Tag Archives: wikipedia

there’s no such thing as an amorphous “public”

Cody Brown, an NYU undergrad, just announced Kommons, an ambitious effort to build a new model of news gathering and presentation. I just read his blog post announcing the new venture, “A Public Can Talk To Itself” and find myself deeply disturbed. Although its no longer fashionable to say so, we live in a class society and our news organizations serve the needs of the classes they represent. Brown may very well go on to build the most successful news gathering operation of this new era, but whose interests will it serve? Brown’s idea of “the public” is clearly limited to those people who have access to technology, to the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to express themselves with that technology and the time to be a “citizen journalist.” Brown’s use of his mentor Clay Shirky’s automobile analogy confirms this when he writes: “A hundred years ago, back when cars were first being sold, you didn?t just buy one and drive it off the lot, the car itself was so complicated and difficult to manage that you hired a professional chauffeur who also served as a kind of mechanic.” I”m not sure how wealthy you had to be to buy the pre-Model T cars but I’m assuming it was a very small percentage of “the public.”
A last point, i find it fascinating and not insignificant that Brown has named his new venture, Kommons. I’m sure he just thinks it’s cute, but if he checks the Wikipedia, he’ll find there is a specific historical meaning often attached to the switch from K to C. I’m sure he didn’t set out consciously to trash the concept of the Commons but then i’m also sure he doesnt’ see any problems with his definition of public either.
From Wikipedia
“K” replacing “C” (article here)
Replacing the letter ?c? with ?k? in the first letter of a word came into use by the Ku Klux Klan during its early years in the mid to late 1800s. The concept is continued today within the ranks of the Klan. They call themselves “konservative KKK.”
In the 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, leftists, particularly the Yippies, sometimes used Amerika rather than “America” in referring to the United States.[1] It is still used as a political statement today.[2] It is likely that this was originally an allusion to the German spelling of America, and intended to be suggestive of Nazism, a hypothesis that the Oxford English Dictionary supports.
In broader usage, the replacement of the letter “C” with “K” denotes general political skepticism about the topic at hand and is intended to discredit or debase the term in which the replacement occurs. [9] Detractors sometimes spell former president Bill Clinton’s name as “Klinton” or “Klintoon”. [emphasis mine]
A similar usage in Spanish (and Portuguese too) is to write okupa rather than “ocupa” (often on a building or area occupied by squatters [10], referring to the name adopted by okupación activist groups), which is particularly remarkable because the letter “k” is rarely found in either Spanish or Portuguese words. It stems from Spanish anarchist and punk movements which used “k” to signal rebellion [3].
The letter “C” is also commonly changed to a “K” in a non-pejorative way in KDE, a desktop environment for Unix-like operating systems.

an encyclopedia in my pocket

A while back – last March – there was a great deal of excitement over Wikipodia, an open source project to install Wikipedia on an iPod. Wanting a portable Wikipedia, I installed Linux on my brand new video iPod, a necessary prerequisite, but was disappointed to discover that Wikipodia only worked on older iPods with smaller screens. I’ve waited for an update to Wikipodia since then, but the project seems to have gone dark. Probably Wikipodia wouldn’t have been an ideal solution anyway: it requires you to reboot your iPod into Linux whenever you want to look at Wikipedia. You could have an iPod to listen to music or a Wikipedia to read, but not both at the same time.

ipodwikipedia.jpgBut a partial fulfillment for my desire to have a portable Wikipedia has come along: Matt Swann has posted a script that puts some of the Wikipedia on an iPod, in iPod Notes format. While it’s much simpler than installing a new operating system on your iPod, it’s still not for everybody – it requires using the OS X command line, although there’s an Automator-based version that’s a bit simpler. (PC versions would seem to be available as well, though I don’t know anything about them – check the comments here.) If you’re willing to take the plunge, you can feed the script a page from Wikipedia and it will start filling up your iPod Notes directory with that page and all the pages linked from it. I started from the entry for book; the script downloaded this, then it downloaded the entries for paper, parchment, page, and so on. When it finished those, it downloads all the pages linked from the linked pages, and it keeps doing this until it runs out of space: regardless of iPod size, you can only have 1000 notes in the Notes directory. This doesn’t meant that you get 1000 articles. Because each iPod note can only be 4 kb long, entries that are longer than 4000 characters are split into multiple notes; thus, I wound up with only 216 entries.

