A watershed in the history of Wikipedia?

Now may be as arbitrary a time as any other to identify as a watershed in the history of Wikipedia, but it seems like things are changing in a number of ways.

The most obviously change is in public perception and media coverage. Between the Middlebury College story, the Essjay story, and the Sinbad story, Wikipedia has been a constant presence in the headlines for several weeks running. With the possible exception of Essjay, none of these is even close to the significance of the Seigenthaler controversy, but the volume of related news and blog noise since late January (when the first of these stories emerged) has been as large or larger.

The remarkable thing about the Middlebury story is that it’s the only one like it; all the media stories have focused on it because no similar policies (beyond individual professors) have been enacted. The history department banned citations of Wikipedia, but actually endorsed Wikipedia as a starting point for research (and held an excellent recorded debate which highlighted the non-sensational reality of Middlebury situation, and includes an eloquent argument for the pedagogical value of Wikipedia). Meanwhile, many other professors have been interviewed by student newspapers (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and many more) and professional news organizations, and written their own defenses of Wikipedia in venues like The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New Republic. The second Digital Campus podcast has a follow-up on the previous Wikipedia discussion I mentioned, with some commentary on a few of these stories; apparently, reporters are practically knocking these professors’ doors down requesting Wikipedia-related expert opinions. Professor have by and large become familiar enough with Wikipedia to respect its strengths and not project too many of the weaknesses they expect.

Other Wikipedian bloggers have covered the recent challenges to and discussions about Jimbo’s nebulous role in Wikipedia governance; see Joseph Reagle and Stephen Bain for more.

Another side to the watershed, which nobody is quite recognizing yet, relates to the limits of Wikipedia. The exponential phase of (English) Wikipedia’s growth (in terms of number of articles, and in terms of number of active users) is probably over. From 2003 to mid-2006, the number of articles had followed a very regular exponential pattern. Had exponential growth continued, it would have hit 2,000,000 a few weeks ago; it just passed 1,700,000 today. The average number of articles created per day since late December (around 1724) has actually been lower than the average number per day over the previous year (1823). This difference is only partly the result of the always slower holiday season. It seems that available unwritten encyclopedic topics is becoming a significant constraint.

The number of active users is harder to gauge, since Erik Zachte’s statistics page has not been updated for the English Wikipedia since mid-October. However, we can probably look to the German Wikipedia as a rough analog, since German Wikipedia seems to have a larger level of market saturation, when you account for the ratio of English-speakers to German-speakers (~8:1). The number of “active“(5 edits per month) and “very active” (100 edits per month) German Wikipedians seems to have plateaued in August 2006, at about 7500 and 1000 respectively. At that time, English Wikipedia had around 44,000 actives and 4500 very actives. If English Wikipedia’s active community has continued to expand towards cathcing up with German ratio-wise, we could expect the number of very active Wikipedians to max out around 8000 somewhere near the end of 2007. However, unlike English, German Wikipedia has had a near linear growth curve since early 2004 in terms of number of articles. I don’t know why article number has grown linearly while editor numbers were growing exponentially (until they plateaued), but it seems likely that because of topic saturation, English Wikipedia will plateau (or peak) in terms of editor:speaker ratio at a lower level than German. Consistent with the watershed thesis, my guess is that active community size is plateauing right now.

Of unknown but likely relevance to the watershed, two central Wikimedia employees announced their resignations today (apparently for unrelated reasons): Danny Wool and Brad Patrick. Both have implied that as independent Wikimedians they will, in the immediate to intermediate future, be bringing forward some constructive criticisms of the way the Wikimedia Foundation runs.

Other recent Wikipedia reading material:

Neal Stephenson on 300

(The) Neal Stephenson has a great op-ed about 300 in the New York Times. He has a lot to say about the changing currents of culture and the recent history of science fiction, but his defense of 300 against the poor critical reception (although David Edelstein hasn’t yet produced a review, which is generally the only one I even think of taking seriously) is superb, and could well be about any number of the good things about modern popular culture: “These [geeks] don’t need irony or campiness self-consciously pointed out to them, any more than they need a laugh track to enjoy “The Simpsons.””

