Jimmy Wales defends Wikipedia

This is a debate that has completely escaped me until now, but apparently conservative blogger Robert Cox — who maintains a site called Olbermann Watch, devoted to criticizing sportscaster and news anchor Keith Olbermann — believes that Wikipedia is deliberately censoring him by not allowing him to edit the page at Wikipedia that is dedicated to Olbermann. He claims that comments he makes are repeatedly ignored, that edits he makes are repeatedly changed or “reverted” and that this is clear evidence of a liberal bias.

So Marc Glaser of PBS’s MediaShift got an email debate going between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Cox, which has some fascinating parts to it. There’s this exchange:

MARK GLASER: So you feel that Wikipedia having a “slightly more liberal” slant than the U.S. is OK? How does it affect the goal of neutral point of view and should you do something to counteract it in some way?

JIMMY WALES: I do not think it affects the goal at all. The question totally misapprehends the process. The idea that neutrality can only be achieved if we have some exact demographic matchup to United States of America is preposterous, as I am sure you will agree.

And then there is a long rant in which Robert Cox details how his changes to the Olbermann page — which he says were made in an attempt to make it more balanced, not just to be critical of Olbermann — were repeatedly erased, and when he made some without discussing them (as Wikipedia rules require) he was turned in to the “Wikipedia cops.” Jimmy Wales has this response:

JIMMY WALES: Just make some good faith edits, and write in a non-hostile manner on the talk page that you have an interest in trying to make the article high quality and neutral. Reach out with love and kindness to your opponents and see what happens. I will watch and not interfere.

Glaser also asks about why the entry on George Bush, which is described as very critical, was “locked down,” and Jimmy Wales describes the process by which some entries used to be “protected” so they wouldn’t be vandalized, and how that has evolved:

Protection to deal with vandalism was overkill. So we invented what is called “semi-protection.” Semi-protection is a state in which articles can still be edited by any user of the site, but not by anonymous IP numbers.

All in all, it’s a fascinating look at the inner workings of Wikipedia, and along with the recent kerfuffle over Digg.com and the accusations of manipulation by senior editors there, it’s a worthwhile look at some of the issues surrounding “social media,” all of which will make great fodder for our discussion of Web 2.0 and society at mesh in May. If you have even more time on your hands, you could also read this transcript of an address given by Jason Scott of textfiles.com about how Wikipedia is flawed in many ways, including the control that Jimmy Wales exerts over it, and also that Wikipedia’s failures have a lot to say about human nature and anonymity.

The Economist on “social media”

Does this mean “social media” has peaked? The Economist doing a big take-out on the idea brings back memories of the magazine’s infamous “$5 a barrel oil” cover from the late 1990s, which pretty much marked the turnaround for crude (it’s $73 a barrel now) — another classic example of the “magazine cover indicator.” In this particular case, of course, it’s not the cover story, so I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t mean the end of social media as we know it. In fact, as The Economist describes, things are really just getting started. The main article begins with this:

“The era of mass media is giving way to one of personal and participatory media, says Andreas Kluth. That will profoundly change both the media industry and society as a whole.”

The piece begins with the creation of Gutenberg’s movable-type machine, the printing press, in the 15th century and then quickly segues into the creation of the blog platform Movable Type in 2001 by Ben and Mena Trott as the beginning of the new age of “social media.”

With participatory media, the boundaries between audiences and creators become blurred and often invisible. In the words of David Sifry, the founder of Technorati, a search engine for blogs, one-to-many “lectures” (ie, from media companies to their audiences) are transformed into “conversations” among “the people formerly known as the audience”.

Not everyone agrees with this theory, however. The article quotes media mogul Barry Diller as saying that participation can never be a proper basis for the media industry. “Self-publishing by someone of average talent is not very interesting,” he says. “Talent is the new limited resource.” Others who think along the same lines include Nick Carr of roughtype.com, the former editor at Harvard Business Review who has written in the past about how blogs and social media threaten to turn culture into the lowest common denominator (a charge that is also often levelled at television, with some justification).

