The title of last week's piece, "The Tragedy of Wikipedia's commons" was perhaps rather more ironic than its author intended. One of the truly great tragedies of medieval England was not so much the tragedy of the commons in its original sense but the forcible enclosure by powerful outside interests of the historic common land that had for centuries been available as a free resource for all. If there is any tragedy here, it is in the author's wish to use Wikipedia to take over Wikimedia Commons and to do very much the same thing online.
Background and remit
Commons always has and always will have a far broader free-content remit than that of supporting the narrow focus of an encyclopaedia. Commons provides media files in support not just the English Wikipedia but all of the WMF projects, including Wikisource, Wikibooks, Wikivoyage and many more. These sister projects of Wikipedia often have a need to use media on Commons that could never be used on the Wikipedias as they are not - in Wikipedia's narrow sense - "encyclopaedic". Some of Commons' detractors like to give the impression that its collections are nothing more than a dumping ground for random non-educational content. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the energy expended by those who would criticise from the outside (but who are strangely reluctant to engage on wiki) bears little relation to the extremely small proportion of images that could in any way be considered contentious.
Commons' policies are of necessity different and more wide ranging than any of the individual projects. We hold many images that will never be useful to the English Wikipedia, and that is not only OK, but should be welcomed as Commons' contribution to the overall mission of the Wikimedia Foundation, "to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally". Note that the overall mission of the WMF is not "to write an encyclopaedia", but rather to develop and disseminate educational content. Supporting the English Wikipedia is one way, but by no means the only way, in which we do that, and the idea that Commons should be forcibly subjugated to the policies of a specialist encyclopaedia project would do immeasurable harm to the mission which I had hoped we were all working to support.
Contrary to the suggestion that the Commons policy on scope of 2008 was an "unchallenged action by a tiny group of people", it was in fact largely an exercise in documenting for the first time the unwritten long-established practices of the community. The policy attracted very little controversy (despite it being very widely advertised, on Wikipedia and elsewhere) largely because the vast majority of it was uncontentious. Indeed, the fact that it has retained very wide community support since then indicates that we didn't do too bad a job.
With its specialised emphasis on media curation and the niceties of copyright law, Commons will never be as popular a place for editors to hang out as some of the bigger encyclopaedias. It requires not only a particular set of interests, but also at least for admins some level of specialist knowledge which not everyone has or is interested to acquire. Those outside the local community who only see the external carping may not realise that we have thousands of very committed editors who work tirelessly in the background curating and categorising content and bringing to the attention of the admins non-educational content that has no place in our collections.
Commons has never (as was claimed last week) been merely a repository that supports its sister WMF projects. Right from the start it had a remit to make content freely available to external re-users. As early as 2006 there was a formal proposal (since implemented as InstantCommons) to integrate into Mediawiki a mechanism specifically designed to support users on non WMF projects. Perhaps the real worry of last week's author was that Commons currently holds too many non-encyclopedic images of a sexual nature. But even assuming that is true, a proposal to revoke one of the fundamental free content aims of Commons hardly seems proportionate. Instead, let's have a proper discussion on what Commons' scope should be. Times change, as do priorities, and what made sense five years ago may now perhaps need to be revisited.
Over the last few months especially there has been a lot of discussion within Commons as well as outside about issues concerning the small proportion of our holdings that relate to sexual imagery and to privacy/the rights of the subject. Both have complex moral and legal dimensions, and neither has yet been fully resolved. I've set out the main strands of argument below, as objectively as I can, for those who may not be familiar with them. Of course, these summaries are by no means the whole story, and many of the discussions are far more subtle than I have space for here, so please bear with me if you are familiar with this and feel I have mis-characterised or omitted any important point that may be close to your own heart. I deliberately make no comment on the validity of any of these arguments.
Some argue that pornographic images (as defined in some way) are never appropriate for any of the Wikimedia projects and are simply not educational.
Others argue that we should keep most images, almost whatever the subject matter, as we need to show the whole range of human experience if we are to call ourselves a comprehensive educational resource. Anything else would be censorship.
Yet others suggest that not all the sexual images held by Commons are "educational", properly defined. Some are photographs that have been taken for non-educational purposes, for example personal gratification/entertainment, and/or have been uploaded for the same purpose or by users who wish to push an extreme view that equates any limits at all with unacceptable "censorship".
Finally, some hold that Commons has too many images in certain marginally-educational areas that, taken overall, create an oppressive or threatening environment (e.g. for women) which may be harming the project as a whole.
Privacy and the rights of the subject
One strand of argument is that we should do more to respect the rights of individuals who are identifiable in a photograph, and recognise that, even where the image may be legal, it can be highly damaging to the individual. Even when an outsider might naively think the image unremarkable, it may still be considered threatening, harassing or oppressive by its subject.
Another strand is that allowing the subject of a photograph a say on whether it should stay on Commons or not opens the door to all sorts of censorship. Proponents argue it's essential that we are able to collect all types of educational image, including those that may offend the subject.
If there is indeed a problem with the boundaries of Commons' scope - perceived or otherwise - we should tackle it head-on with open community discussion. Commons should be and I believe is receptive to the views of everyone within the Wikimedia community in reviewing its curatorial policies. But the way to get things changed is to engage rather than to criticise from afar.
A comprehensive review of Commons' scope is just starting now, and you need never say again that your voice cannot be heard. Please talk.
Commons has proved to be a phenomenal success in the years since its introduction, and we should be proud of what has been achieved. We should keep it, improve it, and celebrate it.