On that note, I’m off to see 300. Hopefully, it won’t turn me into a xenophobic Persian-hater.

Digital Campus podcast: “Wikipedia: Friend or Foe”

GMU’s Center for History and New Media has a new podcast that launched a week and a half ago: Digital Campus.

It’s “A biweekly discussion of how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums”, and the first episode is on Wikipedia.

The intro music is worth listening to. After that, I recommend skipping to 17:33, when the Wikipedia discussion begins.

What you would be skipping includes:

  • Vague speculation about Windows Vista
  • Banter about the value and limitations of Google Docs
  • Hand-wringing about a recently granted overly broad patent for Blackboard Inc.

Wikipedia topics include:

  • Mills Kelly explaining why he is using Wikipedia as the “textbook” for his Western Civ course this semester
  • The similarity between constructing knowledge on Wikipedia an in scholarly venues, as revealed by those pages “hidden” behind the articles
  • How Citizendium’s name is crappy, and how in the end scholars are going to have to “roll up their sleeves and just get involved with the main Wikipedia” to set things straight
  • How scholars write for themselves and their peers too often, when they should be engaged with and teaching their students about the “enthusiast communities” like Wikipedia
  • What Wikipedia could do better to work with the professional community
  • “Specialized wikis for specialized topics in specialized communities” and the ways Wikipedia (and it’s pitfalls) may overshadow the wiki technologies
  • Friend-or-foe conclusion: “sometimes unreliable, sometimes stands you up, but good friend”

Overall, it’s pretty good.

(via T. Mills Kelly at edwired)

Conservapedia: more interesting than it seems at first glance?

Unfortunately, no. Conservapedia, the Fox News of the internet encyclopedia world, has been making the rounds of the blogosphere as the butt of jokes for a few weeks now. Apparently, it attracts a goodly mix of a) conservatives, b) mean-spirited trolls and vandals, c) well-meaning non-conservatives who nonetheless want to ensure at least a modicum of factuality, and d) mean-spirited “parody vandals”, who do their best to blur the lines between the ridiculous things some American conservatives think and the ridiculous things liberals think conservatives think.

I thought I had found a particularly inspired case of class d) in this version of the “Conservative” article. As an explanation of the conservative trait of ” skepticism about the idea of progress”, the article asserts that it “runs against the grain of Hegel-based worldviews that assume that merely ripping pages off a calendar gets us closer to the eschatological kewpie doll at the End of Days.” What that means, I’m not precisely sure, but it’s evocative and funny, with a great mix of high brow and kitsch. Unfortunately, it turns out this is actually a particularly uninspired case of class a). The whole discussion is plagiarized from this National Review article. Arg!!! Fooled again! Sometimes it can be so hard to tell a liberal parody of American conservatism from a self-parody of American conservatism.

A day in the wiki life

I went to bed last night with the express intention of focusing all of today’s energy on the Johannes Kepler Wikipedia article. The article, which I re-wrote almost entirely from scratch and replaced the old version with in mid-December, and have been gradually improving with the help of others in the meantime, was nominated for Featured Article status by a passerby about a week ago. This slipped under my radar until just recently (as I was still recovering from qualifiers and working on my Wii Tennis skills to avoid mental exertion), but it garnered a lot of positive feedback… despite not being finished. I had planned to spend spring break working on it casually, for a final push toward featured quality (and completeness), but the Great Wikipedia Spirit had other plans.

