August 27, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Security by Obscurity = Ignorance is Strength

security by obscurity = ignorance is strength

Is research that uncovers flaws in transportation fare payment systems so dangerous as to justify censorship?

This is my reaction to the MBTA v. Anderson case, where three MIT students and MIT have been sued over their research showing security weaknesses in the MBTA subway fare system. I'm hoping my comparison of "security by obscurity" to the Orwellian slogan of "Ignorance is Strength" catches on. Happily, that comparison managed to make it into the title.

Blog bonus: My original draft had a paragraph "Some naive commentators have a ludicrous idea that there's teams of civil-libertarian lawyers on alert who scan the skies for the EFF-signal and then leap into the EFF-mobile to do battle. The reality may be heroic in its own way, but resembles battlefield triage far more than a bloodless inevitable triumph of good over evil."

But that either got cut for space or because the Batman references were too obscure.

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

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal , press , security | on August 27, 2008 08:55 PM | (Infothought permalink)
August 26, 2008

Wikipedia the nonprofit as PR for Wikia the commercial ad-farm

Another day, another gem of how Wikipedia is used to promote the digital-sharecropping of Wikia, this time from a sports site ESPN interview:

[ESPN] What are some of the current trends along the Wikipedia online collaboration model, especially in sports?

[JW] People are taking some of the core ideas of Wikipedia and starting to move "beyond the encyclopedia". For example, at the Wikia site Armchair GM, sports fan use a variation of the original wiki software that runs Wikipedia to manage discussions about sports.

[ESPN] Where do you think Wikipedia fits in the broader framework of what's happening in society now with user-driven content?

[JW] I think Wikipedia was just the leading edge of a much broader trend. At Wikia, we are seeing people build out all kinds of collaborative works... "the rest of the library." The biggest category is gaming sites, unbelievably in-depth and accurate how-to manuals for every possible game. More than 70,000 articles about the World of Warcraft. And of course fan sites for tons of different teams, sports, etc.

Note the pattern in those responses (Wikipedia ... Wikia) - how they "bridge" from Wikipedia, the nonprofit project to Wikia, the commercial $14million venture-capital funded business with an intrinsic motivation of making investors rich (though profitability is a problem). That is, Wikipedia is presented as some sort of prototype or proof-of-concept for a system where a few digital-sharecropping site owners rake in big bucks from massive unpaid labor. And remember, for anyone tempted to do the tactic of rebuttal via personal attack, I'm not the one who wrote about "World of Wiki: Potential Advertising Goldmine" or the plan to "commercialize the hell out of it".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on August 26, 2008 11:54 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
August 24, 2008

Wikipedia researcher about being right losing to persistence and arguing

The researcher said it, not me (remember, I'm an idiot who just wants to engage in conspiracy mongering and FUD):

From today's SFGate Wikimedia Foundation article, my emphasis:

Ed Chi of the Palo Alto Research Center is the creator of WikiDashboard, a social dynamic analysis tool created independently of the foundation that allows readers to analyze all of the edits made by their peers. In October, Chi discovered a huge drop-off in the number of edits, to the point that 1 percent of editors were editing 50 percent of the content. While Wikipedia remains strong in page views and overall ranking, Chi said the waning interest among editors does not bode well for the site or community.

"The edits have leveled off and remained steady," Chi said. "We don't yet know a reason for the decline, but we suspect it is due not to the wisdom of crowds but to the increased level of conflict among community members. Often it is not the one with the right answer who has their say, but the one who sticks around the longest and is best able to argue his case."

When one cuts through all the hype, Wikipedia is not very hard to understand. As I say, it's a cult, and the people who win in that sort of system are the people who best play clique-status games. There's sadly too many prominent people who know better, or should know better, who have peddled a mystification so as to profit from that.

Update: Welcome, readers. You might enjoy my newspaper columns at Seth Finkelstein |

In particular, regarding Wikipedia, see:

Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop

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

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive

I'm on Wikipedia, get me out of here

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on August 24, 2008 10:52 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
August 21, 2008

Jason Calacanis vs. The "Google Killer" Story

Jason Calacanis's newsletter has an interesting take on the "Google Killer" storyline, which makes for a significant contrast with the Wikia Search coverage I've discussed recently:

For example, when launching and running Mahalo, everyone wants me to say we're a Google killer. When that question comes up I immediately say "let me be very, very clear -- and please don't misrepresent me in your story -- that Google is a partner and we don't see ourselves as a replacement for Google but rather a complement for the following reasons." ...

