Category Archives: Wikimedia

Remembering Adrianne Wadewitz

Adrianne, skepchickal

Adrianne, skepchickal

I remember, for a long time before I met her, wondering what “a wade wit” meant.

I remember a Skype conversation, years ago. Adrianne, Phoebe, SJ and I talked for probably three hours about the gender gap on Wikipedia, late into the night. Then and always, she was relentlessly thoughtful and incredibly sharp. As superb as she was in writing, she was even better in live conversation and debate.

I remember laughing and talking and laughing and talking at Wikimania 2012. I took this picture of her that she used for a long while as a profile pic. Someone on Facebook said it looked “skepchickal”, which she loved.

I remember her unfailing kindness and generosity, indomitable work ethic, and voracious appetite for knowledge. She made me proud to call myself a fellow Wikipedian.

Wikimedians are awesome (and WP10 Pittsburgh)

My friend Brandon posted his love letter to Wikipedia, in honor of its 10th birthday. The reason he loves Wikipedia, and loves working for the Wikimedia Foundation, is because of The Mission: to make the sum of human knowledge freely available to everyone in the world. “Would [you] be interested in taking a massive pay cut in order to make the world a better place?” He likes the ring of that.

For me, for a long while now, the Wikimedians are the reason I love the project (and love working for WMF these last six months). They are the people who answer ‘yes’ to that question. Some are literally taking a pay cut, like Brandon and most of the Wikimedia tech staff, who could be making a lot more money working elsewhere. Thousands more make similar decisions, devoting major chunks of their lives to volunteering for The Mission. From the web designer who spends dozens of hours a week getting to the bottom of disputes and helping Wikipedia newbies on IRC, to the history student who organizes photo scavenger hunts and meetups, to the software developer who sorts through copyright issues on Commons every day, to the engineer who curates lists of the works of great artists, to biochemisty professor who makes videos and gives presentations about how to edit. And these are just a handful of the ones I’ve actually met.

That’s what drew me to The Wikipedia Signpost soon after I became a Wikipedian–I wanted to serve those people, to support our fragile community. That’s why I fill up my camera every time I go to a meetup. And that’s what makes my job—lolcat herder online facilitator—so rad. Wikimedians are weird, and they aren’t always easy to talk to or get along with. But they are also wonderful—generous, idealistic, kind-hearted, fierce.

For the 10th birthday in Pittsburgh, Wikipedians and Wikipedia fans fought their way through the teeming throngs of Steelers faithful during a playoff game, just to celebrate and be together. We walked through the crowd telling people about the Wikipedia celebration and giving away stickers and pins. The spontaneous reactions people had when Wikipedia was brought up were amazing. I’ve never been flirted with so much in my life. Talking about Wikipedia with people who don’t contribute just emphasizes how awesome the people who do are.

The Mission is still a long way off. But what keeps me going is the people working toward it along with me.

a good day for free culture in the mail

I got a trio of nice packages in the mail today, from Automattic, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Matt Mullenweg sent me a lovely “code is poetry” WordPress t-shirt, along with some nice stickers, pencils, and a certificate that I’m one of the “Three Most Important People in WordPress“.  Thanks, Matt!  GPL FTW!!

I got a letter and a physical barnstar thanking me for contributing to the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process last year.

And I got my membership package from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with a t-shirt and a sticker.

Wikimania 2010

Free Knowledge in the City of Freedom. Staying out until dawn was not uncommon.

I am writing wrote this on the plane back from my first Wikimania. Wow! An amazing experience!

First off, I couldn’t have written my ROFLCon blog post if I had been to Wikimania already. What is true of the social dynamic of Wikipedia meetups for (mainly) the English Wikipedia community–that we tend to be on the introverted side, and it takes a while for people to open up–doesn’t translate to the international scope and scale of Wikimania. Wikimedians there were warm and friendly from the get-go. Maybe it takes a critical mass of sociality before introverts start to open up, rather than merely time. So bigger is better.

Organizationally, things were modestly chaotic. For the most part this was fine. The one real fail was that many attendees were unexpectedly kicked out of their dorms early, and I heard that a group of them ended up spending one night in a public park.

It’s really a shame that Wikimania hasn’t been held in North America since Wikimania 2005 in Boston. That was before the real upswing of Wikipedia’s popularity, and the majority of active American and Canadian Wikimedians have never had a chance since they joined to attend a nearby Wikimania.