Last week, the Signpost published a rather scathing op-ed about Wikimedia Commons, the Wikimedia project which seeks to be a resource of free, educational media. Perhaps you feel it presented a valid argument, perhaps not, that's for you to make up your mind on. I would like to take this chance to offer a defence of Commons.
As you probably know, Wikimedia Commons acts as a central repository for images. Once an image is on Commons, any project can use it, exactly the same way they can use their own images. It's an incredibly valuable tool for the Wikimedia project as a whole, as it prevents duplication and provides a central place to search. You want an image of something for your Wikipedia article? Commons probably has a category for it. And that is the same whether you're editing in English, German, Arabic or even Tagalog.
I first joined Commons back in October 2007, when I was working on an eclectic mix of the Ffestiniog Railway and McFly. About six months later I became a Flickrreviewr, checking uploads from Flickr that for some reason couldn't be checked by a bot, and a month or so after that I became an admin, primarily so I could deal with all the copyright violations I came across with the Flickr work. In the five years since my interest in admin duties has waxed and waned, and I had little side-projects, but Commons had swiftly become my home-wiki. My watchlist has some 60,000 pages on it, of which 10,000 are my own photos.
Commons has its problems, I cannot deny that. The number of people who believe that because they found a photo on Google it can be uploaded to Commons is simply staggering. The search engine is designed for pages not images (a limitation of the software). The community can be a bit fractured, it can be very difficult to get people blocked for being terminally incapable of working with others (even when their name comes back to the admin noticeboards week after week after week), and we have remarkably little in the way of actual policy. Indeed our main guiding principles boil down to two pages: Commons:Licensing and Commons:Project Scope. The former tells us what files we're allowed, the latter which we want. Scope is the real issue of the moment, and in a nutshell it says that Commons collects educational media. Which brings the question, "what is educational?"
A similar problem has existed on Wikipedia for years - what is notable? There are even factions - deletionists, who think articles must prove their notability, and inclusionists, who think that there's no harm in letting potentially non-notable articles stay. And so it is on Commons - those who adhere to a strict definition of educational, and those who accept a somewhat looser guide.
And this dispute would be fine, if it were argued on Commons and in the abstract. But that is not what happens. The major rift happened a few years ago, when, apparently due to a disparaging Fox News article about the amount of "porn" on Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales, co-founder of Wikimedia, came onto Commons and starting deleting sexuality images. That didn't really go over well with the Commons community, of which Jimbo has never been a part, especially when it was found he was deleting images which were in use on multiple projects. To cut a long story short, the deleted images were restored and Jimbo lost admin rights at Commons, as did several admins who had joined him in his purge. Many of the images Jimbo deleted were in fact subsequently deleted again, following deletion requests to allow for Community input. But the deed had been done, and for a large proportion of the Commons community, it appeared that Jimbo was not to be trusted to have the best interests of the project at heart.
The issue stewed for a few years, and reemerged with a vengeance last year. Again, it has been fought almost entirely over what some describe, disparagingly, as "porn". As I mentioned earlier, the Commons search engine is not really designed for images, and so it tends to give unexpected results. One of those results was the search "toothbrush" returning a picture of a woman using an electric toothbrush for self-pleasure as one of the top results. This was entirely a legitimate result - it was a picture of a toothbrush, and it was titled as such. And while the so-called "principle of least astonishment" can easily be applied to categories - Commons has a whole proliferation of "nude or semi-nude people with X" categories on the grounds that nudity should not appear in the parent category "X" - it doesn't really work for a search algorithm, not if you want to continue with correct categorisation. Until the Wikimedia Foundation develops some form of search content filter (which itself brings up issues of what exactly should be filtered - should images of Muhammed be filtered out? What about Nazi images due to German law?) all that can really be done is to either delete the image or rename it to try and reduce the chances of an innocuous search returning it. I personally favour keeping the images, and this has led me to be named as part of a "porn cabal" by people, most of whom rarely if ever edit on Commons, who favour deleting the images.
But the issue, for me, is that these issues so rarely get brought up on Commons. Instead of using the deletion request system to highlight potentially problematic images (which is after all what the process is for), the detractors would rather just soapbox on Wikipedia - usually on Jimbo's talk page - about how awful Commons is, and how this latest penis photo proves once and for all that I (or some other member of the "porn cabal") am the worst admin in the history of forever and deserve to be shot out of a cannon into a pit of ravenous crocodiles. What people don't seem to understand is that in large part, I do agree. Commons has problems. We do have too many low quality penis pictures - so many that we even have a policy on it - and so I have a bot which searches new uploads for nudity categories and creates a gallery so I can see any problematic ones, and thus nominate them for deletion. This somehow seems to make me an even worse admin in many people's eyes. We should indeed have better checks to ensure that people in sexual pictures consented to having their pictures uploaded, and I would like to see a proper policy on this. I'd like to see the community as a whole have a reasoned discussion on the matter, for a policy to be drafted, amended, voted on and finally adopted. But that is very difficult when you feel you are under attack all the time, where your attackers are not willing to actually work with you to create a better project.
Wikimedia projects are based around collaboration and discussion within the community. I would urge those of you who feel that Commons is "broken" to come to Commons and offer constructive advice. Attacking long-term Commons users will get you nowhere, nor will pasting links on other projects, or on Jimbo's talk page. If you truly want to make Commons a better place, and are not in fact just looking for any reason to tear it down, then come to Commons. Come to the village pump - tell us what is wrong, and how you feel we could do better. Use the systems we have in place for project discussions to discuss the project. Sitting back and sniping from afar does nothing for your cause, and it only embitters the Commons community.