Category Archives: Wikipedia

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.

the use of Aaron Swartz photographs

After Aaron Swartz committed suicide in January, and in the months since then as issues of internet freedom and his own tragic story have continued to make news, there’s been a lot of demand for photos of Aaron. I had three photos of him up on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, from a 2009 Wikipedia meetup.

(I went back to my archives and found several more from that meetup.)

When I got contacted by photo editors who wanted to use these photos, I tried to get them to follow the terms of the CC-BY-SA license. In two cases, Rolling Stone and New Republic, I got a chance to explain how to use a Creative Commons license in print. For most photo editors, free licenses are a big unknown, but lately (in my anecdotal experience) they’ve been more willing to use and follow the licenses than in years past. Here are the spreads.

Top: The New Republic, 11 March 2013. Bottom: Rolling Stone, 28 February 2013

Top: The New Republic, 11 March 2013. Bottom: Rolling Stone, 28 February 2013

I’ve tried to follow how these photos have been used online, as well, to understand how–and how well–freely licensed images are used by news websites. Of the 42  uses I’ve looked at there are:

  • 6 that follow the license, or come close enough. (If they include a link to the original on Commons or Flickr, I count it as close enough, since others will be able to find all the attribution and license info, even if the reuser isn’t following the license to the letter.)
  • 9 that provide attribution to me, but do not follow the license (ie, there’s no indication that the file is freely licensed).  Among these is the long Slate profile that is also sold as a Kindle ebook… but with no attribution in the ebook that I can tell.
  • 9 (most of which credit me) that add an illegitimate attribution to photo agencies: DPA/Corbis, DPA/Landov and such. Among them: Business Week, New York Magazine, New Scientist, and Two from did not initially credit me, only the photo agencies, but the credits were updated after @wikisignpost contacted them. A few others still don’t. I’m not sure how the photo got appropriated into (I assume) DPA’s collection, but they seem to be distributing it widely and internationally.
  • 18 that provide no attribution. In addition to the Amazon ebook version of the Slate piece, the more significant places that don’t use any attribution include the Boston NPR station, Democracy Now, and a Fast Company piece by the project lead of Creative Commons Brazil.

Probably the most interesting use is this mixed media derivative (unattributed, and with no free licensing that I can tell) from a Hungarian website. If anyone knows the language and wants to try to get them to release it under a free license, please do.

Aaron Swartz mixed media portrait


The writer put me in touch with their photo editor, who sent me a screenshot from the Landov website, showing how my photo appears in the photo licensing database.

Landov screenshotThe last part of the Caption section reads:

Photo: Sage Ross (Editor’s note: usable only under consideration of Creative Commons Lizenz CC-BY-SA 2.0 and will full reference) DPA/LANDOV

But the Comments/Restrictions section is blank, and the Photographers/Source line that news orgs would typically use just says SAGE ROSS/DPA/LANDOV. So basically they are charging news organizations for this photo and hiding away the fact that it’s not their photo to license in the normal way, and that if their customers want to use it, they actually have to follow the same rules as everyone who gets it for free from the original source.

On copyright infringement and “theft”

Yesterday I went to an open discussion about SOPA with Jason Altmire, who represents my district. He came out against SOPA at the end of the event. But one thing that bugged me was that just about everyone used “theft” as a synonym for copyright infringement. And this “theft” by rogue websites in China and southeast Asia, everyone supposedly agrees, is a serious problem, even if SOPA isn’t the right answer.

Consider a typical case where somebody downloads a Hollywood movie to watch, without paying for it. Taking this movie wasn’t authorized by the copyright holders. But the copyright holders still own it. They still have all their copies, and they are still free to make more. They can distribute and license it as they wish. They can make sequels and spin-offs and t-shirts and bobble-heads.

What would you call that? I would call it copyright infringement, but I wouldn’t call it theft.

Now imagine a different scenario. A work you have is taken from you. And once it’s been taken, you can no longer make copies. In fact, you have to get rid of all the copies you have. When it was yours, you could make copies, send them to your friends, make derivatives, use it as a jumping off point for new works. You could do with it as you pleased. Now, you can’t do any of that without the permission of the person who took it from you.

Would you call that theft?

I would call it Golan v. Holder. Wikimedians are having to get rid of thousands of public domain works from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons that used to be public domain in the U.S.—used to belong to the public, to use and copy and build from—which were put back into copyright by Congress. And the Supreme Court just decided that in fact, that’s just fine.