Though 216 entries is a tiny subset of Wikipedia, it’s still an interesting experience having a chunk of an encyclopedia in your pocket. What I find most captivating about approaching Wikipedia this was is that I found myself browsing interesting sounding articles rather than searching them directly. The iPod doesn’t have much input functionality: while you can scroll through the list of entries, you can’t search for a subject, as you usually would. (And with only 216 entries, searching would be of limited utility at best. The Wikipodia project promises full text searching, though text entry is a difficult proposition when you only have five keys to type with.) While you can scroll through the list of entries to find something that looks interesting, you’re likely to get sidetracked by something along the way. So you browse.

monotyping.jpgTo my mind, browsing is one of the primary virtues of a print encyclopedia: the arbitrary logic of alphabetization makes for a serendipitous reading experience, and you often come away from a print encyclopedia having read something in a nearby article that you didn’t intend to read. This is something that’s generally lost with online reference works: links between articles are supposed to make logical sense. This is also a reflection of our reading behavior: if I search for “book” in Wikipedia, I’m probably looking for something in particular. If I’m interested in book conservation issues, I might click on the link for slow fires. If I’m interested in some other area related to books – how to make vellum, for example – I almost certainly wouldn’t. Instead I’d click on the vellum link and keep looking from there. We tend to be goal-directed when we using Wikipedia online: it’s like going to a library and finding the specific book you want. Wandering in a library is an equally valid behavior: that’s what happens here.

Because you’re not looking for a particular piece of information, you do find yourself reading in a different way. Search-based reading is a different style of reading than browsing, which is slower and more casual. This has a downside when applied to Wikipedia: the often atrocious style is more glaring when you’re reading for pleasure rather than reading for information. And an offline Wikipedia inhibits some of the new reading habits Wikipedia encourages. I caught myself wondering how biased the declarations of the Shāhnāma‘s originality w/r/t other national epics were; without recourse to page histories and talk pages I’m left to wonder until I find myself with an Internet connection.

book-bookwhite.jpgThe experience of reading Wikipedia this way isn’t perfect: many links don’t work, and some articles seem to arbitrarily end, some in mid-sentence, some in mid-word. You also realize how many links in Wikipedia aren’t useful at all. If I’m interested in books as a concept, I’m probably not interested in 1907 as a concept, though that is the year that Marc Aurel Stein found The Diamond Sutra, the oldest known block-printed book. Marc Aurel Stein or The Diamond Sutra might be interesting subjects to a book-inclined browser; 1907 isn’t as likely. What you get on your iPod is an arbitrary selection. But there’s something very pleasant about this: it’s nice to have the chance to learn about both Neferirkare Kakai and the Rule of St. Benedict on the subway.

finishing things

One of the most interesting things about the emerging online forms of discourse is how they manage to tear open all our old assumptions. Even if new media hasn’t yet managed to definitively change the rules, it has put them into contention. Here’s one, presented as a rhetorical question: why do we bother to finish things?
The importance of process is something that’s come up again and again over the past two years at the Institute. Process, that is, rather than the finished work. Can Wikipedia ever be finished? Can a blog be finished? They could, of course, but that’s not interesting: what’s fascinating about a blog is its emulation of conversation, it’s back-and-forth nature. Even the unit of conversation – a post on a blog, say – may never really be finished: the author can go back and change it, so that the post you viewed at six o’clock is not the post you viewed at four o’clock. This is deeply frustrating to new readers of blogs; but in time, it becomes normal.

