, Wales.)

Note how Wikia is given a halo effect from Wikipedia - "by the people and for the people" is much more accurately rendered "by the unpaid and for the investors". And later on, the answer as to how this sales-pitch works:

Why would volunteers donate their time to help a for-profit company?

"Wikia Search is basically doing something unique," says Mark Williams, an 18-year-old college student who lives on the south coast of England. He estimates that he puts in up to 20 hours a week rating search results for Wikia and writing mini-articles. "It's changing the future of how people can search, so that they know how and why certain results are coming up, and if they don't like the results then they can say so."

You - yes, YOU - can say so! And if your contribution helps a corporation make more money, then you can have a warm and fuzzy feeling from it. Unemployment insurance? Health benefits? A union? How can these compare to changing the future? (a semi-serious question).

Observer that the guy apparently hasn't heard of any of all the other social-search engines. That's the value to Wikia of all the publicity from Wikipedia (not the tiny bits of PageRank that might be sent to some Wikia sites from any hypothetical Wikipedia favoritism towards Wikia, or even various personnel connections).

Wikia executives have another criticism of Google. They look at its inability to control spam from its e-mail service, Gmail, and they see a parallel with the search engine: Google has been unable to entirely eliminate irrelevant search results. "I'm constantly surprised by how much money, how many computers, how many algorithms go into preventing spam, and yet every day I look in my mailbox and I go, -Dude, that's not right,' " Penchina says. What's striking, he says, is how much better people can do than Google's software in filtering out unwanted e-mail. In the same way, he says, volunteers can do that with search results.

Why, yes, if you can get a large pool of uncompensated labor to do lots of scut-work, that would work very well. The trick is, of course, getting that in the first place.

Meanwhile, all the Wikia-bashing has also resulted in some goodwill, even sympathy, from critics. Sherman of Searchengineland was critical of Wikia Search's launch, but he says he would like to see the underdog pull off an upset. "I'm kind of rooting for them because of the David versus Goliath aspect," he says. "Google has started taking on aspects of the Microsoft evil empire - it's too big, too dangerous. And isn't it cool that we're going to have an upstart that will give us an alternative?"

Volunteer for us to fight the Evil Empire! (pay no attention to the money we'd like to make off of you - you're changing the future, you're part of The Revolution!)

Others warn it would be a mistake to underestimate Wikia Search based on its early performance. "Anyone who is selling Jimmy Wales short over the launch is going to be in for a surprise," says John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. "He's leveraging many of the same things that made Wikipedia a global force. I think Wikia can have a huge impact on search engines over time."

And here is again why I will never be an insider, a club-member. I'd concur that Wikia Search is *trying* to leverage many of the same things as Wikipedia - but in my view that's not necessarily good.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on April 30, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4)
April 28, 2008

Wikimedia Foundation Community Petition about "governance" and "community"

Wikipedia hype meets harsh reality:

http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Meta:Community_petition (Wikipedia site version) [via Danny Wool]

I'll simply quote it, since it says all that needs to be said:

Petition to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees:

We, volunteers, ask the Board to give the volunteer community a fair voice in Foundation governance. During its most recent meeting, the Board of Trustees not only rejected a proposal to improve community input in Foundation matters, but implemented an unexpected restructuring to reduce the community seats on the board. The community was not consulted about this reduction in representation and the board provided no explanation for this change. [1]

That is not a good way to treat people who donate their time and labor. The volunteer base made this the seventh most popular website in the world. We expect courtesy and respect, but received neither. That hurts morale.

Please provide a full explanation for recent board decisions and reconsider your top-down approach.

I keep telling the people who donate much of their time to Wikipedia:
Don't ever risk anything for Wikipedia, since it won't risk anything for you. You're fed a line about "community" and "knowledge", but you're utterly powerless. And when it comes down to a crunch, you're merely unpaid labor with no rights, who can be discarded at a moment's notice.

And if you think I'm just a bombastic critic, well, he said it, not me (Brad Patrick, former Wikimedia Foundation general counsel and interim executive director) [via "Durova"]

It would be best for those critical of the Board (and feeling that the community is the most important ideal) to remember that whether you like it or not, agree with it or not, or would have selected an alternative reality or not, it is still the case that the Board is that which governs the Wikimedia Foundation, ... As is oft-repeated, WMF is not a membership organization.

Within the spirit of civil discourse, to those who are feeling frustrated and demanding action, I submit - "so what are you going to do about it?" I suggest you be pragmatic. You do not have any means of grabbing the reins of power from the Board, and you don't have any entitlement to anything except your ability to participate in a project, if you choose, a chapter, if you choose, or to speak up in some forum. You don't have a "right" to vote on anything, and the Board could just as easily have a contest than an election to fill Board seats. [... snip]

Stop whining and ask yourself if you have the objective qualifications to lead an international organization. If not, work on obtaining the skills to be such a leader, if you choose. Toiling on a project is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to be a Board member at WMF.

Or, get back to the data-mines, suckers.

