Open Wiki Blog Planet

02 December, 2011

Joseph Reagle

A response to Loveland’s GFC review

I noted in the latest Signpost a new review of Good Faith Collaboration from Jeff Loveland has appeared in the Annals of Science. Loveland is a historian of eighteenth-century encyclopedias, a perspective I’ve been keen to hear as I’ve had reviews from about every other discipline!

While Loveland has some nice things to say, he writes:

Good-Faith Collaboration has one major weakness, namely in historical contextualization. As noted above, Reagle deliberately limits his historical survey to chapter 2 through the 20th century, which excuses his inattention to Vincenzo Coronelli’s Bibliotheca universale and Johann Heinrich Zedler’s Universal-Lexicon, both of which were meant to include contributions from a certain public at large in a manner reminiscent of Wikipedia.

Fair enough. He continues:

More seriously, the analysis of Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View is compromised by Reagle’s conviction that “historically, reference works have made few claims about neutrality as a stance of collaboration, or as an end result” (p. 56). “Neutrality” may have not been much discussed by previous encyclopedias under this name, but references to such values as impartiality, unbiasedness and objectivity are frequent in the prefaces of encyclopedias over the last 300 years. (Loveland 2011, p. 557)

Granted, my focus in time is mostly restricted to the 20th century, but I find this critique intriguing none-the-less. My sense in reading the prefaces of varied 20th century encyclopedias was that their compilers were concerned with highlighting the authority of contributors, their discriminating expertise, and their systems for arranging knowledge in contrast to Wikipedia’s anonymity, neutrality, and folksonomy. There are exceptions, especially in the 18th century (Loveland’s area of expertise) when compilers like Samuel Johnson and Ephraim Chambers wrote much more humbly. Also, these two compilers are early proponents of what we might now call descriptive lexicography. Chambers, in the preface to his Cyclopedia wrote:

The Dictionarist, like an Historian, comes after the Affair; and gives a Description of what pass‘d….. The Dictionarist relates what has pass’d with regard to each of our Ideas, in the Coalitions, or Combinations that have been made thereof.... The Dictionarist is not supposed to have any hand in the Things he relates; he is no more concerned to make the Improvements, or establish the Significations, than the Historian to achieve the Transactions he relates. (Chambers 1728, p. xxii).

None-the-less, even this invocation of historian-like objectivity does not perfectly match 20th century notions, which are detailed in Peter Novick’s (1988) The Noble Dream: the “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession and Mark Smith’s (1994) Social Science in the Crucible: the American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918 – 1941. (And the Randian/Objectivist influence upon Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales adds yet another valence.)

This is a fascinating topic but unfortunately not a topic I presently spend a lot of time thinking about. However, it just so happens that earlier this year I read Loveland’s (2010) excellent monograph An Alternative Encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal History (1745). Therein, I delighted in reading about various plagiaristic practices of early encyclopedists and the ways in which compilers represented themselves in their works, from first-person “authorial disclosures” to religious and political polemics. One excerpt that I found especially amusing was de Coetlogon's defense that “I know that I have been accused of being a Papist; so I am, if to love truth, justice and impartiality is to be one; for I am really a Protestant against error, falsehood, injustice and calumny” (Loveland 2010, p. 193). In any case, I look forward to other scholars attempts to fit Wikipedia into more detailed and nuanced “historical contextualization”!

02 December, 2011 01:47 PM

Ziko van Dijk


At Amsterdam, 60 Wikimedia activists and fans from 22 countries gather for the 2nd “GLAMcamp”: a seminar on cultural heritage. Now we listen to the experts on mass uploads. There is a problem for museums to upload pictures from their collection to the internet; of course, we want those pictures with metadata.

Wikimedia organizations are going to cooperate with Europeana, a EU network for cultural heritage institutions. It’s tricky – uploading must become easy and effective so that really everyone can use the new tools.

by Ziko van Dijk at 02 December, 2011 10:42 AM

01 December, 2011

William Beutler

Can UI Changes Transform Wikipedia from Call Center to Community?

The following post was written by my friend, former colleague and fellow Wikipedia editor Jeff Taylor (Jeff Bedford). His opinions are his own, but they are also good ones.

Danny Sullivan made waves on the web last week with a blog post titled The Closed, Unfriendly World of Wikipedia.