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But before talking about new media, let’s look at old media. How important is finishing things historically? If we look, there’s a whole tradition of things refusing to be finished. We can go back to Tristram Shandy, of course, at the very start of the English novel: while Samuel Richardson started everything off by rigorously trapping plots in fixed arcs made of letters, Laurence Sterne’s novel, ostensibly the autobiography of the narrator, gets sidetracked in cock and bull stories and disasters with windows, failing to trace his life past his first year. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, Sterne’s other major work of fiction, takes the tendency even further: the narrative has barely made it into France, to say nothing of Italy, before it collapses in the middle of a sentence at a particularly ticklish point.
There’s something unspoken here: in Sterne’s refusal to finish his novels in any conventional way is a refusal to confront the mortality implicit in plot. An autobiography can never be finished; a biography must end with its subject’s death. If Tristram never grows up, he can never die: we can imagine Sterne’s Parson Yorrick forever on the point of grabbing the fille de chambre‘s ———.
Henry James on the problem in a famous passage from The Art of the Novel:

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so. He is in the perpetual predicament that the continuity of things is the whole matter, for him, of comedy or tragedy; that this continuity is never, by the space of an instant or an inch, broken, or that, to do anything at all, he has at once intensely to consult and intensely to ignore it. All of which will perhaps pass but for a supersubtle way of pointing the plain moral that a young embroiderer of the canvas of life soon began to work in terror, fairly, of the vast expanse of that surface.

But James himself refused to let his novels – masterpieces of plot, it doesn’t need to be said – be finished. In 1906, a decade before his death, James started work on his New York Edition, a uniform selection of his work for posterity. James couldn’t resist the urge to re-edit his work from the way it was originally published; thus, there are two different editions of many of his novels, and readers and scholars continue to argue about the merits of the two, just as cinephiles argue about the merits of the regular release and the director’s cut.
This isn’t an uncommon issue in literature. One notices in the later volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that there are more and more loose ends, details that aren’t quite right. While Proust lived to finish his novel, he hadn’t finished correcting the last volumes before his death. Nor is death necessarily always the agent of the unfinished: consider Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. David M. Levy, in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, points out the problems with trying to assemble a definitive online version of Whitman’s collection of poetry: there were a number of differing editions of Whitman’s collection of poems even during his life, a problem compounded after his death. The Whitman Archive, created after Levy wrote his book, can help to sort out the mess, but it can’t quite work at the root of the problem: we say we know Leaves of Grass, but there’s not so much a single book by that title as a small library.
The great unfinished novel of the twentieth century is Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, an Austrian novel that might have rivaled Joyce and Proust had it not come crashing to a halt when Musil, in exile in Switzerland in 1942, died from too much weightlifting. It’s a lovely book, one that deserves more readers than it gets; probably most are scared off by its unfinished state. Musil’s novel takes place in Vienna in the early 1910s: he sets his characters tracing out intrigues over a thousand finished pages. Another eight hundred pages of notes suggest possible futures before the historical inevitability of World War I must bring their way of life to an utter and complete close. What’s interesting about Musil’s notes are that they reveal that he hadn’t figured out how to end his novel: most of the sequences he follows for hundreds of pages are mutually exclusive. There’s no real clue how it could be ended: perhaps Musil knew that he would die before he could finish his work.

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The visual arts in the twentieth century present another way of looking at the problem of finishing things. Most people know that Marcel Duchamp gave up art for chess; not everyone realizes that when he was giving up art, he was giving up working on one specific piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Duchamp actually made two things by this name: the first was a large painting on glass which stands today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp gave up working on the glass in 1923, though he kept working on the second Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, a “book” published in 1934: a green box that contained facsimiles of his working notes for his large glass.
Duchamp, despite his protestations to the contrary, hadn’t actually given up art. The notes in the Green Box are, in the end, much more interesting – both to Duchamp and art historians – than the Large Glass itself, which he eventually declared “definitively unfinished”. Among a great many other things, Duchamp’s readymades are conceived in the notes. Duchamp’s notes, which he would continue to publish until his death in 1968, function as an embodiment of the idea that the process of thinking something through can be more worthwhile than the finished product. His notes are why Duchamp is important; his notes kickstarted most of the significant artistic movements of the second half of the twentieth century.
Duchamp’s ideas found fruit in the Fluxus movement in New York from the early 1960s. There’s not a lot of Fluxus work in museums: a good deal of Fluxus resisted the idea of art as commodity in preference to the idea of art as process or experience. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece is perhaps the most well known Fluxus work and perhaps exemplary: a performer sits still while the audience is invited to cut pieces of cloth from her (or his) clothes. While there was an emphasis on music and performance – a number of the members studied composition with John Cage – Fluxus cut across media: there were Fluxus films, boxes, and dinners. (There’s currently a Fluxus podcast, which contains just about everything.) Along the way, they also managed to set the stage for the gentrification of SoHo.
There was a particularly rigorous Fluxus publishing program; Dick Higgins helmed the Something Else Press, which published seminal volumes of concrete poetry and artists’ books, while George Maciunas, the leader of Fluxus inasmuch as it had one, worked as a graphic designer, cranking out manifestos, charts of art movements, newsletters, and ideas for future projects. Particularly ideas for future projects: John Hendricks’s Fluxus Codex, an attempt to catalogue the work of the movement, lists far more proposed projects than completed ones. Owen Smith, in Fluxus: The History of an Attitude, describes a particularly interesting idea, an unending book:

This concept developed out of Maciunas’ discussions with George Brecht and what Maciunas refers to in several letters as a “Soviet Encyclopedia.” Sometime in the fall of 1962, Brecht wrote to Maciunas about the general plans for the “complete works” series and about his own ideas for projects. In this letter Brecht mentions that he was “interested in assembling an ‘endless’ book, which consists mainly of a set of cards which are added to from time to time . . . [and] has extensions outside itself so that its beginning and end are indeterminate.” Although the date on this letter is not certain, it was sent after Newsletter No. 4 and prior to the middle of December when Maciunas responded to it.} This idea for a expandable box is later mentioned by Maciunas as being related to “that of Soviet encyclopedia – which means not a static box or encyclopedia but a constantly renewable – dynamic box.”

Maciunas and Brecht never got around to making their Soviet encyclopedia, but it’s an idea that might resonate more now than in did in 1962. What they were imagining is something that’s strikingly akin to a blog. Blogs do start somewhere, but most readers of blogs don’t start from the beginning: they plunge it at random and keep reading as the blog grows and grows.

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One Fluxus-related project that did see publication was An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, a book credited to Daniel Spoerri, a Romanian-born artist who might be best explained as a European Robert Rauschenberg if Rauschenberg were more interested in food than paint. The basis of the book is admirably simple: Spoerri decided to make a list of everything that was on his rather messy kitchen table one morning in 1961. He made a map of all the objects on his not-quite rectangular table, numbered them, and, with the help of his friend Robert Filliou, set about describing (or “anecdoting”) them. From this simple procedure springs the magic of the book: while most of the objects are extremely mundane (burnt matches, wine stoppers, an egg cup), telling how even the most simple object came to be on the table requires bringing in most of Spoerri’s friends & much of his life.
Having finished this first version of the book (in French), Spoerri’s friend Emmett Williams translated into English. Williams is more intrusive than most translators: even before he began his translation, he appeared in a lot of the stories told. As is the case with any story, Williams had his own, slightly different version of many of the events described, and in his translation Williams added these notes, clarifying and otherwise, to Spoerri’s text. A fourth friend, Dieter Roth, translated the book into German, kept Williams’s notes and added his own, some as footnotes of footnotes, generally not very clarifying, but full of somewhat related stories and wordplay. Spoerri’s book was becoming their book as well. Somewhere along the line, Spoerri added his own notes. As subsequent editions have been printed, more and more notes accrete; in the English version of 1995, some of them are now eight levels deep. A German translation has been made since then, and a new French edition is in the works, which will be the twelfth edition of the book. The text has grown bigger and bigger like a snowball rolling downhill. In addition to footnotes, the book has also gained several introductions, sketches of the objects by Roland Topor, a few explanatory appendices, and an annotated index of the hundreds of people mentioned in the book.
Part of the genius of Spoerri’s book is that it’s so simple. Anyone could do it: most of us have tables, and a good number of those tables are messy enough that we could anecdote them, and most of us have friends that we could cajole into anecdoting our anecdotes. The book is essentially making something out of nothing: Spoerri self-deprecatingly refers to the book as a sort of “human garbage can”, collecting histories that would be discarded. But the value of of the Topography isn’t rooted in the objects themselves, it’s in the relations they engender: between people and objects, between objects and memory, between people and other people, and between people and themselves across time. In Emmett Williams’s notes on Spoerri’s eggshells, we see not just eggshells but the relationship between the two friends. A network of relationships is created through commenting.
George LeGrady seized on the hypertextual nature of the book and produced, in 1993, his own Anecdoted Archive of the Cold War. (He also reproduced a tiny piece of the book online, which gives something of a feel for its structure.) But what’s most interesting to me isn’t how this book is internally hypertextual: plenty of printed books are hypertextual if you look at them through the right lens. What’s interesting is how its internal structure is mirrored by the external structure of its history as a book, differing editions across time and language. The notes are helpfully dated; this matters when you, the reader, approach the text with thirty-odd years of notes to sort through, notes which can’t help being a very slow, public conversation. There’s more than a hint of Wikipedia in the process that underlies the book, which seems to form a private encyclopedia of the lives of the authors.
And what’s ultimately interesting about the Topography is that it’s unfinished. My particular copy will remain an autobiography rather than a biography, trapped in a particular moment in time: though it registers the death of Robert Filliou, those of Dieter Roth and Roland Topor haven’t yet happened. Publishing has frozen the text, creating something that’s temporarily finished.