The funniest thing about this is Jimmy Wales has been appointed a special slot that's counted as a "community" seat.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on April 28, 2008 11:53 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
April 24, 2008

Wikipedia as Google-Weapon

A huge hornet's nest has been stirred up with the posting of some private emails about supposed plans by a group, "isra-pedia", to use various tactics on Wikipedia to favor pro-Israel viewpoints in various disputes. There's alleged leaked group mail (the host website is untrustworthy, but Wikipedia administrative discussion provides some evidence that the group mail is authentic). My favorite part:

Every time you see a Hamas person makes an outragous statements (like Jews came from apes or kill the jews) you write a small article about that peroson (google his name to find more ) and bring the quote from memri.

why doing all that ?

because google is wikipedia friend - 3 days after you created the article google the person's name again and voila your article will be the #1 in google for that name.

It's by no means news that Wikipedia's Google rank can be used to go after people. But it's nice to have it stated so bluntly and with such obvious intent.

Now, the plans outlined seems to have been more somebody's idea of a good manipulation scheme than anything which they were able to do. But maybe this is merely amateurs who couldn't pull it off, and got caught.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google , wikipedia | on April 24, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
April 22, 2008

Wikia Search - When You Have A Wikipedia, Everything Looks Like An Edit

I continue to be unimpressed by Wikia Search, the Wikipedia-model search engine. They've released a bunch of new "social" features for editing and annotating specific results, which are not in and of themselves bad things. Yet I keep wanting to say, but, but, but, there's no real search engine there. Nobody gushing over all the pretty buzzword-compliant aspects seems to care that when putting lipstick on a pig, underneath, it's still a pig. Maybe they think a sufficient amount of lipstick on the pig emergently create a useful search engine.

As I understood the initial Wikia Search concept, volunteers were supposed to build Jimmy Wales a search engine for free, that the venture-capital backed start-up Wikia Inc. could then monetize with ads (or presumably flip in a sale if the opportunity arose), because this would then prove The People open-source amateurs can challenge the closed proprietary Google elitists. Or something like that - obviously it wasn't stated so bluntly.

A major problem here is that search engines require very specialized expertise, for which companies are willing to pay big money, so almost nobody wants to give it away for the good of Wales's gold-plated washing machine, I mean, humanity.

But the latest iteration of Wikia Search seems to be trying to use the very poor search technology as a seed page for human-edited results. That is, an unpaid, voting-driven, Mahalo.com. I suppose if the workers aren't paid, anything at all is profit. But I can't help but think this is turning into a proof of my theory that Wikipedia is basically a weird thing, which doesn't export the secret of the fountain of free labor.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on April 22, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (10)
April 18, 2008

When I hear the word "Wikipedia", I reach for my flame-thrower

I frequently get negative reactions for writing critically about Wikipedia. I'm not even talking about the Kool-Aid poisoned True Believers, who can't grasp how someone could not love the wonderful wiki-world which has provided them purpose in life. Rather, net-activist friends have suggested my efforts are misdirected. And there's others who argue I'm simply too harsh.

Today I received a promotional postcard for Jonathan Zittrain's new book The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It. This was obviously a targeted marketing mailing from the publisher (from the format of my address). I've in fact been thinking about the ideas for a while.

The postcard has three people blurbing the book. The first is a very high status law professor. The third is the "Executive Chairman and Founder of the World Economic Forum". And the second is ... "Jimbo Wales, Founder, Wikipedia" (not CO-founder, Wikipedia), who says:

Jonathan Zittrain does what no one has before -- he eloquently and subtly pinpoints the magic that makes Wikipedia, and the Internet as a whole, work. The best way to save the Internet is to turn off your laptop until you've read this book.

This sort of hype is why I think the cult of Wikipedia needs some deprogrammers. The "magic that makes Wikipedia" strikes me as more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop. To me, it represents much that's wrong with the future of the Internet, in terms of the promotion of a model of masses of powerless people working for free while a tiny, tiny, elite makes out like bandits.

This puts me at odds with certain groups, where cheerleading Wikipedia is part of the game. But much of my writing is against lottery-like systems anyway, and I often argue against playing a game where almost everyone loses.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on April 18, 2008 08:46 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4)
April 16, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on "Access Denied" World Censorware Book

"If you block online porn, you'll surely block dissent in China"

"The issue of whether the internet can be censored, and how governments are trying to do it, continues to be fought around the world"

[Sigh ... remember, I don't get to write the titles ...]

This column is about the OpenNet Initiative's book "Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering", and what it might portend.

[For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein | guardian.co.uk.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , press | on April 16, 2008 09:03 PM | (Infothought permalink)
April 14, 2008

"Expelled" Google-lobbying

Expelled Exposed is a rebuttal to an anti-evolution films. There's what I'll call a "Google-lobbying" campaign around the search rankings:

We need to get the NCSE's [National Center for Science Education's] counter-site to the hideous little propaganda film, Expelled, to rank higher in the search engines. The way to do this is for lots and lots of you to link to the Expelled Exposed site with the word Expelled.

Note I'd say this isn't a "Google-bomb", since the target site wants the high ranking itself. And Google's algorithmic changes to defuse the bombs aren't applicable here, since the words appear extensively on the site.