Anyhow, I spend some time working out the language kinks after waking up in the mid-afternoon. Then I took a break and stopped by one of those interesting but rarely-visited (by me, at least) areas of Wikipedia, the Humanities Reference Desk. I gave my two cents on what a self-motivated student interested in art history should be reading, and the proverbial three hours of fascinated clicking later, I had found my way to an interesting topic that, horror of horrors, didn’t have a Wikipedia article! So now there is a short, unsourced article about the Hockney-Falco thesis, but still no discussion of the historiographical and philosophical legacy of Kepler. (Although, the Hockney-Falco thesis is only two degrees of Wikipedia from Kepler: the Hockney-Falco thesis is about optical aids to drawing like the (click-1) camera lucida, which was first described by (click-2) Johannes Kepler in Dioptrice… a fact I did not know before this evening, despite writing the Kepler article. Wiki works in mysterious ways.)

In other Wikipedia fun (as opposed to the Wikipedia work I ought to be doing to finish the Kepler article), I recently started a trend at Featured pictures candidates (where I learned, and am learning, everything I know about photography). Now a number of editors are demanding adequate extended captions for featured image candidates, and new nominations are starting to appear that take this into account. Hooray for context!

The FPC process on English Wikipedia is an interesting beast. As with Featured Articles, the standards for Featured Pictures have risen enormously over the last two years or so. And the way editors at FPC analyze pictures, and what they expect out of a good picture, is quite different than what a random viewer values in an image. The most dramatic example of this is the Picture of the Year on Wikimedia Commons. Commons has a separate featured picture process (which unlike on Wikipedia, does not take encyclopedicity into account), and it recently held a well-publicized vote for the best picture of the 321 that achieved featured status in 2006. The winner (below) was not yet an FP on Wikipedia, and its subsequent nomination only stood a chance of passing FPC (which it did not) in deference to its Picture of the Year status; it was widely criticized on both technical and aesthetic grounds.


Wikipedia and Notability

Wikipedia:Notability (WP:N), one of the most cited, and most contentious, elements of Wikipedia editorial policy (it’s technically a “guideline”, which still means it’s a pretty firm part of the rules) looks to be on its way out. “Notability” is a concept that evolved from a sort of common sense “worth having in an encyclopedia” to a monster of Wikipedia jargon. Until recently, the stable version of the “primary notability criterion” was:

A topic is notable if it has been the subject of at least one substantial or multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other.

In practice, the significance line for what makes an acceptable Wikipedia article has increasingly diverged from the official guideline, and the bar has dropped as the userbase has grown. Especially with entertainment, art, and other elements of popular culture, new editors and established ones who disagree with or don’t know about WP:N continue to write new articles on cultural ephemera and minutiae, and many others find value in such articles or at least don’t see any harm in including them (“wiki is not paper“). However, editors who are involved with policy and with deletion discussions (i.e., the ones who create and use notability policy) tend more toward deletionism than inclusionism (mergism is roughly my position).

Notability policy has been a cause of minor but growing irritation in the form bad press, especially in the recent weeks. Webcomics have attracted more attention that most areas of Wikipedia; a few complaints about deletions focused the attention of the Wikipedia community, which then resulted in stricter adherence to WP:N for minor webcomics (and hence more deletions), which fed into even more negative reactions within the webcomics community, etc., etc. The issue of notability, and with it the confusing and sometimes arbitrary conventions for deletion, has appeared in a few mainstream news pieces as well (such as Marshall Poe’s September 2006 article in The Atlantic Monthly); these have been less significant than the webcomics issue among editors, but have brought some of Wikipedia’s dirty laundry to a wider audience. Slate writer Timothy Noah, in a recent series of articles (some content of which was also on NPR and in the Washington Post), explored WP:N through the lens of watching the article on him go through the deletion process; ironically, the first article, which was actually about him, provided a level of sourcing for the article to pass WP:N muster.

The Wikipedia mailing list was aflame for several days over the constellation of notability issues, and the discussion there, beginning with Phil Sandifer’s report on a dinner discussion with comics expert Scott McCloud, finally generated enough heat for a real attempt at melting down the old WP:N and forging Wikipedia’s inclusion criteria anew.