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We’re moving towards an era in which publishing – the inevitable finishing stroke in most of the examples above – might not be quite so inevitable. Publishing might be more of an ongoing process than an event: projects like the Topography, which exists as a succession of differing editions, might become the norm. When you’re publishing a book online, like we did with Gamer Theory, the boundaries of publishing become porous: there’s nothing to stop you from making changes for as long as you can.

why google and yahoo love wikipedia

wikipedia.png From Dan Cohen’s excellent Digital Humanities Blog comes a discussion of the Wikipedia story that Cohen claims no one seems to be writing about — namely, the question of why Google and Yahoo give so much free server space and bandwith to Wikipedia. Cohen points out that there’s more going on here than just the open source ethos of these tech companies: in fact, the two companies are becoming increasingly dependent on Wikipedia as a resource, both as something to repackage for commercial use (in sites such as Answers.com), and as a major component in the programming of search algorithms. Cohen writes:
Let me provide a brief example that I hope will show the value of having such a free resource when you are trying to scan, sort, and mine enormous corpora of text. Let’s say you have a billion unstructured, untagged, unsorted documents related to the American presidency in the last twenty years. How would you differentiate between documents that were about George H. W. Bush (Sr.) and George W. Bush (Jr.)? This is a tough information retrieval problem because both presidents are often referred to as just “George Bush” or “Bush.” Using data-mining algorithms such as Yahoo’s remarkable Term Extraction service, you could pull out of the Wikipedia entries for the two Bushes the most common words and phrases that were likely to show up in documents about each (e.g., “Berlin Wall” and “Barbara” vs. “September 11” and “Laura”). You would still run into some disambiguation problems (“Saddam Hussein,” “Iraq,” “Dick Cheney” would show up a lot for both), but this method is actually quite a powerful start to document categorization.
Cohen’s observation is a valuable reminder that all of the discussion of Wikipedia’s accuracy and usefulness as an academic tool is really only skimming the surface of how and why the open-souce encyclopedia is reshaping the way knowledge is made and accessed. Ultimately, the question of whether or not Wikipedia should be used in the classroom might be less important than whether — or how — it is used in the boardroom, by companies whose function is to repackage, reorganize and return “the people’s knowledge” back to the people at a tidy profit.

holiday round up

The institute is pleased to announce the release of the blog Without Gods. Mitchell Stephens is using this blog as a public workshop and forum for his work on his latest book which focuses on the history of atheism.
The wikipedia debate continues as Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine weighs in that people are uncomfortable with wikipedia because they cannot comprehend that emergent systems can produce “correct” answers on the marcoscale even if no one is really watching the microscale. Lisa poses that Anderson goes too far in the defense of wikipedia and that blind faith in the system is equally disconcerting, if not more so.
ITP Winter 2005 show had several institute related projects. Among them were explorations in digital graphic reinterpretation of poetry, student social networks, navigating New York through augmented reality, and manipulating video to document the city by freezing time and space.
Lisa discovered an interesting historical parallel in an article from Dial dating back to 1899. The specialized bookseller’s demise is lamented with the introduction of department store selling books as lost leader, not unlike today’s criticisms of Amazon. As libraries are increasing their relationships with the private sector, Lisa notes that some bookstores are playing a role in fostering intellectual and culture communities, a role which libraries traditionally held.
Lisa looked at Reed Johnson assertion in the Los Angeles Times that 2005 was the year that mass media has given way to the consumer-driven techno-cultural revolution.
The discourse on game space continues to evolve with Edward Castronova’s new book Synthetic Worlds. As millions of people spend more time in the immersive environments, Castronova looks at how the real and the virtual are blending through the lens of an economist.
In another advance for content creation volunteerism, LibriVox is creating and distributing audio files of public domain literature. Ranging from the Wizard of Oz to the US Constitution, Lisa was impressed by the quality of the recordings, which are voiced and recorded by volunteers who feel passionate about a particular work.