Sullivan made a few honest mistakes in the way he approached the Wikipedia community.  Instead of easing his way into the community and learning its culture and norms, Sullivan moved quickly – perhaps a bit too quickly.  Yes, Wikipedia encouraged him to be WP:BOLD; however his approach at times came across as accusatory and unfriendly.  He inadvertently began treating other editors as if they had done great wrongs, expecting everyone to drop what they were doing to answer his requests.

Though not his (nor Wikipedia’s) intention, Sullivan’s experience with the Wikipedia community resembled that of dialing in to a tech support call center, with Wikipedia’s volunteer editors relegated to the unwanted role of customer service representative.  Sullivan even alludes to this call center vibe in his blog post, with section headings such as “At The Tone (If You Can Find It), Please Leave A Detailed Message” and “To Contact an Editor, Please Contact An Editor.” Much like a call center, he got the run-around, and this is not his fault.  It is the product of Wikipedia’s user interface and overall structure, which is truly showing its age in late 2011.

The Wikimedia Foundation has a very academic/university-like mindset, which has its benefits, but has also stifled change — including design updates — when change is absolutely necessary.  To be fair, the foundation is quite self-aware, as evident in their product whitepaper:

  • “Wikimedia’s editing environment, which fundamentally is based on 1995 technology, represents a highly complex and intimidating way for users to engage with content online. In usability studies, users themselves call out the editing environment as unusual, and ask why a rich-text editing environment as used in tools like Blogger or Google Docs is not present.”

The current discussion system is detached from the norms of the rest of the web, hindering the ability of otherwise intelligent users to collaborate productively:

  • “Usability issues mean that especially for new users, the interaction with advanced users is seriously impaired by their lack of a mental model of the discussion system. Paradigms that the user may be familiar with (forums, inboxes, social media feeds) do not apply. Indeed, it is challenging to find any discussion system that is willfully designed to resemble Wikimedia’s.”

The web is moving forward and Wikipedia is not moving forward at the same pace:

  • “User expectations have changed drastically as a result of the innovations that became mainstream during 2005-2007 and continue today. The studies conducted during the Usability Initiative provide evidence that the editing interface is confusing and does not match user expectations.”

A redesigned user interface will be critical for Wikipedia to pivot from call center back to productive and thriving community, and while the public at large may not be aware, a new design is already under construction.  If done right and deployed swiftly, this change – along with an update to the discussion interface – will ensure that users like Danny Sullivan encounter a community, not a call center, when shifting from reader to potential long-term contributor.

According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual plan, a target has been set for the “first opt-in user-facing production (to be in) usage by December 2011.” Today is December 1.  To the development team that is clearly hard at work, I ask, will we see a sneak preview, a screenshot, or an option to test this out before December 31st?  After all, this may be the catalyst to reversing Wikipedia’s editor decline.

by Jeff Taylor at 01 December, 2011 08:29 PM

30 November, 2011


First pilot launches, software released!

Hey friends!

We've got two extremely exciting announcements for you. Our first focus community, serving Denton, Texas, has launched! And we're making the first major release of the new LocalWiki software today!

Launching our first pilot

The DentonWiki, serving the community of Denton, Texas, has officially launched to the public! Check it out!

Denton is a small, college-focused community in North Texas, about an hour from Dallas. Being a college town, it's easy to see parallels to Davis, California. But it's a radically different place than Davis, as anyone who's been to the Dallas area can attest!

Folks in Denton, Texas had been building up and playing around with their project for a few months. With the new LocalWiki software at a good point, and a solid amount of interesting pages on their project, Philip packed up and headed out to Denton for two weeks to help them get their project ready to launch!

We held several marathon editing / hang-out sessions while there, met with lots of local Denonites, got a feel for the community, and did a bunch of work to prep the site for launch.

A little pre-celebration get-together of DentonWiki folks

The Denton project has already seen a higher level of participation and usage than DavisWiki did in its early days. And we're really seeing our extreme focus on usability pay off -- I watched many non-technical people simply get handed a laptop and just immediately start creating great stuff without any guidance.

If you want to read more about DentonWiki and the launch process there, check out some information we're compiling on our guide site.

This first focus community launch -- the first of many -- is a huge milestone for the project!

LocalWiki software released

Today we are also excited to announce the first major release of the LocalWiki software! Check it out at!

Make sure you watch the video!

Starting today, any community can create a local wiki using our new software. The software is designed to be installed by someone who's somewhat technical - someone who's had some experience working with Linux, for instance. We worked hard to make the software as easy to install as possible.