A straw poll resulted in a clear lack of consensus for WP:N, even in a slightly looser form: it looks like half or more of the community wants to rebuild WP:N from scratch or ditch notability altogether and simply rely on the policy that everything in Wikipedia must be attributable to a published (though not necessarily paper) source. At this point, it looks like the most probable conclusion of the WP:N debate will be the adoption of the more flexible substitute Wikipeida:Article inclusion and the reformation of the subject-specific notability guidelines to be a baseline for automatic inclusion (assuming someone actually writes the article) rather than a justification for exclusion.

Whether one has a Wikipedia article is fast becoming a validation of someone’s fame and importance, in the popular imagination (or at least among many of the non-Wikipedians I’ve interacted with over the last two years or so). So there is some level of implicit understanding that not just anybody gets an article. But the notability process, most editors are starting to agree, is (or, hopefully, was) badly broken. It’s heartening to see that Wikipedia is not so resistant to change that it cannot deal with its scaling problems, though it remains to be seen how effective the response will be. If the fate of WP:N works out well, maybe there’s hope for another topic of frequent debate: the admin promotion process and the ever-increasing standards for adminship, and the resulting increase in admin workload (and perhaps admin burnout).

Things I’ve been enjoying

A few months ago, I found (via TT) a wonderful series of short videos, “Mr. Deity“. There are eight episodes so far, and most of them are brilliant… especially episodes 5 and 7, featuring Lucifer.

Something else wonderful: a Terry Bisson science fiction (very) short story, “They’re Made Out of Meat“, and an award-winning film treatment of it.

Catherine Pandora has a great post in her petri dish on bestiaries, past and present: “the beasts and the birds will teach thee“.

The last two movies I’ve seen, both quite enjoyable though seriously flawed: The Illusionist and The Prestige. Hooray for David Bowie as Nikola Tesla.

One great image, among several very good ones from the Woot! “wide-screen version” contest, has given me repeated joy every time I think of it:
And finally, I won an eBay auction on a trio of 1929 photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt:

The academic job market, graduate education, the 2-4 Project, and GESO

As most graduate students in the humanities and social sciences know, the academic job market is crap. According to the recent Responsive Ph.D. report by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (full PDF here), “as few as two out of every ten” graduates in “disciplines like history and English” will get tenure-track jobs. (The report is unfortunately vague about what other disciplines are like history and English, and it has no references for where the figure comes from, but it seems believable.)

A closely related problem is the ever-growing time-to-degree. In the fields with the worst job markets, competitions is most intense and students feel they have to put that much more effort into dissertations to be competitive. Thus, it is not uncommon for humanists to spend 8 or even 10 years in graduates school.

The Responsive Ph.D. report lays out a set of four principles and four accompanying “themes” that make up the gist its conclusions:

  1. “A Graduate School For Real” (theme: new paradigms) — Graduate schools and their deans should have more authority within research universities, and graduate programs should be the intellectual center of the university. Scholarship should remain at the center of graduate education (despite calls to de-emphasize it in previous reports).
  2. “A Cosmopolitan Doctorate” (theme: new practices) — Graduate training needs to be more relevant to the real world, with more effort put into pedagogy and into the application of academic knowledge.
  3. “Drawn From the Breadth of the Populace” (theme: new people) — Graduate schools need to train more people of color. Non-whites are more interested in applying their expertise in socially significant ways, so this goes hand in hand with principle 2.
  4. “An Assessed Excellence” (theme: new partnerships) — Graduate programs need to evaluate themselves critically, and graduate schools need to evaluate their individual programs. And these evaluations need to “have teeth” in terms of funding, and they need to connect to needs of the broader system that employs graduates as well.

The first principles is not surprising: ask graduate deans how to change the system, and the they answer “give us more authority and a bigger budget.” Emphasis on scholarly depth is a half-hearted one; graduate school still has to train the elites of the next academic generation, but the uselessness of most of graduate training for anything but learning to do (overspecialized, esoteric, socially near-useless) research is getting harder to ignore.

The second principle is where it gets everything right. That’s what I’ve been screamin’ for a while now.

