Can Wikipedia rally the common good to improve?

MIT Technology Review gives an overview of the troubles at Wikipedia and how the limited group behind the website wants to improve it:

Yet Wikipedia and its stated ambition to “compile the sum of all human knowledge” are in trouble. The volunteer workforce that built the project’s flagship, the English-language Wikipedia—and must defend it against vandalism, hoaxes, and manipulation—has shrunk by more than a third since 2007 and is still shrinking. Those participants left seem incapable of fixing the flaws that keep Wikipedia from becoming a high-quality encyclopedia by any standard, including the project’s own. Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-­ranking quality scores.

The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.

In response, the Wikimedia Foundation, the 187-person nonprofit that pays for the legal and technical infrastructure supporting Wikipedia, is staging a kind of rescue mission. The foundation can’t order the volunteer community to change the way it operates. But by tweaking Wikipedia’s website and software, it hopes to steer the encyclopedia onto a more sustainable path…

Whether that can happen depends on whether enough people still believe in the notion of online collaboration for the greater good—the ideal that propelled Wikipedia in the beginning. But the attempt is crucial; Wikipedia matters to many more people than its editors and students who didn’t make time to read their assigned books. More of us than ever use the information found there, both directly and via other services. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has either killed off the alternatives or pushed them down the Google search results. In 2009 Microsoft closed Encarta, which was based on content from several storied encyclopedias. Encyclopaedia Britannica, which charges $70 a year for online access to its 120,000 articles, offers just a handful of free entries plastered with banner and pop-up ads.

So if Wikipedia was created by a collective, can it be saved by a collective? The story goes on to describe a common process for human groups: as they grow and over time, they tend to take on bureaucratic tendencies which then make it more difficult to change course.

The larger question may be whether modern humans can regularly pursue the common good on the Internet. If it can’t be done on Wikipedia, what other hope is there? The average comments section at a major news website? Reddit? YouTube? Are we at the point when we can say that big corporations have “won” the Internet?

The real first time the New York Times used the term “McMansion”

I recently ran across an article that made this claim about when the term McMansion was first used in the New York Times:

Primarily due to plunging home values, the net worth of the median family in America from 2007 to 2009 fell to the level it was at in the early ’90s –- a time when Mark Zuckerberg was being driven to play dates and several years before the word “McMansions” appeared in the New York Times for the first time in a piece Benjamin Cheever wrote about “almost” buying one a few miles away from Zuckerberg’s Westchester County hometown.

This claim is based on the Wikipedia entry on McMansions:

The stunt word “McMansion” seems to have been coined sometime in the early 1980s. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1990 and the New York Times in 1998.

Having done some research on this topic, this sounded off so I decided to check it out. According to a Lexis-Nexis search, the first result for McMansion in the New York Times is from February 7, 1993. In an article titled “Builder’s Motto: ‘Move On, Clean House,’” here is how McMansion is used:

Last year the Toulsons won the Regal award from the Home Builders Association of Delaware for the best house with more than 2,500 square feet. But it has been for sale since July and remains unsold, as do dozens of others of extravagant homes, both old and new, that dot what is know locally as “Chateau Country.”

Once almost exclusively the domain of the heirs to the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company chemical fortune, much of the rolling countryside has gone under the bulldozer in recent years. Several large parcels, formerly held by the du Ponts or senior managers of the company, have been sold as subdivisions, albeit with homes priced from $800,000 to more than $1 million.

Developers, some of whose immigrant grandfathers did construction work for du Ponts, moved into the old du Pont mansions with the lovely French names while they put up $850,000 homes often called “McMansions.” Mr. Toulson himself and his father before him worked at “the Company.”

This appears to have some of the basic meanings of how the term McMansion is used today: big and expensive homes built on former undeveloped land in a Chateau style (an interesting fit for the Delaware countryside).

