Wikipedia gets $3m donation

Hooray! From The Register

Wikipedia, the people’s encylopedia, has trousered a $3m donation from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to be paid in equal chunks over three years. Which is nice. Even nicer, the money hails from a charity, and not from philanthropic venture capitalists, who may or may not have commercial designs upon Wikipedia’s ads-unsullied pages.

Wikipedia is the world’s eighth biggest website, but it has a measly 15 full-time employees, up from last year’s even more measly 10. It will use the Sloan cash to fund quality improvements and to up staff levels to 25 people.

The battle for Wikipedia’s soul

Thoughtful piece in the Economist about the internal struggle in Wikipedia.

IT IS the biggest encyclopedia in history and the most successful example of “user-generated content” on the internet, with over 9m articles in 250 languages contributed by volunteers collaborating online. But Wikipedia is facing an identity crisis as it is torn between two alternative futures. It can either strive to encompass every aspect of human knowledge, no matter how trivial; or it can adopt a more stringent editorial policy and ban articles on trivial subjects, in the hope that this will enhance its reputation as a trustworthy and credible reference source. These two conflicting visions are at the heart of a bitter struggle inside Wikipedia between “inclusionists”, who believe that applying strict editorial criteria will dampen contributors’ enthusiasm for the project, and “deletionists” who argue that Wikipedia should be more cautious and selective about its entries…

Google: Knol thyself

Google is taking aim at Wikipedia…

Google Knol is designed to allow anyone to create a page on any topic, which others can comment on, rate, and contribute to if the primary author allows. The service is in a private test beta. You can’t apply to be part of it, nor can the pubic [sic] see the pages that have been made. Google also stressed to me that what’s shown in the screenshots it provided might change and that the service might not launch at all…

If they do launch it, then the emerging comparisons with Wikipedia will be intriguing. GMSV has a thoughtful take on it.

Now you may be thinking, “Don’t we already have a collaborative, grass-roots, online encyclopedia … Wiki-something?” Indeed we do, as the Google guys are well aware, since Wikipedia entries tend to show up in that coveted area near the top of many, many pages of Google search results. But Google’s plan is based on a model that highlights individual expertise rather than collective knowledge. Unlike Wikipedia, where the contributors and editors remain in the background, each knol represents the view of a single author, who is featured prominently on the page. Readers can add comments, reviews, rankings, and alternative knols on the subject, but cannot directly edit the work of others, as in Wikipedia. And Google is offering another incentive — knol authors can choose to include ads with their offering and collect a cut of the revenue.

Some see this as a dagger in Wikipedia’s heart, but from a user perspective, I think they look more complementary than competitive, both with their weak and strong points. Search a topic on Wikipedia and you’ll get a single page of information, the contents of which could be the result of a lot of backroom back-and-forth, but which, when approached with a reasonable degree of skepticism, offers some quick answers and a good jumping off point to additional research. Search a topic in Google’s book of knowledge and it sounds like you’ll get your choice of competing knols all annotated with the comments of other users, and if there are disagreements or differing interpretations, they’ll be argued out in the open. So it’s the wisdom of crowds as created by readers vs. the wisdom of experts (or whoever is interested enough in glory and revenue to stake that claim) as ranked by readers. I can see the usefulness and drawbacks of both.

Where this does represent a threat to Wikipedia is in traffic, if Google knols start rising to the top of the search results and Wikipedia’s are pushed down. Google says it won’t be giving the knols any special rankings juice to make that happen, but the more Google puts its own hosted content in competition with what it indexes, the more people are going to be suspicious.

All kinds of interesting scenarios present themselves. It’s not just the wisdom of crowds vs. the wisdom of ‘experts’. It’s also the Jerffersonian ‘marketplace in ideas’ on steroids. Just imagine, for example, competing Knols on the Holocaust written by David Irving (and I’m sure he will submit one) vs. one written by Richard Evans or Deborah Lipstadt.

micro-elites: how to get the best user-generated content

Andy Oram has a good idea

The idea of micro-elites actually came to me when looking at the Peer to Patent project. There are currently 1611 signed-up contributors searching for prior art on patent applications. But you don’t want 1611 people examining each patent. You want the 20 people who understand the subject deeply and intimately. A different 20 people on each patent adds up to 1611 (and hopefully the project will continue, and grow to a hundred or a thousands times that number).

Even Wikipedia follows this rule in some cases. There are some subjects where everybody in the world holds an opinion and a huge number actually know some facts. But other subjects would never see articles unless a couple of the few dozen experts in the world took time to write it.

