August 31, 2012

Wikimedia proposes "Legal Fees Assistance Program" for Wikipedia, etc support role

I hope I'm not drummed out of the Wikipedia Critics Guild for this post, but it's worth noting there's a hopeful proposal from the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit which owns Wikipedia and various other projects) for a "Legal Fees Assistance Program"

The Legal Fees Assistance Program of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) has been established to help secure funds for legal assistance in appropriate cases for Wikimedia users who serve in a community administrator, arbitrator, email response, or project governance role that is specified in this document. ... [It] is intended to help with the costs of a legal defense arising from a support role in the unlikely event that a user should face legal action for their actions in such a role.

I should note this specific program is not about content, which is a different policy.

One of my deeper criticisms of the exploitative nature of Wikipedia, and why I don't believe it's a good model for anything much except taking advantage of relatively powerless people, is the way it engages in the practice "risk-shifting". For example, where low-level volunteers bear the legal risks and costs of legally problematic actions. The con-men who push wonderful stories about self-emergent collective-mind free work, typically never mention that lawsuits can get directed towards real people, not technomystic concepts. This problem is made much worse by the ability of some organizations to disclaim liability and push it onto the unpaid labor.

Kudos to whoever at the Wikimedia Foundation took steps to address this issue. It would be a great use of resources.

That being said, I have some unfortunate worries which I'll phrase as follows: I hope that what sounds so much like a program which would defend the rank-and-file against abuse of power, doesn't get corrupted into stealth lobbying for Google or similar in legal fights about copyright. Basically, misused as another way to channel Wikipedia prominence and reputation into the service of corporate interests. Again, I don't contend that's what the proposers have in mind, and I'm not claiming this is intended as any sort of propaganda effort. But there's many forces who do want to use Wikimedia as a corporate front. And sadly I could see a way it might happen here. Maybe it's dour to bring that up that possibility for such a praiseworthy proposal. But I've seen too much bad net.politics to be unreservedly optimistic.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
May 31, 2012

Wikipedia Is(n't?) For Porn - or, Being A Cult Leader Is Difficult

Wikipedia co-Founder Larry Sanger has generated some attention from a post What should we do about Wikipedia's porn problem?. Given that it's been echoed by a couple of A-listers (who have around three orders of magnitude more audience than me), plus mega-gatekeeper sites, I don't feel that I'm going to be doing any harm in adding a few of my squeaks from the bottom of power-law mountain.

Now, as I mentioned in my own post a while back about Wikimedia/Wikipedia Image Filter "referendum" results, "Between ankle-biting wikicultists on one side, and wiki-porn-porn-porn complainers waving bloody heads on the other", other writers can argue the censorship-related issues. I've been there, done that, and got the suffering for it. I'm intrigued by the way various pro and anti Wikipedia factions react (which is not something that's been argued endlessly).

Note there's many topics which get mixed in these discussion. There's legal sexual material but not appropriate for little children, material where let's say one should think very carefully about obscenity and child pornography law, and some extremely dark corners of Wikimedia-world that I remain amazed have not resulted in a major scandal (yet). All of it, however, is a public-relations problem. And that hits the Wikimedia Foundation (owner of Wikipedia and related sites) like nothing else.

In another post about Wikipedia's other co-founder Jimmy Wales's reaction, Sanger states "I found it implausible that the God King could do nothing". However, this is closer to truth than is apparent at first glance. There's no hucksters interested in hyping the following formulation, but being a cult leader is in fact pure democracy. Any follower can leave at any time, at least to as good an approximation as many other things which get called "democracy". If a large, vocal base, having some of the organization's most fanatical followers, wants to do something which is embarrassing to the Dear Leader, then Dear Leader has a problem. Getting into a costly battle with the base is bad politics, even for the most absolute of monarchs.

And the last time he did try to take on the base over this topic, they actually started revolting. It was very revealing as to the dynamics. When I talk about how Wikipedia is a cult, too many people seem to take that as if it were a cartoonish statement of zombies being ruled by a puppet-master. It's not like a bad genre story. A cult leader only remains in that position by fulfilling the emotional needs of the acolytes. Go against those feelings, and there's trouble. Alternatively, no king wants to massacre a bunch of farmers over bad PR, even content-farmers.

I have no idea how it's all going to shake out. I'll just end with what I've said before:

Have fun, Wikimedia Foundation folks. I don't envy you. Running a cult is not all PR puff-pieces and back-scratching among elites. Sometimes you have to actually deal with the uncomfortable fact that the "community" isn't completely dedicated to doing unpaid work exactly as you desire.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
January 17, 2012

Resolutions, SOPA, Wikipedia blackout, Google, etc. essay

[Note this post is deliberately written in "personal voice", as it's more aimed at my vast dozens of readers, rather than expecting to have any significant effect]

I had intended to do a New Year's Resolutions post about planned site updates and eventually finally shuttering the blog, but I decided it was all just too much of a rehash to be worth the bits wasted (which fits the theme of worthless resolutions). However, the upcoming "Wikipedia Blackout" gave me an inspiration for weaving it all into at least a current event commentary.

For those unfamiliar with the term "SOPA", it's a proposed law involving extensive new powers for copyright enforcement. Potential aspects (specific details vary depending on versions) include domain-name seizures, payment-processing and advertiser blockades, blacklisting in the mechanism that actually locates sites on the Internet (DNS), mandating removals from search engines, changes regarding how sites deal with infringement, and more. This is all very scary from a civil-libertarian and open Internet point of view. And I oppose it. But there's no point in my campaigning personally. Most readers in my audience are already against it, and I doubt those who are for it will change their minds. The expected return is near-zero gain from the civil-liberties side, versus soft-on-infringement from the copyright-maximalist side. Besides, many on both sides get paid for this, I don't. Or, I don't want to do free lobbying for Google:

Since Leahy proposed similar legislation in late 2010, Google has been the most high-profile corporate opponent of the anti-piracy legislation. The company's business model depends on an open Internet, and some of its top properties, particularly YouTube, have long been targets for Hollywood and TV moguls.

Having a corporate ally is a clear boost for libraries, free speech advocates and open-Internet nonprofits, who don't have the lobbying might Google has.

Which brings us to the upcoming "Wikipedia blackout" in protest of SOPA. This has been an unprecedented politicization of the Wikipedia site itself, putting it to use as a tool for political advocacy. One of the things which interests me about Wikipedia (and I truly find it fascinating, which is not the same as regarding it positively) is that it's large enough to be a factor in real-world disputes, but small enough so that various factional politics are observable, and often even visible in terms of maneuvering.

The Wikimedia Foundation and co-founder Jimmy Wales clearly wanted to use Wikipedia as a lobbying tool here. That was blatantly obvious to anyone who knows how Wikipedia works. Most simply, if they didn't want to do it, Wales would have sanctimoniously intoned how Wikipedia must remain neutral, and that would be that. Instead, they engaged in a classic "Manufacture of Consent", which could have come right out of a political science study (which I wish someone would do). Essentially, the community was fed scaremongering about how Wikipedia was in (my phrase) mortal peril, and so the use of the Wikipedia site itself in this copyright law fight would be justified. I'm not going to detail all the machinations that went on, since I doubt anyone reading cares. But it was another increment of cynicism for me, to see the Foundation people's extensive "suggestions". And when those in charge of handing out goodies like jobs and fellowships (which doesn't have to be stated outright) want a certain outcome, that's a fist, not thumb, on the scales. But, of course, at the end it was a "community decision", like say a country's decision to go to war.

Anyway, watching this, I made a few stabs at participating and correcting misinformation (Wikipedia is NOT in mortal peril). But I kept asking myself "Do I really want to get into a big fight with the Wikimedia Foundation and Wales where ultimately this is a proposed law which I oppose???" (haven't I learned my lesson?). It was another iteration of "Do the ends justify the means?", and more specifically, is it worth all the inevitable personal attacks to oppose bad means being used by others? Other writers, with far bigger platforms, and the ability to defend themselves, can say what needs to be said.

And that leads back to uselessness of blogging, at least for the Z-lister. In every item above (fighting SOPA, opposing Wikimedia politicization, defending myself from attacks), the net result seems that blogging is going to get me more negative than positive. Maybe I've said that too many times, which recursively should be a lesson in itself.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 03:11 AM | Comments (1)
November 24, 2011

"The Closed, Unfriendly World Of Wikipedia" and anti-expert sentiment

Danny Sullivan, search expert, details his journey through "The Closed, Unfriendly World Of Wikipedia". Skipping the details of his attempt to navigate the maze, he finally ends up being cheesed:

Bottom line - I've gotten no indication that anyone at Wikipedia actually cares what a subject expert has to say on, well, a subject they're an expert in. Instead, you drown in a morass of bureaucracy. ...

And when I read this, I thought, right, Danny, they don't (care). That is, this is another example of what Lore Sjberg wrote about in his classic funny-because-it's-true Wikipedia FAQK:

But why should I contribute to an article? I'm no expert.

That's fine. The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: "Experts are scum." For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War -- and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge -- get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.

There's a strange strain of anti-expert sentiment that runs through Wikipedia, and I see experts run into it again and again. It's not simple to articulate this aspect, since Wikipedia presents itself as a project to collect knowledge. That's usually where the PR fluff ends thought on the topic. But underneath, there's some very troubling social undercurrents.

So when Danny Sullivan writes:

I am a subject expert in the field of search marketing. A notable one - after all, Wikipedia says so. But my type of first-hand assertion isn't enough. Wikipedia would rather find third-party mainstream media resources that quote people, as if that is somehow better than first-party information.

That's exactly right - "that is somehow better". Because first-party information is based in expert authority, while third-party mainstream media represents a kind of institutional approval. Some Wikipedia editors will actually agree with and justify this, from a rules-based perspective.

The subsequent debate has some fascinating elements going around a question of the proper context, of whose authority should be respected. Subject experts generally expect to be treated with with some respect, as being high ranking members in the hierarchy of the topic. This does not mean unquestioned deference (though some do want that), which is an easy strawman. But, generally, within their area, they are regarded as having a social status outranking nearly everyone else. So when they go to Wikipedia, they're thinking the Wikipedia "editors" are, well, editors, who have the job of working with the experts to polish and publish the expert's work. However, the Wikipedia "editors" are convinced that the Wikipedia hierarchy is what matters, and they (the Wikipedia unpaid "staff") are really the high status members, to whom the newbie contributor should behave with appropriate status respect. The attitude is roughly that if the expert wants their contribution to be accepted by Wikipedia, it's up to the expert to learn the rules of the game and start playing it. And maybe someday, with the right political skills, clique alliances, and of course a huge amount of time and effort, that expert could hope rise to as exalted a ranking level as the Wikipedia editor.

This leads to the experts leaving in disgust, and the Wikipedia editors saying don't let the huge article count hit you on the way out.

And this is a reason I'm not on the Wikipedia bandwagon. But there's not much of an audience or support for this sort of analysis.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 06:56 PM
September 04, 2011

Wikimedia/Wikipedia Image Filter "referendum" results

There's been a so-called Wikimedia/Wikipedia Image Filter "referendum" with results announced now (The Wikimedia Foundation owns Wikipedia and other projects, such as their "Commons" image repository). Much "discussion". "So-called", as it wasn't really a referendum. It was obviously intended as more of a rubber-stamp for what the Wikimedia higher-ups have decided to do anyway about an ongoing problem with "controversial" images (they said it, not me: "The Board of Trustees has directed the Wikimedia Foundation to develop and implement a personal image hiding feature ... The feature will be developed for, and implemented on, all projects."). The little people got to "vote" on advice for the developers! ("To aid the developers in making those trade-offs ...").

I keep telling myself stay out, stay out, stay out, as no good will come from any commentary I make. I have very bad memories of hurting my life from censorware activism. Between ankle-biting wikicultists on one side, and wiki-porn-porn-porn complainers waving bloody heads on the other, I can lose from both ends (i.e. Wikipedia fanatics have incentives in social approval for attacking me just on general principles because I'm a critic, while being insufficiently moralistic is never an easy pundit position). But I don't intend to argue the censorship-related issues. Other writers can do that. This post is about the incredible circus around the event.

One reason Wikipedia truly fascinates me is that, contrary to very deliberate public relations, "Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop". There's distilled group dysfunction on display. And since so much of the interaction is documented (not everything, but a large amount), one can see all the factors much more visibly than elsewhere. Here, one can trace the various political forces at work.

The powers-that-be find sexual material controversies to be embarrassing. They're very clear about the thinking involved, for example regarding some images "in various categories and sub-categories around" "Female toplessness" and "Nude women":

Thirdly, it is our belief that the presence of these out of scope images in Commons is potentially dangerous for the Foundation and Community because they reduce the overall credibility of the projects as responsible educational endeavors, and thus call into question the legitimacy of the many images of sexual content and "controversial" sexual content that must remain on Commons for the projects to fulfill their mission. And, although not our primary motivation in making this recommendation, it must be noted that they are offensive to many people, men and women alike, and represent with their inclusion a very clear bias, and point of view that of woman as sexual object. They are far from neutral. We would never allow this point of view untrammeled and unreflexive presence on any Wikipedia site as a clear violation of NPOV we should not allow it on Commons either.

To put it mildly, this runs into conflict with prominent sentiments among a major demographics of wiki editors, single young men. I don't think I need belabor the obvious differences of opinion involved.

So, what to do with when there's outside social pressure but you don't want to alienate a major source of free labor? It's time to start contortions about "filtering". This was a censorware argument I'd seen many times before, and it went down the same path.

Have fun, Wikimedia Foundation folks. I don't envy you. Running a cult is not all PR puff-pieces and back-scratching among elites. Sometimes you have to actually deal with the uncomfortable fact that the "community" isn't completely dedicated to doing unpaid work exactly as you desire.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 02:40 AM | Comments (2)
June 13, 2011

Wikipedia-Bombing Rick Santorum "(neologism)"

The [Rick] "Santorum_(neologism)" Wikipedia article (n.b. - not safe for work!) is currently a battleground of, well, I'll let a very high-status Wikipedia editor describe the situation:

Statement by Coren

We have, I think, a novel problem.

Wikipedia is being willfully used as a weapon for political activism against a specific person: there is a concerted effort to manipulate and misuse our policies into giving exposition to a political campaign against an American politician. ...

To give the essentials, there's been a successful Google-bombing campaign to associate "Rick Santorum" with some disgusting material, which then has effectively created a secondary "Wikipedia-bombing" campaign via documenting the first campaign. Thus, a search gets at first the Google-bomb site, and then a Wikipedia-bomb via an article talking about the attacks.

This is a classic situation every media outlet faces of how to cover political stunts, and the difficulties of possibly contributing to problematic actions by giving attention to the sensational. Wikipedia, by virtue of the Google power it has, can drive issues to high-ranking Google placement. And scarily, this power is in the hands of too many people who have difficulty even with the very concept of the problem.

As put in one Wikipedia mail-listing message

What the article *does* is smear a human being. The fact that our rules don't consider it to be a POV violation as long as as the article doesn't state a position is a loophole in the rules.

You can't neutrally discuss how a person is compared to shit. Not in any real-world sense.

I should disclaim that I find Rick Santorum's political positions to be reprehensible, and I sympathize with the feelings behind the actions against him. But, in reply to the obvious more-activist-than-thou point of how one can be concerned over these Google and Wikipedia reactions, rather what prompts them from Santorum's stances, there's something very worrying going on here. Today it's Rick Santorum ... tomorrow, who knows? And I suspect that right-wingers are going to eventually be able to play that game far better than left-wingers.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:32 PM
April 30, 2011

Call For Crowd-Sourcing - Wikipedia Song Parody "Junk Food Junkie"

One of FAQ's (Frequently Asserted Querulousness) about Wikipedia criticism is charging some sort of hypocrisy when Wikipedia critics have been known to read Wikipedia. This has always seemed to me a kind of cheap "gotcha" strawman. I don't know any critic who thinks that reading Wikipedia will cause someone to go insane, like an Internet version of H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon (working on Wikipedia may indeed drive you mad, but that's another topic).

After yet another discussion going around this, it struck me that it was analogous to when a nutrition advocate eats junk-food. Now, a person's claim about what's healthy may be right or wrong. And if they said anyone who ate junk-food was a horrible person who was doomed to a heart-attack immediately, one might legitimately call that hypocritical. All of which put me in mind of an old humor song "Junk Food Junkie".