Lesson: the Wikipedia page is not the most accurate source for this particular issue. Interestingly, while the NYT first used the term McMansion in 1993 and not 1998, the term wasn’t used much at all before 2000. According to Lexis-Nexis, the NYT only used the term 23 times before 2000. But, as my research suggested, usage really picked up in the 2000s as the NYT used it over 600 times.

History class “Lying About the Past” fools Wikipedia and the Internet…for a short time

Here is a fascinating story of a history class at George Mason University that asked students to fabricate information on Wikipedia and it worked…for a short time.

Each tale was carefully fabricated by undergraduates at George Mason University who were enrolled in T. Mills Kelly’s course, Lying About the Past. Their escapades not only went unpunished, they were actually encouraged by their professor. Four years ago, students created a Wikipedia page detailing the exploits of Edward Owens, successfully fooling Wikipedia’s community of editors. This year, though, one group of students made the mistake of launching their hoax on Reddit. What they learned in the process provides a valuable lesson for anyone who turns to the Internet for information.

The first time Kelly taught the course, in 2008, his students confected the life of Edward Owens, mixing together actual lives and events with brazen fabrications. They created YouTube videos, interviewed experts, scanned and transcribed primary documents, and built a Wikipedia page to honor Owens’ memory. The romantic tale of a pirate plying his trade in the Chesapeake struck a chord, and quickly landed on USA Today’s pop culture blog. When Kelly announced the hoax at the end of the semester, some were amused, applauding his pedagogical innovations. Many others were livid.

Critics decried the creation of a fake Wikipedia page as digital vandalism. “Things like that really, really, really annoy me,” fumed founder Jimmy Wales, comparing it to dumping trash in the streets to test the willingness of a community to keep it clean. But the indignation may, in part, have been compounded by the weaknesses the project exposed. Wikipedia operates on a presumption of good will. Determined contributors, from public relations firms to activists to pranksters, often exploit that, inserting information they would like displayed. The sprawling scale of Wikipedia, with nearly four million English-language entries, ensures that even if overall quality remains high, many such efforts will prove successful…

Sometimes even an apparent failure can mask an underlying success. The students may have failed to pull off a spectacular hoax, but they surely learned a tremendous amount in the process. “Why would I design a course,” Kelly asks on his syllabus, “that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past?” Kelly explains that he hopes to mold his students into “much better consumers of historical information,” and at the same time, “to lighten up a little” in contrast to “overly stuffy” approaches to the subject. He defends his creative approach to teaching the mechanics of the historian’s craft, and plans to convert the class from an experimental course into a regular offering.

Should this professor be applauded for his innovative use of technology or questioned about the possible unethical nature of asking students to create stories online?

I’d love to see the student evaluations for this course. This course could be practical on a variety of levels: it reveals some insights into how history is “made” (it requires a certain number of sources, credible sources, and a narrator or place where the facts can be put together), it involves current technology (a plus for today’s college student who spend a lot of time online and rely on Wikipedia a lot), and it shows students how to evaluate information (whether online or otherwise). These sound like laudable goals. Here is the syllabus for the second iteration of the course (Spring 2012) and some of the material from the first page:

Why would I design a course that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past? I have two answers to this question, both of which I hope will convince you that I’m onto something. The first answer is that by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we are much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past. That alone ought to be enough of a reason to teach this course. But my second reason is that I believe that the study of history ought to be fun and that too often historians (I include myself in this category) take an overly stuffy approach to the past. Maybe it’s our conditioning in graduate school, or maybe we’re afraid that if we get too playful with our
field we won’t be taken seriously as scholars. Whatever the reason, I think history has just gotten a bit too boring for its own good. This course is my attempt to lighten up a little and see where it gets us.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have only taught this class once before and to my knowledge,
no other history professor in the world is willing to teach something similar (or works in a
department where they could get away with it). Various courses taught around the world spend
some time on hoaxes and hoaxing, but I haven’t found one that is all about the hoax. So the only
model to work from is the one I used last time (Fall 2008). The last time around, the final class
project generated a great deal of discussion (much, but not all of it negative) in the academic
blogosphere. As you’ll see when we discuss the previous iteration of this course, I’m not
particularly sympathetic to those who took a dim view of what my students did.