A corollary of the micro-elite principle is that one of the best ways to help a project requiring a micro-elite is to find the right contributors and persuade them to help out. We should also examine the rewards that such projects offer to see whether they offer enough incentives to draw the micro-elite. The key prerequisite for good writing is good writers.

Wikiwars visualised

This is a graphical visualisation of the 20 most hotly-revised articles in Wikipedia. The diagram comes from a fascinating article on how it was constructed. In essence, the authors used network theory:

We began this piece by representing the data as a network. In this case the nodes in the network are wikipedia articles and the edges are the links between articles. We then (with some help from our friends at Sandia) used an algorithm to lay out all 650,000 nodes (wikipedia articles) that had at least one link in such a way that similar articles are near one another. These are the yellow dots, which when viewed at low res give a yellow tint to the whole picture.

The sizes of the nodes (circles, dots, whatever you want to call them), are based on a model of revision activity. So large circles indicate that an article might be controversial, or the subject of lots of vandalism, or just a topic whose content frequently changes. We labeled only the largest nodes, to keep it readable. There is an interactive version of this in the works based on the google maps platform which will change the labels and pictures used as the user ‘zooms’ in or out. Stay tuned for that.

The image used for each tile was selected automatically, simply by using the first image in the most linked to article among all the articles in that tile. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the images that appeared.

Our hope for this visualization approach, which we continue to improve on, is that it could be updated in real time to give a macro sense of what is happening in Wikipedia. I personally hope that some variation of it will end up in high schools as a teaching tool and for generating discussions…

Wiki wars

From the Telegraph

Submission of new articles is slowing to a trickle where in previous years it was flood, and the discussion pages are increasingly filled with arguments and cryptic references to policy documents. The rise of the deletionists is threatening the hitherto peaceful growth of the world’s most popular information source.

Even though anyone can edit all but the most controversial pages, the English-language Wikipedia is governed by a group of a little over 1,000 administrators drawn from the ranks of enthusiastic editors. Only they have the power to finally delete an article or bring it back from the dead.

The group is forming itself into two factions: inclusionists and deletionists…

VoIP: Very over-Inflated Price

This morning’s Observer column

First of all, an apology. In previous editions, this column may have suggested that VoIP (internet telephony) stood for ‘Voice over Internet Protocol’. Now it turns out that it is, in fact, an acronym for ‘Very over-Inflated Price’. The proprietors deeply regret this error and hope that it has not caused any reader to make foolish investment decisions.

This matter was drawn to our attention by an announcement made last week by eBay. The company reported that in the quarter just ended, it will take £700m in write-offs and charges related to Skype – for which two short years ago it paid £1.3bn in cash and stock, plus what was enigmatically described as ‘a potential performance-based consideration’ estimated by industry sources at £750m. That’s £2.75bn in total…

I also wrote a short piece on the Wikipedia-obituary kerfuffle.

Errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia

This is lovely — a Wikipedia page detailing errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia.

This page catalogs some mistakes and omissions in Encyclopædia Britannica (EB) and shows how they have been corrected in Wikipedia. Some errors have already been corrected in Britannica’s online version.

These examples can serve as useful reminders of the fact that no encyclopedia can ever expect to be perfectly error-free (which is sometimes forgotten when Wikipedia is compared to traditional encyclopedias), and as an illustration of the advantages of an editorial process where anybody can correct an error at any time. However, this page is not intended to be a comparison of the overall quality of both encyclopedias, nor as a dismissal of concerns about the reliability of Wikipedia.

Thanks to my colleague Andrew Cupples for the link.

Wikipedia deficiencies

Dan Bricklin has some interesting reflections about the Wikipedia entry on the spreadsheet. I’ve always thought that Dan invented the spreadsheet, but the Wikipedia entry begs to differ. I’ve just looked at it and it fails to give a date for the first release of VisiCalc and doesn’t mention Microsoft’s first stab at a spreadsheet program — Multiplan — at all.

Second thoughts about old and new media

Ed Felten’s having second thoughts about his reactions to the famed New Yorker article about Wikipedia…

It turns out that EssJay, one of the Wikipedia users described in The New Yorker article, is not the “tenured professor of religion at a private university” that he claimed he was, and that The New Yorker reported him to be. He’s actually a 24-year-old, sans doctorate, named Ryan Jordan.

It’s a long and typically thoughtful post. In the end, Prof. Felten reaches this conclusion:

In the wake of this episode The New Yorker looks very bad (and Wikipedia only moderately so) because people regard an error in The New Yorker to be exceptional in a way the exact same error in Wikipedia is not. This expectations gap tells me that The New Yorker, warts and all, still gives people something they cannot find at Wikipedia: a greater, though conspicuously not total, degree of confidence in what they read.