On the other hand, I don't know if they'll be enough interest to have much impact, unless it becomes a cause-celebre. We'll see.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on April 14, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink)
April 11, 2008

"Wikipedia founder's next target: Google" (Wikia Search)

Puff piece: "Wikipedia founder's next target: Google"

"It's no longer super rocket science that only the geniuses at Google know how to do," said Wales ...

Maybe, but there's no evidence that Wikia knows how to do anything beyond fizzling out. The following is not an original observation, but worth remembering: One important "community" difference between Wikia Search and Wikipedia is that there are no hot "encyclopedia start-ups", and markets for expertise in "Encyclopedia Optimization" (well, the latter job is arguably "reference librarian", but it doesn't pay nearly as well as being a search engine optimization expert)

More interesting is this little nuggest (my emphasis):

Wikia is moving to San Francisco, where most of its 50 employees live, from San Mateo, California, about 20 miles south, Wales said in the April 8 interview. The office will be around the corner from Wikimedia Foundation Inc., the non-profit parent of Wikipedia, ...

Just fortuitous, I'm sure. It wouldn't be "assuming good faith" to think anything more.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on April 11, 2008 06:32 PM | (Infothought permalink)
April 09, 2008

Google Free Hamsters Dance

If it mattered, I'd write about other stuff, but I saw this post by Jeneane Sessum on Google ranking for a post about hamsters:

... because you are a blogger of some renown, Google makes sure your free hamsters post comes up on the FIRST PAGE of google search results for the term Free Hamsters, and that the image of your free hamster babies (who are now long since gone, as Google's memory long outlives a hamster's puny 2-3 year lifespan) will remain forever in the number one spot for Google image results ...

No I am not kidding you. A near seven-year blogging legacy, and the most traction I've gotten on any one post [...] is my baby hamster post.

Though I suspect that over the whole English-speaking world, many more people are interested in hamsters than anything having to do with "Web 2.0"/blog-marketing/etc. :-). It sorts of puts it all in perspective ...

But that ranking is actually an interesting result. At #7 for [free hamsters], #2 for ["free hamsters"]. And the page itself has very few links. Somewhere in Google's mind, it thinks this is somehow very relevant to free hamsters. More so than many pet stores which naively might be thought to dominate such a search. Very strange.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on April 09, 2008 05:41 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
April 04, 2008

Britannica Blog Link-Baiting "Newspapers and the Net Forum"

Britannica Blog is having another link-baiting party, I mean, "Are Newspapers Doomed? (Do We Care?): Newspapers & the Net Forum". They did not quite say:

Throughout the week assorted writers, bloggers, and media scholars will [provide link fodder] discuss and debate the state of newspapers and the impact of new media on traditional avenues of publishing. We welcome your [link] input, your [links] comments and [links to] perspectives, and encourage your [linking to] participation in these discussions.

I addressed a paradox in a column a while back: "Has Britannica co-opted blogging or has it been corrupted by it?". The Britannica people definitely seem to be cognizant of a blog as an attention-getting device and Search Engine Optimization aspects. In fact, it's arguably even working for them.

I've repeatedly tried to make the point, there's no reason to assume that organizations designated as the contrast to the shiny new thing, are therefore intrinsically unable to play with the shiny new thing's toys. Britannica Blog seems to show it's in fact quite possible to adapt, or at least try.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on April 04, 2008 08:01 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
April 01, 2008

Inside Higher Ed - "Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia" - April Fool?

I wasn't inspired to do an April Fool's post. The best I could think of was something along the lines that I'd received a big grant from the "Patton Foundation" and the "Open But Not So Open Our Brains Fall Out Minded Institute", to set up a "Center for Internet Skepticism". And that sort of post sounded like a self-indulgent waste of everyone's time.

But fate provided me with blogging material today, in the form of the article "Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia". If this isn't an April Fool's joke, it should be:

I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful.

If the writer is serious, I'm going to save this for proof of one reason I'm so critical of Wikipedia. Namely, the proposals that experts should work for free, donating their time and energy in terms of grunt work to support the deliberate design choice of Wikipedia to favor quantity over quality.

It's really a triumph of marketing over academic standards. Set up a system where any troll, vandal, or axe-grinder can mess up a carefully worded article. Then get experts (and others) to volunteer to fight off the trolls, vandals, and axe-grinders. THEN claim this is the "wisdom of crowds", where the result of all that uncompensated effort and perhaps burned-out contributors shows that, magically, openness produces respectable material.

Someone's being fooled ... :-(.

[Update - bonus link: Hillary Clinton Wikipedia article vandal-fighter

Schilling is the man who protects Hillary's online self from the public's hatred. He estimates that he spends up to 15 hours per week editing Wikipedia under the name "Wasted Time R"--much of it, these days, standing watch over Hillary's page. ... "You constantly have to police [the page]," he says, recalling the way Rudy Giuliani's Wikipedia article declined in quality after its protectors lost interest. "Otherwise, it diverts into a state of nature."

Sigh ... But it's fun, right? :-( ]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on April 01, 2008 09:10 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (8)