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Wikimania, Former Wikimedia employee looks back, Editing controversial articles

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By Wackywace and Tilman Bayer
Part of the audience for one of the main sessions at Wikimania 2010
Noam Cohen at last year's Wikimania


Noam Cohen of The New York Times was present at the Wikimania conference in Gdansk, Poland last week. On his Media & Advertising blog, he wrote that "Wikipedia may have found its ultimate challenge: success and public acceptance." He continued, "Rather than look to experts to get its mojo working, the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates the Wikipedias in more than 250 languages, is aiming at the underserved populations of the globe to meet its ambitious goals for growth."

Cohen reported that the Foundation's aim was to have a diverse range of contributors from across the globe:

"A new board member from Mumbai, Bishakha Datta, a documentary maker and advocate for women’s issues, was appointed, despite having little familiarity with Wikipedia, because of her experience in running a nonprofit in India. Her inclusion also signals the foundation’s vision of an encyclopedia that is truly comprehensive because its contributors are much more diverse in sex, age and region – as opposed to the heavily male, young and Western group that edits it now."

See also this week's News and notes about Wikimania presentations on Google's efforts to increase Wikipedia content for some of these underserved populations.

"Working for Wikipedia taught me about collaboration"

Sandra Ordonez at a press conference during Wikimania 2007

Former Wikimedia Communications Manager Sandra Ordonez, who was the first line of defence in the Essjay controversy, last week published a column in PBS Mediashift. She stated that on taking up the post "I was not a stranger to collaboration. In fact, that was my biggest criticism of American culture – we were too individualistic and not group focused enough. But nothing prepared me for the wiki world."

When she became the communications manager for the Wikimedia Foundation in January 2007, she "immediately began to review the public relations materials available to me, and almost immediately went into panic mode. There was no polished press kit, press list or, dare I say, communication strategy. In fact, the majority of individuals on the communications committee had little to no public relations training, and were more intellectual and techie than the average PR practitioner at that time."

Ordonez was immediately in hot water, having to deal with a public relations "crisis" relating to Essjay, who lied to The New Yorker about his credentials:

"Not surprisingly, the years of crisis communication training I received was useless in the context I found myself in. For a brief moment, I honestly thought that my career as a PR specialist had come to an end. The New Yorker, in my mind, was the bible of the media world; there was no way that our online encyclopedia was going to survive the PR damage. In the midst of my concerns, I soon became a believer in the power of collaboration. That crisis was the moment when the new media landscape unfolded before my eyes. The volunteers took charge. They created a Wikipedia entry that documented the event in gruesome detail. It was honest, direct and, amazingly, had no PR spin. In fact, for most Wikipedia members, the biggest concern was that Essjay had used his false credentials in content disputes. It was apparent to me that there was never any malice or hidden agenda. Essjay himself had revealed his real credentials on his user profile when he was hired by Wikia, a company owned by Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales. In fact, in the months that followed, I found the community became self-correcting by encouraging the use of real names and identities. It found a way to help prevent this type of issue from happening again."

Ordonez presented "some valuable lessons about collaboration and how to make it work" she had learned in "the wiki world", including that one should trust a group one works in: "the group can make up for any weaknesses you may have as an individual." On openly receiving and giving criticism, she said, "When working collaboratively, it is important to let go of your ego. Learn to not take things personally and be honest about what you think without being disrespectful."

"Wikipedia still receives a lot of flack – it's an easy target for institutions and individuals who are desperately trying to survive in a digital world. However, I feel grateful for having worked for a short time with the "free culture" trailblazers behind the project who are responsible for making the world a bit more open, democratic, smarter, and much more collaborative."

Wikipedia downplaying the New York Times' anti-semitism?

After describing Wikipedia as an "Islamist hornet’s nest" with an "Islamofascist dark side" last month (see Signpost coverage), FrontPage Magazine, a conservative website based in California, published another blog post last week that was critical of Wikipedia.

Karin McQuillan, a psychotherapist and author of several mystery novels ("Elephants' Graveyard", "Cheetah Chase", "Deadly Safari"), wrote about her experiences as a Wikipedia editor (Cimicifugia (talk · contribs)), which centered around the – since deleted – article The New York Times and the Holocaust and related topics. She explained her experience – becoming involved in edit wars, and eventually getting temporarily blocked from editing – by the hypothesis that "Wiki has an Israel problem. Wiki has a Jewish problem."

"Unless you like endless fighting with anti-Semites and Israel-haters, it is not pleasant to try to contribute to topics dealing with Israel. Major topics like Jerusalem or the Holocaust attract enough attention that destructive editors’ depredations are kept at a minimum. More specialized topics, like Hajji Amin al-Husseini, the Nazi founder of the Palestinian movement, are a mess. Propaganda purporting to be reference material, such as “Israel and the apartheid analogy” is tolerated, although it is against the rules.

If a rival editor’s complaint is judged favorably, you are banned from Wiki on the spot. It is frontier justice: no time to present your case, no review of the controversy. This system has not worked well on Jewish or Israel related topics. As Larry Sanger points out, it is a system that is easily gamed by the malicious, abetted by a nerd culture that doesn’t understand proper supervision.

I clicked around on various discussion pages on Jewish or jihadi topics, interested in finding editors who were advocating accurate information. On topic after topic, when I clicked on the Jewish editor’s name, I discovered they, too, had been banned."

— Karin McQuillan Wikipedia’s Jewish Problem,


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The Roderic Page biology story has spawned a discussion on refactoring the way the taxobox template works: Template talk:Taxobox#Automatic taxonomy generation. A prototype of the new system is currently being tested. Kaldari (talk) 20:12, 19 July 2010 (UTC)[reply]

I think anyone who reads the final discussion on the article she championed will see clearly that there were few -- if any -- "anti-Semites and Israel-haters" involved in deleting that article. Even those arguing to keep the article never felt the need to accuse those who disagreed with them of being one of these -- despite the conversation getting heated at points. I believe this says everything one needs to know about Karin McQuillan -- & not just about her judgment about Wikipedia. -- llywrch (talk) 06:15, 20 July 2010 (UTC)[reply]

True, but I think she is accurate on this point: "it is not pleasant to try to contribute to topics dealing with Israel. Major topics like Jerusalem or the Holocaust attract enough attention that destructive editors’ depredations are kept at a minimum." That matches the experience of many editors who've ventured into this area. She's only wrong in thinking that all the disruptive editors are anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Controversial topics always attract a great number of POV warriors trying to promote their own perspective, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most controversial of all; there have been, and will continue to be, plenty of disruptive and tendentious editors on both sides. ArbCom has tried to help by banning and restricting some of the worst offenders, but it's not a problem that will ever go away completely, as long as the real-world conflict exists. Robofish (talk) 14:17, 20 July 2010 (UTC)[reply]
I won't argue with you about any of what you wrote Robofish. But claiming that Wikipedia is a nest of anti-Semiticism & Islamofascists not only shifts the blame entirely onto one set of shoulders, it insults everyone who is part of Wikipedia. The only reason she wrote this was to deny her own reprehensible behavior & inability to usefully contribute here. Instead of increasing the viciousness inherent in these disagreements, why don't these advocates for one or both sides from outside Wikipedia come here with the goal of calming things down instead? (Yes, I know the answer, but maybe one of them will see this & consider trying that tactic.) -- llywrch (talk) 16:15, 20 July 2010 (UTC)[reply]


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