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Wikimania 2012

Last week, Wikipedia, the popular, free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, held its 8th annual celebration in Washington, DC.  The event was hosted by George Washington University and attracted about 1400 participants from 87 countries, over twice the number at any of their past events.

Surprisingly this was only the second time the event has been held in the US.  Past years have included Buenos Aires, Gdansk, Taipei, and Alexandria Egypt.  Next year will be in Hong Kong.

I was struck by the international makeup of the participants. By my estimate, more than half did not speak American English as their first language.  The American super geeks, who only a few years ago were on a mission to change the world, were of course there but their role has changed.  The free online encyclopedia is now focusing on other languages and cultures. 

The most curious contingent to me was a team of suits from the State Department who differed markedly from almost everyone else there. A number of them gave presentations about the Wiki-like software their departments were using, but, more likely, their real motive was to encourage and exploit the enormous international good will created by the project.  Probably no innovation in our lifetime has done so much to improve education and it hasn’t cost the tax-payers a cent.  That is an impressive accomplishment.

Wikipedia is actually a group of organizations all with the general theme of providing open source information that can be used by anyone.  At the top of the food-chain is the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, based in San Francisco, which operates on an annual budget of about $34 million in donations. The Wikipedia that most of us know is actually the English language Wikipedia.  There are said to be editions in 285 of the world’s roughly 3000 languages.  The English edition leads all others with a total of four million articles.  All the major languages are represented although government censorship, particularly in China, represents a force to be reckoned with.

Most participants are volunteers but they do have a paid staff, many of whom were there.  Don’t worry about Jimmy Wales either; he gets upwards of $40,000 for his speaking engagements which are in high demand.

About Wikipedia

Anyone can edit Wikipedia.  So how can this work?  Can’t anyone come in and destroy an article?  Many people have asked this question, but work it does and the results have been stunning.  Probably the best answer is that Wikipedia has put in place a number of experienced users, called administrators, who will quickly undue changes by those who have bad intent or don’t know what they’re doing.  Technically, they have sophisticated tools in place to block anyone they deem as a threat.

All Wikipedia content must be verifiable, notable and written from a neutral point of view.  Editors cannot argue that something is true; they can only repeat what a reliable source has said.  Their rules are arcane and their enforcement strict.

The first three days of the conference featured presentations by about 100 conference participants.  The more important speakers, such as co-founder Jimmy Wales, spoke in GWU’s impressive Lisner auditorium which could seat about 1600.  Most of the other presentations took place in large classrooms that were often 100% full. 

The question and answer sessions were, let’s just say, unique.  No one was ever actually asked a question; they were told questions. Most spoke in “wiki-babble” which is marked by constant hand motion and frequent digression into unrelated topics.  The joining of everyday words with “wiki” is part of their culture. There are wiki-expeditions, wiki-vans, wiki-events, and wiki-you name it.

No one paid full attention to the presentations either.  Virtually everyone split their time between the speaker and their chosen handheld device; iPads, iPhone and laptops were most common.

At this point in history, Wikipedia is at the top of its game.  In only a decade they have forever changed the way that people obtain knowledge. But their ever evolving community is vulnerable; they mean well but are unsophisticated in governance and democracy.   Already there are signs of trouble ahead.

The Amanda Knox Article: Wikipedia’s Canary in the Mine

I was drawn to Wikipedia by my interest in the case of Amanda Knox, an American college student who had been convicted of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Italy.  Ms. Knox was found innocent last year and released after nearly four years in prison.  The case was a media sensation in Europe with virtually all reliable sources raising questions about the case against her and her then Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.  Some of the most important observers openly declared her case to be a modern day Salem Witch Trial. But early on the British tabloids had latched on to the case and formidable sentiment against Ms. Knox developed in both Italy and Great Britain.  The online blog war was the nastiest I have ever seen. The sentiment of the editors and administrators who controlled the Wikipedia page can be summed up by this quote (read hate speech) from an editor with 344 edits on the Meredith Kercher topic:

It’s telling that you should call it witch-hunting because Knox is indeed an evil witch. – Wikipedia Editor Brmull.

For nearly two years, the Wikipedia article about the case printed outright lies about bloody footprints and a Knox PR campaign, but the real problem was what it did not include.  Fierce criticism of the trial and police investigation became part of the story and the reigning administrators who controlled the article would have none of it.  They were convinced of Amanda Knox’s guilt and they made sure the Wikipedia article said just that.

During 2010 and 2011 any editor who challenged the neutrality of the article was destined to be banned.  Things improved with an online petition that I authored about a year ago that asked Jimmy Wales to take a look. His statements stunned the community: 

Is it true that people have been banned for completely neutral edits? Yes. Is it true that reliable sources have been systematically excluded? Yes.” – Jimmy Wales.

Censoring the views of prominent journalists and newspapers because it doesn’t fit an agenda is the precise opposite of NPOV – Jimmy Wales.

I’d say the Murder of Meredith Kercher article was one in a million but the truth is I can’t find three others that are as bad. Remember there are four million articles so it’s no surprise that some will fail.  I believe the Murder of Meredith Kercher entry to be the single most troubled article in Wikipedia’s history.  When confronted with undisputed facts about the case, Wikipedians pretend there isn’t a problem.  It’s kind of like the image of the ostrich that puts its head in the ground and leaves its gigantic rear end in the sky.

One of the allegations that the pro-guilt forces would use to eliminate their competition was the claim of vote stacking or canvasing.  Since they couldn’t win any votes themselves, they put forward the claim that only people likely to vote one way were being invited to the voting booth.

A recent article in the online of edition of Slate Magazine talked about Wikimedia Foundation member Sarah Stierch. Sarah is a dedicated Wikipedian who has worked hard to increase the number of female editors on the project.  Female participation stands now at only 9% in the English Wikipedia and is below 6% on some others. 

The Slate article talked about how she had recently held an ‘edit-a-thon” where new women editors put together articles about under-recognized female historical figures.  When one of these articles ran into trouble they say she “rallied the troops.”  The problem is that there is no difference between what the Slate article says Sarah Stierch did and the alleged behavior that got the editors blocked on the Murder of Meredith Kercher article.

On the Amanda Knox topic, aggressive administrators with an agenda blocked anyone and everyone with a point of view they disagreed with.  It was an almost complete breakdown of Wikipedia’s system.  The result was an article that terribly harmed two innocent human beings.

But it was only one article out of four million. Wikipedia’s contribution to the world has been profound.  I hope that they make necessary changes to their governance structure so that they can continue to make the world a better place.  And I hope they take a hard look at what happened in the Amanda Knox article.