It's about someone who's a public health-food promotor, yet enjoys eating junk-food in private:

Yeah, in the daytime I'm Mr. Natural
Just as healthy as I can be
But at night I'm a junk food junkie
Good lord have pity on me

Which suggested to me something along the lines of:

Oh, in the daytime I'm The Professor
Just as scholarly as I can be
But at night I'm a Wikipedia reader
Good lord have pity on me

That is, parody the above "gotcha" argument, as an academic who considers reading Wikipedia to be a secret shame. So from

Ah, but when that clock strikes midnight
And I'm all by myself
I work that combination
On my secret hideaway shelf
And I pull out some Fritos corn chips
Dr. Pepper and an Ole Moon Pie
Then I sit back in glorious expectation
Of a genuine junk food high


Yet, but when that clock strikes midnight
And I check there's no risk
I type in the password
Of my hidden encrypted disk
And pop up wikipornography
Anime and Star Trek too
Then I click round in glorious expectation
Of a popular culture zoo

I'm not going to claim I'm particularly good at this, especially given all the references that can go into good parody. Rather, I will be true the wiki way, which is to have others do work for you. Thus, anyone who is an expert is invited to do it, because it's a valuable civic task that needs to be done.

[Disclaimer: Kidding around is one thing, but no libel/defamation, please.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (3)
July 04, 2010

Wikipedia Is Down, And I Feel Fine

Wikipedia is down. I feel fine. My life is unaffected. I have no great anxiety or discomfort. Life will continue along, and the site will almost certainly return sometime in the future. This is apparently an uncommon feeling.

I was going to "retweet" the explanation on twitter by "Wittylama":

Not only is #Wikipedia down, but also Commons and everything by WMF. the AirCon is down in the server room in Florida - Overheating.

But the restrictions of Twitter put me off - it's not conversation!.

Update: There's a "wikimediatech" status feed

Update2: And it returns ... if you even noticed ...

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:40 PM | Comments (1)
May 16, 2010

Semi-Debunking Wikimedia "In Chaos" and Jimmy Wales "Resignation"

[I wrote this for a mailing-list, to quickly semi-debunk the exaggerated story about Jimmy Wales "Resignation"]

I've been following this controversy in detail. Sadly, the reporting of it is turning into a game of journalistic "telephone".

Important, co-founder Jimmy Wales did not "resign" overall. He did voluntarily give up some special technical editing status he had (in the face of some very strong pressure to have that status stripped from him for using it in a pre-emptive way which garnered widespread disapproval). Basically, in Unix terms, he resigned his super-user/"root" bit on the servers. It's not clear if this is more than symbolic, if he can politically restore that status once the attention dies down. It is certainly embarrassing for him.

Since I'm often a critic of Wikipedia, I'll point to a public message by the former Chair of the Wikimedia Foundation:

"Jimmy [Wales]'s is behaving like a vandal and breaking the very notion of our "power in the hands of the community""

I'd say "chaos" is the wrong word - "intense factional infighting" would be more accurate (though when it comes to running Wikipedia, what else is new?). Although there are many interrelated topics, the gist of the dispute is how to handle some sexual material on Wikimedia Commons, a hosting resource (not Wikipedia _per se_), which is, let us put it, of less than obvious immediate educational value, in the face of _Fox News_ making an issue of it. Civil-libertarians will be familiar with such disputes.

The best single message I've found is this one, from a current Wikimedia Foundation board member:

"And I am firmly against reducing the content on Wikimedia to only that which is acceptable for children. The world's knowledge contains a lot of things that are shocking, divisive, offensive, or horrific, and people should be able to learn about them, and to educate others. Not including these things doesn't make them go away--it only makes it more difficult for interested people to learn from a source that tries to be neutral and educational. I don't think Wikipedia will ever be (or should ever be) "safe", for the same reason your public library will never be, either."

Disclaimer/plug - see the column I wrote for the _Guardian_ more than an year ago when a different Wikipedia pornography controversy was in the news:

"The combination of moral-panic-mongers willing to practice a politics of personal destruction and the ability to anonymously advocate for one's favorite fetish on one of the world's most widely read websites leads to constant low-intensity conflict. Wikipedia trades off quality control for greater production. That same design flaw is manifested in extremely weak and failure-prone mechanisms for determining the boundary between provocative and profane."

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:04 PM | Comments (2)
April 27, 2010

Wikimedia Foundation Form 990 for 2010 - no riches in nonprofit salaries

The Wikimedia Foundation Form 990 (fiscal year 2009) has been made available. I seem to be one of the few people who reads these things, so perhaps a blog post about it won't be completely redundant. As I explained in my post last year about "Wikimedia Foundation Form 990, Jimmy Wales Speaking Fee $75,000+ ("salary")":

For people unfamiliar with this, a "form 990" is an IRS disclosure form required for charities. And it's often full of interesting financial information. Definitely worth a look if you're interested in the internal workings of an organization. Particular in terms of what people are paid.

We finally get to find out what Sue Gardner, Executive Director, receives for being ringmaster of the wiki-circus: $150,000 base salary, $6,350 benefits, and $18,700 of what looks to be a one-time housing relocation expense.

That's decent money in general in the midst of a recession, but in a relative sense, it strikes me as quite reasonable for the position, especially in Silicon Valley. The salaries of any technical people aren't given this time, per their FAQ "The requirements for inclusion on this schedule are more specific than in prior years. [requirements then specified]". But it can't be all that much, given those requirements.

It does point out again, though, that there just isn't a whole lot of money in the nonprofit per se. Apparently the way to (try to) get rich is using Wikipedia for publicity, to promote oneself for lecture fees, or a venture-capital funded start-up.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:19 PM
July 15, 2009

More On Wikipedia blackout of David Rohde kidnapping

A few days ago, the radio program "On The Media" ran a segment on the David Rohde kidnapping and Wikipeda's suppression of information: "The Silent Treatment"

Consider this statement:

JIMMY WALES: No, it's not one that we had encountered in quite this way before, but because The New York Times was very successful in having their media blackout, it was pretty easy for our volunteers to look at it and say, well, really under the rules of Wikipedia we've never considered ourselves a wide open free speech forum where people can post speculative things. We just look at it and we say, well yes, there was one report here and a couple of blogs, but really it's not being reported anywhere else, so who knows.

Now, of course, I knew that it was true because The New York Times contacted me to ask what could be done about it, but it's not my obligation to report everything I know, just as it wouldn't be for anybody.

Note the first edit to add the information about David Rohde's kidnapping sourced it to an Afghan news report.

Compare the following message on a Wikipedia discussion list:

... When we want to protect a non-reporter, we are told that since Wikipedia is just republishing information that is already out there and causing damage anyway, the person will probably have been hurt just as much without the Wikipedia article. And of course, Wikipedia is not censored, and that the five pillars of Wikipedia require the free flow of information and can never be compromised.

Certainly, someone who tried to suppress information in the same way, but was not Jimmy Wales or otherwise important on Wikipedia, even if they did it to save a life, would be accused of edit warring, told that they are abusing the rules, and taken to Arbcom and banned. Of course, in the process they would be told that their idea that they are saving a life is speculative and can't be proven. If one such person were to justify their actions by claiming that terrorists can't use the Internet well, we would reply "nice idea, but you really have no proof for that. You're just speculating. You don't know that that's true. Now stop the edit warring and the rules abuse-- we can certainly prove *that*."

Where you stand depends on where you sit.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
July 08, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on David Rohde kidnapping, and Wikipedia suppression

"The moral quandary of involving Wikipedia in online 'censorship'"

"The suppression of news about a reporter's disappearance saw the New York Times and Wikipedia work together but raises issues about control of information"

Note this title was written by an editor. I didn't suggest a title of my own. It's not really wrong, but as a title, I'd say it doesn't quite sum up what I was trying to examine in that column. I was attempting to consider a broad moral question, and then use Wikipedia as a worked example because the issues are so visible there (due to all the public arguing which goes on it, and how much internal deliberations tend to get leaked). Not that Wikipedia has any special status - in fact, I was writing against any idea of Wikipedia exceptionalism.

As I think of it, the column is trying to look at two topics:

1) Why did this hiding of information succeed overall, and what are the implications? (remember, we're constantly told it can't happen - but obviously, gatekeepers remain)

2) Who gets to keep out information, and why?

Of course, there's only so much of this that can be covered in the space available. But that was my attempt at saying something which would be worth reading, amidst all the other punditry on this topic.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 03:02 PM | Comments (2)
May 27, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on "Wikipedia Art" and trademark vs fair use

"Do commercial pressures outweigh artistic ideals at Wikipedia?"

"When do commercial pressures affect ideals? Testing that proposition was an unexpected result of the 'Wikipedia Art' project"

I didn't suggest a title for this one, and the title they used is fine by me. Someone might be pedantic and note it really should be "at the Wikimedia Foundation" rather than "at Wikipedia", but I'd say that's acceptable shorthand for a headline.

I emailed Jimmy Wales a long set of queries, in part asking him how he could reconcile his statement and accusations with the legal nastygrams sent by the Wikimedia Foundation lawyer. But he never replied to me.

Note to any Wikipedia-defenders: I know the "Wikipedia Art" page wasn't acceptable according to Wikipedia rules. My column is about the subsequent trademark-based threat, which had nothing to do with whether that Wikipedia Art page should have been kept or deleted.

Note to net-lawyers: I also know "fair use" is a phrase most frequently associated with copyright law. However, there really is trademark "fair use", similarly named, which applies in trademark law. That's what was being argued here - it's "fair use" to use a trademark to refer to the thing itself as a reference.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:21 PM | Comments (2)
May 14, 2009

Wikimedia Foundation Form 990, Jimmy Wales Speaking Fee $75,000+ ("salary")

The Wikimedia Foundation Form 990 for their 2008 fiscal year has been posted now. See also their FAQ for details on what's been redacted and why. For people unfamiliar with this, a "form 990" is an IRS disclosure form required for charities. And it's often full of interesting financial information. Definitely worth a look if you're interested in the internal workings of an organization. Particular in terms of what people are paid.

It should be noted that the salaries do not seem to me extravagant at all. For example, the Chief Technical Offer, who is responsible for keeping the servers running overall, is paid $62,473. I've never criticized the technical operations side of Wikipedia, it just seemed like that would be misplaced.

However, that information has to be read, well, in context. For example, a recent interview (paywall'ed, so I can't link) of Jimmy Wales contained this exchange:

[Interviewer] Do you draw down a salary from Wikipedia?

[Jimmy Wales] No. I don't get any salary. In fact, I don't even get reimbursed for my expenses. It's my charity work. I'm pretty insistent about that.

That salary statement is true as far as it goes. One can see that he indeed doesn't get any salary. However, the Jimmy Wales Speaker's Fee is now at: "FEE CATEGORY: Above 75.0k" [update 1/2010 - now 50.k - 75.0k]

Somehow, that doesn't feel like "charity work" to me. I actually wouldn't mind so much if he said something like "No, I don't take any money out of the Wikimedia Foundation, since it's a nonprofit, which could pay chump-change anyway. Instead, I fleece executives who have far more money than sense, and are crazy enough to pay me tens of thousands of dollars to spout buzzwords and blather. What do you think, that I'm some sort of silly *altruist*?" (of course, more elegantly phrased). There would still be a problem of it being built on exploitation. But it's the "charity work" part which strikes me as wrong. Nothing which results in one gig paying more than the entire salary of the person in charge of keeping the site running, can fairly be described as "charity work".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (8)
April 23, 2009

Wikimedia Foundation vs Wikipedia Art (

Echoes: EFF - Wikipedia Threatens Artists for Fair Use

Can a noncommercial critical website use the trademark of the entity it critiques in its domain name? Surprisingly, it appears that the usually open-minded folks at Wikipedia think not.

[Snip description]

Yep, they used the term "wikipedia" in their domain name."Wikipedia" is a trademark owned by the Wikimedia Foundation. And now the Foundation has demanded that the artists give up the domain name peaceably or it will attempt to take it by (legal) force.

Wikipedia should know better. There is no trademark or cybersquatting issue here. First, the site is entirely noncommercial, which puts it beyond the reach of U.S. trademark law. (We note that Paul Levy of Public Citizen, who has helped establish key precedents on this issue, has signed on to represent Wikipedia Art). Moreover, even if U.S. trademark laws somehow reached this noncommercial activity, the artists' use of the mark is an obvious fair use. ...

Legal history at Wikipedia Art

I still support the goals of the Wikipedia project, despite my personal disappointment in how they have been handling matters. I find it distressing that their commitment to an open encyclopedia is in stark contrast with their effort to effectively shut down what is clearly an artistic project that asks us to reflect on the Wikipedia system of knowledge production.

Last year, I was a Wikipedia donor. I find it ironic that some small portion of my monetary contribution may be used to pay for their legal counsel in a potential case against me.

Mailing-list analysis message excerpt by Wikimedia general counsel (lawyer):

Unsurprisingly, the artists, who enjoyed making a fuss with their initial perfomance-art project, are hoping to make a fuss about our having contacted them at all. We anticipated precisely this reaction, of course, which is why our initial letter to Wikipedia Art, now posted on their website, talks about resolving the matter amicably and asks the artists to respect and understand our concerns. In other words, it's about the gentlest "demand letter" one can possibly write. We're pleased it led to positive results (the disclaimer). We always figured they might post our communications with them.

Mailing-list comment by Wikimedia (volunteer) United Kingdom PR flack:

They're performance artists. This is more performance. They fooled the EFF into playing along.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:35 PM | Comments (2)
April 14, 2009

Larry Sanger: "An open letter to Jimmy Wales"

Echo: Larry Sanger - "An open letter to Jimmy Wales" (updates), about Jimmy Wales denying him credit as Wikipedia co-Founder:

I recently read the "Hot Press" interview with you. The lies and distortions it contains are, for me, the last straw, especially after this came to light, in which you described yourself as "co-founder" in 2002.

Strong stuff, not mincing words:

"I resent being the victim of another person's self-serving lies." ...

"What angers me is not any one error, but the accumulated weight of your lies about me ..."

It was originally posted on Jimmy Wales's personal discussion page on Wikipedia, which of course set off extensive edit-warring on removing and replacing it. But interestingly, that did seem to have some effect. The information was apparently conveyed to some people among a small core group high up in the Wikipedia hierarchy, who otherwise apparently would not have seen it.

Notably, in a mailing-list discussion, Florence Devouard, former Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation (the Wikimedia Foundation is the parent organization of Wikipedia), sent a supportive message

I know it will only be a small satisfaction, but I wanted to mention that in the French speaking user guide book I recently co-wrote with Guillaume Paumier, you are recognised as a co-founder. ...

I have had enough opportunities to see that what the public/journalists say and believe is frequently highly different from the reality and I fear we all have to live with this. For many, Jimmy is still the one doing all the work at the Wikimedia Foundation, and sometimes even the one approving any article before publishing. LOL. ...

If anyone following my writing didn't know, I've read extensively through the background, and my assessment is that Larry Sanger has the right of it. Truth is not in the middle here. He was regularly termed "co-founder" of Wikipedia for several years, even after he left the project, until it appears around the time Jimmy Wales started seriously to commercialize the ideas of Wikipedia. And while it can't be proven absolutely that the commercialization led to a rewrite of history, it's a powerful motive and very suspicious timing.

I'm surprised none of the Usual Suspects covered the issue (not even the gossip site Valleywag, and that's really surprising). And of course, a few posts on blogs simply won't be heard compared to the huge megaphones Jimmy Wales gets for his "sole founder" story because of the hype around Wikipedia :-(.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (4)
March 16, 2009

A reply to "Wikipedia criticism, and why it fails to matter"

Vipul Naik wrote a blog post "Wikipedia criticism, and why it fails to matter" (and follow-up) where he discussed many critics of Wikipedia, and raised a question:

Does criticism of Wikipedia serve any purpose (constructive or destructive) other than being an excuse to fill journal columns and blog space (I might note that the critical articles I wrote about Wikipedia have driven the most traffic to my blog)? it is hard to say. I want to argue here that it does not at least serve the obvious purpose of keeping potential readers away from Wikipedia.

For my reply, let me put it this way:
Part of my motivation has been the delusion that I can make a (small) difference in the world. But I am not nearly so deluded as to think I can significantly keep potential readers away from Wikipedia. Indeed, as I repeatedly try to point out that Wikipedia's success has been driven by an implicit subsidy by Google (implicit meaning there's no deal, no specific arrangement, but rather an effect overall), it logically follows my ability to compete with that is, in practice, nil.

I started critiquing Wikipedia in self-defense, since my biography there was being used as a weapon in a longstanding harassment campaign. And then the more I looked into the real inner workings of Wikipedia, the worse it seemed. I suspect many people don't understand the frame of reference I try to convey, of cults where idealistic unpaid acolytes work themselves to burn-out, while a few people at the top benefit enormously.

But I have no grandiose views about my readership and influence. At best, I'd aim to affect things like Jonathan Zittrain's use of Wikipedia in his book - i.e. some intellectuals might read me, and as a result the hype would be less extensive, maybe even debunked a little. Realistically, that's the best I can hope for (and I likely won't achieve even that much).

That is, I'm not trying to change (directly) the number of Wikipedia editors, but rather the Public Intellectual perspective on Wikipedia.

To me, structurally, Wikipedia embodies many policy trends which I find immoral and destructive - e.g. the shifting of risk and responsibility from institutions onto relatively powerless individuals, while simultaneously shifting personal benefits to a tiny elite. I know, that's not the way we're told (often by PR flacks) to think about it. But how many $50,000 - $100,000 ? - speaker's fee gigs do the article writers get?