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has also written about how social media relies on a conceit that everyone wants to (or has time to) become a creator of media, and also that in any cases people don’t really have much worth saying or contributing. I responded to this with a post of my own, in which I accused Scott of being an elitist (he responds to me in the comments). The Economist quotes Jerry Michalski on this topic:

Not everything in the “blogosphere” is poetry, not every audio “podcast” is a symphony, not every video “vlog” would do well at Sundance, and not every entry on Wikipedia, the free and collaborative online encyclopedia, is 100% correct, concedes Mr Michalski. But exactly the same could be said about newspapers, radio, television and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

There are a whole series of related articles that go along with the main one, and are definitely worth reading, including one on blogging (entitled “It’s The Links, Stupid”), but most of the related pieces are for paying subscribers only. One is about wikis, another is about business models, and so on. Is it worth paying just for those? You’ll have to be the judge of that. There are also audio interviews (which should be called podcasts, but aren’t) with the writer of the main piece, as well as Dave Sifry of Technorati.com and several other sources that appear in the stories.

Is there a perfect kind of conference?

Since I’m involved in organizing one in May, my eye always gets caught by any mention of what makes a good conference versus a bad one, which is how I wound up reading Euan Semple’s post on his blog The Obvious, about a forum on blogs and society that he is attending in May. In it, Euan (former head of knowledge management at the BBC) says that he has grown wary of “being taken advantage of by commercial conference organisers,” and was also concerned about “being associated with yet another money-spinning, bandwagon-joining, pointless exercise.”

As are we all, Euan, as are we all. That’s why I keep writing about how with mesh we are trying to create something part-way between a traditional conference and an “unconference.” Can’t get enough of my thoughts on that topic? Here’s another one. I think Euan and I share a similar thought — that boring, stale, PowerPoint-filled conferences are useless, but also (as he puts it) that he’s kind of irritated by “a small group of people who have attended mind-boggling numbers of conferences… over the past four years in the US getting bored with themselves and declaring conferences dead.”

And what would a post on conferences be without a reference to Dave Winer? Euan includes in his post a reference to the fact that the idea of an unconference “wasn’t invented by Dave Winer,” and gets a comment from — naturalement — Dave Winer.

Update:

My fellow mesh organizer Mark Evans has some thoughts about the perfect conference too, and so does Stuart at the mesh blog and Mike. We may not hit perfection but we’re certainly going to try 🙂 Stowe Boyd, who is coming to mesh, says he isn’t tired of conferences, he’s just “tired of tired conferences.”

Is Digg.com rigging its diggs?

When it comes to examples of “social media,” Digg.com is right up there with del.icio.us and Flickr as the standard-bearer for “user-influenced content,” or whatever you want to call it — and the story of Kevin Rose and the development of Digg.com is a great startup tale as well. Which is probably why there is such a stink being raised about suggestions that the service is somehow rigging which stories get “dugg” or promoted to the front page of the website — and also censoring anyone who tries to post an article about the affair.

The accusations started with ForeverGeek.com, which mentioned that two stories posted to the front page of Digg were “dugg” by the same people — and not just a few of the same people, which wouldn’t be that hard to imagine. The first 16 diggs were all by the exact same people, and in the exact same order, and Kevin Rose was one of them — the 17th, as it turns out. When several readers tried to post the article from ForeverGeek.com to Digg, they were banned and the link was removed. According to them, the site said it violated the terms of the user agreement at Digg, which bans articles that allege misbehaviour by other Digg users.

That’s ForeverGeek’s side of the story. According to Digg.com, however, its URL has been banned because it has been “spamming” Digg with its own stories and trying to get them on to the front page. Kevin Rose posted a response of sorts to the Digg blog, in which he said ForeverGeek violated the terms of service. He also responded obliquely to the comments about him digging the stories in question, saying he diggs stories all the time — but no response to the point about the first 16 diggs all being from the same people. Kent Newsome says this is part of what he doesn’t like about the “news by contest” format.

There are two issues here, it seems to me: one is the suggestion that Digg (like other social media sites) is susceptible to being influenced by a small group or clique of insiders. That one is difficult to prove, although the screenshots from ForeverGeek are suspicious, and it’s probably not all that surprising (Update: the site has posted a response to Kevin’s response here). The other issue is whether Digg.com should be banning people who post stories that are critical of other Digg users — as it did with the ForeverGeek stories, and has done with others. These are issues that have also been raised in the past at Slashdot, as several posters have mentioned.

It seems to me that even a “social media” network like Digg or Slashdot.org needs to have rules, and if it decides to ban certain spammers or block overly-critical articles and comments, then perhaps that is part of the tradeoff for having a civilized atmosphere rather than total anarchy. But Digg — and others — need to realize that a large part of what drives their services forward with users is trust, and once that trust is lost it is very difficult to regain. That war is one that traditional media fight each and every day.