Your job as a suspect/subject is to say things concisely and with few words: "Google is our partner in five areas already: search advertising, analytics, YouTube, open social and custom search. They also send us half our traffic--they are NOT our competition, they are our partner." Silence. More silence. If the journalist is good they will say something like, "but certainly on some level you compete?" and you respond "No, we don't."

Of course, the incentives are different for Mahalo than Wikia Search. Mahalo really is a partner with Google. While Wikia Search, well, it seems absurd to say it could replace Google, more like a roach trying to eat a scrap from Google's meals (competitor only in the most abstract and technical sense).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on August 21, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
August 18, 2008

Follow-up on The Problem With Wikia Search

When I said "I'm not worthy", it looks like someone took me at my word :-). Last week I noted an example of one of Wikia Search's problems, in that a pure equal-weight popularity voting system tends to generate buzzy results - giving one of my own blog posts as an example. Someone seemed to have taken exception, and then voted that post down in the search results, among others. I think someone else voted it back up a little later (just what's been missing from search engines, right, edit-wars).

But I'd say there's actually been a notably small amount of participation in the Wikia search engine. It gets an enormous amount of PR, which is a functional subsidy that other search engine start-ups can only envy. But so far, not a huge amount of free labor.

All the blather about taking on Google is so over hyped it's painful.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on August 18, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (6)
August 15, 2008

"World of Wiki: Potential Advertising Goldmine"

They said it, I didn't:

"World of Wiki: Potential Advertising Goldmine"

And he said it, I didn't:

[Jimmy Wales] gives the example of [Wikia]'s World of Warcraft community. Yes, WOW, the role playing online game (RPG) with some 8 million customers. "It's just a huge phenomenon. By our estimate, about 4 million people a month visit the World of Warcraft [site on Wikia]. The community comes to us, they write about the game, they talk about the game, they document everything -- it's a really really in depth content," Wales says. ...

"For advertisers this is a really targeted demographic ... you know exactly who they are, you know they are gamers and they spend time, a lot of time playing online multiplayer games. If you want to reach a certain demographic this is a great place to do it -- if you don't, then don't waste your money and so that actually works really well for advertisers," Wales goes on.

Of course, there are some problems with Wikia's strategy.

Now, note "I'm not selling Wikipedia"

In 2004, he started a for-profit company called Wikia, a community and search engine for wikis. He said that company is valued at US$70 million.

So remember digital-sharecroppers - it's all about people, it's all about connections, it's all about community - and selling them to advertisers to make a buck (or more than 70 million bucks, supposedly, on paper).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on August 15, 2008 11:39 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
August 13, 2008

The Problem With Wikia Search

I'm not worthy:

(my blog post is the second result for a Wikia Search on Jimmy Wales)

For those who can't see the image, my Wikia Search Follies blog post is the second result for a Wikia Search for [Jimmy Wales]. The first result is currently an article from The Register, "Jimbo Wales dumps lover on Wikipedia" (n.b., though that makes for an ironic story, I suspect it really didn't happen that way).

In Wikipedia, functionally, articles are effectively controlled by a small clique (forget all that blather about whizzing crowds, it's nonsense). Wikia Search hasn't figured out how to do that for search results. Frankly, I'm surprised the results for a search for [Jimmy Wales] are relatively inoffensive. But then, the net results are basically an approval-voting system, which favors scandal over pure trolling. So there's a lesson there - they may end up not making a search engine, but a selection game seeded by (bad) search engine results.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on August 13, 2008 09:29 AM | (Infothought permalink)
August 09, 2008

Google Knol Ranking issues revisited

There's been an ongoing thread of extensive Knol rankings discussion between search expert Danny Sullivan and Google oracle Matt Cutts, as to the issue of whether Google favors Knol in ranking. Key questions asked by Danny Sullivan:

* Are some domains seen as "trusted" by Google, so that any page within them gains some of that trust in ranking mechanisms.

* If so, is this trust transmitted to subdomains of a domain?

I think the answer to the first question is yes and the answer to the second is no. But I'd like Google to give us an on-the-record answer. It would help with the debunking.