Perhaps it's futile to criticize all that. It's certainly not lucrative. Maybe I've made the same mistake that I made during the Great Bubble, of not getting on the gravy train while the getting was good. I suppose it all comes down to the question of which side you're on, and why you're on it.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 06:09 AM | Comments (8)
March 04, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia Inclusionism vs. Deletionism (vs. Wikia)

"In the end, it's actually about money"

"One of the perennial debates about Wikipedia is 'inclusionism' v 'deletionism', which revolves around what topics should be covered."

The title isn't mine, but it does capture the ideas. I do hope people grasp that the "money" part is meant to be a multilayered observation, connecting the two concepts explored - an examination of the costs that every article creates, and the pressures of commercialization. Not something silly, like a potential strawman of deletionism being a plot to enrich Wikia's digital-sharecropping gains.

I quote with attribution and permission two very active Wikipedia editors being critical of Jimmy Wales. So it'll be interesting to see how that affects the article's perception in Wikipedia cabals, err, circles. I've been derided as a "media troll", but I've sourced some of the criticism here to "insiders", so maybe that'll matter (or not ...).

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:18 PM | Comments (2)
January 15, 2009

Roger McNamee (Venture Capitalist) on Wikimedia Advisory Board - THE MONEY

When I wrote Roger McNamee, "Elevation Partners", and Don't Think Small on Wikipedia, I said:

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 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.

With the announcement of Roger McNamee appointed to Wikimedia Advisory Board, I re-iterate that point. I severely doubt that the idea is to convert Wikipedia itself to some sort of profit center. That's too risky.

Instead, just speculating, I suspect what's going on here is a continuation of the strategy of digital sharecropping. Note this item in a profile

One such acquisition was Investopedia, the leading online portal for investment-related research, which Forbes bought in April 2007. Another was Clipmarks, a small company that lets users tag, store, organize, and share snippets of webpages, acquired in November 2007

Having insidery access to various deals and start-ups is likely the benefit, not direct commercialization of Wikipedia itself.

[Update : Hmm... "Roger McNamee will act as a special advisor to the Executive Director on business and strategy issues." ]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 03:04 PM | Comments (4)
December 24, 2008

On "A Personal Appeal From Wikipedia [*CO*]Founder Jimmy Wales"

There's a Wikipedia fundraising message which is drawing a bit of critical comment for the implicit self-promotion it contains. The efforts to remove Larry Sanger from history as a Wikipedia co-Founder are an ongoing matter. Worse, it plays into Wikipedia's weakness in that what's widely reported in the press tends to be taken as true, even if it's obviously the result of a PR campaign.

One could argue the text is not technically inaccurate. But I would also say it's fair to observe how this feeds into the history-rewriting process, and how there's a system of benefit to a small number of the insiders in this supposedly volunteer democratic process. As Wikimedia's UK PR-flack has stated: "Jimbo applying his rock star factor is one of his most useful jobs for WMF :-)"

Also notable is the appeal's statement that:
"Like a national park or a school, we don't believe advertising should have a place in Wikipedia."

Again, while not inaccurate, it's useful to know that Wales's own attitude towards advertising on Wikipedia in the early days was being quite open to it. And he certainly doesn't have the anti-advertising attitudes that many people think he has (to be fair, it's not all his fault, but he definitely gives certain impressions from which one might easily take a mistaken view).

One good quote, from 2003:

"I know that not many people share my curious political views, but to me, it's much worse to seek money from governments, i.e. to ask them to take money by force from others, than it is to accept advertising money."

But the number of people who will read this commentary is a joke compared to the hype-machine. [sad face]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:20 PM | Comments (1)
December 17, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia, Sex, Scandal, and problematic material

Sting in the Scorpions tale is the exposure of Wiki's weakness

"Anyone who needs to use an old album cover to make a Wikipedia sexual controversy is not trying very hard"

[I didn't pick the title, though I like it for the wordplay - I would have been more pragmatic myself and gone for more SEO-friendly phrasing]

I didn't do the IWF-is-absurd article, as that's been done extensively. (there was one recently by Cory D., and I certainly don't have anywhere near the platform he has). Instead, I used this event as an opportunity to write about the reality of Wikipedia's very real problem with "determining the boundary between provocative and profane."

This column will not further endear me to the Wikimedia Foundation.
But they know the material is true.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:15 PM | Comments (2)
October 02, 2008

"Wikipedia Vandal Study - US Senate"

[I received this press release from Gregory Kohs. I haven't thoroughly examined the material, but it looks interesting - also they're asking for diggs]

Fatigue has set in, and what with the collapse of the US economy on the Senate's mind, we have decided that our study of Wikipedia vandalism against the 100 articles about US Senators should simply be released to the public, without an accompanying letter-writing campaign to Capitol Hill.

However, I am hoping that the alternative and mainstream media could enhance public awareness of the problems of inaccuracy, hatred, and defamation on Wikipedia -- all protected by the Section 230 written into law by the very august body of legislators now vandalized.

Everything you need to write a story is found here:

I am available for commentary about the study's managers and methodology.

Catchy headlines are aplenty:

"93,000 Wikipedia readers learn that John McCain was born in Florida, where the Panama Canal is"

"Sen. Ted Stevens didn't just get free home improvements, he participated in kinky sex adventures, too (according to Wikipedia)"

"John McCain 'sucked a few <BLEEP> in his life', per about 14,000 readers of Wikipedia"

Okay, some of these headlines could be a challenge for editorial review.


[Gregory Kohs]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
September 29, 2008

Reactions to my _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia, advertising, Objectivism

My column (Wikipedia isn't about human potential, whatever Jimmy Wales says) has drawn various reactions.

Steven Walling, self-described as "A wiki evangelist and writer, working primarily on and Wikipedia" Twitter-critiqued my article as follows: (a fun addition to my collection)
"Seth Finkelstein is a grade A moron."

There's a nice article on "" about Wikipedia and altruism. It's in German, but the gist comes through well in translation. I've made an attempt to clean this up a bit from the automatic translation results, but don't rely on it being absolutely correct:

While Jimmy Wales, founder of the site and president of the non-profit organization Wikimedia Foundation cloudy with speeches about democracy, the Internet and the wisdom of the masses, the image of improving the world increased, and somewhere in a squad with Al Gore and Bono the rescue of our future was involved. Other hand, the former stock options trader Wales makes no secret of his views about fundamental capitalism, most recently a whole series of articles about him appeared. His first wife, as reported in the September issue of U.S. magazine W, he discouraged her from becoming a nurse, because he basically nothing altruistic activity held with. The Economist in June attempted to explain Wales' career from his openly expressed admiration for libertarian and radical market thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Friedrich August von Hayek.

As novelist Ayn Rand [did, says] the blogger and Guardian columnist Seth Finkelstein, the language could also be taken with the Wales people to bring to their work delights to be provided free of charge. ...

[It then summarizes, with credit, many of the points I've made in columns]

I wrote Jonathan Zittrain about a small error in his book's Wikipedia chapter - "Thus dot-com Web sites like mirror all of Wikipedia's content and also display banner ads to make money, something Jimbo Wales has vowed never to do with Wikipedia.". There's never been any such "vow", and the history was quite different from the implications of that sentence.

That's all not bad, but I'm not sure it's made any sort of dent in all the hype.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:29 AM
September 24, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia, advertising, Jimmy Wales's proselytizing

Wikipedia isn't about human potential, whatever Jimmy Wales says

It's informative to observe how long Wales has been selling advertising around other people's work

This is my attempt to debunk some of the mythologizing of the development of Wikipedia, pointing out its initial consideration of being advertising-supported site (i.e. commercial), and examining the very extensive history of Jimmy Wales wanting to commercialize other people's work for private profit.

It's not any sort of secret. Business articles discuss it. But this is my attempt to provide sort of antidote to the web hype around the cult of Wikipedia.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:56 PM | Comments (2)
September 19, 2008

Multiple-identity pseudonymity pathology perils - Wikipedia "case study"

Cade Metz has a good story in The Register regarding Sockpuppeting civil servant Wikifiddles himself:

Fronting multiple Wikipedia accounts with photographs of unsuspecting young women from our world, he juggled no fewer than 15 alter egos, and eventually, a handful of these virtual personalities spilled onto other sites, including Wikipedia Review - the infamous Wikipedia criticism site - and Wipipedia - a free online encyclopedia for the London SM scene.

I'd know about this, but didn't want to write about it myself, due to reasons such as the detail necessary to explain it all. Cade Metz has done a good job of putting it all in context.

What interests me is what I believe it reveals of the dark side of Shiny Happy "Community" Sites: "But his tale bares the flaws of the social web in general - and Wikipedia in particular.". Since of course these are not physical communities, it is trivially easy to manufacture members. And if you're a seeker of social approval, why not help the process along by having some admiring echoes of yourself? And also a support cadre for those inevitable arguments? There's a limit to this process, as all people aren't stupid, so a chorus of clones is going to be obvious. But that just raises the bar for the cloners (should the pseudonyms argue with each other to throw off suspicion? simulate different interests? protest loudly against allegations, or pretend to co-operate?). So one can get a kind of multiple arms race in terms of balancing factors between creators of multiple-pseudonyms and the targets of the deception.

Call it another experiment in a top laboratory of social pathology.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (3)
September 09, 2008

More on the upcoming "Ford Hall Forum" Jimmy Wales talk

I did a bit of journalism today, asking about details of the the "Jimmy Wales with Christopher Lydon" Ford Hall Forum Boston event (Thursday Sept 11, 6:30pm-8:00pm). The basics: Wales will speak in the first half for 45 minutes, and the second half will have an additional 45 minutes for comments and questions from the audience. I spoke to Alex Minier, the Executive Director, who was graciously helpful, and quite willing to discuss how the Forum tried to conduct matters. He stated "We don't filter questions", though "we ask for people to be respectful of both the speaker and the other audience members who may have questions." Christopher Lydon's role is facilitating the conversation between the audience members and Jimmy Wales.

The facts having been given, the rest of this post is my opinion and speaking only for myself. While Alex Minier impressed me with his sincerity in wanting to foster debate, I see the situation itself as inevitably yielding nothing but a snow-job sales-pitch from Wales, an infomercial using Wikipedia to hype his commercial start-up Wikia. In opposing such marketing, it's necessary to have both authority and time to dissect an argument, and a hurried questioner has neither. Sure, I could go to the event and try to hone a devastating razor-sharp 30-second sound-bite which would eviscerate the cultish pontifications. But using the minimal effect of several newspaper columns as a yardstick, it doesn't seem like that sound-bite would do any good.

For example, just conveying the concept that Wikipedia's prominence is very much a quirk of Google's algorithm (and not some mystical embodiment of the human spirit) is already quite complex. And debunking myths of "crowds", showing that Wikipedia is more like a set of little fiefdoms ruled by petty warlords, requires significant effort. Plus it's all far less appealing than the fairy tale of the little elves who work for free (and of course, for the right consulting fee, maybe he can get them to do unpaid labor for YOU ...).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:57 PM | Comments (2)
September 07, 2008

Jimmy Wales "Ford Hall Forum" Boston event 9/11 6:30pm

The Ford Hall Forum has "Jimmy Wales with Christopher Lydon" on Thursday, September 11, 6:30pm-8:00pm.

Free Speech, Free Minds, Free Markets:
Competition and Collaboration

Across the globe we are building, editing, and contributing to a growing body of knowledge and tools at everyone's fingertips. Volunteers in leaderless organizations contribute to online initiatives and articles. Software developers spend their free time collaborating with complete strangers. Amazingly, these efforts are creating products of extraordinary quality, sometimes better than that of large for-profit organizations. Why do we do it? Why does it work? Join us tonight as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales joins journalist Christopher Lydon to address these questions, where "web 2.0" will take us next, and how Objectivist philosophy guides his vision.

One can see, even from the "Wikipedia founder" description, that this won't exactly be a critical examination of Wikipedia or digital-sharecropping.

Note Christopher Lydon, a very well-respected Boston media person, has long associations with the overall topic. You can read the comment thread on his 2005 radio show episode about Wikipedia for a sense as to what this event is likely to be. The commenter said it, not me:

I also found it a little out of place that Chris was cheerleading a little for Wikipedia, by way of praising it. It's not like I don't agree that Wikipedia is a great idea; it's just that it's off-putting for the referee of a conversation to also be a participant in that way.

See also guest Karen Schneider's Wikipedia show post:

Lydon seemed disappointed, after the fact, that "dissers" of Wikipedia were stronger presences on the radio than Wikipedia leader "Jimbo" Wales. Lydon found that the two "dissers" had "weak" arguments, and then remarked that Wikipedia needed a stronger defender to "summon up the appropriate awe for so grand an accomplishment." I'm glad I didn't know going in that the show's host had so thoroughly drunk the KoolAid on one side of an issue he was covering; I said what I believed, well or not, you decide.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
September 04, 2008

Google Results Domination by Wikipedia - another study

Another study about Google's high ranking of Wikipedia articles:

"Just How Powerful Is Wikipedia?"

Well, with 70% of the US using Google (and that number is similarly high is many countries around the world) to find information, it would definitely be important if Google was very often sending us to Wikipedia. ....

... we found that an amazing 50.2% of the top 1000 searches had a Wikipedia result on the first page. (That's 502 out of 1000 for the math challenged.) We theorized that many of the "no" results likely came from the large number of porn terms on the list, and a cleaner list of family friendly terms might favor Wikipedia even more.

This overall result is of course not new - but I think it shows one reason why the extensive law / policy marketing of Wikipedia is a cause for concern.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
September 03, 2008

Wikipedia Is An Attractive Nuisance - Sarah Palin Edition

They said it, not me:


Jimbo, I'd recommend keeping an eye on the Sarah Palin article and the associated talk page. The amount of libel and POV-pushing going on there is pretty astonishing, and Wikipedia could end up getting a major public black eye if it's not brought under control. Most sensible editors seem to have thrown up their hands and left.


... We are the #1 RESULT on google for her name. If you see _anything_ wrong I highly encourage you to lend your opinions in the matter. At the moment I don't think any decrees from your are necessary. Just to have people know that you are watching and have expressed an interested will be a big help to editors like Kelly who are just trying to keep it a good article.

What makes the problem worse here is that presumptive Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin is very much unknown nationwide and to the world. So where do people turn? To Wikipedia - the so-called "encyclopedia" that any axe-grinder can edit-war.

Yeah, they should know better. They should, they should, they should. Just like little kids shouldn't be running around swimming pools without the supervision of their parents. Or playing in abandoned refrigerators. Shouldn't happen. But it does.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 12:49 AM | Comments (5)
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".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:54 PM | 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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:52 PM | Comments (3)
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).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:39 PM | Comments (2)
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"!

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:16 AM | Comments (8)
July 31, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikia's Revolt Of The Digital Sharecroppers

What happens when digital sharecroppers are not happy on the electronic plantations?

Jimmy Wales is not going to like this one! I examine the tensions between so-called "community" and commerce, actually breaking (nominally) a story about how some of Wikia's digital sharecroppers are very unhappy with how that company has been treating them. Wikipedia is part of a non-profit foundation, but Wikia is a corporate start-up with $14 million dollars invested in it. And venture capitalists want a return on their investment.

As others have noted, it's no secret that their overall strategy is to "commercialize the hell out" of free labor, via aggressive advertising. And groups like the fans of Transformers are pushing back.

And it's not at all clear how it'll all turn out.

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

[Update: My article seems to have inspired Wikinews to do a story: "Potential Wikia mass exodus" (they said it, not me!)]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 03:13 PM | Comments (2)
June 25, 2008

Jimmy Wales now making BIG BIG speakers fees, "Harry Walker Agency"

Some images are unfortunate:

Jimmy Wales advertised above Karl Rove

The Harry Walker Agency, "The World's Leading Exclusive Speaker's Agency", announced exclusive representation of Jimmy Wales for speaking engagements. In an amusing juxtaposition, the front page of their website now has him right above Karl Rove. And that gives you a sense - both intentionally and unintentionally - of the sort of level he's now inhabiting.

This type of agency charges megabucks for its clients. The exact number for Wales isn't given, but from other material I've seen, I'd estimate $50,000 a shot is a ballpark figure.

And what can you get for all that money? (which could probably buy a whole starving village in Africa). I like this:

# Democracy and the Internet

Freedom of speech and the distribution of knowledge is the foundation of Wikipedia. Mr. Wales predicts that the internet will democratize developing countries by making the world 'flat,' opening markets, promoting cultural understanding, and giving developing nations the resources they need to compete in the 21st century. With current total Internet usage by one billion people set to double in the next five to 10 years (with the majority of new users arising from developing nations), Mr. Wales asserts that internet will combat stereotypes, censorship, media control, and monopolies while simultaneously allowing citizens of developing nations to have a more prominent voice. As Mr. Wales states: "It does not take a lot of technology to foster open dialog and debate. Even the simplest technologies like mailing lists, wikis, blogs can help a lot. What is needed mostly, I think, is more content in local languages, and support from people around the world to help others join in the global conversation."

