Wikia Search: Edit anything and everything

Jimmy “I invented Wikipedia” Wales gave a demo of the latest version of Wikia Search tonight, at the Social Media Marketing conference in Long Beach, and there is a new alpha site that you can play around with — if you don’t mind a page that yells “Beware!” at you in red type, and throws Javascript errors every time you click a button or launch an Ajax script (I particularly like how the URL is re.search.wiki.com; nice touch there, Jimbo). It’s actually kind of impressive in a way, if only because everything on the page is editable by any user, without leaving the page.

When Wikia Search was first released, it was dismissed by Mike Arrington at TechCrunch as one of the most disappointing products he had ever reviewed — primarily because it just added social features such as user profiles on to a rather lame search tool (powered by the Nutch engine). I had to agree at the time. But this alpha allows a user, through the wonders of Ajax, to click and edit in place any one of the search results, including title and description, and even allows search results to be completely deleted. You can also add new URLS, and pull data from a preview, which also appears in place.

Obviously, this is wide open to abuse — in much the same way that Wikipedia is. In fact, it’s even easier because you don’t have to click to go to an incomprehensible “edit” page with weird wiki commands for links. You just click and edit. Whether Wikia Search can develop the same kind of community of editors and overlords that Wikipedia has, which prevent the entire effort from degenerating into outright anarchy, remains to be seen. But it’s an interesting experiment, I think.

Jimmy Wales is not Wikipedia

I like salacious rumours and innuendo about public figures as much as the next guy — heck, probably more than the next guy (I am a member of the media, after all). But all of this Jimmy Wales stuff just seems really over the top to me, and barely even relevant to anything that really matters. I know (or at least I think I know, thanks to Valleywag) that Jimmy got involved with Rachel Marsden and it ended badly, and he may or may not have tried to intervene to clean up her Wikipedia entry.

I also know, or think I know, that there was some kind of brouhaha over things that Jimmy billed the foundation for that were really private expenses, something that Wikipedians appear to have tried (and failed) to keep as an internal matter, and that Jimmy says it’s all cleared up now. And in the latest allegation, Jimmy apparently offered to clean up a Novell scientist’s entry in Wikipedia in return for a donation.

Are some of these things bad? Maybe. Personally, I couldn’t care less whether Jimbo is sleeping with Rachel Marsden (other than the fact that she appears to be insane), or what they say to each other in their IM chats. I don’t care whether Jimbo has had marital problems, or whether he’s had disagreements with the foundation over his expenses. All that says to me is that he’s human, and has made mistakes.

But the implication is that because he’s made some mistakes in his personal life, that somehow Wikipedia itself is demeaned or invalidated in some way, as though someone had discovered that Mother Theresa was skimming money, or running drugs through the orphanage. To me, Jimmy Wales is nothing more than the guy who set Wikipedia in motion; it has become much more than a one-man show, if it ever was. What he does in his personal life is of no interest to me, nor do I think it’s particularly relevant to what matters about Wikipedia.

News flash: Wikipedia is run by people!

It’s been awhile since we had any Wikipedia controversy, so maybe it’s about time for a pile-on — you know, something about how Jimmy Wales doesn’t care about quality, or how he runs the “open source” encyclopedia as his own personal fiefdom, or how people run around using strange technical terms that no one outside the Wikipedia cabal can understand (okay, that last one is totally true). This time it’s the revelation of a top-secret… wait for it… mailing list only for insiders! According to a breathless piece in The Register:

“Controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia’s core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site’s top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.”

I just love the language throughout this story: words like “erupted” and “rogue editor,” combined with phrases like “ruling clique” and talk about how the “rank and file” are in revolt. It sounds like the author is describing France in the 1600s — with Jimmy Wales (presumably) playing the role of Cardinal Richelieu. Wikipedia is said to rife with dissent and “tearing at the seams.” Insiders are quoted by The Register as saying that senior editors are enraged, and that Jimmy is playing down the whole matter as a tempest in a teacup (in other words, failing to act).

Wow. I’m gobsmacked. Wikipedia has an internal mailing list for senior editors? Quelle horreur. Despite the attempt by places like The Register and perennial gadfly Seth Finkelstein to turn this into some kind of scandal, I just don’t see what the big deal is. Wikipedia has editors — pretty well everyone knows that by now. They ban people and edit things, and occasionally make mistakes, as the editor in this particular situation has admitted. This is no Essjay controversy, that’s for sure.

As for the “cabal” comments, Wikipedia knows that it has a cabal — insiders even call it that, in a gesture of self-referential irony. There’s also this entry on the topic, among others. As Stan Schroeder at Mashable notes in his post on the subject, this kind of phenomenon is endemic in almost any large, self-organizing social group. Does Wikipedia have problems? Sure. But a secret mailing list isn’t one of them.

