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Why Wikipedia survives while others haven't; Wikipedia as an emerging social model; Jimbo speaks out

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By Skomorokh

The little online encyclopaedia that could

Benjamin Mako Hill, free culture activist and Wikimedian, presented his findings on early online encyclopaedias at Harvard University last week.

In a speech to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board member Benjamin Mako Hill (userpage) outlined the preliminary results of his research into why Wikipedia ultimately thrived where seven pre-existing online encyclopaedias foundered; Interpedia, (1993–94); The Distributed Encyclopedia (1997–98); Everything2 (1998–present); h2g2 (1999–present); The Info Network (2000–03); Nupedia (2000–03); and GNUpedia (founded in 2001, later incorporated into Nupedia).

Covering the event for the Nieman Journalism Lab (reprinted in Business Insider), Megan Garber summarises how Hill, a PhD candidate at MIT, interviewed project founders and trawled archival data in an attempt to form hypotheses which would explain why this one project succeeded in attaining critical mass while the others failed. This methodology of using "failure cases" to understand the rise of successful collective action projects is a larger concern of the researcher; a subsequent project will test the hypotheses using quantitative database analysis.

While all examples he looked at shared a similar collaborative ethos, the critical factor Hill identified in Wikipedia's relative success was that it alone attracted masses of contributors. He attributed this in part to Wikipedia's self-characterisation as an encyclopaedia, which provided a model of a resource that was easily understandable by potential contributors, many of whom were highly literate infovores raised on an educational diet of Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book Encyclopedia. Not only were traditional encyclopaedias a familiar end-product; they were an "epistemic frame", a way of systematically conceiving of and presenting knowledge. This is what Wikipedia retains, where other projects sought to innovate and adapt to the new environment of the web in ways that were less successful in attracting contributors.

A second counterintuitive reason for Wikipedia's success advanced by Hill was its lack of technological sophistication and ambition; every other encyclopaedia built its own technology but neglected to seed its contributor base, expecting volunteers to flock to its attractive platform. Further explanations proffered include Wikipedia's ease-of-editing ("low transaction costs") and the emphatic absence of visible attribution of content to its creators, which Hill speculates discouraged an ownership mentality and a sense of expectation that every participant need commit to sustained engagement or high-quality contributions.

Garber concludes:

There’s some good food for thought for news organizations in those findings. If you want user contributions, build platforms that are familiar and easy. Lower the barriers to participation; focus on helping users to understand what you want from them rather than on dazzling them. Though gamification — with incentives that encourage certain user behaviors, complete with individual rewards (badges! titles! mayors!) — certainly has a role to play in the new news ecosystem, Hill’s findings suggest that the inverse of game dynamics can be a powerful force, as well. His research highlights the value of platforms that invite rather than challenge — and the validity of contributions made for the collective good rather than the individual.

Internet philosopher: Wikipedia a social model beyond market or state

Yochai Benkler addresses Wikimania 2011 in Haifa (video). He writes that Wikipedia's biggest gift is "a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes."

A new book by Yochai Benkler – Internet scholar, Harvard University lecturer, and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society – sets out to demolish the widely held notion that humans are motivated primarily by narrowly construed self-interest.

Reviewing Benkler's The Penguin and the Leviathan (2011) for The Atlantic, Walter Frick frames the question posed by the book as "Can the Internet bring the beginning of the end of selfishness?", noting the author's use of Wikipedia as the canonical example of a thriving culture of human collaboration that performs a complex task beyond the realms of commerce and government.

Benkler originally discussed the motivations of Wikipedians in his 2006 analysis of informational economics in the Internet age The Wealth of Networks – a pun on Adam Smith's canonical The Wealth of Nations (1776). In The Penguin and the Leviathan he elaborates on this to advance the case that selfishness alone cannot account for what moves economic agents. Frick, hailing Benkler as "one of the preeminent philosophers of the Internet", believes his thesis is something to which most readers are likely to be open to; at the same time, Frick says, Benkler's views are in stark contrast with the tenets of mainstream economics, which have long held to the assumption of rational self-interest.

Benkler's counterposes "the Penguin" (standing for voluntary mass collaboration and named for Tux, the mascot of the open-source operating system Linux) with market-based models ("the Invisible Hand") and the state ("the Leviathan"); in doing so, he calls for the adoption of co-operation rather than competition or coercion as the primary social paradigm. Benkler writes: "If neither the command-control systems dictated by the Leviathan nor the Invisible Hand of the free market can effectively govern society, where shall we turn? Can the Penguin deliver us more robust, working social and economic systems that break us out of this vicious cycle? I believe that he can."

Benkler offers "design levers" – guidelines for aspirant practitioners of co-operation; but Frick finds little in the way of a macroeconomic plan of action in the Penguin model, concluding that translating these design levers into a formal economic model is both daunting and utterly necessary. Perhaps this echoes the maxim that Wikipedia works only in practice, not in theory.