wikipedia and ‘alien logic:’ the debate gets spiritual

If you like Mitchell Stephen’s book-blog about the history of atheism, you might want to compare Mitchell’s approach to that of “The Long Tail,” a book-blog written by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine. Like Stephens, Anderson is trying to work out his ideas for a future book online: his book looks at the technology-driven atomizaton of our economy and culture, a phenomenon Anderson (and Wired) doesn’t seem particularly troubled by.
wikipedia.pngOn December 18, Anderson wrote a post about what he saw as the real reason people are uncomfortable with Wikipedia: according to Anderson, we’re unable to reconcile with the “alien logic” of probabilistic and emergent systems, which produce “correct” answers on the macro-scale because “they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers” — even though no one is really minding the store.
On one hand, Anderson’s been saying what I (and lots of other people) have been saying repeatedly over the past few weeks: acknowledge that sometimes Wikipedia gets things wrong, but also pay attention to the overwhelming number of times the open-source encyclopedia gets things right. At the same time, I’m not comfortable with Anderson’s suggestion that we can’t “wrap our heads around” the essential rightness of probabalistic engines — especially when he compares this to not being able to wrap our heads around probibalistic systems. This call for greater faith in the algorithm also troubles Nicholas Carr, who responds agnostically:
Maybe it’s just the Christmas season, but all this talk of omniscience and inscrutability and the insufficiency of our mammalian brains brings to mind the classic explanation for why God’s ways remain mysterious to mere mortals: “Man’s finite mind is incapable of comprehending the infinite mind of God.” Chris presents the web’s alien intelligence as something of a secular godhead, a higher power beyond human understanding… I confess: I’m an unbeliever. My mammalian mind remains mired in the earthly muck of doubt. It’s not that I think Chris is wrong about the workings of “probabilistic systems.” I’m sure he’s right. Where I have a problem is in his implicit trust that the optimization of the system, the achievement of the mathematical perfection of the macroscale, is something to be desired….Might not this statistical optimization of “value” at the macroscale be a recipe for mediocrity at the microscale – the scale, it’s worth remembering, that defines our own individual lives and the culture that surrounds us?
Carr’s point is well-taken: what is valuable about Wikipedia to many of us is not that it is an engine for self-regulation, but that it allows individual human beings to come together to create a shared knowledge resource. Anderson’s call for faith in the system is swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction: while other defenders of Wikipedia have pointed out ways to tinker with the encyclopedia’s human interface, Anderson implies that the human interface — at the individual level — doesn’t quite matter. I don’t find this particularly conforting: in fact, this idea seems much scarier than Seigenthaler’s warning that Wikipedia is a playground for “volunteer vandals.”