Aaron Swartz in front of a screen

Aaron and Greg, and guerilla open access

Aaron Swartz, free knowledge hacker

Last week was the beginning of something that might end up pretty huge in the world of free culture, copyright and open access activism. Aaron Swartz, a free knowledge activist hacker with ties to the Wikipedia community, was indicted by the federal government for allegedly downloading millions of files from JSTOR (an academic journal database) with the intent to distribute them on P2P networks. The actual charges aren’t for copyright infringement or anything directly related, however. They are for wire fraud, computer fraud and related offenses based on the way he allegedly obtained the files, by connecting to the MIT computer network and setting up scripts that downloaded files and dodged attempts to cut off access.  (SJ Klein has a great overview of the charges and context.)  Aaron never released this trove of files, and has reportedly turned them over to JSTOR.

He may have been planning to, however. You can get some insight into his thinking from the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which essentially advocates widespread and systematic sharing of restricted scholarship.

(The original is offline, but an apparently complete version that may or may not be authentic showed up on pastebin recently.)

In response to Swartz’s arrest, Wikimedian and free software developer Greg Maxwell actually did release a trove of JSTOR files: the complete archive of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (the longest-running scientific journal, started in 1665) through 1922. These have all entered the public domain in the legal sense, but not the practical sense. You can only get them under restrictive terms and/or for high prices (either through JSTOR or from the Royal Society).

You should read Greg’s whole essay. Here’s the conclusion:

If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified — it will be one less dollar spent in the war against knowledge. One less dollar spent lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers a crime.

I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous charges. This didn’t sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to.

A lot of free culture and open access advocates draw a line between Aaron and Greg. Greg is praised for taking his stand, but few are endorsing Aaron’s alleged actions, only condemning the gross disparity between the charges and the alleged actions — while ignoring or opposing the argument of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. (That line between them is copyright law.)

Me, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure copyright law has enough moral force to be a meaningful distinction. I’m certainly not convinced terms of use have enough moral force to matter here. The bottom line is, the world of academic publishing and distribution is changing… but painfully slowly. Academic publishing isn’t cheap, professional-grade digitization of old journals isn’t cheap, and there’s no single fix for keeping everything people like about academic publishing and archiving (like peer review and professional editing and easily searchable databases) while getting rid of what we don’t like (like paywalls), without totally upending the industry. Greg-ites — who liberate public domain material — and Aaron-ites — who want to liberate all scholarship, copyright be damned — both have the same practical consequences: to push paywalls and organizations that rely on them closer to irrelevance, and to place the burden of organizing and indexing and providing access onto open knowledge communities and organizations (and big data companies like Google).

I lean toward thinking that’s a good thing.

Wikipedia and the psychologists


Bob, Rosta, and Piotr working the Wikipedia booth

I spent the last several days in D.C. at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), along with Wikipedian Piotrus and Wikipedia researchers Rosta Farzan and Bob Kraut, talking to psychology researchers about Wikipedia. We probably talked with 200 people, and almost everyone we talked with was supportive of–if not downright enthusiastic about–trying to improve Wikipedia’s psychology coverage.

Several months ago, with the vocal support of APS President Mahzarin Banaji, the APS launched their “Wikipedia Initiative” to get psychologists into editing Wikipedia. So far, the main thrust has been their APS-WI portal, which aims to give newcomers a clear way into Wikipedia and point them toward articles in their area of interest that need work–and at the same time, systematically test different approaches to getting people involved.

Before the convention, the APS Wikipedia Initiative had recruited 263 psychologists.  68 of them had started editing, with over 400 different articles edited among them. (Now 13 more have signed up, and 10 more have started editing.)

I had the opportunity to give a short presentation to the APS board before their convention started, in which I shared a bit of what we know about the barriers to expert participation in Wikipedia more broadly and then gave an overview of the Wikipedia Ambassador Program for helping professors run Wikipedia editing assignments in their classes.  The reaction among board members was really encouraging… and that evening, Professor Banaji spent a few minutes at the beginning of the official opening of the convention exhorting APS members to get involved with Wikipedia. (She even mentioned me!)