Most people will simply use the software, not install it, though. We're hoping that over the coming months many technically-savvy community champions will set up LocalWiki for their communities. The site is currently focused on targetting these sort of technically-minded folks.

There's a list of communities currently running LocalWiki here (and a map here). We'll let you know as more come online, develop, and launch!

There's so much more we have planned for the LocalWiki software — but this day marks a significant step toward realizing the dream of collaborative, community-run media in every local community.

Philip & Mike

30 November, 2011 08:00 PM

29 November, 2011

Joseph Reagle

Wikimania Keynote

My keynote from Wikimania 2011 (Haifa) is now up. Unfortunately, you can’t see the slides as I talk, but those are online as well.

29 November, 2011 09:19 PM

28 November, 2011

Tom Morris

Turning off notification sounds for muted threads in Gmail on Android?

At the weekend I bought a new phone, a Samsung Galaxy S2. It’s very nice, blah blah. I’ll write up a long post about Android sometime soon.

But I’ve got a bit of a tech support question.

I’ve got the Gmail app that comes with the phone, and I have it set to give me notifications when I get new e-mail. I know this will probably drive me completely apeshit very quickly, so I might turn it off. But it is actually mostly useful.

The only thing is it seems to not be very smart about what it notifies me over. It seems to notify me over every new message in the inbox, even muted threads. I reported a bug with Firefox a while back, and someone just got around to submitting a patch for it this evening, and there have been a few developers commenting on the patch and changing Bugzilla statuses and so on. Which is fine, but it gets annoying. This seems like the ideal case for muting at thread.

I don’t need a notification every time it happens, but it’s still inbox material as the first message to come through for months since reporting it is interesting and I don’t want to write a rule to send it to the same label as all the crappy notifications I get about people following me on Twitter.

Only the Android Gmail app doesn’t seem to have a way to let me change this. I could have it only notify me on Priority Inbox messages, which might do the job as then muted threads are highly unlikely to make it in. But I’m not sure I want that. Any advice?

28 November, 2011 07:40 PM

27 November, 2011

Ziko van Dijk


Marek Blahus in Rotterdam

‘Libera Scio’ was the title of a seminar organized by Wikimedia Nederland together with the World Esperanto Association (UEA) in Rotterdam. Marek Blahus and I presented the Wikimedia movement, multilingual Wikipedia and above all the secret ingredient of Wikipedia: free knowledge.

The UEA holds an open day twice a year in its headquarters; it is usually on Saturday, and on Sunday some guests from abroad still stay in town. For about a dozen people (age 20 to 70) joint us for a tight schedule with lots of information and exercises. The participants were not only impressed by Wikipedia’s size (and the size of Wikimedia Commons) but also by the many ways you can go wrong when it comes to copyright.

by Ziko van Dijk at 27 November, 2011 10:10 PM

26 November, 2011

Tom Morris

Code noodling contest: functionalize this

Learning moment for me. I’ve been learning functional programming for a while, but was faced with an interesting little challenge today. I’ll spare you the problem domain, which is rather boring, and simply give you what’s needed…

A function that takes a positive (that is n>=1) integer, calculate the number of times this number is divisible by 16, and how many times the remainder is divisible by 8, and how many times the remainder of that is divisible by 4, and how many times the remainder of that is divisible by 2. Return each of these values in a key-value structure similar to Ruby’s Hash.

My mind immediately leapt to “oh, this is a perfect fit for some kind of functional technique! Who needs variables?” And then I sat down and tried to write something and my brain very quickly turned to jelly, and I gave in and wrote a very quick imperative version.1 Which looks like this:

Which is fine and will do the job. But, here’s the challenge to any of my FP-loving readers. Feel free to code-golf the hell out of this. Lisp/Clojure, Scala, Haskell, OCaml, Ruby, Python, JavaScript: whatever your poison, show me how much I suck for using variables. The prize? I might nick your solution and quietly put it into production. And you get over 9000 nerdpoints. And the warm feeling of satiating my curiosity. I don’t care if you don’t output necessarily the same data structures, but you do have to output the right values given the same input.2

  1. Why? My new standard practice with the client in question is to sit down with them at a computer, and if they describe some potentially complex business rule, try and write a simple implementation of the rule in the form of a Ruby (or Python or Scala or whatever) function and verify that it does vaguely what they want. I then chuck it in the bug tracker so when I implement it, I have some nice readable, compilable pseudocode rather than a vague specification. In many cases, implementation is just a matter of writing tests, putting it in the context of the class, documenting and updating the UI and so on. 