The third principle is nice in principle, but lack of diversity in graduate school is a problem caused almost entirely at lower levels (i.e., lack of educational opportunity at the primary and secondary levels, and to a lesser extent in undergraduate education). Class is the real underlying issue, and I don’t think addressing the problem in terms of race is an efficient way to move forward in the long term.

The fourth principle is a good one, I think. Graduate schools ought to be more free to shrink or eliminate weak programs or programs in fields that can’t absorb enough graduates.

In response to the Responsive Ph.D. report, Yale created the “2-4 Project“, an effort to seek suggestions and then implement changes in the structure of the second through fourth years of graduate training. I think most of the proposed changes would be positive; moving the first year of teaching to the second year (concurrent with coursework, a portion of which might be moved later) is a great idea, as is reduction in the time-to-candidacy. The other aspects are fairly minor, but in my view either good or neutral changes.

GESO, the attempted grad student union that has never quite managed a credible majority, has been strongly critical of the 2-4 Project (see this brochure), especially the rushing out of grad students and encouragement to scale back dissertations. Consistent with GESO’s view of grad students as semi-professional teacher-scholars (with the same academia wide de-emphasis on the “teacher” part), they strongly resist moves to make graduate school anything but a six-year (or more) all-expenses-paid research sabbatical for the preparation of the paradigm shifting work of scholarship that is the dissertation. They want more senior faculty, less faculty teaching load, more grad student funding and less teaching requirements.

A GESO organizer had an article in the YDN on October 18 about the 2-4 Project. A sixth-year in Germanic Languages and Literature, he makes an almost unbearably pretentious statement that sums up much of what I find wrong in the culture of the academy: “Writing a major intervention in my field takes time [seven to nine years]. That is what I was brought here to do, and it is what I intend to accomplish.” “Intervening” in a field, seemingly for the sake of intervening, is the high calling of the academy. And no matter how long it takes, it’s worth it (he is, after all, one of the chosen ones, “brought here” on a mission, and entitled to his turret in the ivory tower). In defense of the lengthening time-to-degree, he cites the 2-in-10 statistic above (ignoring, of course, that for Yale Ph.D.s, it’s probably closer to 8-in-10 who end up in tenure-track jobs). He writes off non-academic careers in the usual way: they’re fine for “students who want them”, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is that reforming graduate education to incorporate and validate nonacademic career paths (another part of 2-4 he and GESO oppose) is the only way to give intellectual legitimacy to anything beyond that ivory tower model of sagacity.

Another 2-4 issue was grading reform; it was opposed by GESO and, as it turns out, a majority of grad students, and it was recently rejected by the faculty. Yale grad students can get one of three passing grades: Honors, High Pass, and Pass, while the proposal would have changed it to letter grades with pluses and minuses. As it is, grades at Yale mean nothing and are not very informative in terms of feedback; grade inflation being what it is, you have to try to earn below an HP. Since grad students themselves are the only ones who are ever likely to see grad school grades, grade reform seemed like a good idea. But apparently lots of people think grade fear would make students less likely to be adventurous in their course-taking. Meh. If you’re that afraid of having your ego bruised (since that would the only repercussion of getting a C, the de facto bottom of the Yale grading scale), then you’ll get no sympathy from me.

I passed my orals!

Yesterday I passed my oral qualifiers. Three of my fields went pretty smoothly (history of the physical sciences since the mid-19th century; history of the biological sciences since 1859; and 20th-century American history), while the one I was feeling most confident about (science fiction and science writing) was somewhat of a train-wreck. Despite that, it was probably the field I put the most work into and I feel good about what I got out of it as I prepared for the exam.

I slept great the night before the exam. Last night, after I had passed, I could hardly sleep at all. I’ve heard a number of comments like “this is the most you’ll ever know”, that after qualifiers you do more forgetting than learning new things. That’s a depressing thought.

Soon I’ll start working on my prospectus. In the meantime, I get to turn my thoughts to things that really matter, like Wii and Wikipedia and teaching (and grading, ugh).