I too suspect the answers are "yes" and "no" respectively. The poster-child for the "yes" answer to the first is Wikipedia, though other superlinked sites like Amazon or IMDB are evidence also. However, I could be convinced this is just a practical effect of trust flowing across pages.

The second question is trickier. It's something where the answer to it is not necessarily to the question which should be asked. That is, I can well imagine Matt Cutts hypothetically saying something like "No, is treated in the code exactly the same if were plain old - it has no ranking advantage from". And that might be the absolute literal truth. However, for example, received at least one great link at launch from the front page of (cached - it's gone from the current version). So, then, any site which got a front page link from a site as trusted and highly ranked as would be treated the same. Matt Cutts again: "We try to rank all our content on a level playing field." (I miss vocal inflection - please try to read the quotation as relayed with a very dry tone).

Danny Sullivan also said:

I'm saying that seemed to have, when I wrote this, quickly gained enough authority ON ITS OWN that pages within it did better -- that a page I never mentioned, which seemed to have practically no links pointing it -- shot to 28 out of 755,000 pages. Sorry, that's just not something I think you'd see happen on most brand new sites. And again, not because Google did anything to favor itself. Just because the Knol site rapidly gained authority.

The problem is the words "on its own" well, they remind me of bloggers who leaped to the A-list due to being media quasi-celebrities or wealthy, and pontificate how it's a level playing field - meaning, anyone who is rich or famous could do the same thing (again, that's "democracy", web 2.0 style!). In essence, knol had a very (link)rich and (media)famous "parentage", so pages on it ranked - and will rank - accordingly.

Note the high-trust-centralization effect has some very under-examined implications, but there's little support to explore that :-(.

[Update: Memesterbation link]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 09, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink)
August 06, 2008

Wikia Search "Evolution" add-on Wikia self-promotion

I noticed an interesting little item in the release of Wikia Search's "Evolution" browser add-on (it's designed to hand-scrape Google and Yahoo results, but others, with much greater audience, have already chewed that over - this post is value added). The owner data is:

Wikia Search Evolution 0.1.0
by Wikia Inc (Ashish Datta)

As I write this, the addon has three "reviews" and a rating of five stars (out of five). The third so-called "review" is by Jimmy Wales (only four stars :-)), and is really a plug. But this isn't even about that obvious conflict-of-interest minor hype. No, what's the first review?

[Five stars] Wikia Evolution!!!

Great add-on! Great search engine!

by Set Five on August 1, 2008

Now, who is user "Set Five" ?

User Profile
Set Five
Email address
Firefox Add-ons user since
August 1, 2008

"ashish"? Where have I seen that name before? Oh, right, "Ashish Datta". Who, according to LinkedIn, is "CTO at Setfive LLC" (and "Jester at Wikia").

You know what the Wikipedia apparatchik class does to people who do stuff like that on Wikipedia ...

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on August 06, 2008 11:53 PM | (Infothought permalink)
August 03, 2008

Wikia and "GamePro" Advertising Deal

As something of a follow-up to my last post on Wikia and digital-sharecropping, I've run across this article: GamePro Strikes Ad, Content Deal With Wikia

by Mark Walsh, Monday, Jul 28, 2008 7:00 AM ET

GamePro Media will exclusively handle ad sales for the gaming section of Wikia, the for-profit Web hosting service started by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, under a new marketing partnership announced today.

GamePro will serve display ads across the approximately 500,000 pages of game-related content on Wikia covering a wide range of enthusiast topics from the complex fantasy game "World of Warcraft" to Club Penguin. Wikia's game-related inventory accounts for more than 300 million ad impressions a month.

This connects interestingly with Wikia's recent lust for advertising space. Moreover:

With the upcoming relaunch of on Aug. 12, the company also plans to feature Wikia Gaming content on the revamped home page. ...
At the same time, GamePro will also allow Wikia authors to grab content from the site including game screenshots, expert reviews and video available to use within their own wikis, Huseby said

Let's see if I've got this straight. You work for free, and a for-profit magazine might use your material without paying you. In return, they'll let you use their promotional material for what the magazine sells, i.e. be an unpaid marketer. But remember, folks, it's all about the "community"!

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on August 03, 2008 01:16 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (8)