Costly robo-books in the spotlight

In The New York Times, Pagan Kennedy asked Do androids dream of electric authors?, in reference to the expensive print-on-demand books algorithmically assembled from Wikipedia articles by the notorious VDM Publishing. As well as highlighting the ethically murky practices of the publisher, whose modest disclosure of its source material can often go unnoticed by unsuspecting readers and librarians, the piece covered the growing phenomenon of artificial intelligence replacing traditionally human roles such as book editing. The journalist learned from managing director of the firm, Wolfgang Philipp Müller, that they sold 3,000 of these "wiki-books" of freely licensed content annually at an average price of $50.

A sunnier perspective was provided by economist and inventor Philip Parker, who predicted that cheap texts automatically generated by artificial intelligence could play a vital role in literacy efforts, and whose Gates Foundation-funded efforts at producing machine-translated educational content in underserved languages is perhaps more congruent with the Wikimedia movement's goals.

Latest apps capitalise on free Wikipedia

VentureBeat digital media party: looks like Wikipedia is about to join the party.
Following last week's announcement that the new Kindle Touch will ship with Wikipedia as its sole noncommercial Internet resource (see Signpost coverage), news has emerged of two more apps that have taken advantage of the freely licensed encyclopaedia's convenience for adaptation. The technology company VentureBeat, which started out as a blog, revealed OpenPrep, the latest educational initiative from Internet startup firm BenchPrep. The company's existing offering presents content from educational publishers such as McGraw Hill and soon Pearson, in the form of an interactive study guide app for Android phones, iPhones and the iPad; but in the future it will incorporate links to Wikipedia and YouTube for a broader learning experience for students. VentureBeat also showcased the latest iteration of the Instapaper bookmarking and reading service, which will also integrate Wikipedia content into its smartphone and tablet offerings.

Jimbo on tech, culture and protest

The London Evening Standard picked up on salutatory remarks by Jimmy Wales concerning London's potential to produce great technology leaders. Wales contrasted the "fabulous" cultural wealth of his part-time adopted homeland, and specifically its GLAM sector, with the "boring" Silicon Valley, while criticising Britons for "an excessive willingness to complain and knock things that aren't that bad". The Belfast Telegraph also seized on Wales' remarks, positing the cultural strength of its own city as potentially sufficient to attract the dynamic entrepreneurial spirit. At a press conference to promote London's Tech Entrepreneur Week in December, Sky News reported the self-professed libertarian's sympathy with Occupy London protestors' anger at corporate welfare over what he characterised as abuse of political influence by corporations to induce favourable state intervention. Sky also noted the Internet entrepreneur's prediction that the Net-assisted Arab Spring uprisings – which inspired the Occupy movement – had a long future, as well as his optimism for budding start-ups in pointing out that Wikipedia was "a child of the dot com crash" and that "[o]ne of the reasons we were so innovative in terms of letting the community control things is that I had not money to hire anyone". Elsewhere, Trinity College Dublin's The University Times announced Wales' imminent induction as an honorary member of the university's prestigious University Philosophical Society in November.

In brief

He was first apprenticed to a china dealer at Rotherhithe, but, finding that business too irksome, he left both his master and his home, and went to the Potteries, where he found some employment as a china painter. Finding this too monotonous, he came to London, and commenced a life of great privations and hard efforts to study the fine arts. It is said that at this period of his life he seriously injured his health by trying to live for a year on nothing else but potatoes and water.

– The archaic prose stylings of the Joshua Cristall article, derived from Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravings (1886–89), as quoted by Big Think.

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Sitewide watchlist is what makes Wikipedia work

For those of us who have done web work almost as long as visual browsers have been around, the reason Wikipedia has exploded is that a single page, the watchlist, keeps one instantly up to date on a horde of pages and images one has worked on. One can come back weeks, months, or even years later, and start right back up working on one's interests. Concerning overseeing the creation of concise, in-depth, continually-evolving articles on any topic nothing beats the watchlist. Blogs suck in comparison since they just pile up info without making it concise. Website software (offline or online) is a pain to use in comparison to wiki editing. As concerns the quality of info Wikia sucks in comparison to Wikipedia. Wikia does not have a sitewide watchlist. Every tiny or big wiki has a separate watchlist. MediaWiki developers need to create integrated watchlists for wiki farms. Then indepth info illustrated with images and videos will spread and explode beyond Wikipedia. Semiprofit Benefit Corporations with wiki farms using MediaWiki with integrated watchlists could change the internet world. Serious info, imagery, graphics, animation, and video collaboration could spread way beyond Wikipedia. But not without something as simple but necessary as a sitewide watchlist. --Timeshifter (talk) 13:25, 18 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]