As the saying goes: The thing speaks for itself.

So, though Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop and has a poorly-run bureaucracy with the group dynamics of a cult fueled by peddling a type of spiritual transcendence through selfless service to an ideal - someone is definitely benefiting.

[Update: Verified asking price: above $75,000]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:25 AM | Comments (4)
June 23, 2008

What's In Jimmy Wales's Repudiated _Observer_ Article?

The Observer has a For the record correction:

Last week, we ran an article - 'It's the next billion online who will change the way we think' - under the byline of Jimmy Wales, explaining at the end that it was an edited version of a conversation with the Wikipedia founder. Mr Wales agreed to the piece on the condition that he have final editorial approval but unfortunately this proved impossible before publication. Mr Wales wishes to make clear that he repudiates the piece, and that it misrepresents his views. He has written an alternative version, which can be found at We apologise to Mr Wales.

This made me very curious as to what they'd written for him. Was it such extreme hype that even Wales himself couldn't abide it.? Maybe the bubble-blowing was utterly over-the-top, especially if you know the standard Wikipedia PR about the (knowledge-)starving children of Africa, if even he found it too much. Did it propose that the power of Wikipedia would end poverty, sickness, and war? (note - this paragraph is humor, or at least intended as such)

I've seen a short blog quote "'If you think the internet has transformed the way we live, the way we work and - crucially - the way we learn about the world, imagine what happens ... when the next billion people come online, as will happen in the next five or 10 years ... What an extraordinary wealth of local knowledge they will bring."

There's also a paraphrase: "it's likely there'll soon be digital revolutions in far-flung places we don't tend to consider very much, such as Kazakhstan. With internet connections and the Web 2.0 tools that have become available over recent years, [someone writing for] Wales says, it's likely that they'll be able to propel themselves very quickly through twenty years of technological progress and produce the next crop of internet tycoons."

But the article itself apparently never made it online. Has anyone else seen it? Note this would be the June 15 edition of the Observer, not the "alternative version" dated June 22.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
June 01, 2008

Wikipedia biography attacks Australian Federal Police chief for several days

"Cyber bandit sabotages top cop"

Wikipedia has been forced to lock its profile page on Australian Federal Police chief Mick Keelty after a cyber vandal portrayed him as a deranged conspiracy theorist.

Some of this is impressive (in a negative way) stuff:

"In fact, the last time he went to church was at his own christening and the priest attempted to drown him. "

"And one day there will a man with a black outfit and a really fast black car. And he will be called Batman. Excuse me while I take my medication. My head doctor calls them my happy pills. I'm a little teapot....."

And what's even more impressive (in a negative way), is that those attacks seem to have sat there for nine days

Tell me again how Wikipedia is almost as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
May 27, 2008

Trader: Wikia "commercialize the hell out" of Wikipedia success for Jimmy Wales

"The Jimmy Wales Experience" was just published in a financial press organ called "Trader Monthly Magazine". I find these sorts of articles very interesting, since they have a perspective vastly different from the Kool-Aid doled out for the consumption of the rubes. And note if I said the exact same things as appear here, I'd probably get intensely personally attacked as a negative person. The article requires site registration, so I'll share the best parts. Like this gem:

In 2004, he launched another Web site, this one called Wikia Inc. (See "Wikipedia 2.0.") The company, Wales readily admits, is his effort to take the success -- and, indeed, the underlying philosophy -- of Wikipedia, and commercialize the hell out of it. "Look, I'm not against making money," he says.

[But remember folks, it's all about sharing. It's about the community.]

He decided that there was no reason he couldn't become the Internet's Michael Dell. In his spare time, he experimented with a handful of Web ventures, like a kid in a young entrepreneurs' club. He started something called Loop Lunch, a site where office workers in downtown Chicago could order food online from local eateries. It flopped.

In 1998, at the height of the dot-com gold rush, Wales resolved to go for broke. He quit the firm, took his savings and left for California to take part in the boom.

[But he's always been about bringing knowledge to the people.]

Wales, meanwhile, has gone on to fame, if not exactly the enormous fortune one typically associates with Internet moguls. But it's not as if he's opposed to rectifying that situation. Early in Wikipedia's life, Wales and his partners considered selling ads on the encyclopedia's pages. The site was showing signs of explosive growth, and they certainly could have used the extra money. Though ultimately they nixed the proposal (Internet ad rates had fallen off anyway, of course), they didn't exactly do so for idealistic reasons. "We've never said, 'Absolutely not, we don't want to sell ads,'" Wales says, explaining that the decision had more to do with preserving the Wikipedia brand.

And with the advent of his for-profit venture, Wikia Inc., it appears Wales is finally ready to monetize.

[They said it, not me!]

"Wikipedia 2.0.":

The company's business plan maintains that the bulk of its revenue will be generated by...drumroll, please...advertising.

"The monetizing is pretty straightforward," Wales says. "We don't have any clever, innovative ideas around that."

But even after three years of operation, the site has refrained from selling ad space, content to build critical mass before it goes full-tilt with its sales effort. For now, it's about brand building.

Wales's ambitions for Wikia don't stop with online community-building. At the end of 2007, his company launched an alpha version of Wikia Search, with which Wales aims to do battle with Google. ... Instead of search results produced solely by computer programs, the Wikia engine will use its wiki-based communities -- and the actual human beings who participate in them -- to refine its results. The hope is that these people -- the open market -- will edit out the spam and other extraneous junk, producing a series of links that Wales believes will be more relevant to people than what Google generates.

[Saying "the open market" sounds so much better than "the unpaid masses" (at least Mahalo pays the piece-workers something). But isn't it fun to buy Jimmy Wales a jet?]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:21 PM | Comments (3)
May 16, 2008

Wikimedia Foundation Form 990 for 2007 posted

The Wikimedia Foundation Form 990 for fiscal year 2007 is available now. for people who don't know, the "form 990" is an IRS disclosure form required for charities. And it's often full of interesting financial information. Definitely worth a look if you're interesting in the internal workings of an organization.

Fun facts (money, money, money):

The compensation of general counsel and interim executive director: $118,500

The compensation of chief operating officer: $45,914

Directors, Secretary, Treasurer, Vice-Chair, Chair, positions are uncompensated

There's $6,000 from Wikia, the commercial start-up company formed by several high-level people involved in Wikipedia (such as Jimmy Wales), but which is not in any way formally or legally a part of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation charity (but has plenty of informal associations which are an ongoing topic of interest, though I should hasten to add those connections seem to be completely within the letter of the tax laws and do not constitute a "self-dealing" violation of IRS regulations). I believe this $6,000 is financial insignificant, and harping on it per se is "thinking small". That's not where the big money is to be found.

Kudos to the WMF for posting a FAQ addressing some of the obvious issues that arise when reading the form, e.g:

On page 8, the question is asked "Are any officers related to each other through family or business relationships?" Given that several individuals who were on the Board during 06-07 (Jimmy, Angela, and Michael Davis) were also involved with Wikia, how can this answer be no?

At first glance, it does seem like this question should be answered "yes." However, the IRS provides non-profits with detailed guidelines regarding what it considers a "business relationship."

Whether or not there is a business relationship hinges upon the amount of direct compensation (salary) a person receives, as well as the amount of stock they own. In the case of Jimmy, Angela and Michael, none of them received sufficient compensation, nor owned sufficient stock, to qualify as having a business relationship under the IRS guidelines. Therefore, the question is properly answered no. We have reviewed this issue in detail with Wikia and with our audit firm, and we are satisfied that the question is answered accurately.

I've never considered whether or not that box was checked to be as important as some critics have made it. It's not as if the associations are difficult to find. But in the past, addressing the issue has been far more tedious than it needs to be, perhaps due to a "bunker mentality".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:55 PM | Comments (3)
April 28, 2008

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

Wikipedia hype meets harsh reality: (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.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:53 PM | 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.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
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.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:46 PM | Comments (4)
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? :-( ]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:10 PM | Comments (8)
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 |]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:53 PM | Comments (16)
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.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | 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.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:11 AM | 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".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | 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?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:50 PM | Comments (3)
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 dont 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'sI 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.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:30 AM | Comments (10)
February 10, 2008

Wikimedia head: Wikipedia "policy "verifiability, not truth" is stupid"

She said it, not me (about Wikipedia's policy):

I will not edit the article any more. My concern has been stated: the policy "verifiability, not truth" is stupid.

Florence Devouard (handle: "Anthere"), Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation 11:08, 10 February 2008 (UTC) (the Wikimedia Foundation is the parent organization of Wikipedia).

This was regarding an editing dispute over references concerning the topic of the relationship between the commercial venture-backed startup Wikia, and the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.

To elaborate:

I'll drop the matter for now, but I feel greatly the frustration of all those who have biographies in Wikipedia about them, when the biography states something hugely false about them, and they can not get the error to be corrected, because the burden of proof relies on them to prove that the editors are wrong. If something kills Wikipedia one day, it will be precisely this. The inability to admit that something is wrong, unless the contrary is mentioned in the mainpress. The press does not care about stating something correct. ...

For the record, I strongly agree with her. But then, I have a reputation as an enemy of the state, err, one of the "negative people and FUD mongers".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (3)
February 08, 2008

Wikipedia Roundup - Audit, Cult, dysfunctional dynamics

Accumulated linkage:

The Wikimedia foundation (the nonprofit which owns Wikipedia) Financial Report is finally released. Well, that was anticlimatic. It certainly took a very long time, for apparently very little. No scandals (that can be seen ...).

Literal Wikipedia cult (influence)! (in fairness: subject's reply).

And then the dysfunctional dynamics of Wikipedia get really strange, as a source for that cult-influence article posts regrets, and elsewhere goes off on a rant alleging a scandal on Wikipedia finances, retracts the charges gets indefinitely blocked, unblocked, reblocked for a week ... all in about a day. I can barely follow it.

I have barely scratched the surface of the weirdness that is the daily Wikipedia goings-on. Why bother even noting Jimmy Wales's flame-type lashing out at editors who've annoyed him, or the flare-ups over conflicts of interest? But this is the wisdom of crowds, so stand up and cheer the glorious collective farm (remember, digital sharecropping start-ups need IPO-exits).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:53 AM | Comments (8)
January 29, 2008

"Profit-oriented Wikia eying IPO in long term"

They said it, I didn't:

Profit-oriented Wikia eying IPO in long term

Wikia Inc., a profit-oriented company set up by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, is aiming for a public listing in the long term, he said Thursday. ...

Wales said Wikia has funding from venture capital and seeking an initial public offering "is sort of the path we are going to take." But he said had no timeframe for such a listing for the San Mateo, California-based Wikia right now.

Now let's compare this interview:

IBD: Why would anyone volunteer to do this?

Wales: The main reason is that it's fun for them.

YOU get to have "fun". HE gets very rich from an IPO.

And people wonder why I'm such a spoilsport :-(.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
January 23, 2008

Wikipedia Organization's Financial Audit May Be Released Soon

[Not my scoop, but an early echo from obscurity!]

According to an edit on the Wikimedia Foundation's audit site, the long-awaited "Audit Report and Financial Statements - 06/30/07" document has been posted there, presumably for internal review. So while that financial information about Wikipedia has not been made public yet, it looks like the wait for that data is coming to an end.

This is not my scoop, but showed up in a discussion posting by "tarantino" on the critic site Wikipedia Review. (they're having a betting pool regarding the date when the Wikimedia Foundation financial audit will finally be released, which I have to admit I find amusing). Note this is another small example of where reliable information can come even from "attack sites" which engage in personal attacks on Wikipedia administrators. I'd never trust the mere word of a random poster on a web forum. But if they supply a reference to the web page of the organization itself, and it checks out, that's a different matter. And who else is going to turn up this information?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
December 26, 2007

Wikimedia COO scandal

For whatever it's worth, a few thoughts out about the article Felon became COO of Wikipedia foundation

By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer Fri Dec 21, 1:39 PM ET

The foundation runs that and accepts for donations the online encyclopedia Wikipedia neglected to do a basic background check before hiring a chief operating officer who had been convicted of theft, drunken driving and fleeing a car accident.

Before she left in July, Carolyn Bothwell Doran, 45, had moved up from a part-time bookkeeper for the Wikimedia Foundation and spent six months as chief operating officer, responsible for personnel and financial management.

Sad as the saga of Carolyn Doran is, I think the real story is what it shows about poor management behind the scenes. It's all about marketing and refusal to face responsibility. If you'll note, there's a pattern. Whenever there's a scandal, Jimmy Wales says, paraphrased: Nothing to see here. Move along. Get back to work in the data-mines, publicizing Wikia, - oops, I mean, writing an encyclopedia.

Value-adding echo: From a recent list message by the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation about transparency (and she said this not me):

And radical transparency is not really suitable for us, in most part because we are in the eye-storm of the media interest and that any scandal (or non-scandal actually) is likely to raise the interest of a journalist, and likely to spread at light-speed all over the planet.

Why should we care ? Collectively, we are likely to mostly care because of our economical system. We essentially rely on the goodwill of donators, and donators are heavily sensitive to public displays of disagreements, fights, errors, misestimates, major screw-ups.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:45 AM | Comments (3)
December 09, 2007

Wikipedia (recent) legal intern wonders why they don't "send [lawyer] after" me

[Title updated and see clarification below]

According to a post on the "Wikilaw" blog:

Sometimes I wonder why the foundation doesn't send Mike Godwin after nonsense like this. The Guardian's Seth Finkelstein published a piece called "Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop". At the best this is highly unethical; at the worst it's defamatory. Yes yes, First Amendment, actual malice, blah blah. There's also a little thing like journalistic ethics, which is why to this day I refuse to accept the Guardian as a reliable source (this article gives a little more credence to my claim, I'll note).

LOL! (laugh-out-loud, in net.jargon). Longtime readers will see many layers of "humor" here.

The article was even editorial vetted in accordance with British libel/defamation law, as it was published by a British newspaper. British standards in that area are more much strict than US law.

If that were a random blogger rant, I wouldn't even bother about it. But according to the blog bio of User:Swatjester (Dan Rosenthal):

I'm a 24 year old law student at American University Washington, College of Law. I'm an English Wikipedia admin (sysop), and a member of the Wikimedia Communications Committee. I'm also a legal intern for the Wikimedia Foundation.

I'm not going to raise an official fuss. But just as a bit of advice - as a legal intern AND "Communications Committee" member, I don't think it's advisable to raise the possibility of your organization sending its lawyer after a columnist who writes a critical article. Which, if one step backs for minute, I hope would be clear is solidly grounded in the facts. It gives a very bad impression amidst a public-relations disaster involving accusations of secret mailing lists and cabals. And it definitely adds to the evidence of Wikipedia as a cult.

[Update: The blog bio has now been modified to read "I was a legal intern for the Wikimedia Foundation", and he noted in a comment "Correction: Seth, I have not been the legal intern for the foundation since September."]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:54 PM | Comments (7)
December 05, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia Scandal As Dysfunctional Cult
Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop

"Wikipedia is frequently touted as a model of selfless human collaboration but it may be more instructive as a hotbed of social pathologies"

I didn't pick the title, but I like this one a lot :-).

I feel like it's anticlimactic now, that my take will get lost as an also-ran. It's really quite a different perspective, and worth reading even if you're tired of all the discussion about cabal and secret mailing list.

I didn't even mention the mailing list, and tried to avoid personalizing it to the administrator "Durova". To my mind, this is not an individual "bad apple" story, but an example of a systemic failing that underlies that drives Wikipedia.

In the past few days I've noticed a backlash, roughly that Wikipedia is run by people, so what did you expect? The problem is that Wikipedia is extensively marketed as some sort of harbinger of novel social organization that produces collective good. The reality is it's just a very old sort of social organization, one that gets people to work for free in part by pandering to their group impulses. And that's the point which I'm trying to get across. Maybe that's too complicated to get to Slashdot or Digg (or ironic).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:44 PM | Comments (18)
December 03, 2007

There Is A Wikipedia Cabal (or at least a Secret Mailing List)

_The Register_: Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia

I've been following this whole scandal myself, and my own column about it will be available on the Guardian website on Wednesday night. I have a different, more "sociological", take on the matter than the article above.

I should note, given the hyper-vigilance these days, that my article was written and filed before the above one was published. There's a few similarities in jargon that appear (e.g. "admonish") because we were both summarizing the same primary sources. But we used different Jimmy Wales quotes.

I feel bad for the administrator who set this all off. I agonized in my own writing to be fair on action yet respecting the person, and even not to do anything which would create Google-baggage for her. At least I won't be piling-on personal criticism.