Filmakers Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill with Jimmy Wales

One of the highlights of the conference was the premiere of Truth in Numbers?, a documentary about Wikipedia that’s been about 5 years in the making. It’ll be released publicly later this year. Reactions from Wikipedians were mixed and complicated, although during the screening itself it felt like a very positive reaction. The film gives a lot of focus to some shallow or misleading lines of criticism, and on an intellectual level, it comes off as largely anti-Wikipedia, contrasting the reasonable-sounding arguments of mature critics with the naive optimism of youthful Wikipedians. (For the most part, the critics’ arguments are easily answered, but the counter-arguments are a little more sophisticated than what can be explained well in a documentary aimed at an audience with little Wikipedia background.) Emotionally, though, I felt that Wikipedia–or rather, the Wikipedians–win in a landslide.

The Truth in Numbers? filmmakers also plan on releasing all the used and unused footage–full interviews with Wikipedians from around the world as well as important critics and supporters–so that others can re-edit and re-purpose it. There are many stories that could have been told in Truth in Numbers? I think the film is emotionally satisfying and it’s strong by the standards of the documentary genre.  Comparing it with other documentaries about weird communities, it’s far better than, say, Revolution OS, but not quite to the level Darkon or Spellbound.  I’m excited to see what else might come of it. A film intended to tell the history of Wikipedia would be quite different, and a film about the politics and values and philosophy of the Wikimedia movement would be different yet again. Hopefully the licensing of the extra footage will be free enough that the Wikimedia community can actually use it.

It was so great meeting many of the people I’ve known only online.  Really, Wikimedians are the awesome-est people in the world.  A whole year is too long until Wikimania 2011 in Haifa, Israel.  Hopefully I’ll be able to make it to Wiki-Conference New York in August to hold me over; last year’s was great, and this year’s should be even better.

Open Space discussion on Strategy

I took a few pictures, which seem to have been well received.  They’re all on Wikimedia Commons, too, along with 1000 others.  As a default, I didn’t add names for anyone but Wikimedia board and staff, since many Wikimedians may not like having named pics publicly available.  But let me know and I’ll add your name to your pic, if you like.

New city, new job

Whew! It’s a been a hectic few months since I blogged last!

Pittsburgh, our new home

Faith, Brighton and I bought a house and moved to greater Pittsburgh in late May (Glenshaw, to be precise). I have to call Faith “Dr. Honey”, instead of just honey; she has her M.D. now and is serving an anesthesiology residency at UPMC. Pittsburgh is awesome. The people are quite friendly (if rather more sexist and religiously conservative than New Englanders, on average). The “Pittsburgh Left” is both charming and dangerous. And I started a vegetable garden!

I’m not yet finished with my dissertation, but with the necessary move to Pittsburgh and the need to pull in at least some income, my options seemed limited. Academic positions were basically a non-starter. I was looking into jobs as a lab tech or a photographer or an in-home child-care provider, and there are actually some jobs in the Pittsburgh area (moreso than in much of the country). None looked too appealing. But the perfect opportunity opened up for me at perfect time.

I can has job?

In June I took a position with the Wikimedia Foundation: “online facilitator” for their 17 month “Public Policy Initiative“. In short, I’m part of a team focused on creating a Wikipedia Ambassadors program and developing good ways to get professors and their classes involved with improving Wikipedia content. (As a pilot, we’re starting with public policy professors in the U.S., but we hope to expand the scope of the programs we’re starting after the basics are in place.) I tell people I’m the head of the Pittsburgh Office of the Wikimedia Foundation. If you’re a Wikimedian in the Pittsburgh area, let’s get together some time; I’m going to try to start having regular Pittsburgh wiki and free culture meetups, which have never really happened before.

Finally, Wikimania. It deserves a post of its own

Demand Media vs. Wikimedia: the battle for the soul of the Internet

There’s one company I’ve been talking about more than any other lately: (the demonic) Demand Media and

-Jay Rosen on Twitter, 27 November 2009

When journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen discusses Demand Media and its business model, he always includes the parenthetical adjective demonic.  Demand Media is the answer to the question, what would Internet content look like if it was entirely and solely driven by advertising revenue?  Content is commissioned based on an algorithm that calculates the lifetime value of the ads that could be run against it.

Demand Media takes the routinization of knowledge work to its logical extreme.  (For those with a Marxist bent, is there any clearer example of the knowledge worker alienated from the products of his labor than Christian Muñoz-Donoso, from Rosen’s first link?)  And Demand Media expects to be producing “the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year” by next summer.

Wikipedia and other free culture projects, sometimes pejoratively described as “crowdsourcing” projects, have been criticized for undermining the economic viability of traditional, professionally produced media.   But what if the real choice for the future is not between the Wikimedia model and the traditional media model, but between the Wikimedia model and the Demand Media model?  Media driven by love versus media driven by money.  Editor-driven media where everyone is an editor versus demand-driven media where no one is an editor.  Media built from soul versus media with no soul.