And a priority for the Foundation developers might well be to enable the watchlisting of individual sections—the advantage would be for discussion pages rather than articles. Tony (talk) 13:47, 18 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
The Foundation might know that, were they to attempt to talk to experienced editors. Instead they worry about what the lurkers emailing each other about Wikipedia & throw limited resources at unwanted things like image filters. -- llywrch (talk) 21:35, 18 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Of course, LQT has attracted a considerable amount of Foundation resources (not enough? too much? you decide), and that would enabled you to watch individual threads. - Jarry1250 [Weasel? Discuss.] 10:13, 20 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
TimeShifter: Just to clarify, are you proposing shared watchlist between different wikis hosted by the same folks (fairly easy to do all in all I'd imagine), or a shared watchlist feature that spans wikis hosted by separate people (Which is an interesting idea, but more difficult to do, at least in a non-naive way of just checking every single wiki involved). Bawolff (talk) 23:10, 23 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
I can't speak for Timeshifter, but a global watchlist has been one of those perennial requests that was an old idea when we discussed it on the Strategy wiki. I have edits on dozens of wikimedia wikis, it would be great if some of those could pool watchlists - even if only ones that shared a server. Of course there's the risk that if it was developed it would be as temperamental as liquid threads was in its early days. But the solution to that is more testing before rollout, the devs do have a decent sized test wiki don't they? And though I'm a supporter of the Image filter it would be cool if we were consulted on the relative importance of possible developments - I bet the community would put global watchlists and a score other useful and uncontentious changes ahead of an image filter. ϢereSpielChequers 10:13, 24 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Bawolff. I would like to see both types of combined watchlists created. There is a small amount of work done towards an integrated watchlist for all the Wikimedia projects. That needs to be finished. A cross-site watchlist between Wikipedia, Wikia, other wiki farms, and other wiki sites would be way cool too. A universal watchlist where one could select what wikis to include. I would keep Wikipedia separate myself since I have a lot of pages I watch on it. I would put all the minor Wikimedia projects, minor wikis from Wikia, and many other wiki sites on a universal watchlist. The main Wikia wiki that I edit on I use recent changes since I am an admin on it. --Timeshifter (talk) 16:27, 24 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Interwiki watchlists: There is a script ;) [1] User:Yair rand User:Hans Adler User:Ocaasi User:UncleDouggie --Chris.urs-o (talk) 16:07, 5 November 2011 (UTC)[reply]
I have it installed. See Integrated watchlist#Existing tools and User:Yair rand/interwikiwatchlist.js and its talk page: User talk:Yair rand/interwikiwatchlist.js - see how-to note at top. I have it installed so that it also shows my Commons watchlist at the top of my Wikipedia watchlist. The add-on Commons watchlist only shows edits by others today. It is not currently possible to also show one's own edits on the Commons. Also, "today's" edits means only those edits on today's date. So if one is only a few hours into today one only sees edits by others during those few hours. There is no way currently to see 24 hours, or the last 2 days, etc.. --Timeshifter (talk) 04:54, 6 November 2011 (UTC)[reply]

Google makes Wikipedia work

What makes Wikipedia work is Google's de facto marketing subsidy of it in terms of search ranking promotion. But nobody (in academia) seems to want to think about that :-( . -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 22:33, 18 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]

Wikipedia is popular. That is why it is at the top of Google rankings, or in the top 10 in many search results. Wikipedia is not popular because of Google. I often look for Wikipedia pages first when looking for info. Many other people feel this way, too. People link frequently to Wikipedia pages from their websites, blogs, other wikis, etc.. I do from all 3. Google algorithms see all this popularity and put Wikipedia pages high up in search results. Of course, that further amplifies Wikipedia's popularity. --Timeshifter (talk) 23:25, 18 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
There is a symbiosis between Google and Wikipedia. Google keeps Wikipedia in the public eye and a fraction of a fraction that use it become active contributors. A decent quality and vast store of non-commercial information in the form of Wikipedia articles keeps Google relevant. You want info fast? You google it. BAM, there's the Wikipedia article and the answer. Quick and simple. We shouldn't flatter ourselves to think that Google rankings had no part in WP attaining "critical mass," just like they would be stupid to ignore the enormous free "value" that WP provides to them and their search engine. Carrite (talk) 23:03, 19 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Which came first, the chicken or the egg. :) --Timeshifter (talk) 11:17, 20 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
The egg, of course. Eggs existed long before chickens, and the first chicken almost certainly hatched out of an egg laid by the chicken-ancestor (while abstractly the chicken-ancestor might not have been an egg-laying creature, in terms of how evolution works, it's virtually certain it was very nearly a chicken rather than something dramatically different in terms of how it produced young). Similarly, there were/are a large number of would-be Wikipedias (content-farming is a cliche), but there is only one Google. Hence Google is what matters. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 11:45, 20 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Yes, but Wikipedia laid the Golden Egg. :>? --Timeshifter (talk) 15:19, 20 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
while i tend to buy the "wikipedia as freeware front end for non-commercial google status enhancement" thesis; i seem to recall other engines. best but not only? Slowking4: 7@1|x 18:10, 20 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
"Wikipedia makes Google work", the other way around is possibly more true, Wikipedia made Yahoo redundant, u need human resources to grade hyperlinks, Wikipedia does it for Google ;o) --Chris.urs-o (talk) 15:32, 5 November 2011 (UTC)[reply]


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