Here's an item I can use for blog-fodder:
I was thinking of asking Jimmy Wales a question, but from Seth-the-geek rather than Seth-the-journalist. I would have liked to write him
"Jimmy, we both know what you're going to say in reply to this mailling-list topic. You're going to claim that a mailing-list hosted at your commercial venture-capital company [Wikia] is no different from a mailing-list hosted at Google Groups or Yahoo Groups. That's been the party line throughout. However, we both know that's not correct, since your company [Wikia] has tax-law "self dealing" issues which you need to be sensitive about (not that I'm accusing you of anything here - however, it is a simple fact that the subject exists). Given now we both know about the conflict-of-interest problem, what in the world goes on in your mind when you say that?"

But I decided that was living dangerously and would just make him mad at me.

I don't know how White House reporters stand it. It's got to be extremely corrosive to have a job where people are lying to you and treating you with barely-concealed (sometimes even unconcealed) contempt every single day.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:12 PM | Comments (5)
November 21, 2007

Conservapedia, Homosexuality, and pranked statistics

The "Conservapedia" Homosexuality statistics story being echoed, where the right-wing Wikipedia-style site "Conservapedia" allegedly has nine out of its top ten most popular pages being against homosexuality, cannot be correct. That is, whether by accident or design, the alleged statistics don't pass the sanity test (I know, I know ...). The site's "Most viewed pages" statistics supposedly are:

1. Main Page [1,902,822]
2. Homosexuality [1,542,919]
3. Homosexuality and Hepatitis [516,745]
4. Homosexuality and Promiscuity [420,172]
5. Homosexuality and Parasites [387,876]
6. Homosexuality and Domestic Violence [351,556]
7. Gay Bowel Syndrome [343,273]
8. Homosexuality and Gonorrhea [331,090]
9. Homosexuality and Mental Health [277,119]
10. Homosexuality and Syphilis [265,042]

Except this makes no sense. While the "Homosexuality" page itself might be highly ranked, the "Homosexuality and Hepatitis" page is short and has been in existence only since October 17. There's no way something like that would a legitimate third-most popular page, even for raving homophobes.

And the top ten doesn't have "Bible"? Or "Jesus Christ"? [update - better: any other controversial topic?]. Those are supposedly less popular than "Gay Bowel Syndrome"?? That's ridiculous (I know, I know ...). Either a spider has run amok or someone is deliberately inflating the pageviews.

Of course, this post will have near-zero effect on a story "too good to check". Let's hear it for the self-deluding nature of the bogosphere and the futility of trying to be heard :-(.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:28 AM | Comments (16)
October 17, 2007

Wikipedia, SEO, and "co-"founder porn history

[How's that for bait!] Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers & Answer Sharing

I want to extract this gem from the article for some examination (and note they said it not me!):

Wikipedia has its own politics: Jimmy Wales doesn't like being "co-"founder of Wikipedia so his friends try to make the edits. He also wants to bury his history in the porno industry. But the rest of us know - or we do now.

I've sometimes wondered if that "Bomis Babe Report" project has become a classic case of "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up". Or alternatively, if contrary to the previous, Wales is demonstrating that sometimes taking a few hits for suppressing a story can be worth it, to avoid even greater embarrassment.

Given the breadth of human sexuality which can be found on the Net, I find it hard to get worked-up over someone once having been involved in pimping nudie pics (err ... puns unintended). But if you're trying to build a marketing image of doing it all for the starving children of Africa, it does seem to be a problem in terms of public relations. I really can't find any evidentiary basis to decide whether the attempted "cover-up" is overall worthwhile or not.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:10 PM | Comments (2)
August 24, 2007

Wikipedia: The so-called "encyclopedia" that any axe-grinder can edit-war


This is Ted Frank
Frank Defended Merck in Cases Concerning Vioxx The American Enterprise Institute is a Right Wing think tank

Ted Frank (a.k.a. THF) Has Altered the 'SiCKO' Wikipedia Page 94 96 Times

CLiCK Here to Edit Ted Frank's Wikipedia Page
CLiCK Here to Edit the 'SiCKO' Wikipedia Page

UPDATE: Frank altered the 'SiCKO' page twice today since this post. The pages have now been protected.

UPDATE 2: Ted Frank Doesn't Like the Attention Wiki administrators question his conflict of interests

Shouldn't Ted Frank be at work?

[This was from a cached version - the current item is toned-down a bit, without the "click here" links]

Now, it's misleading to give just the raw number of edits - some edits were unobjectionable vandalism-fighting. And it's almost certain that Ted Frank wasn't acting in any official capacity. So it's just another day on Wikipedia, where ideological factions battle each other for the prize of getting their spin in a high Google ranking position.

Except that item set off yet another edit-war, a "meta"-issue fight, having to do with a Wikipedia administrative faction deeming an "attack site". Which would make it liable to the penalty of having all its links purged from Wikipedia, as a kind of banishment. And that's scary.

It's hard to convey to the acolytes within the cult of Wikipedia how petty and in fact, downright creepy, it can appear to outsiders. At this point more sane Wikipedia administrators will pop up and say it's just a few bad apples, the other admins will keep them in check. And my reply there is that still reveals a pretty disturbing sociological aspect of Wikipedia. Especially one that might give pause to the impulse to proclaim lots of experts should work for free to increase its power and respectability (and notably also increasing the capability of small cliques of Wikipedia admins to engage in political vendettas).

[Update: full-blown Wikipedia-DRAMA, as pro- and anti- "Michael Moore" factions battle it out.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:33 PM | Comments (7)
July 16, 2007

Google Roundup: Cookies, Getting Rid of Wikipedia (Results), Song

Links for the underheard, in a futile gesture to whip the Long Tail.

Did you hear? Google will lower, to two years, the expiration time of its universal spying device, I mean, cookie. It'll just link to Michael Zimmer on Google cookie expiration:

My hunch is that the brilliant data-mining minds at Google recognize that if someone hasn't searched on Google in two years, their past history probably isn't a good indicator of their current needs. So, if linking to two-year-old data isn't all that valuable, they might as well just dump the cookie altogether. It doesn't harm their data-mining needs - and it's good PR.

[See also "More of Peter Fleischer Misleading on Google Data Retention" - he said it, I didn't.]

From the everybody talks about Wikipedia taking over Google results but finally someone did something about it department:

Will Critchlow: Search Google without wikipedia - a Firefox search plugin

Here at Distilled, it's something that came up in conversation a few times, so we decided to do something about it - we have created a Firefox search plugin that enables you to search Google without getting wikipedia results

[See also the CustomizeGoogle solution]

Humor: Lauren Weinstein - "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major Googler"

And if you're really good it seems to us that you at least possess,
The skill to quote from memory full source of the Linux OS.

[Rumor has it that this line is only a slight exaggeration of what they expect]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
July 09, 2007

Wikipedia, "Lava Lamp", Trademark threats

Background: The Wikipedia article on "Lava Lamp" disappeared for two weeks, apparently due to some legal bluster about the words being trademarked. The Register ran a story about it - Brit fumes over Wikipedia, lava lamps:

Barberio acknowledges there will be cases where OTRS [complaint-handling] volunteers would be justified in keeping a complaint secret. If a person claims they're being libeled by a Wikipedia article, for instance, it stands to reason their identity shouldn't be divulged. But this was far from the case with the lava lamp article. Wales insisted that the reason for suppressing the article was posted to its "talk" page, but there doesn't seem to be a link between those discussions and the OTRS action.

Value-add: Wales posted to a Wikipedia mailing list:

Of course, in this case, the entire complaint is right there on the talk page for anyone to see, so it is pretty hard to see how much MORE of an explanation could be given.

I told The Register this quite plainly, which they admit:
"Wales insisted that the reason for suppressing the article was posted to its "talk" page, but there doesn't seem to be a link between those discussions and the OTRS action."

That's total bullshit of course. I can tell you, having seen the OTRS ticket, and talked to the person who did the blanking, that there is an EXACT link between those discussions and the OTRS action. Not that the Register ever cared to report things fairly.

While technically, he's correct, I think there's a problem with severe underestimation of the amount of effort required for a non-insider to figure out the connections in Wikipedia. I wouldn't get worked up over the specifics of this incident myself, filing it under "silly lawyer tricks". But it is an interesting little example of problems of fathoming even minor disputes.

That is, instead of a straightforward "This article temporarily gone because of legal dispute over trademark issues", there's some verbiage about "Open Ticket Request System ticket # 2007052310014607." You think, what in the world is that? And it seems mere morals can't see it anyway. Then you get pointed to the "talk" page, which has a huge amount of trivial discussion to plow through, before you get to the reason buried down in the page. I pity anyone trying to make sense of it. Especially someone who doesn't have a practiced eye in reading those sorts of pages so as to know what's chatter, and what's a legal issue serious enough to cause the article to be removed pending resolution.

The lesson, as I see it, is another proof that Wikipedia is a badly-run bureaucracy. But I'm talking to the crickets again.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:47 PM | Comments (7)
June 16, 2007

Wikipedia's Long Daniel Brandt Nightmare Might Be Over (?)

I didn't post about this immediately, and waited for the dust to settle on recent events. But it looks like peace is breaking out, or at least major breakthrough in the peace process, in Wikipedia's long-running and most contentious biography removal request. In the legendary (in certain circles) dispute between Wikipedia and Daniel Brandt, over his request to have his biography deleted (a request I should note I fully support), on the fourteenth iteration of the Wikipedian argument-fest that passes for internal process, he was finally permitted to opt-out from having a biography page.

And there should have been much rejoicing. But skirmishes rage on, over what to do with the URL for the old page (Brandt wants it to be a nothing-here notice, it's currently a redirect to his longest-existing project, NameBase). And of course, nothing gets done on Wikipedia without some faction disputing it (Wikipedia does NOT operate by "consensus", it operates by classic factional power-struggle). But this time he's got much support from Wikipedia administrators, so whatever the ultimate result, it's unlikely there'll be a reversion to the status quo ante.

I've got to give credit to the brave Wikipedia administrator who actually took it upon himself to render a decision in this mess. And rammed through a technical compromise where the internal details were one of the best real-world accommodating of bitterly opposing factions, that I've ever seen myself. He couldn't have made it "stick" without the support of a small-but-powerful administrator faction, but he apparently managed to avoid deeply offending the weaker but very loud "ideologue" faction (of which the most extreme inevitably contested the result, but they seem to be pretty isolated). Well done. Really well done.

Note to academics looking for paper-fodder: Stop writing those fluffy articles about how great it is that a cult can get people to work for free. I know that's where money is (and the attention). But there's a whole group-dynamics case study laboratory just sitting there for examination (though note some of the best material goes on in private meeting, where it's not easily documented).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 03:04 PM
June 14, 2007

My Long Wikipedia Nightmare Is Over

Due to recent changes in Wikipedia policy allowing some consideration of a living person's requests to opt-out of a biography page, I have now been allowed to escape from the burden of having a Wikipedia article. Kudos to Wikipedia administrator Durova for the sensitive effort on behalf of many people.

I didn't do it lightly, or without a lot of thought. But abilities of such an article to serve as an "attractive nuisance" were determinative.

Sometimes the dragon wins [sad face image]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 02:24 PM | Comments (4)
March 16, 2007

Wikipedia is an ATTRACTIVE NUISANCE, "Sinbad dead" edition

Yet another example of Wikipedia as an "attractive nuisance":

Wikipedia falsely reports comedian Sinbad's death

The St. Petersburg-based company, which describes itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," leaves it to a vast user community to catch factual errors and other problems. Apparently, someone edited it to say Sinbad died of a heart attack. By the time the error was caught, e-mail links of the erroneous page had been forwarded to hundreds of people.

Importantly, note the vandalism was not fixed rapidly. It persisted long enough to spark the hoax. Now, it's not that hoaxes, even major media hoaxes, didn't exist before. But what's changed is how Wikipedia has made such attempts almost an off-the-shelf activity available to anonymous scammers, with only extremely weak, after the fact, safeguards.

We know what the Wikicultists will say - No responsibility must be attached to someone who lets a bunch of kindergartners run around with matches in a firecracker factory. "It happens sometimes. People just explode."

I can keep writing this, and it won't do any good: The fact that Wikipedia lends its full reputation (such as it is ...) to random trolls and vandals is different and dangerous. It is not a good reply to say that all damage it does is someone else's problem.

Bonus link: Tom Melly: Truths, half-truths and Wikipedia

... then, to return to an earlier question: who, and what, is Wikipedia for?

Well, it's for Ade in the office, who wanted to know what Catharism is. It's for Tim, who brushes up for pub quizzes. It's for my wife, who reads up on authors before going to her book club. It's for its editors, who take pleasure in the activity. It's for everyone who is absolutely, never, ever, going to attempt to do anything serious with the information it contains. Not because it's inaccurate, and not because the majority of articles are, to be frank, fairly amateurish, but because a resource for "facts" that generates its own references is an irretrievably flawed creation. It cannot evolve out of this problem, because evolution is the problem.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:07 PM | Comments (2)
March 15, 2007

"Essjay" Scandal New Yorker Wikipedia Apology Letter

[Echoed from a mailing list, a letter following-up on the Essjay deception scandal ]

"Making Amends"

I am writing to apologize to "The New Yorker" and Stacy Schiff, and to give some follow-up concerning Ryan Jordan (Editors' Note, March 5). When I last spoke to "The New Yorker" about the fact that a prominent Wikipedia community member had lied about his credentials, I misjudged the issue. It was not O.K. for Mr. Jordan, or Essjay, to lie to a reporter, even to protect his identity. I later learned more about the deceptions involved and asked Mr. Jordan to resign from his positions of responsibility at Wikipedia. He has since resigned from his position at Wikia as well. Mr. Jordan is a wonderful and thoughtful young man who made a series of very bad judgments. I consider him a friend, and I hope that the world will allow to move forward in peace and dignity to regain his honor through a life well lived. Wikipedia is built on trust and love. Our trust has been broken, and only love can rebuild it. The community has begun discussing a proposal of mine that we adopt some verification measures for claimed credentials, so that Wikipedia may further improve from this painful experience.

Jimmy Wales
President of Wikia, Inc.; board member and chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, St. Petersburg, Fla.

[reportedly "published on p. 24 of the March 19, 2007 issue of the New Yorker"]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 12:39 AM | Comments (5)
March 08, 2007

Cites & Insights November, March 2007 - Wikipedia, Long Tail

Let me close out (I hope) "Wikipedia-fest" by pointing to Walt Crawford's issue 7:3 (March 2007) of Cites & Insights, for the long section on Wikipedia Revisited. The "revisit [of] past items regarding the project" covers 2002 to the present. Skimming over the material, this phrase was never more prescient:

I also discussed a lengthy New Yorker article on Wikipedia, a thoughtful piece that pointed out some of its strengths and weaknesses and included the pointed comment that "Wikipedia's bureaucracy doesn't necessarily favor truth."

Also note the Long Tail discussion:

Does the power-law curve function in most media? Sure it does. That's neither new nor particularly surprising. What's somewhat new is that the curve can keep trailing off to the right--the "long tail" -- in TV ... and, more effectively, in movies thanks to NetFlix. For magazines, there's nothing new here, although even smaller niches can be served entirely online. ... For books, it's not clear whether the internet makes the "long tail" more important. It is clear that most books have been niche books ever since thousands and tens of thousands of books came out each year. ... Meanwhile, to be sure, Chris Anderson has the kind of Bestseller that supposedly doesn't exist in a "long tail economy." I'm sure he's taking that irony to the bank.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:56 PM | Comments (7)
March 07, 2007

My _Guardian_ Column on "Essjay" / Ryan Jones Wikipedia Editor Fraud,,2028328,00.html

"One of Wikipedia's major public relations successes has been in misdirecting observers into a narrative of technological miracles, diverting attention from analyzing its old-fashioned cult appeal. While I don't mean to imply that everyone involved in Wikipedia is wrapped up in delusion, that process is a key factor. A charismatic leader, who peddles a type of spiritual transcendence through selfless service to an ideal, finding a cadre of acolytes willing to devote their lives (without payment) to the organization's projects - that's a story worth telling. But not abetting."

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:07 PM | Comments (27)
March 05, 2007

Scandal Kabuki, Compassion vs. Cover-up in the Wikipedia Deception

I may soon have to rename my blog to Wikipediathought, but I suspect the "Essjay" scandal has peaked now, and we're entering the mop-up phase. Obligatory New York Times link: "A Contributor to Wikipedia Has His Fictional Side"

I've got to give Wales credit for being willing to respond to my emails. I don't want to ask him about posting them, I think it'll give the flavor to note his most recent public comment

It was a scandal. And I have apologized for my role in it. I made several mistakes of judgment at various points along the way, and I am very much in favor of reforming our processes so that we are not so vulnerable. I am spending a lot of time reflecting carefully on my role here. The primary mistake that I made is one that I have trouble condemning myself for, because I think that one of my personality flaws is actually a strength for Wikipedia: a willingness to trust people and assume good faith even in difficult times. That caused me to wrongly minimize the importance of this, and to make bad decisions for a time. I am very sorry for that, and the only solution I know of is to work for positive change. -- [[User:Jimbo Wales|Jimbo Wales]] 11:09, 5 March 2007 (UTC)

This is also, however, a standard scandal script. All the troubling details can be brushed aside with the claim that he's a busy man, he was just too nice a guy to ask hard questions, his trusting nature has been taken advantage of, by an immoral subordinate, let us now move on to Morning In America ....