  2. If you feel like cluttering your example code up with checks to make sure non-positive non-integers raise an exception, feel free. But that’s not really what I’m interested in. 

26 November, 2011 12:33 AM

25 November, 2011


From WLM to the official Heritage Inventory

Winner photography of the Catalan contest. Manel Pons. CC-BY-SA

Before the wikimedians asked for content to institutions, now institutions use wikimedian's content : A selection of 4,000 photographs of Wiki Loves Monuments will be gradually included to the Official Inventory of Architectural Heritage of Catalonia, after a review by its technicians.

It will also be the first time that material provided by Wikipedians becomes part of a public inventory managed by the Official Cultural Heritage Institution of the Government of Catalonia.

Delivery of the pendrive with 4,000 photos to the Director of Cultural Heritage
of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia. Amador Álvarez. CC-BY-SA
This collaboration, with the opening of the lists of monuments and technical advice from the Culture Department of our government on the one hand, and the organization of the contest by the wikimedians, has reached results difficult to achieve using traditional systems.

It is an example of new models of collaboration between government and citizens, in which new technologies and open licenses allow citizens to take an active role in creating useful content for the society and engage with the preservation of heritage and culture. GLAM institutions should start to think about doing similar projects.

At this moment, we all agree that Wiki loves monuments contest has been one of our most interesting projects ever.

Further reading: Official press release (in Catalan)

by Kippelboy ( at 25 November, 2011 12:18 PM

24 November, 2011

Wikimedia UK blog

Sausages and Scholarship: Wikipedia and Digital Literacy

The Economic and Social Research Council is supporting a series of academic seminars on “Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights”, led by Prof. Gillian Youngs of the University of Wales, Newport. Last Friday’s seminar at the University of Leicester invited four representatives from outside academia, including myself for Wikimedia UK. Although the day’s theme was “digital literacy”, the twelve presentations covered a dizzying range of issues, from the legal structures that regulate television, to community journalism, to “sexting”.

My presentation paraphrased the German saying, “People who enjoy sausages or legislation should not watch them being made.” I contrasted this with scholarship: it is better to have a closed system of publication and review, or an open, wiki-based process which lets us see the sausages being made before we eat them?

For the topics of rights, connectivity, creativity, digital policy, and digital literacy, I argued that the Wikimedia perspective comes down to openness and freedom (in the sense of free content). Free content guarantees users’ rights: it treats them not as passive consumers of a finished product, but as active editors and re-users. Free content lets people build something together that they couldn’t on their own, hence it supports creativity. Freedom and openness are crucial to bring about the volunteer effort that makes Wikipedia a success: like most volunteers, I donate time and money to Wikimedia because it is a charitable project serving the widest possible public, not a commercial operation serving shareholders. Policy (whether in a country or an institution) can make openness either straightforward or difficult.

As a Wikipedia author, I’m very concerned that people understand the site’s limitations and biases as well as its strengths. To me, “digital literacy” means seeing digital resources as the result of a process, and understanding the implications for quality and reliability. Wikipedia educational projects are a low-cost opportunity to do this. If open publishing is like letting people see the sausages being made, then an educational assignment is like setting students loose on the machines to make their own sausages.

During questions, David White of Oxford University mentioned his own research into the use of online resources in schools and universities, which is feeding into the JISC ‘Developing Digital Literacies’ programme. While many schools in the UK and USA forbid children from even looking at Wikipedia, the site’s page views confirm that it is by far the most frequently-consulted source (nearly half a million hits on “Henry VIII of England” in one month, for example).

Wikipedia emerged as a topic in other discussions through the day, including the way it allows a natural division of labour: people who follow a topic obsessively can summarise it on Wikipedia for the benefit of people who are interested but less obsessive. In his round-up at the of the seminar, Matt Chilcott of University of Wales, Newport pointed out that the Wikipedia article on Digital literacy is still quite basic, and urged all present to improve it.

by Martin Poulter at 24 November, 2011 10:57 PM

Tom Morris

"Police officers told a member of the public they were prohibited from bringing “political materials”..."

“Police officers told a member of the public they were prohibited from bringing “political materials” into the Houses of Parliament”


Police attempt to ban “political materials” from House of Commons

Start with the politicians, I say.

24 November, 2011 01:50 PM

"A 61-year-old Halifax County man died Tuesday, a day after police shocked him with a stun gun while..."