Mahzarin Banaji at the crowded opening of the APS convention

Banaji’s enthusiasm for Wikipedia comes across clearly in a recent podcast about the APS Wikipedia Initiative. For the two main days of the convention, that enthusiasm seemed to carry over to the many psychologists who stopped by the lavish Wikipedia booth APS had set up.  We also did five Wikipedia demos–often with conversations about Wikipedia going on at the same time with whoever stayed behind at the booth.  I came back with a list of 42 instructors potentially interested in working with the ambassador program and doing Wikipedia assignments.  That, of course, has been my focus for the last year… until now, limited mainly to supporting classes on public policy. Our Education Portal is active now, with a broad range of support materials and advice for anyone assigning Wikipedia to their students.  (The sample syllabus, in particular, is something the psychology professors responded very positively to.)

It seems that Wikipedia in the classroom is where APS is converging now, too. The Wikipedia Initiative team will soon be working with an intern assigned to develop tools to help instructors evaluate their students’ contributions, which will hopefully produce something broadly useful for anyone running Wikipedia assignments.

I’m optimistic that we’ll see a wave of additional professional societies getting behind Wikipedia, especially if as many psychologists set their students on Wikipedia as I now expect. You can’t buy the kind of improvement in public representations of psychology that 50 classes of students editing Wikipedia would bring.

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.

review of Good Faith Collaboration

Joseph Reagle‘s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia is a major step forward for understanding “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” and the community that has been building it for the past decade. Based on Reagle’s dissertation, the book takes a broadly humanistic approach to exploring what makes the Wikipedia community tick, combining elements of anthropology, sociology, history, and science & technology studies.

The book opens with an example of how Wikipedia works that turns the famous “Godwin’s law” on its head: unlike the typical Internet discussion where heated argument gives way to accusations of Nazism, Wikipedians are shown rationally and respectfully discussing actual neo-Nazis who have taken an unhealthy interest in Wikipedia. This theme of “laws” carries throughout the book, which treats the official and unofficial norms of Wikipedia while turning repeatedly to the humorous and often ironic “laws of Wikipedia” that contributors have compiled as they tried to come to an understanding of their own community.

Reagle’s first task is to put Wikipedia into historical context. It is only the most recent in a long line of attempts to create a universal encyclopedia. And what Reagle shows, much better than prior, more elementary pre-histories of Wikipedia, is just how much Wikipedia has in common–in terms of aspiration and ideology–with earlier efforts. The “encyclopedic impulse” has run strong in eccentrics dating back centuries. But the real forerunners of Wikipedia come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Paul Otlet’s “Universal Bibliographic Repertory” and H.G. Wells’ “World Brain”. Both projects aspired to revolutionize how knowledge was organized and transmitted, with implications far beyond mere education. Just as the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission statement implies–“Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge…”–Otlet and Wells saw Utopian potential in their projects. Those efforts were based on new technologies–index cards and microfilm–and each new wave of information technology since then has inspired another attempt at a universal knowledge resource: Project Xanadu, Project Gutenburg, Interpedia, Distributed Encyclopedia, Nupedia, GNUpedia. Wikipedia, Reagle argues, is the inheritor of that tradition.

Next, Reagle sets out to capture the social norms that the Wikipedia community uses as the basis for its communication and collaboration practices. These will be very familiar to Wikipedians, but Reagle does a nice job of explaining the concepts of “neutral point of view” and the call to “assume good faith” when working with other editors, and how these two norms (and related ones) underlay Wikipedia’s collaborative culture. Of course, Reagle readily recognizes that these norms have limits, and one doesn’t have to go far into Wikipedia’s discussion pages to find examples where they break down. But understanding the aspirations of the community in terms of these norms is the first step to an overall picture of how and why Wikipedia works (and, at times, doesn’t work).

Reagle then turns to consider the “openness” of Wikipedia, which is an example of what he calls an “open content community”. Wikipedia’s effort to be the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit” means that inclusiveness creates a continual set of tensions–between productive and unproductive contributors, between autonomy and bureaucracy, between transparency and tendency of minorities to form protected enclaves.

Decisionmaking and leadership on Wikipedia are even bigger challenges than openness. In successive chapters, Reagle examines the concept of “consensus” as practiced by the Wikipedia community and the role that founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger played in setting the early course of the project.