I joked, isn't this pretty much what's being played out now in the "Scooter" Libby trial over the Valerie Plame CIA case? And pleading it was how Karl Rove avoided being indicted himself?

The problem is that unless some very hard evidence to the contrary is leaked, this sort of defense is nigh-impossible to disprove. We can't subpoena the other senior members of the Wikia corporation. And they'd probably all have lapses of memory anyway ("Sorry, I was so overworked, I just can't remember the details of that meeting when it was decided to hire Essjay ..."). See also Jason Scott: Another Essjay Essay.

Elsewhere, discussion on Wikipedia is in a full-force firestorm over people who want to be compassionate and delete "Essjay"'s old material and comments about him, now that's he's retired, and others who argue this is a cover-up in practice if not in intent. Round and round the "wheel-warring" goes, and where it stops, nobody knows. This is not a good model for society, though the law/policy pundits who need to hear that aren't listening (link omitted for self-preservation).

I have to side with those in favor of keeping the material online and available. Combing through it all helped establish the truth. And it's possible more information may come out. Look at it this way: It's always different when it's you. The history is unquestionably "notable" under a public-interest standard in regard to investigating the scandal, and, institutionally, Wikipedia doesn't exactly place a huge value on people's privacy. There's too much of an appearance of impropriety, of using privacy as an excuse to destroy embarrassing documents, even if some people have generous motives.

History, I think from Daniel Brandt:

Some of us expected this and archived some things with

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:44 PM | Comments (12)
March 04, 2007

New Yorker Wikipedia "Essjay" Fraud Aftermath

With the retirement of Essjay in the Wikipedia scandal over fabricating credentials, attention has shifted to "What Did He Know And When Did He Know It?" type questions for Jimmy Wales. The critic's theory is that Jimmy Wales regarded lying about credentials to the New Yorker as no big deal, but lying in the Wikipedia community was unacceptable to him. Thus, he keeps saying that until this weekend, he didn't realize how much Essjay was lying in Wikipedia, which is probably true, and deliberately passing over the charge that he did know for weeks that Essjay had lied to the New Yorker, but his attitude was "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it.".

In terms of citizen-journalism, I had earlier sent Jimmy Wales some email to check the accuracy of that quote. He replied last night, but his reply didn't help much in disambiguation. [Update: Got some more nice mail from him. I've got to say I'm impressed that he was at least willing to respond.]

It'll be hard to pin him down on this, since he's not stupid, and it's very understandable that given the firestorm, he'd never want to come out and blatantly admit he didn't care about fraud to the New Yorker.

Larry Sanger is perhaps the most prominent of those calling out Jimmy Wales over the issue:

Jimmy, to call yourself a tenured professor, when you aren't one, is not a "pseudonym." It's identity fraud. And the full question is not why you appointed Essjay to ArbCom, but: why did you ignore the obvious moral implications of the fact that he had fraudulently pretended to be a professor -- ignoring those implications even to the point of giving him a job and appointing him to ArbCom -- until now? The problem isn't just that he won arguments on WP by citing his false credentials. It's that he got into positions of authority in WP that way, he was interviewed by The New Yorker that way, and played make believe that he was a professor for six hours straight to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. And you had to know all of this before this morning. Your claim, "I want to make it perfectly clear that my past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on," seems disingenuous. You fully knew that he was impersonating a professor and you had to know that he had gotten advantages as the reward of his duplicity; and, despite knowing this no doubt last January, you gave him a job and appointed him to ArbCom anyway. --Larry Sanger 01:36, 4 March 2007 (UTC)

The Freakonomics blog also has raised the matter. Right now, it's a battle over who has more power to define the media view of this. Wikipedia has both many who love it, and many who hate it. I won't speculate on which side will win (it sure doesn't depend on who is right ... :-( ).


Andrew Lih catches Essjay in another lie, defaming the reporter

Nick Carr on "Essjay's world"

Rogers Cadenhead - "There aren't many situations in life where an anonymous mob of people, working in an atmosphere allergic to the concept of personal accountability, is relied upon to achieve a societal good."

Shelley Powers - "Interesting how hard items like ethics, honor, and truth metamorphose in the the soft environment encompassed by so-called social software."

Kelly Martin's coverage

[Update, from comments: The critic site Wikipedia Review has an extensive coverage collection. ]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 12:09 PM | Comments (4)
March 03, 2007

New Yorker Article Fabricator Retires From Wikipedia



This user is no longer active on Wikipedia.

My comments here will be short and to the point: I'm no longer taking part here. I have received an astounding amount of support, especially by email, but it's time to go. I tried to walk away in August, and managed to do so for quite a while, but I eventually came back, because of the many requests I received urging me to return. Many of you have written to ask me to not leave, to not give up what I have here, but I'm afraid it's time to make a clean break.

I ask that the first steward to see this message please remove my various flags from this wiki, as well as from Meta, Commons, and Wikiquote, and remove the bot flags from my bots, which of course will no longer be running. My tools will be taken down shortly. I had planned to delete my user-space myself, but I don't want anyone to think I was going on a rampage, so instead, I ask that one or more administrators who are friends please delete the 288 pages that form my userspace (leaving only my userpage and this talk page).

I've enjoyed my time here, and done much good work; my time, however, is over, and leaving is the best thing for me and for Wikipedia. I walk away happy to be free to go about other things. I hope others will refocus the energy they have spent the past few days in defending and denouncing me to make something here at Wikipedia better.

With love to all who have been my friends here, Essjay (Talk) 03:17, 4 March 2007 (UTC)

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:42 PM | Comments (5)

Wikipedia's Value System

I started to write a letter to Jimmy Wales about all the fabrications in this scandal. But I decided to dump it after re-reading his statement. At best, he'd just delete it, at worst, it would be another item added to my already disqualifying weight of political "baggage" :-(. I've got to stop shouting to the wind.

This was the key sentence that convinced me I'd already wasted my time:

I only learned this morning that EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes.

It doesn't matter that Essjay lied to the New Yorker reporter about his credentials, making Wikipedia look good to the media - a matter Wales has known about for weeks. No mention of the dishonesty of using degree falsification to endorse Wikipedia in a letter to a professor. That's lying to those outside The Family.

But he used his false credentials in content disputes. That's serious! It's an IN-WORLD offense! It's inside The Family.

Go read Jason Scott's essay on Wikipedia's values

What is going on in all this, and which I am fearful is going to be missed, is how Wikipedia's Value System functions. "Honor Killings", "Circumcision", "Dog Shows", "Child Soldiers", "Abortion" ... there are thousands of events and values that people engage in every day that are completely inscrutable to a good portion of the rest of the people on the Earth. Sometimes you can see the logic and decide it's just not your cup of joe, but other times you see things that are allowed in one jurisdiction that would have "those people" turned into organ donors anywhere else.

Wikipedia's value system is not obvious to "outsiders", that is, the millions who now browse the articles and don't do much editing (which is the vast majority of people). But those values are there, and they're sometimes not as obvious as you think. ... [snip]

It's too easy, when you run into these clashing value systems, to get hung up on the differences between the system and your own. That's basically what people are doing right now, wondering why this Jimbo guy gets to shut down discussions or marvelling over the tortured lyrical games being played to justify Essjay's behavior. What I think is in danger of getting lost here, though, is the level of corruption even within the value system.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:36 AM | Comments (8)

Jimmy Wales Reverses On New Yorker False Credentials, Asks Resignation

Jimmy Wales' latest statement:

... I have been for several days in a remote part of India with little or no Internet access. I only learned this morning that EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes. I understood this to be primarily the matter of a pseudonymous identity (something very mild and completely understandable given the personal dangers possible on the Internet) and not a matter of violation of people's trust. I want to make it perfectly clear that my past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on. Even now, I have not been able to check diffs, etc.

I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the community. In terms of the full parameters of what happens next, I advise (as usual) that we take a calm, loving, and reasonable approach. From the moment this whole thing became known, EssJay has been contrite and apologetic. People who characterize him as being "proud" of it or "bragging" are badly mistaken.

On a personal level, EssJay has apologized to me, and I have accepted his apology on a personal level, and I think this is the right thing to do. If anyone else feels that they need or want a personal apology, please ask him for it. And if you find it to be sincere, then I hope you will accept it too, but each person must make their own judgments. Despite my personal forgiveness, I hope that he will accept my resignation request, because forgiveness or not, these positions are not appropriate for him now.

I still have limited net access... for a couple of hours here I will be online, and then I am offline until I am in Japan tomorrow morning. I beleive I will have a fast and stable Internet connection at that time, and I will deal with this further at that time.

Wikipedia is built on (among other things) twin pillars of trust and tolerance. The integrity of the project depends on the core community being passionate about quality and integrity, so that we can trust each other. The harmony of our work depends on human understanding and forgiveness of errors.

--Jimmy Wales Sat Mar 3 06:44:50 UTC 2007

My opinion: Damage control.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:43 AM | Comments (4)
March 01, 2007

Jimmy Wales Defends Wikipedia New Yorker Article Fabricator

[News! Not an echo!]

Jimmy Wales comments on the controversy:

In his "talk page" discussion, Wales states:

EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community. He apologized to me and to the community for any harm caused. Trolls are claiming that he "bragged" about it: this is bullshit. He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter and I consider it settled. -- [[User:Jimbo Wales|Jimbo Wales]] 14:40, 1 March 2007 (UTC)

Wales' statement that "... claiming that he "bragged" about it: this is bullshit. He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter ..." is utterly false. And is repeatedly refuted by references in the discussion where he made the comment.

"good job playing the part"

Actually, I did six hours of interviews with the reporter, and two with a fact checker, but I was really surprised that they were willing to do an interview with someone who they couldn't confirm; I can only assume that it is proof I was doing a good job playing the part. Essjay (Talk) 05:25, 6 February 2007 (UTC)

Essjay / Ryan Jordan has now posted a statement.

I'm not going to bother documenting all the dishonest aspects of his statement, such as that he began his fabrications way before any trolling was an issue, or that as a serial liar, he does not deserve any benefit of the doubt regarding his claims about the New Yorker reporter.

[Update: Some references for a fabulism pattern, for those interested in the gory details]

[Moved to main post from comments:]

I pointed out last night on one of Wikipedia's internal discussions that Jordan has been touting these false credentials since he started editing:

"Here's one from April 2005, referring to a book he cited as authoritative: 'This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it's credibility.' If Wikipedia's willing to excuse this, what won't it excuse? The notion Essjay will sit in judgment of anybody on the Arbitration Committee is hilarious. [[User:Rcade|Rcade]] 04:18, 2 March 2007 (UTC)"


In response, an admin with 40,000 edits suggested I lose editing privileges:


So it's possible that someone will indeed face the music in response to this controversy -- me!

Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead at March 2, 2007 09:27 AM

Larry Sanger (the other Wikipedia co-founder, now doing an alternative, "Citizendium"):

For Jimmy not to "have a problem with" Essjay's identity fraud is essentially for him to declare: you can falsely claim all sorts of credentials you like on Wikipedia, and not have them. Truth-telling about yourself really doesn't matter on Wikipedia, and credentials (of course) don't matter either. Perhaps we already knew this. But nothing has ever more eloquently illustrated it.

The People In Charge Of Wikipedia And Wikia have obviously made a decision to brazen it out, that they have enough media popularity to snow anyone who matters, and to dismiss any evidence via ad-hominem attack.

Which, obviously, should really make you wonder about the whole effort, but also obviously, won't be heard enough to matter.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:00 AM | Comments (9)

What The New Yorker Article Fraud Tells Us About Wikipedia

Executive summary: This is the delusion Wikipedia fosters - it's what it is, how it runs.

As I read further about the scandal where Wikipedia administrator and now Wikia employee "Essjay" / Ryan Jordan pretended to be a "a tenured professor of religion at a private university" with "a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.", I ended up feeling more sadness for him than anger. In fact, I think some of the fury at him from critics, while very understandable, is a bit misplaced.

One of the points I try to make about Wikipedia, and am usually ignored because one type of pundit wants to sneer at Wikipedia's large amount of pop-culture, while another type of pundit wants to hype it as the self-emergent ubermind, is that it fundamentally runs by an extremely deceptive sort of social promise. It functions by selling the heavy contributors on the dream, the illusion, that it'll give them the prestige of an academic ("writing an encyclopedia"). It won't deliver. All that'll happen is those citizen-lunchmeats will work for free, while the Wikia investors will reap the rewards. But it's a powerful dream.

And "Essjay" / Ryan Jordan is that dream's poster child:

Professional Qualifications

Yes, I'm a professor.

I am a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology.

My Academic Degrees:

* Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.)

* Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.)

* Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.)

* Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD)

That's what he wants to be. That's what he wishes he was.

And Wikipedia gave him the opportunity to represent himself as this fantasy.

Part of his pattern of misrepresentation includes a letter to a professor (my emphasis)

I am an administrator of the online encyclopedia project Wikipedia. I am also a tenured professor of theology; feel free to have a look at my Wikipedia userpage (linked below) to gain an idea of my background and credentials. ...

Well credentialed individuals (myself included) participate in the project in the hopes that our involvement will help to make Wikipedia a better source, and dispel the misconceptions held by the public.

This is a fascinating letter to read, especially with knowledge that the writer is a fraud. The themes just leap out at you:

1) I am academically respectable

2) Wikipedia should be academically respectable

3) We're wonderful people, the God-King has "amazing ability for clarity". (ironically used to describe a passage which is a model of smoke-blowing!)

And it's a very nice letter too. The sort of thing written either by a slick con man who is cleverly utterly false, or a delusional personality who is playing a role so deeply as to believe it with every fiber of his being.

It's no surprise that he was hired to be "community manager". This is exactly the sort of person they want for their community!

I'm tempted to go to certain A-listers and ask them, "NOW, with this blatant example right in front of you, do you understand my argument about what's wrong with Wikipedia?". But I know better, and in their way, I suspect they know better :-(.

[Credit where due: Some references publicized by Daniel Brandt]

UPDATE 3/1: Jimmy Wales comments on the controversy:

In his "talk page" discussion, Wales states:

EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community. He apologized to me and to the community for any harm caused. Trolls are claiming that he "bragged" about it: this is bullshit. He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter and I consider it settled. -- [[User:Jimbo Wales|Jimbo Wales]] 14:40, 1 March 2007 (UTC)

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 12:56 AM | Comments (32)
February 28, 2007

Wikipedia New Yorker Article Misrepresentation Exposed

The New Yorker Wikipedia article now has an update of how the Wikipedia site administrator "Essjay" "was described in the piece as "a tenured professor of religion at a private university" with "a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.", but in reality he "now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia - a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia - as a "community manager"; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions."

Seth Gordon has a hyperlinked version, Nick Carr publicized it first Stephen J. Dubner at Freaknomics notes "This is hardly a felony, but it does make you wonder about what else happens at Wikipedia that Jimmy Wales doesn't have a problem with."

The obvious snark here is that his biography was like a Wikipedia article - if you don't like it, you can edit it to suit yourself. But the changes may not stick (still, it might have an effect in the time period before it's reverted ...).

But more seriously, I think the "what else happens" question is the most relevant point. Remember, Wikipedia's main innovation is not knowledge generation, but deflecting criticism of bad quality control (and that's not a joke).

As an even slightly "respectable" (using the term generously and very loosely ...) critic of Wikipedia, these days I'm walking a fine line vis-a-vis harsher Wikipedia critics, on various topics. I don't have the heart to write public posts on where I think they're very wrong, because I don't like kicking underdogs. So I'm finding myself in the middle in trying to say, these people may not be completely right, but they're working off real problems. Basically, the harsh critic says roughly "Something doesn't add up here - it must be a [CIA operation|radical agenda|plot to take over the world ...]". Most people's reaction is "That's nuts! CIA? What nonsense!". But I find myself in the unhappy position of writing privately to the critic, "Well, it's really, really, unlikely to be the CIA, you definitely shouldn't talk like that, but, hmm, that stuff sure does sound odd, not sure what it all means though", and then getting irritated when the Wikicultians are bleating "Problem? What problem? Join us and drink the Kool-Aid of glorious free work!"

Sadly, there's so much money in Kool-Aid sales, and none in skepticism of any sort :-(

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:30 PM | Comments (7)
February 26, 2007

Report on Wikipedia-model Search Engine Plans From India Conference

[An echo, but one that isn't me-too - an article reporting on an event in India:] Wikipedia Search Engine Launch by Year-end, Says Founder:

Wales also said that the Wiki Search engine, part of Wikia, a commercial venture that he floated in 2004, is due for launch before the end of this year. ...

