Them and us: ROFLCon folks and Wikipedians

geeks of a different flavo

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

silly videos and obscure post-structuralist terms

Evgeny Morozov has a new review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and he spends a fair bit talking about Wikipedia, the touchstone for how the Internet is changing culture.  (Wikipedia researcher Ed Chi offered to review it for the Signpost, but Knopf publicity has so far ignored my every attempt to request a review copy.)  As I understand it, the book is in part an extension of Lanier’s Wikipedia-centered 2006 essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism“.  I haven’t read the book, but I trust Morozov’s assessment.  His central point is this:

Technology has penetrated our lives so deeply and so quickly that the only way to make sense of what is happening today requires not only drinking from the anecdotal fire hose that is Twitter, but also being able to contextualise these anecdotes in broader social, historical and cultural settings. But that’s not the kind of analysis that is spitting out of Silicon Valley blogs.

So who should be doing all of this thinking? Unfortunately, Lanier only tells us who should not be doing it: “Technology criticism should not be left to the Luddites”. Statements like this establish Lanier’s own bona fides – as a Silicon Valley maverick unafraid to confront the cyber-utopian establishment from the inside – but they fail to articulate any kind of vision for how to improve our way of discussing technology and its increasingly massive impact on society.

Morozov says that our understanding of the legal dimensions of the Internet have been elucidated by the likes of Zittrain, Lessig and Benkler.  But humanist and social scientists, he says, have let us down in their duty to explore the cultural dimensions of the rise of the networked society, by either ignoring it or relying “obscure post-structuralist terms” that occlude whatever insights they might or might not have.

The overall point, that the academy hasn’t done enough to make itself relevant to ongoing techno-cultural changes, is right on target.  But I think Morozov’s glib dismissal of work in media studies, sociology, anthropology, etc., is unfair to both the main ideas of post-structuralism and the writing skills of the better scholars who do work on technology and culture (Henry Jenkins and Jason Mittell come to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of others).  Lanier’s epithet of “digital Maoism” is crude red-baiting; I’m not sure whether Morozov’s jargon jibe is red-baiting (post-structuralism being the province of the so-called academic left), he genuinely doesn’t think much of how humanists have analyzed the Internet, or he is just being contrary.

Post-structuralism is complicated (and I don’t pretend to be an expert) but what’s relevant in this context, I think, is (as the Wikipedia article obtusely puts it) the idea of “the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.”  Put another way, culture (that is, a work of culture) is valuable in whatever ways culture (that is, a culture, a group of people) values it; what matters is not the work itself (and its inherent or intended meaning) but the relationship between a work an its audience.  Related to this is a value judgment about what kinds of culture are better or more worthy of attention: “writerly” works that leave more opportunity for an audience to create its own meanings vs. “readerly” works that are less flexible and open to reinterpretation.  The relevance of these ideas for the Internet’s effects on culture should be obvious: audiences now have ways collaborating in the creation of new meanings and the reinterpretation of cultural works, and can often interact not only with authors work, but with the authors themselves (thereby influencing later works).

So when Lanier sneers at ‘silly videos’ and Morozov complains that Lessig doesn’t address “whether the shift to the remix culture as a primary form of cultural production would be good for society”, I can’t help but see it as the crux of a straw man argument.  You would have us give up our current system that creates such wonderful culture (left helpfully unspecified, since there’s no accounting for taste) in exchange for remixed YouTube tripe? But humanists are starting to place more value in the capital intensive products of the culture industry precisely because of the way that audiences can remix them and reuse them and create meanings from them.

“Minds for Sale” (or, “Clickworkers of the world, unite!”)

This recent lecture by Jonathan Zittrain is long, but well worth it.  It’s about various forms of crowdsourcing and clickwork, and their scary potential for exploitation, political manipulation, political repression, and other bad stuff, related to what I’ve blogged about Demand Media vs. Wikimedia and the psychology of fun and games.

The send-up of Wikipedians and why Wikipedia isn’t on Subvert and Profit is kinda cute at 39:20.

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 blog posts I want to write

I have a bunch of ideas for more “Wikipedia in Theory” posts, but I’ve been too busy to write any of them lately.  So maybe if I jot down some of the ideas, I’ll get around to them before I forget about them.

  • “Wikipedia in Theory (postmodernism edition)” – how does the idea of metanarrative, and the postmodern condition of “incredulity toward metanarratives”, apply to Wikipedia, where readers are free to construct their own narratives as they weave from one article to the next (creating their own larger stories from the small ones in each article)?
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (economic governance edition)” – the recent economics Nobel was for work on economic governance of the commons.  How does Wikipedia look in the light the work of Nobel laureates Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson?
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (philosophy of technology edition)” – this could actually be several posts, but the key thing to explore is how the technology of Wikipedia shapes its social environment and vice-versa.  A related point that Erik Moeller drew my attention to a few years ago is how the wiki is an environment that allows even fairly novice users to extend and modify the technology, broadly interpreted as not just the base MediaWiki code but also the templates, interface, and even policy and process.
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (media studies edition)” – if there’s some truth to the idea that “the medium is the message”, then what messages is Wikipedia’s medium sending?
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (cyborg theory edition)” – Donna Haraway’s powerful-but-challenging Cyborg Manifesto (1991) lays out many themes that resonate strongly with Wikipedia and the cultural effects of the net more broadly: the importance of affinity over identity; the blurring of lines between social organisms and social machines; science fiction-inspired utopianism; the “informatics of domination”, and more.

Other suggestions are welcome.  What theoretical perspectives do you find interesting or provocative or useful when applied to Wikipedia?

On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do “star historians” really dominate the popular view of history? what does “historian” mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is “no original research“?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn’t yet been much affected by the “pro-am revolution“, but it’s increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing).  Some academic fields–astronomy is the most dramatic example–have already started benefiting  greatly from the contributions of amateurs.  But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects  and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason’s  Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically?  Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession?  The case of history of science may be instructive here.  History of science has actually had a vibrant “pro-am” community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians.  Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades–just the opposite, they’ve withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested.  If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of “pro-am” history as more of a threat than an opportunity.

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

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

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.