Wikipedia in Theory (psychology of fun and games edition)

In my last Wikipedia in Theory post, in which I looked at game theory and experimental economics, David Gerard commented:

People edit Wikipedia because it’s fun. What is the economic motivation to buy music or play WoW? The theory’s out there.

But what, exactly, is that theory?  What makes Wikipedia fun?  Is that the same thing that makes World of Warcraft fun?  The same thing that makes gambling fun?  The same thing that makes all three addictive, sometimes pathologically so?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single well-established theory of fun and games.  There are some interesting ideas floating around, though.

The best known comes from positive psychology: the concept of flow, which is often considered the essence of what makes games and other activities fun.  Flow is that state of sustained concentration (and associated elation) when all of your efforts are directly toward a difficult and significant task that is nevertheless within your capabilities.  Different kinds of Wikipedia work are available that can test the skills of adolescent and professor alike and Wikipedians are free to choose tasks they think are significant, so it’s easy to make sense of why Wikipedia can be fun in terms of flow.

Another widely quoted formulation of fun comes from A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster:

Fun is just another word for learning.

James Paul Gee expands on this concept in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.  In a short journal article, he summarizes some of the relevant points:

  • Good games give information “on demand” and “just in time,” not out of the contexts of actual use or apart from people’s purposes and goals…
  • Good games operate at the outer and growing edge of a player’s competence, remaining challenging, but do-able…
  • Games allow players to be producers and not just consumers. Along with the designer, the player’s actions co-create the game world.
  • In computer and video games, players engage in “action at a distance,” much like remotely manipulating a robot, but in a far more fine-grained fashion. Cognitive research suggests that such fine-grained action at a distance actually causes humans to feel as if their bodies and minds have stretched into a new space…a highly motivating state.

All of these aspects of games have parallels in Wikipedia editing.  In the last case, Wikipedia offers not just the illusion of affecting the world at a distance, but a way to actually do so; writing on Wikipedia has the potential to affect readers across the world.

Neuropsychology puts flow and fun and learning (and addiction) into chemical terms: it’s all about the dopamine.  All that talk about flow and motivation and fun gets boiled down to the release of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, motivation, concentration, reinforcement, learning, and addiction.  Sustained released of dopamine (or in the case of some addictive chemicals, dopamine re-uptake inhibition) both creates a sense of pleasure and elation and creates an association between the activity at hand and the dopamine jolt, motivating you to do that activity again (and again).

That’s the core of activist game designer Jonathan Blow‘s critique of mainstream video game design.  To quote from my post on video game addiction:

the best practices of commercial game design, particularly MMOs, are “predicated on…player exploitation” by “plugging into their pleasure centers and giving them scheduled rewards”. He suggests that the gaming industry may be engaged in “the intellectual and emotional equivalent of [Joe Camel]“.

That same principle is at work on Wikipedia, with people compulsively checking their watchlists to see if their work has been built upon or the comments replied to.  But with careful attention to the principles of video game design, Wikipedia could probably be made much more compelling/fun/educational/addicting to a larger number of people.

How freely licensed photos generally get used (a sequel)

Last year, I blogged about how freely licensed photos are used and misused across the web.  Figuring out how my photos are being used (as long as I’m being credited by name) is much easier now with the Google search options (rolled out in May 2009 and with more options added just this month), which let you limit search results to newly indexed pages.

I have over 3500 CC BY-SA photos on Flickr (including lots of family photos, abstract shots, and other stuff unlikely to be reused) and probably around 1000 original photos on Wikimedia Commons, generally available under both GFDL and CC BY-SA (and a good portion of which are not duplicated on Flickr).  At this point there is a fairly steady stream of reuse, most of which I’m not directly aware of (except when I go looking, like now).  I estimate that my ~4000 photos are put to new uses at  rate about 15-20 times per week.  Let’s see what types of uses my photos have been put to recently.

Searches (limited to results first indexed within the last week) for “ragesoss” and “Sage Ross” ought to turn up nearly all of the new cases where I’m being credited for photos.

As before, the most active user of my photos is World News Network (, a set of algorithmically-generated sites that are titled like local or special interest newspapers but basically just link to offsite news stories, add free photos, and run ads against the photos and headlines.  For example, this story about pesticides in peaches links to the actual story from The Oklahoman but adds my picture of peaches.  The credit reads “(photo: GFDL / Sage Ross)”.  Although I think a link back to the source or my Commons userpage (which is where the attribution link at Commons points) is appropriate, it probably doesn’t violate the letter of the license (which is already stretched thin when applied to photos and other things very dissimilar from software manuals).  In another example, they use a CC license instead of the GFDL for my photo of coffee beans.  In this case, the credit reads “(photo: Creative Commons / Ragesoss)”, with no link to the specific license or the source.  This violates both the spirit and the letter of the CC BY-SA license.  World News Network has used my photos hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and I’m sure many other photos from Commons by other Wikimedians are being systematically (mis)used similarly.