The ideal of consensus was inherited from earlier open technical communities like the Internet Engineering Task Force, whose credo declares “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” But that ideal doesn’t map precisely onto Wikipedia, in part because the “running code” of Wikipedia content isn’t as easy to evaluate as a computer program. Reagle also draws in intriguing comparison between Wikipedia’s still-unsettled notions of consensus and the practices of a more mature consensus-based community: the Quakers. Wikipedia lacks some of the roles and traditions that support decision-making in Quaker groups, and one implication of Reagle’s discussion is that Wikipedians might be able to learn a lot about effective consensus-based governance from the Quakers.

The lasting imprint of Wikipedia’s founders, the “good cop” Wales and the “bad cop” Sanger, has been treated a number of times before. But Reagle’s is the clearest account yet of how the tension between their different ideas for how to structure a voluntary encyclopedia project played out. Especially in the early years of Wikipedia, Wales’ role was primarily focused on maintaining a healthy community and balancing the perspectives of community members, highlighting good ideas and attempting to build consensus rather than promoting his own specific ideas. Even from early on, though, Wales’ role as “benevolent dictator” (or “God-King”, in the negative formulation) was a source of tension. Reagle notes that this tension is a recurring feature in open content communities; even the half-joking titles given to Wales are part of a broader tradition that traces to early online communities.

From my perspective as a Wikipedian–already familiar with norms and much of the short history of Wikipedia–the most powerful part of the book is the discussion of “encyclopedic anxiety”. Reagle argues that reference works have long provoked reactions from broader society that say more about general social unease than the specific virtues and faults of the reference work at hand. Wikipedia is a synecdoche for the changes taking place in information technology and the media landscape, and has served as a reference point for a wide gamut of social critics exploring the faults and virtues of 21st century online culture. That is not to say criticism of Wikipedia is always, or even usually, off-base. But what critics latch onto, and what they don’t, involves the interplay of the reality of Wikipedia and its role as a simultaneous exemplar for many social currents and trends.

Good Faith Collaboration is an enjoyable read, erudite but well-written and straightforward. It will be required reading for anyone serious about understanding Wikipedia.

*disclaimer: I consider Joseph Reagle a friend, and he thanks me in the preface. I read and commented on early versions of parts of the book. At the time of writing this review (October 2010) I also work for the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia. But neither of those factors would stop me from being harsh if I thought the book deserved it. The review represents my personal opinion.

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.

Them and us: ROFLCon folks and Wikipedians

geeks of a different flavor

This weekend, I went up to Cambridge for ROFLCon II (see my pics).  It was a wonderful, happy, fun, smart conference, and I was really struck by the sense of solidarity among participants, who all consider themselves part of “Internet culture”.

Being part of a culture means drawing lines between “us” and “them”, and whenever Wikipedia was discussed I got the distinct impression that for ROFLCon folks, Wikipedia clearly falls into the category of “them”.  I was one of very few Wikipedians there that I know of (Stuart Geiger was there; I found out that Tim Pierce, a panelist who played a big role in Usenet history, is a Wikipedian; and I saw Benjamin Mako Hill briefly).  That’s not to say that ROFLCon folks don’t like Wikipedia; respect–including respectful criticism–was the dominant tone.  But as one of the Know Your Meme folks lamented in the final panel, “Wikipedia doesn’t care about memes”–and, by extension, a lot of other significant aspects of Internet culture that are not being documented by mainstream sources.  In a lot of ways, especially through policy, Wikipedia explicitly distances itself from Internet culture.

It’s also striking how different the ROFLCon social atmosphere was compared to virtually every Wikipedian gathering I’ve been to.  We–Wikipedians–are, on the whole, geeks of a different flavor.  ROFLCon is a conference of extroverts; Wikipedians tend to be more introverted.  At Wiki Conference New York City last year, one outsider suggested after hanging out with us for a while that maybe one reason for the gender imbalance among Wikipedians is that males are more likely to be aspies–and by implication, that Wikipedians, or at least the ones who come together to share their passion for Wikipedia, don’t seem like neurotypicals.  In my own experience Wikipedian gatherings can be wonderful, they just usually take a while for everyone to get comfortable with each other and start to let their personalities out.  ROFLCon (which at least gave me the impression of being closer to gender-balanced, although I didn’t try to calculate) was a conference of fast friendliness–even for people with rivalries and bad blood between them.

Ben Huh hugs moot, after harsh words

Ben Huh hugs moot after harsh words