Learning Goals

I do have some specific learning goals for this course. I hope that you’ll improve your research
and analytical skills and that you’ll become a much better consumer of historical information. I
hope you’ll become more skeptical without becoming too skeptical for your own good. I hope
you’ll learn some new skills in the digital realm that can translate to other courses you take or to
your eventual career. And, I hope you’ll be at least a little sneakier than you were before you
started the course.


ASA pushing for better sociology Wikipedia entries

This news came out earlier this week in the American Sociological Association’s Footnotes: the ASA is hoping sociologists and sociology students will help improve Wikipedia pages pertaining to sociology.

In an essay on the association’s online newsletter (scheduled to be included in the next edition of its print newsletter), Wright this week announced the Sociology in Wikipedia Initiative: a formal call to sociologists to help improve and expand Wikipedia entries that might benefit from their expertise and consider assigning their students to do the same.

“Wikipedia has become an important global public good,” Wright writes in the essay. “Since it is a reference source for sociologically relevant ideas and knowledge that is widely used by both the general public and students, it is important that the quality of sociology entries be as high as possible. This will only happen if sociologists themselves contribute to this public good.”

Not only might Wikipedia benefit from contributions by students steeped in academic research methods, but the exercise might help students learn how to read the crowd-sourced encyclopedia in the proper context, said Wright.

“What better way to get students to understand that it’s actual people like them who have written this stuff, than for them to write this stuff?” he said.

Is this “public sociology” at work? I don’t mind this call as it would help ensure that Wikipedia has accurate and in-depth sociology information rather than just a bare bones outline. Actually, I’ve thought the sociology Wikipedia entries weren’t that bad already, particularly compared to other disciplines. For example, the statistics pages on Wikipedia are technically correct but it is very difficult for a layperson to understand what is going on.

But how many sociology faculty will spend much time with this since there aren’t many professional incentives? Even publishing in online journals as opposed to more traditional print journals is not well-regarded so what’s the point of helping improve Wikipedia entries? This may seem like a move toward embracing technology and toward a younger generation of sociologists but the discipline has a long way to go.

At least a few leaders of major academic groups are admitting that they use Wikipedia as a source. Not too long, admitting this would not have been good for one’s status. How far away are we from Wikipedia being an acceptable source?

The future of textbooks: online and free?

Traditional textbooks can be problematic: they often are costly, hefty, and have difficulty keeping up current research and trends. But a new biology textbook may be paving the way for a change in the textbook field:

Within 2 1/2 years, the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, named after the naturalist and founder, hopes to complete a 59-chapter digital textbook about biology called Life on Earth. As each chapter is finished, the foundation plans to put it into the hands of anyone who wants it. For free…

“No publisher is doing what we’re doing, which is developing, from scratch, a serious digital textbook,” Patterson said. He added that only $1 million of that funding — half of it from Life Technologies Foundation — is in place, and the remaining $9 million remains to be seen from private and public donors. “It’s expensive, but once you’re done you can keep it up to date across time, globally, essentially free of charge.”

The foundation plans to sell university-level editions for about 10 percent of the cost of the average print textbook, in part to fund that continuous updating. Kindergarten through 12th grade editions will be free.

Patterson said the idea is to provide any student in the world unprecedented learning tools, but acknowledged imminent backlash from profit-seeking publishers.

In some ways, this seems like a mash-up between traditional textbooks and Wikipedia: a constantly updated online text that is authoritative and offers video and other Web 2.0 features.

If the online version is to be used with classes, is there also an assumption that students will have the textbook open on their laptops? This would require all students to have some sort of viewing technology and there are other problems associated with laptops in the classroom.

It sounds like a major issue here might be funding: who is going to pay for all of this writing and computer work? What happens if the foundation can’t raise sufficient funds from donors?