watching wikipedia watch

In an interview in CNET today, Daniel Brandt of Wikipedia Watch — the man who tracked down Brian Chase, the author of the false biography of John Seigenthaler on Wikipedia — details the process he used to track Chase down. I found it an interesting reality check on the idea of online anonymity. I was also a bit nonplussed by the fact that Brandt created a phony identity for himself in order to discover who had created a fake version of the real Seigenthaler. According to Brandt:
All I had was the IP address and the date and timestamp, and the various databases said it was a BellSouth DSL account in Nashville. I started playing with the search engines and using different tools to try to see if I could find out more about that IP address. They wouldn’t respond to trace router pings, which means that they were blocked at a firewall, probably at BellSouth…But very strangely, there was a server on the IP address. You almost never see that, since at most companies, your browsers and your servers are on different IP addresses. Only a very small company that didn’t know what it was doing would have that kind of arrangement. I put in the IP address directly, and then it comes back and said, “Welcome to Rush Delivery.” It didn’t occur to me for about 30 minutes that maybe that was the name of a business in Nashville. Sure enough they had a one-page Web site. So the next day I sent them a fax. [they didn’t respond, and] The next night, I got the idea of sending a phony e-mail, I mean an e-mail under a phony name, phony account. When they responded, sure enough, the originating IP address matched the one that was in Seigenthaler’s column.
Overall, I’m still having mixed feelings about Brandt’s “bust” of Brian Chase — mostly because of the way the event has skewed discussion of Wikipedia, but partly because Chase’s outing seems to have damaged the hapless-seeming Chase much more than Seigenthaler had been damaged by the initial fake post. The CNET interview suggests that Brandt might also have some regrets about the fallout over Chase, though Brandt frames his concern as yet another critique of Wikipedia. Brandt claims he is uncomfortable about the fact that Chase has a Wikipedia biography, since “when this poor guy is trying to send out his resume,” employers will google him, find the Wikipedia entry, and refuse to hire him: since Wikipedia entries are not as ephemeral as news articles, he adds, the entry is actually “an invasion of privacy even more than getting your name in the newspaper.” This seems to be an odd bit of reasoning, since Brandt, after all, was the one who made Chase notorious.

When asked by the CNET interviewer how he would “fix” Wikipedia, Brandt maintained an emphasis on the idea that biographical entries are Wikipedia’s Achilles heel, an belief which is tied, perhaps, to his own reasons for taking Wikipedia to task — a prominent draft resister in the 1960s, Brandt discovered that his own Wikipedia post had links he considered unflattering. He explained to CNET that his first priority would be to “freeze” biographies on the site which had been checked for accuracy:
I would go and take all the biographical articles on living persons and take them out of the publicly editable Wikipedia and put them in a sandbox that’s only open to registered users. That keeps out all spiders and scrapers. And then you work on all these biographies and get them up to snuff and then put them back in the main Wikipedia for public access but lock them so they cannot be edited. If you need to add more information, you go through the process again. I know that’s a drastic change in ideology because Wikipedia’s ideology says that the more tweaks you get from the masses, the better and better the article gets and that quantity leads to improved quality irrevocably. Their position is that the Seigenthaler thing just slipped through the crack. Well, I don’t buy that because they don’t know how many other Seigenthaler situations are lurking out there.
“Seigenthaler situations.” This term could either come in to use as a term to refer to the dubious accuracy of an online post — or, alternately, to refer to a phobic response to open-source knowledge construction. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, in the pro-Wikipedia world, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today notes that a group of Wikipedia fans have decided to try to create a Wikiversity, a learning center based on Wiki open-source principles. According to the Chronicle, “It’s not clear exactly how extensive Wikiversity would be. Some think it should serve only as a repository for educational materials; others think it should also play host to online courses; and still others want it to offer degrees.” I’m curious to see if anything like a Wikiversity could get off the group, and how it will address the tension around open-source knowledge that been foregrounded by the Wikipedia-bashing that has taken place over the past few weeks.
Finally, there’s a great defense of Wikipedia in Danah Boyd’s Apophenia. Among other things, Boyd writes:
We should be teaching our students how to interpret the materials they get on the web, not banning them from it. We should be correcting inaccuracies that we find rather than protesting the system. We have the knowledge to be able to do this, but all too often, we’re acting like elitist children. In this way, i believe academics are more likely to lose credibility than Wikipedia.

nature magazine says wikipedia about as accurate as encyclopedia brittanica

naturem.jpg A new and fairly authoritative voice has entered the Wikipedia debate: last week, staff members of the science magazine Nature read through a series of science articles in both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and decided that Britannica — the “gold standard” of reference, as they put it — might not be that much more reliable (we did something similar, though less formal, a couple of months back — read the first comment). According to an article published today:
Entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature’s news team. Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
It’s interesting to see Nature coming to the defense of Wikipedia at the same time that so many academics in the humanities and social science have spoken out against it: it suggests that the open source culture of academic science has led to a greater tolerance for Wikipedia in the scientific community. Nature’s reviewers were not entirely thrilled with Wikipidia: for example, they found the Britannica articles to be much more well-written and readable. But they also noted that Britannica’s chief problem is the time and effort it takes for the editorial department to update material as a scientific field evolves or changes: Wikipedia updates often occur practically in real time.
One not-so-suprising fact unearthed by Nature’s staffers is that the scientific community contained about twice as many Wikipedia users as Wikipedia authors. The best way to ensure that the science in Wikipedia is sound, the magazine argued, is for scientists to commit to writing about what they know.