“A 61-year-old Halifax County man died Tuesday, a day after police shocked him with a stun gun while he was riding his bike, family members said.”

- Halifax County man dies after being shot with stun gun

24 November, 2011 01:42 PM

I was on the train recently and saw something that to anyone competent at using a computer is a bit...

I was on the train recently and saw something that to anyone competent at using a computer is a bit like the sound of nails on a chalkboard.

Across the aisle from me was a man with a MacBook Pro. He had open Numbers, Apple’s spreadsheet software.

He had a list of figures in the spreadsheet. He wanted to do some arithmetic on the same column in each row and have the resulting value fill the column directly to the right of it.

He had found a method for doing this.

For each value in the spreadsheet, he looked at it, stored the value in his brain, hit the button on his keyboard (F4) to open the Dashboard (OS X’s gallery of helpful widgets), manually clicked the number into the calculator Dashboard widget using the trackpad, stored the resulting value in his brain, hit F4 to close the Dashboard, then typed said value into the spreadsheet.

I’ve seen people pull out a calculator to crank numbers while sitting in front of a computer, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone doing anything quite so elaborately strange with a computer for quite some time.

I sat there wanting to say “you know, you could just write an expression in the first row, then use fill down, that way if one of the values changes, the calculated value will also change”. But I didn’t.

Someone once said that Excel was the world’s most widely used functional programming language. I’m so glad to see that both functional programming and cargo-cult programming have reached mainstream acceptance.

Bad code: it’s everywhere.

24 November, 2011 09:40 AM

23 November, 2011

Ziko van Dijk


Will Guttenberg use this kind of machines ever again? (2010 in Kunduz; US Gov. PD)

The prosecuting attorney of Hof (Bavaria) made public today that it will drop the charges against Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former German minister of defense. Guttenberg had to step down from his office in March 2011, after massive plagiarism had been discovered in his PhD thesis. GuttenplagWiki found out that more than 63% of all lines were taken from various sources.

From 199 complains that came in only one was issued by a person whose texts had been plagiarized by Guttenberg. The prosecuting attorney says now that

  • ‘only’ 23 text passages can be considered plagiarism in the strict sence of the law
  • taking over parts of texts provided by the scientific service of the parliament is no embezzlement or fraud to the detriment of the Federal Republic
  • copyright is primarily protecting economic rights, and the economic damage to the plaintiff is minimal
  • the title PhD did not provide essential benefits to Guttenberg

Guttenberg got the complaints cancelled by paying € 20,000 to a charity. Even a party comrade of Guttenberg calls this a second class cessation. After more than seven months we came to know that plagiarism is less than you think, that it causes no damage and that a PhD title isn’t worth anything anyway.

The ex-minister is already busy with his political comeback. Recently he appeared in Canada at a conference on security issues, where he offered abrasive criticism against European politicians. For November 29th he announced his new book ‘Failed for the moment’.

by Ziko van Dijk at 23 November, 2011 02:15 PM

21 November, 2011

Ziko van Dijk


Sad clown (Melissa Wiese CC BY SA)

Today I read another complaint in German language Wikipedia about the Wikimedia Foundation. Someone said that he found many of the candidates to the WMF board incompetent, and that he had candidated himself if he was capable of that difficult commercial English they use at the Foundation.

One might put this on the pile of easy reproaches: leaning back, let the others work and take responsibility, and complain that ‘I was not informed sufficiently’. But this sorrow has a true and honest ground. For a non native speaker of English, or even a native, it is difficult to follow discussions on Meta Wiki or the Foundation mailing lists. The language there

  • is full of colourful colloquialisms, nice for the natives, terrible for the rest
  • delivers a lot of Wikimedia jargon which you have to learn separately for every language
  • often contains an aggressive tone

When the Foundation asks volunteers to translate something, then the texts are not always as comprehensive and concise as they should and could be.

In theory, the Wikipedia language versions have ‘ambassadors’ who are supposed to link the national or ethnic level with the international level. In practice, this hardly happens because the ambassadorship is non-binding, it bears no obligation. People put their names on the list and then forget about it.

Such a position, a contact person for a single language version, should be assigned by the concerning community, maybe by vote. And it must be clear to the ambassador what people expect from him: translating the most important messages from the Wikimedia blog, giving feedback from the community to the international level.

It should be obvious by now that the pure wiki way does not work.

by Ziko van Dijk at 21 November, 2011 09:00 PM