Another common type of usage is from the many sites that are trying to monetize user-generated content and share the ad revenue between writer and website owner.  In these cases, it’s the individual writers who are responsible for obtaining photos (and rights thereto), so compliance with free licenses varies widely.  I found my photos on articles from and  The suite101 article, “Free Instructions on How to Make an Apple Pie“, uses a series of photos I took while my sister was making pie.  All the photos but one are credited to me and link back to the source on Commons, although no license info is indicated at suite101; this violates the letter, but not the spirit, of the CC licenses.  Oddly, the lead apple pie image is misattributed and links to an entirely different pie photo from a quasi-free stock photography site; the writer probably used that image first but then replaced it when she found my photos.  At HubPages, the article “Health Insurance Rescission and How To Fight It” uses my photo but merely credits it as “Photo by ragesoss” with no link or license information.  AssociatedContent is another site like that where my photos show up frequently; they seem to be better than most at following the provisions of free licenses.

Blogs use my images somewhat less frequently.  Recent uses include this entry in the Utne Reader “Science and Technology” blog (which does a great job with the credit line, linking to both source image and the specific CC license) and this one from the Choices Campus Blog (which has the mediocre credit line “Photo Credit: ragesoss at” with no link).

A final significant category of uses is in articles from professional news and content sites.  Overall, these sites are somewhat more likely to use freely licensed images properly, but sloppy or improper uses are still common in my experience.  The only recent credit I found is from the CNBC story “GE, Comcast Continue Talks Over NBC Stake“.  The unlinked credit line simply reads “Photo: Ragesoss”, but the photo is one of my few early photos on Commons that I released as public domain rather than a copyleft license.  So CNBC doesn’t have any legal obligation to give a more precise photo credit (or even to credit me at all), although if only for the sake of journalistic integrity they probably ought to do better.

Conclusion: People use freely licensed photos liberally from Flick and Wikimedia Commons, but there isn’t much indication that most reusers understand what the licenses mean or what they require from reusers.  The free culture movement has a long way to go; cultural change is a lot slower than license adoption.

On a tangent, it’d be nice if Wikimedia Commons was equipped with something like refbacks combined with image recognition to automatically discover and collect web pages that are reusing Commons media.  I think I’ll make a proposal on the Wikimedia Strategy Wiki when I get a chance.

Wikipedia and Olympics Committee heading for collision?

CC-BY-SA photo of Usain Bolt, by Richard Giles

CC-BY-SA photo of Usain Bolt, by Richard Giles

It looks like Wikipedia is  actually at the center of the recent copyright kerfluffle of the photographer (Richard Giles) who got a legal threat from the International Olympics Committee (IOC) over licensing his images from the Beijing Olympics under Creative Commons licenses.  Giles explains the situation on his blog:

It turns out that my Usain Bolt photo was being used by a book shop in the UK to advertise the launch of the Guinness Book of Records 2010. This was being done without my knowledge, and as they pointed out, in breach of the license granted on the Olympic ticket.

That photo was the only one of 293 in the set on Flickr that was licensed with a ShareAlike license (allowing commercial use) rather than a non-commercial license, and Giles had relicensed that particular photo at the request of another Flickrite so that it could be uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and used on Wikipedia.  And Wikipedia is probably where that UK merchant found it and, assuming the license to be legitimate, used it (so it would seem) under the terms of the free license.

Giles reports that it looks like the IOC really just objects to licensing that allows commercial use.   Depending on what the IOC says in response to his request for clarification, Giles may be changing the license on that Usain Bolt photo and asking the UK merchant to stop using it.

What happens now?  By buying a ticket to the Olympics, Giles’ appears to have (implicitly at least) agreed to terms and conditions that say he won’t use photos from the games except for private purposes.  But he does own the copyright to the Bolt photo, and therefore ought to (except for those terms and conditions) be able to license it however he likes.  Will the fine print of an Olympics ticket be strong enough to force Wikimedia (which agreed to no terms and conditions) to stop using the photo and offering it to other downstream users?

Wikipedia in theory (experimental economics edition)

(See my earlier posts: Wikipedia in theory, and Wikipedia in theory (Marxist edition).)