wikipedia update: author of seigenthaler smear confesses

According to a Dec 11 New York Times article, Daniel Brandt, a book indexer who runs the site Wikipedia Watch, helped to flush out the man who posted the false biography of USA Today and Freedom Forum founder John Seigenthaler on Wikipedia. After Brandt discovered the post issued from a small delivery company in Nashville, the man in question — 38-year-old Brian Chase — sent a letter of apology to Seigenthaler and resigned from his job as operations manager at the company.
According to the Times, Chase claims that he didn’t realize that Wikipedia was used as a serious research tool: he posted the information to shock a co-worker who was familiar with the Seigenthaler family. Seigenthaler, who complained in a USA Today editorial last week about the protections afforded to the “volunteer vandals” who post anonymously in cyberspace, told the New York Times that he would not seek damages from Chase.
Responding to the fallout from Seigenthaler’s USA Today editorial, Wikipedia founder James Wales changed Wikipedia’s policies so that posters now must all be registered with Wikipedia. But, as Brandt shows, it’s takes work to remain anonymous in cyberspace. Though I’m not sure that I beleive Chase’s professed astonishment that anyone would take his post seriously (why else would it shock his co-worker?), it seems clear that he didn’t think what he was doing so outrageous that he ought to make a serious effort to hide his tracks.
Meanwhile, Wales has become somewhat irked by Seignthaler’s continuing attacks on Wikipedia. Posting to the threaded discussion of the issue on the mailing list of the Association for Internet Researchers, Wikipedia’s founder expressed exasperation about Seigenthaler’s telling the Associated Press this morning that “Wikipedia is inviting [more regulation of the internet] by its allowing irresponsible vandals to write anything they want about anybody.” Wales wrote:
*sigh* Facts about our policies on vandalism are not hard to come by. A statement like Seigenthaler’s, a statement that is egregiously false, would not last long at all at Wikipedia.
For the record, it is just absurd to say that Wikipedia allows “irresponsible vandals to write anything they want about anybody.”

where we’ve been, where we’re going

This past week at if:book we’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between this weblog and the work we do. We decided that while if:book has done a fine job reflecting and provoking the conversations we have at the Institute, we wanted to make sure that it also seems as coherent to our readers as it does to us. With that in mind, we’ve decided to begin posting a weekly roundup of our blog posts, in which we synthesize (as much a possible) what we’ve been thinking and talking about from Monday to Friday.
So here goes. This week we spent a lot of time reflecting on simulation and virtuality. In part, this reflection grew out of our collective reading of a Tom Zengotita’s book Mediated, which discusses (among other things) the link between alienation from the “real” through digital mediation and increased solipsism. Bob seemed especially interested in the dialectic relationship between, on one hand, the opportunity for access afforded by ever-more sophisticated form of simulation, and, on the other, the sense that something must be lost when as the encounter with the “real” recedes entirely.
This, in turn, led to further conversation about what we might think of as the “loss of the real” in the transition from books on paper to books on a computer screen. On one hand, there seems to be a tremendous amount of anxiety that Google Book Search might somehow make actual books irrelevant and thus destroy reading and writing practices linked to the bound book. On the other hand, one could take the position of Cory Doctorow that books as objects are overrated, and challenge the idea that a book needs to be digitally embodied to be “real.”
As the debate over Google Book Search continually reminds us, one of the most challenging things in sifting through discussions of emerging media forms is learning to tell the difference between nostalgia and useful critical insight. Often the two are hopelessly intertwined; in this week’s debates about Wikipedia, for example, discussion of how to make the open-source encyclopedia more useful was often tempered by the suggestion that encyclopedias of the past were always be superior to Wikipedia, an assertion easily challenged by a quick browse through some old encyclopedias.
Finally, I want to mention that we finally got around to setting up a del.icio.us account. There will be a formal link on the blog up soon, but you can take a look now. It will expand quickly.