Is ArmchairGM the future of blogs?

I was watching the interview with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on Om Malik’s show on Revision3, because I’m always interested in what Jimmy is up to, and he mentioned a site called ArmchairGM, which I don’t recall hearing about before — or at least paying much attention to. Om was talking about how he wanted a combination of his blog and a wiki, so that his community could contribute and get involved more, and Jimmy said he saw ArmchairGM as being close to that kind of thing.

ArmchairGM.com is a sports site that Wikia (the for-profit company that Wales runs) bought earlier this year for $2-million. It’s designed as a kind of combination blog and community site for sports fans, and so it has a bunch of the same features as a blog — posts, comments, etc. — but also many features of a wiki, in that anything can be edited (apart from user profiles), as well as some features of a Facebook-style social network.

For example, the site allows members to give each other gifts (which have a twist, in that they can be created by members), and to vote on or rate each other’s posts and comments — and it also has an interesting level system that allows members to work their way up based on the amount of activity they put into the site. Registering gets you 1,000 points and recruiting a new member gets you 5,000, and you get points for writing a new post, editing a post, and whether your comments get votes or not.

It’s an interesting idea, and the site appears to have gained a substantial amount of traction and developed a strong community. I don’t know how long a period the numbers relate to, but the site says it has more than 73,000 pages and there have been 441,000 edits, 660,000 votes and 173,000 comments. As of September it had about a million page views a month, according to TechCrunch.

Jimmy Wales is wrong about Essjay

Update:

Jimmy Wales has posted a statement on his talk page at Wikipedia about the Essjay affair, and from the sounds of it he has changed his mind about what Ryan Jordan did — and has asked him to resign from his positions within the Wikipedia community. And I for one think he has done the right thing.

I understood this to be primarily the matter of a pseudonymous identity (something very mild and completely understandable given the personal dangers possible on the Internet) and not a matter of violation of people’s trust.

I want to make it perfectly clear that my past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on.

There’s some more background and details in this New York Times story.

Original post:

Hardly a month goes by without some new dustup involving Wikipedia — either because someone edited their own entry, or because someone bitched about not being able to edit their own entry, or because someone paid someone else to edit an entry. The latest brouhaha concerns a New Yorker piece that quoted a senior Wikipedia administrator named Essjay, a person described as a tenured professor of religion at a private U.S. university.

wikipedia logo.jpgAs it turns out, Essjay is no such thing. His real name is Ryan Jordan, and he doesn’t have a degree in theology or canon law (as his Wikipedia profile claims), nor does he teach at any kind of educational institution. He is 24, and works for Wikia, the for-profit company started by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. And what was the response to the New Yorker piece? Jimmy Wales told the New Yorker that he regards Essjay’s fake profile as “a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.” On his talk page at Wikipedia he says:

“EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community. He apologized to me and to the community for any harm caused.

Trolls are claiming that he “bragged” about it: this is bullshit. He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter and I consider it settled.”

There is much discussion on the talk page about how Ryan Jordan maintained a fake profile under a pseudonym because he wanted to protect himself from “stalkers” such as Daniel Brandt, who runs a site called Wikipedia Watch that is critical of the open-source encyclopedia and regularly reveals the identities of Wikipedia editors. Others such as Chris Edwards point out, however, that Jordan was using his fake profile before Brandt started becoming a nuisance, not to mention the fact that fear of stalkers doesn’t explain why Jordan regularly cited his fake credentials.

Others at Wikipedia are arguing that Essjay was a valuable contributor to Wikipedia, that none of the editing he has done is being questioned (although perhaps it should be), and that a person’s actual biographical details should be irrelevant. Even Jimmy Wales seems to feel that Jordan’s misinformation was a harmless mistake, since he has appointed him to the arbitration committee.

I would argue that both Wales and Jordan’s supporters are wrong. Whether Essjay’s work at Wikipedia is above reproach isn’t the point. The point is that Wikipedia already has people questioning its credibility right and left, and the fact that a supposed expert — one who was put forward by Wikipedia itself as an authority on the project, not to mention a shining example of how it works — would effectively lie to the New Yorker is beyond the pale. If Wikipedia wants to have any claim to credibility at all, Essjay should be fired.

Update:

Essjay has made a statement on his talk page, and still maintains that he disguised his identity to protect himself from trolls and stalkers. Why he made up the credentials is not explained, although he says he was surprised that the New Yorker didn’t check those facts. He also says that it was his impression that it was “well known that I was not who I claimed to be.” Please see the comments below for further clarification.