Wikipedia works (if imperfectly) in practice, even though some relevant theories say it shouldn’t.  Take game theory.

We can think of Wikipedia as a public goods game: contributing time and effort into improving it doesn’t have a direct benefit, but the result of many people doing that creates a resource for everyone.  There’s little direct incentive to contribute; whatever I might do to make it better is based on what I already know, and my personal improvements only come back to benefit me with a fraction of the value I put into the project.  So despite that the optimal situation for the public as a whole is if everyone who could contribute to Wikipedia did so, for any individual the strictly rational choice is not to contribute–to be a “free rider” or “defector”.

As in the canonical version of the public goods game, the Nash equilibrium for Wikipedia is zero contributions.  In a world of strictly rational, self-interested players of the Wikipedia game, the projects dies a silent theoretical death in 2001–which we know, in practice, is not what happened.  Experimental economics has been focused on just this divergence between theory and practice for several decades now, and there may be a lot of insights in that body of literature for how to make Wikipedia work better.

What factors make a public goods game more successful?

One study looked a “partners condition” versus a “strangers condition”: in repeated plays of a public goods game, players were either matched with the same group from earlier games or a new group of strangers.

  • The result: players consistently contribute more to the public pot when playing with people they have become familiar with.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: Wikipedians who are familiar with each other will contribute more.  We should provide ways to knit Wikipedian identities into the broader social fabric, so that relationships of trust and familiarity created outside of Wikipedia can be ported in.  We hold the right of anonymity dear, but that doesn’t preclude doing more to support and encourage real identities for those who are willing to use them.

Another study focused on “inequality aversion”: what do players do if they know how much (or little) others are contributing and can incrementally increase contributions in response to other players?

  • The result: players raise their contributions if others do the same, but “most players are willing to contribute to the public good at a level at or slightly above the contribution of the lowest contributor in the group”.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: in recruiting potential contributors from specific groups (e.g., academics) we should highlight contributions their peers have made.  We should also do more to (automatically) catalog individuals’ contributions in ways that are easy to understand, share, and compare within peer groups.  “X number of experts in your field have made at least Y number of contributions” could be an effective pitch.

Other studies, including this one, have looked at “endowment heterogeneity” and “endowment origin”: does it matter whether players earned what they might contribute or received it as a windfall, or whether the players have unequal potential for contribution?

  • The result: studies have come up with conflicting answers on whether endowment origin (windfall vs. earned) matters, with some (but not the linked one) finding that people are more generous and more willing to take the risk of contributing heavily to a public pot when spending from a windfall.  The linked study does find, however, that in groups with heterogeneous endowments there is less contribution–likely because of the “inequality aversion” factor discussed above, since those with the most to contribute scale back based on what they expect others to contribute.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: if the windfall effect is real, it might be most effective to target recruitment efforts at people who have received “windfalls” of free time and knowledge as opposed to those who have earned it.  Smart, geeky people, to whom learning comes easy, would seem to fit the bill best: they’ve received windfalls of free time and knowledge both because they learn quickly (leaving more time for other things) and because they often get years of free schooling funded by grants and scholarships.  But the over-educated are already overrepresented on Wikipedia (we think) and the level of contribution from those people may be held back by the endowment heterogeneity effect, with highly educated people holding back because those with less free time and/or knowledge contribute so little.  In that case, the key to getting experts to contribute more would be (as Erik Möller suggested at Wikimania) finding ways light-weight ways to get non-experts and readers (free-riders) more involved first.

Still other studies have explored factors that make players change their behavior: this paper examines punishment mechanisms, and this one looks at history and how group behaviors change after multiple rounds of a public goods game.

  • The results: the ability for contributors to punish free riders (even at a cost to themselves) results in higher levels of cooperation and less free riding (although opportunities for counter-punishment make this less effective).  Conversely, players who begin the public goods game with a high tendency to contribute tend to gradually contribute less in later rounds the more they play with free riders.  But matching high contributors with other high contributors in round after round leads to growing contributions among that group.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: punishment mechanisms for free riders are conceivable (e.g., pop-ups asking for monetary or editing contributions after a certain number of page views by a reader), but probably wouldn’t be compatible with Wikipedia culture and the project’s purpose.  Burnout from active contributors getting dispirited when they do more than everyone else they see probably is a problem, and the solution would be to facilitate and strengthen the social ties between active users.  This already happens naturally on talk pages and user pages,  outside communication channels like email and Skype, and physical meetups, but Wikipedia could make it a lot easier to see and connect with other contributors through software improvements.

This just scratches the surface of experimental research on public goods games; a more systematic survey could turn up a lot more relevant data for how better to structure Wikipedia and other collaborative knowledge projects.