"The Wikipedia project only uses two programmers and donations provide sustenance. Contrast that with Wikia, which has 31 employees, including 25 programmers. The search project alone would need hundreds of servers. We would need investments to push forward software."

He says that even if he garners 3 per cent of the search engine market, it would be a sustainable model.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:26 PM | Comments (1)
February 23, 2007

Wikipedia Biography Deletion Explodes In Internal Controversy

The drama, the drama. A Wikipedia admin apparently took the precept "Be bold" a bit too far, and deleted the infamous biography page of Daniel Brandt.

Page was speedy deleted on 07:53, 23 February 2007 (UTC) by Yanksox ... with a deletion summary: "privacy concerns, more trouble than it is actually worth. Are you people even human?"

I will not attempt to summarize the circus which has ensued. Awe-inspiring for Wikipedia-watchers. And more importantly, in certain ways, instructive.

The Boss of Bosses (comment: "Yes Virginia, there is an 800 pound Gorilla and sometimes we need him.") spoke, handed out preliminary sentences (stripping of power) and sent everyone involved to "Wikipedia Court":

Daniel Brandt deletion wheel war

I am referring this case directly to the ArbCom to look at possible remedies for all parties involved up to and including desysopping, blocking, etc. I have absolutely no opinion on the actual content question (should we have an article about him? I don't care) but this log is a disgrace.

Different people played different roles. I do not have time to sort it all out today, so I am referring most of it to the ArbCom. I have instantly desysopped Yanksox, though, because he's basically begging for it. I have temporarily desysopped Geni and Freakofnurture pending the ArbCom thinking it through.

Here's the action count: [...]

I know how these things go. Some of the people involved were trying to calm things down. Others were merely trying to cause more disruption and fighting by engaging in inflammatory actions designed to outrage the other side. It is hard to sort it all out. This is why wheel warring is so bad.

At one level, I know it's futile, but I keep banging this drum:

There is somebody IN CHARGE of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not innovative in social structure _per se_. It's merely a poorly-run bureaucracy without much accountability. Yes, I know, there's money to be made and conference attention to be had in blowing smoke about this, in hyping the New Era of revolutionary self-emergent citizen-lunchmeat phenomena.

Just look at the phrasing above: "I do not have time to sort it all out today ...". It's the standard plaint of the busy harried superior unhappy with conflict among subordinates, all of whom of course think what they are doing is the right exercise of their authority: I don't have time for this now, all of you involved are going to internal judicial system for it.

And it should be noted Yanksox was a stand-up guy, and made to the "court" the honorable statement of let-everyone-else-go-I'll-take-the-heat. I assume the eventual verdict will be merciful.

I keep having to restrain myself from adding to the whole circus something along the lines of:

My god folks, when does the madness stop? The only reasons you're keeping the Daniel Brandt article now are either: 1) revenge or 2) ideological self-protection. Neither reason is good at a human level.

And deeper, this is why I don't like Wikipedia. If there's no mechanism other than God-King divine fiat to override the segment of any population that likes to hurt people, that's an extremely bad statement about the organization. And if the organization has to keep hurting people because doing otherwise would undermine its fundamental driving force, that's absolutely horrible.

[Disclaimer: I don't agree with everything Daniel Brandt says or does, but I am very sympathetic to his concerns, and think they illuminate some profound problems. I've also had my own Wikipedia biography attacks. Pokemon characters are one thing, but real people are another matter.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (7)
February 22, 2007

Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller sues to find Wikipedia biography libel source

Another example to demonstrate how a Wikipedia biography can be an "attractive nuisance":

Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller sues law firm for Wikipedia posting: "Pro golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is teed off over what he calls defamatory statements about him on Wikipedia." (note he's not suing Wikipedia, but the company which owns the Internet address of the attacker).

Apparently his Wikipedia biography was used as a platform to libel him. And contrary to Wikipedia's mythology, the libel persisted for quite some time. Long enough to be picked up by echoes and scraper sites (it's currently verifiable this is true).

The statements Zoeller finds defamatory no longer appear in his current Wikipedia biography, ... The statements apparently were first posted Aug. 28 ... but were later removed. They were reposted twice, most recently on Dec. 20. ... The statements were removed on Jan. 2.

Wikipedia-boosters often claim a very small average time until vandalism is removed. But that's a misleading number. With partisan edit-wars going on all over it, one can rack up huge numbers of trash-talk and reversions. But it's a bit like saying a murderer has been peaceful 99.99999% of the time. The comparison is meaninglessly inflated.

Wikipedia is far more of an innovation in marketing than an innovation in knowledge

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:04 AM | Comments (2)
February 10, 2007

Wikipedia is NOT going to "shut within 3-4 months"

Regarding the Wikipedia fundraising scare, actual numbers below.

It's not going to do any good, but I already wrote most of the debunking of the following anyway, so I might as well make a quick blog post of it.

The following "citizen journalism" has set off the predictable rounds of ECHO ECHO ECHO! DID YOU HEAR? DID YOU HEAR? LINK, LINK, LINK ...

At this point, Wikipedia has the financial resources to run its servers for about 3 to 4 months. If we do not find additional funding, it is not impossible that Wikipedia might disappear". The warning by Florence Devouard, chairwoman of the Wikimedia Foundation was certainly dire, and Lift07 was as good a venue to make an appeal.

"To keep it up this year they will need at least 5 million USD - a recent fundraising drive raised 1 million, with an average donation of 20 USD. Wikipedia has currently enough cash to pay the bills for three months."

God forbid the supposed last best hope of the New Era, bogosphere, should in the main stop echoing for a moment, and do some actual fact-gathering. Assuming the quote is accurate, those figures sound like at best, she's talking about something else, given the numbers reported here:

"The audit also found that the Foundation raised nearly $1.3 million through contributions in 2006, an increase from the $300,000 raised in 2005 and the $70,000 raised in 2004. Despite the increasing income, expenses also jumped markedly: internet hosting costs rose from $40,000 in 2005 to nearly $200,000 in 2006, and operating costs increased by almost three times from 2005 to 2006. Depreciation of computer software and equipment cost the Foundation nearly $150,000 in 2006. The auditors also noted that this equipment is currently being depreciated based on a 5-year useful life, and recommended that this be changed to a more standard 3-year period. Since expenses overall were less than the income, the Foundation increased its total assets each fiscal year, going from about $300,000 in 2005 to $1,000,000 in 2006."

But, as the saying goes, the person who has to explain mathematics, loses.

I sent the Wikimedia foundation a press inquiry about the above. But it's the weekend, and unlike the rest of us, I assume they have lives.

[Update: For all the details, see the financial statement, particularly page 5]

[Update 2/11 - Clarification are being done:

Florence made it very clear that Wikipedia would NOT shut down in the next 3 months.

Devouard did not say that Wikipedia is going to shut down, nor used the word "disappear" during her speech.

The $5 million seems to have been about expansion plans, see


Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:42 PM | Comments (4)
January 29, 2007

Wikipedia - Debate with me, Bureaucratic system based on China, Secret police

My screen runneth over with Wikipedia punditry.

Nick Carr extracts a debate on Wikipedia between Paul Montgomery and me:

Rough Type's users have been generating some particularly good content of late, so I thought I'd be a good Web 2.0 plantation owner and harvest it for my own (meager) gain. In the comment thread to my recent post on the black hole of Wikipedia, Paul Montgomery and Seth Finkelstein have been going at it like a couple of fairly well-mannered cats in a bag about Wikipedia, white guyism, and the quantum universe. Their exchange, which began with Montgomery's broadside against the poor, defenseless plantation owner, follows.

Chris Edwards - Bureaucracies aren't made, they just kind of appear

One thing struck me about Microsoft's wrangling with Wikipedia over the entry on its XML file formats. The procedure by which people try to change entries that involve them is surprisingly close to that used by traditional publishers, whether of newspapers or encyclopedias. That is, it would be if the publisher had a bureaucratic system based on China's. ...

[snip] ... if you want something about you or something you are directly involved with corrected on Wikipedia - which anybody can edit as long as they're not somebody - you complain on the talk page and an editor will do something about it. Or they tell you to go away. However, it's all a bit like dealing with local bureaucrats in rural China - each one does it differently, and attitudes can change dramatically in the space of days, although they will refer to the same rule book and come back with some obscure answer like: "WP:FOYC". ...

[But there's no "WP:FOYC". WP:MAO[ism]? WP:BEG? WP:PRAY? WP:@#$%!?]

Kathry Cramer explaining "Truth is not the point. The point is control."

My personal take is that the Microsoft controversey, in which Microsoft attempted to engage Jeliffe to corrrect errors in Wikipedia on their behalf, reflects more on problems with Wikipedia than with Microsoft; Wales's own attitudes promote the kind of bureaucratic paranoia and suspicion of expertise I experienced.

In Wales's utopia, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. The elite of the WIkipedia editors, entrusted with special powers by Wales et al. act as a form of secret police -- or if that seems too harsh a metphor, anti-bodies in the midst of a raging autoimmune disease -- and, of course, the fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so low.

And for the opposite view, Philipp Lenssen interviews Wikimedia Germany board member Mathias Schindler, note:

... activist Seth Finkelstein called it "a poorly-run bureaucracy where there's not a lot of accountability" - so I wanted to get an actual & factual inside view.

[And the gist of my response is that Wikipedia insiders are not the place for it (to use Wikipedia jargon, they're non-neutral with a conflict of interest). Every organization has good people, but the problem is whether the system gives too much power to petty low-level administrators]

Note, from the standpoint of keeping Wikipedia running, power-tripping is a feature, not a bug. It's part of the draw, that YOU-YES-YOU, if you work hard enough for free, can be rewarded by the "authority" which comes from being able speak the secret spell of WP:WHAT_I_SAY_GOES, to those who would otherwise have social deference ("experts").

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Comments (2)
January 24, 2007

Wikipedia Articles Can Be A Disaster Waiting To Happen

Let me tag a personal note onto today's hot Microsoft / Wikipedia controversy about editing articles where one has a stake.

Sometimes people don't seem to understand why I don't want a Wikipedia entry. How could I want to decline the honor, the recognition that I am "notable", the glory that I have been inducted into the select few deemed to be of encyclopediac merit? Anyone who does not leap with joy, or at least meekly accept, their "subject" status, must be an evil control-freak bent on image-domination, and be shown the errors of their ways by repeated recitations of Wikipedian scripture.

And there's a subset of arguers that I can never get to understand that Wikipedia can be a minefield of conflicting rules, administered by petty bureaucrats, with a collection of obscure policies that spawn the term "wikilawyer". I'd just rather opt-out of such experiences over myself. I think I can remain a good person despite having that viewpoint.

It's great if you're the God-King or powers-that-be, being given attention for advances in digital-sharecropping, and venture capital investment of million of dollars for monetizing popularity-mining. It's not so great for everyone else.

The current controversy came when Microsoft tried hiring an expert advocate for disputes over data formats. Note that - DATA FORMATS. People who sneer at the "syndication format wars" as only about "ego" are very wrong. There's big bucks at stake.

Maybe this specific argument just comes with the territory of money and power. But still, it's quite a feat to make me feel sympathy for Microsoft.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 06:25 PM | Comments (2)
January 23, 2007

Wikipedia "nofollow" aftermath

"I felt a great disturbance in the [Net], as if thousands of [high-pagerank links] cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced."

A brief roundup of some miscellaneous observation on the "black hole of Wikipedia:

The change is now stated to be "Indefinite".

Regarding Wikipedia taking and not giving back: Well, I've said it before - It's Wales' world, and we just work in it (for free). There's a big difference between autonomy and the illusion of autonomy. And that difference should be clearest whenever the top-down decisions are evident (even if they're good decisions).

Some people say this change doesn't matter much, since Wikipedia's content is echoed and scraped, and those links may remain active. However, the scraper sites tend not to have a lot of rank or trust to pass on. And more importantly, Google knows how to deal with duplicate sites in terms of not counting them repeatedly (not that it can't ever be fooled, but page-duplication is a very old issue).

I've seen conjecture that this will lower Wikipedia's search ranking, since it'll now look like a spammish site, having many inlinks and no outlinks. That's wishful thinking. Wikipedia is "trusted" enough so that it can hoard outlinks like Scrooge, it won't be a problem.

And while I'm amused by the idea of removing Wikipedia from results, or returning the favor to Wikipedia by similarly denying it any link-juice, I'm a little skeptical that anybody with enough power is listening.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Comments (6)
January 21, 2007

"nofollow" attribute put on main Wikipedia pages

"nofollow" is a link attribute which tells a search engine that it should not follow the link, i.e., the link will not get PageRank or any other benefit from being on the page. It's primarily intended to stop link-spammers from taking advantage of comments or open forums. However, it has other uses, such as PageRank "hoarding", a kind of no-PageRank-for-you! statement.

There's been a longstanding debate as to whether Wikipedia should add "nofollow" to non-Wikipedia links. Pro: Wikipedia is tremendous spam-bait. Con: Good sites deserve the search benefit from one of the most popular sites on the net.

The previous community decision was:

As of May 22, 2006, following this discussion, rel="nofollow" is now enabled on non-article pages (i.e. pages outside the main namespace) on the English Wikipedia, but remains disabled for links in articles. Brion has said that it is his "intention to enable nofollow everywhere in the long run (though this might end up being in more limited form, for instance allowing some whitelisting or other verification process)."

That earlier decision has now been overridden by "Jimbomancy"

Having been requested by Jimmy to do so, and having seen a fun rumor of a "search engine optimization world championship" contest targeting [Wikipedia], I've gone ahead and switched rel="nofollow" back onto URLs in's article namespace.

Note one implication to draw from this:


Let me be clear - in many cases, I think Jimmy Wales' decisions are right, and in fact a necessarily corrective to the impulses of crowds. But they sure are top-down CEO-type actions. The propaganda of Wikipedia should be proven transparently false every time one of these events happens. Wikipedia's social organization should be familiar to anyone who has seen a bureaucracy where the low-level administrators aren't accountable much to anyone else, and the bulk of the work is done by volunteers. Getting this often-dysfunctional setup to work is an achievement, no doubt about that. But it's very limited in terms of how well it scales and how much it's a model.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:00 PM | Comments (2)
January 09, 2007

Wikipedia and Search Experts "Notability" Kerfuffle

In the last few days, there's been a little bit of flaming over one Wikipedia editor calling into question the "notability" of some very prominent search experts. The editor was eventually convinced of the mistake in his position. But I'm going to rescue a comment from the above thread, by Danny Sullivan, since it encapsulates several aspects of Wikipedia which intrigue me:

I did see [the editors] comment that he was disappointed I didn't just add the material myself. Why would I do that? I'm not going to waste my time adding to a page that someone else might decide the next day to rip apart according to rules and a culture that frankly is anything but transparent.

I mean, it's difficult to know how the article was "nominated" in the first place. Then who exactly inspired the debate to kill it. And now that the vote has gone as it should, who made that vote? I mean, we were told it's not a voting thing but that there's a discussion, then I gather editors all make it happen. Where?

Wikipedia makes a lot about how open it is, but as an outsider, all I can say is that it feels very closed and difficult to know. It's riddled with acronyms and insider talk. I actually felt the comment about the ODP was pretty close to the mark.

I really do like Wikipedia as a resource. I use it all the time and find it remarkable at how helpful it is. But as I said, then you get something like this, and you just lose faith in it.

Let's count off the themes:

1) The fascinating way Wikipedia puts critics on the defensive - you should fix their errors, and WHY DIDN'T YOU DO THAT?

2) For a hive-mind, it sure has byzantine politics.

3) It's amazing how it has a popular image of an innovative anarchy, while in fact being simply a poorly-run bureaucracy where there's not a lot of accountability (these are not equivalent).

4) It's a lot less dazzling when you see the sausage being made.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:25 PM | Comments (3)
January 04, 2007

Amazon *10 Million* Funding For Wikia (Wikipedia-related company)

I get the feeling I should have said something recently about Google's revised job interview process or some other buzzy topic. But everyone else was (it seemed). In contrast, the following item struck me as more concretely meaningful, and arguably of potential indirect implication for the Wiki-like search project:

Wikia Raises 10 Million from Amazon has invested $10 million into Wikia Inc., the for-profit wiki site founded by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. News of the deal was first reported last month, but the actual dollar amount had been kept confidential. Wikia previously had raised $4 million in Series A funding ...

Now, note it's previously been made very clear that Amazon is not a partner in the Wiki-like search project. But I wonder if that project is in part a way to attract more venture capital investment for Wikia. Search is such a hot area with so much venture capital money floating around that I keep thinking there's a missing piece somewhere. Recall, Wikia is a for-profit company founded by some of the same people who run Wikipedia.

But remember folks, venture capitalists want money back. And that money has to come from somewhere. Ultimately, that's going to be _Time's_ 2006 Person Of The Year - YOU!

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
December 24, 2006

Wikiasari: Wikipedia-like Search

Herd: Wikiasari: Wikipedia-like Wikia-backed Search Project

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, is set to launch an internet search engine ... that he hopes will become a rival to Google and Yahoo!

The idea is not Wikipedia itself as a search enginge, but using some of the techniques of getting people to work for free, outsourcing to suckers, err, I meant to say collective intelligence, for a search engine.

Digression: I am amused that Jimbo Wales is going around correcting reports:

The Wikia Search project homepage explains: Amazon has nothing to do with this. :) Help me spread the word?

Value add: Greg Linden: "Chris Sherman at Search Engine Watch had a good critique of social search efforts a few months ago."

Myself, I don't take the view that it can't work, but rather that there are some tough problems (e.g. see discussion in Nick Carr's post) that have to be addressed for it to work. I believe Google already does some investigation for feedback of its results, in sampling occasionally what people click-through in results.

I find Wikipedia fascinating in part for the hodgepodge of ways it has managed to solve the problem of getting material (dream-selling, intellectual "extortion", plagiarism, and more), combined with the really elaborate ideological defenses it's evolved to deflect criticism of its flaws. It's all not a combination one would be able to foresee working in advance. People often mystify this, but it's not that the elements are unknown, it's that making a going concern out of them all is very hard.

But I could see some comparable approaches it would be interesting to at least try for a search system, especially if someone else is paying for it all with venture capital money. Heck, if I didn't have such baggage as a sometimes-critic of Wikipedia, and similarly vis-a-vis the Harvard Berkman Center (lesson there: [Seth], no agreement with you needs to be kept), I'd make a proposal to Wales.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:07 AM | Comments (16)
November 21, 2006

Cites & Insights November, December 2006 - Wikipedia, Copyright, Blogging

Walt Crawford recently released issue 6:14 (December 2006) of his Cites & Insights, which made me worry about not being good at reciprocity since I hadn't noted issue 6:13 (November 2006) even though it mentioned me several times.

Things to read - a long discussion of "What About Wikipedia?". And to answer the question there, about why Wikipedia doesn't allow opting-out:

I must admit that, apart from politicians, Nobel Prize winners, and perhaps people with some high level of celebrity, I don't get this position at all. You can choose not to be listed in Who's Who in America. Why is it inappropriate for someone who's mildly notable but not a world-class celebrity or politician to ask to be left out of Wikipedia?

As I've said, I believe the answer is "that to allow anyone to decline to be a subject an article would be an admission that the supposed collective editing process is deeply flawed".

Long summary of Copyright Currents - Fair Use and Infringement, The RIAA and Copyright, DMCA Discussions, and more.

Blogging, and the corporatization thereof (links added):

Anybody can become an A-lister. There is no A-list. Any blog can reach a vast audience. You know the myths. Within the broad field of blogs, I no longer have any doubt that they are myths. The A-listers play by different rules and mostly draw sycophants as commenters; these days, though, many of the A-list blogs are really just new forms of old or corporate media in any case.

... Your chances of making those big bucks? Turns out that, once you take away the Hot Sites, there's not a lot left over (although the article never says that outright). And the blognates (blog magnates) are building lots of new blogs to soak up any excess revenue.

... But you have to be hot stuff to get impressions-based ad revenue, and I think The Great Unread and other articles discussed previously pretty much spell out the odds of becoming hot stuff if you're an honest-to-gosh blogger.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:52 PM | Comments (4)
October 24, 2006

Wikipedia, and the difficulties of criticizing digital-sharecropping

I'm going to perhaps do something stupid, and comment on a contentious exchange between Lawrence Lessig and Nick Carr, regarding criticism frameworks (getting sucked into this stuff is one reason blogging can be negative ...):

But Lessig isn't really interested in describing the world as it is. His eyes are on a further goal. He wants to redefine "Web 2.0" in order to promote a particular ideology, the ideology of digital communalism in which private property becomes common property and the individual interest is subsumed into the public interest - in which we become the web and the web becomes us.


So Nick Carr charges me with launching the Cultural Revolution, in a post dripping with references to the evils of communism, and with a triumphant close: "The Cultural Revolution is over. It ended before it even began, The victors are the counterrevolutionaries. And they have $1.65 billion to prove it."

In brief, there's two important ideas somewhat in conflict:

1) (fact) There are new businesses which can be built on data-mining or large collections of small amounts of unpaid labor

2) (belief) There is social or economic value in openness and commons

Trying to mix these two ideas is not as easy as it seems. Because in order to promote the social or economic value in openness and commons, one can end up being a cheerleader of data-mining and digital-sharecropping businesses (#1), as supposed proofs of the value (#2). And those businesses can be deceptive and exploitative, and it won't matter as long as they're profitable. Worse, in order to encourage the donation of free labor, such a business may build a cultish presentation around itself, pitching how you can achieve meaning in life and belonging to a higher purpose, by working for free (this is not a new idea!). Then if one is invested (in many senses) in boosting those sorts of businesses, any deflation of the hype becomes a threat.

The problem is that we don't have a good rhetorical shorthand for "negative effects of a communal activity", so it tends to come out as But-That's-Communism. I try to address this by drawing analogies to multi-level marketing, pyramid schemes, lotteries (which note are capitalism). But that has its own rhetorical downside for harshness.

Now, in terms of specifics here, media industry flacks regularly accuse Lessig of being a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Troskyite Commie, so it's very understandable that he reacts strongly to such implications. In an ideal world, Carr might have smoothed it over via "I'm sorry Larry, I didn't mean that. I was only trying to make a criticism using some metaphoric language, but now I understand that it sounded similar to the personal attacks you receive all the time, which wasn't my intention". The key area of dispute got lost in an unfortunate miscommunication, as in the following (Lessig):

And if you don't have time to read, then ask yourself a simple question: Is Jimmy Wales a communist? (Anyone who knows him knows how absurd the question is, but even if you don?t know him, you can figure it out.) There is no better, more effective advocate for the sharing economy. The project he's helped steward - Wikipedia - is perhaps the sharing economy's prize. But when he advises companies, and others trying to use the net, how best to build upon the value of the Internet, is he just doing Chairman Mao's work?

If Wikipedia is the "sharing" economy's prize, it's a booby-prize (and I use that term advisedly). And it's not because anyone is a Communist, rather exactly because of being capitalists - even Venture Capitalists (as in, 4 million dollars here, 100 million dollars there, soon we're talking real money). Wikipedia works off an interesting confluence of factors, some having to do with having investors willing to fund it as a loss-leader, combined with the neat trick of being able to attract an editorial staff willing to work full-time for free. This has almost nothing to do with how peasants divide up agricultural production, except viewed from a long distance there's a large classless society laboring away for not much tangible in return.

But there's no way to easily talk about that, in an environment where anyone who isn't a copyright robber-baron is regularly accused of being a Communist, and on the other hand, digital-sharecropping businesses are viewed as arguments against copyright robber-barons.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:16 PM | Comments (9)
September 30, 2006

"if he didn't speak fluent geek ..."

There's a fascinating wikimedia mailing-list comment on my Wikipedia piece:

FWIW, what strikes me ( well, lightly taps me ), about this whole thing with Seth here, is that if he didn't speak fluent geek (with a decided received high USENET tone), most of wikipedians wouldn't give him the time of day. ...

Jussi-Ville Heiskanen, AKA. Cimon Avaro

Candidate for Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation in the September 2006 elections.

I think he's right (even though it reminds me of the "Oh stewardess, I speak jive scene from the movie "Airplane!"). I do "speak the language" (more precisely, have the relevant cultural markers), that make me a club-member, despite being in disagreement here. So I'm being treated with a lot more respect than I would be if I weren't a "member of the club".

But the further implications are pretty troubling. It's not a good thing for your grievance to be taken seriously or not depending on whether or not you're a club-member. Of course it's common in practice. But it's very problematic.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:57 PM | Comments (6)
September 28, 2006

"I'm on Wikipedia, get me out of here",,1882027,00.html

"I'm on Wikipedia, get me out of here"

Seth Finkelstein
Thursday September 28, 2006
The Guardian

[Read the whole thing ... :-)]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (14)
September 09, 2006

Suing Wikipedia Legal Issues

In earlier comments, Daniel Brandt wrote:

Regarding the Wikipedia legal situation, I'd like to alert your readers to comments published today from Brad Patrick, Wikipedia's interim executive director and general counsel. They are at

He misrepresents the true state of affairs at Wikipedia. I'm still looking for that notice on every page that editors are responsible for their own edits.

Which I take to be refering to:

Q: What is your liability for inaccurate information that's posted on the Web site?

A: Our belief is that since every post is attributed to an individual, is time-stamped and is retained in the database, the foundation itself is not publishing that content. We view individual editors as responsible and have prominently displayed on every edit page that individuals are responsible for their own contributions. We take the position that we are a service provider and are protected under § 230. We try to emphasize to everyone who posts that they, as publishers, have responsibility for what they add.

["§ 230" is immunity of "providers" from certain legal claims]

I'll just use this as an example to point out another way that blogging is somewhere between useless and downright harmful for me. My own views are much less Wikipedia-cheerleading than its Harvard and venture capital boosters (Wikipedia is a publisher with poor quality control that doesn't pay its contributors). But, frankly, my opinion has approximately zero importance, as well as practically near-zero reach. And expounding on it at length is likely just to get me another situation of being flamed by a "Big Head" and not being able to effectively reply. It's not worth it. So much for blogging as such a great "conversation".

Bonus link: Via Michael Zimmer, Social software and Web 2.0 - Seminar and workshop at Aalborg University on Friday October 6th, 2006:

The concepts have been eagerly adopted within seemingly contradictory areas: on the one hand, Web 2.0 and social software have been associated with re-democratisation, empowerment and open content. On the other hand, they are seen as a huge possibility for profit and market control from a corporate perspective.

That "seemingly contradictory" is key - if you grasp that the rhetoric of re-democratisation and empowerment is used for market control from a corporate perspective, it's perfectly consistent. And I'm not being the slightest bit original in that insight. Which is a very sad commentary again.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:28 AM | Comments (5)
September 06, 2006

Linkdump: Google U California contract, suing Wikipedia, "Where are the women?"

Cleaning out various bogosocial obligations from the last week:

New sucker in the multi-level-marketing scheme for attention, err, I mean, blogger, Karen Coyle has an extensive post analyzing the contract for Google's University of California library digitizing (gatekeepering: Walt Crawford). Amusingly, one can see this post diffuse through the library domain, but not (yet) the search domain.

Daniel Brandt at Wikipedia Watch has a post discussing "Can you sue Wikipedia?". I don't agree with all the legal reasoning in it, but I don't like the way too much discussion is being driven by dysfunctional dynamics between Kool-Aid drinkers and Kool-Aid pushers.

Bandwagon: Vote Aaron Swartz for Wikipedia Board Member (if you have 400 edits, otherwise you can't vote).

A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.
A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.
Somebody who has not been invited to a hot party is a discoverer of the power of social connections.
Or "Welcome to Foo [Camp|Party|Networking Session], you lucky few". The A-listers said it, I didn't.

Which is a good segue to note Sour Duck's Where Are The Women Redux (h/t Shelley Powers), making a point that "Technology conferences, newspaper articles, and the Supreme Court workforce are the latest three areas where women are notably absent, prompting bloggers to once again ask, "Where are the women?". Another proof that blogging (if one wants to be read, rather than "connect with people") is not effectively very open at all.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:01 AM | Comments (5)
July 26, 2006

Quoted About Deleting Wikipedia biography

I'm quoted in The Register: School sues over Wikipedia posts (by Andrew Orlowski) - thanks:

Wikipedia's problems with vandalism have percolated to the top of the hierarchy within the organization. One of the most prominent evangelists for the site, Angela Beesley, recently resigned from the board of the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, the WikiMedia Foundation, in the hope of having her own entry removed from Wikipedia. "I'm sick of this article being trolled. It's full of lies and nonsense," she wrote recently. "Given that this was previously kept on the grounds I was on that Board, there is no longer any reason for this page to be kept. This has already been deleted on the French and German Wikipedias."

(With co-founder Jimmy Wales, Beesley remains on the board of the for-profit corporation Wikia, which recently received $4m in venture capital)

Seth Finkelstein, who recently tried to have his own entry from Wikipedia removed recently, described it as "a pretty stunning vote of no-confidence. Even at least some high-ups can't eat the dog food."

I should note, to explain again my reasoning, that in certain cases I consider Wikipedia biographies to be a kind of "attractive nuisance":

What is an "Attractive Nuisance"?

A widely-known legal principle is that landowners have no duty to keep their land in a safe condition to protect trespassers. The "attractive nuisance" doctrine, which most states have adopted, is considered an exception to this rule.

An "attractive nuisance" is a potentially harmful object on or condition of the land that, by its features, tends to lure children. Children, because of their age, do not appreciate the danger and can be at risk. "Attractive nuisances: are typically not natural land conditions found on the land, such as a pond, but rather are conditions created by someone. Over the years, a classic example has been a swimming pool.

Very apropos, especially - "by its features, tends to lure children ... conditions created by someone".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
July 13, 2006

Wikipedia Irony Overload

"I'm sick of this article being trolled. It's full of lies and nonsense. My justification for making a third nomination is that my circumstances have changed significantly since the last AfDs - I have resigned from the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation. Given that this was previously kept on the grounds I was on that Board, there is no longer any reason for this page to be kept. This has already been deleted on the French and German Wikipedias." Angela [Beesley]. 02:41, 12 July 2006 (UTC)"

Wow. Talk about self-referential irony!

That's a pretty stunning vote of no-confidence. Even at least some high-ups can't eat the dog food.

And apparently I've become somewhat infamous in certain circles due to having expressed my desire to opt-out of Wikipedia. Which is a bit scary in itself.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:00 PM | Comments (2)
July 09, 2006

Wikipedia Biography, I'm Not Worthy

In the past week, in the reverse of vanity, I've been arguing strenuously that I'm not notable for Wikipedia. That is, while some people may think it's cool, I don't *want* to have an entry devoted to me in Wikipedia. It's not a honor, it's a burden:

... Wikipedia biographies can be an "attractive nuisance". It says to every troll, flamer, and grudge-holder, "Here's a page about a person where you can, with no accountability whatsoever, write any libel, defamation, or smear, and it won't be a marginal comment with the social status of an inconsequential rant, but rather will be made prominent about the person and reputation-laundered with the institutional status of an encyclopedia.".

To the frequently asserted quarrel that one can't control what a newspaper or print encyclopedia writes about oneself, I've said:

Neither a newspaper nor a printed encyclopedia allows random flamers to anonymously insert libel/defamation/smears into its articles, at any moment. That aspect puts Wikipedia in a class by itself. Appeals to the norms governing articles which have a process of accountability and responsibility are inappropriate for a context where that very lack of accountability and responsibility is the problem at issue.

This has led to some amusing exchanges where participants in the discussion compliment me, and I keep saying aw, shucks, that's nothing. More significantly, there's a troublesome "cost-shifting" aspect, where a large potential personal negative is imposed on me, for the very small positive benefit to Wikipedia.

I didn't want to write about this until the discussion was over, as that's sometimes viewed as bad faith. Though I did sway a few people to my view, I appear not to have prevailed completely: "The result of the discussion was No consensus."

[Update: See "Death By Wikipedia" for a small example of the problem (this particular article doesn't matter too much, since the person was both notorious and dead, but the issue is real): "But here's the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers."]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:38 PM | Comments (8)
July 05, 2006

Courts Citing Wikipedia

[In response to my post on Apple v. Does (O'Grady v. Superior Court) and Wikipedia, James S. Tyre sent me the following, which (with his permission), I'll make into a guest post.]

Without suggesting that citing to wikipedia is now fully accepted, O'Grady wasn't close to the first. The first that I know of (I've not researched it thoroughly) is:

We also reject the notion that the Department of Homeland Security's threat advisory level somehow justifies these searches. Although the threat level was "elevated" at the time of the protest, "[t]o date, the threat level has stood at yellow (elevated) for the majority of its time in existence. It has been raised to orange (high) six times." Wikipedia, Homeland Security Advisory System, available at (last referenced Aug. 16, 2004). Given that we have been on "yellow alert" for over two and a half years now, we cannot consider this a particularly exceptional condition that warrants curtailment of constitutional rights. We cannot simply suspend or restrict civil liberties until the War on Terror is over, because the War on Terror is unlikely ever to be truly over. September 11, 2001, already a day of immeasurable tragedy, cannot be the day liberty perished in this country.

-- Bourgeois v. Peters, a 2004 decision from the (very conservative) Federal 11th Circ Court of Appeals.

I've seen at least 3 or 4 others as well.

James S. Tyre

[Sent later]

Bourgeois v. Peters, 387 F.3d 1303, 1312 (11th Cir. 2004)

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:57 PM | Comments (1)