Wikipedia's standards have never been higher, but the site needs to attract a new generation of editors to survive.
Wikipedia’s launch was kind of an accident. Initially founder Jimmy Wales envisioned an online encyclopedia vetted and edited exclusively by experts—basically a free, online Britannica he called Nupedia. But it was Nupedia’s crowdsourced sister site—designed to let users create entries that experts could later perfect—that took off. It didn’t take long for Wales to dump Nupedia and embrace his radical side-project, which blossomed faster than anyone expected. Today Wikipedia is the sixth most visited website on the internet (ahead of Amazon and Twitter) and its authority online is almost without parallel. Google the Krebs cycle or the French Revolution, and Wikipedia is the first page you see.
But behind Wikipedia’s success lays a tough balancing act, says Tom Simonite at Technology Review, and that balance may now threaten the site’s long term survival. From its beginning in 2001, Wikipedia has struggled to reconcile its conflicting missions, from building an authoritative source for all information on the planet to doing it all through open, anonymous, and decentralized volunteer labor. These contradictions came to a head in 2005 when a volunteer posted a defamatory “bio” accusing journalist John Seigenthaler of involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Big changes followed: editors introduced a system of bureaucratic hoops and automated edits to combat vandalism and raise standards. New edits were now easier to spot and dispute, articles were harder to change, and new computer “bots” roamed the encyclopedia to flag down formatting mistakes and vandalism.
The new policies were effective, says Simonite, and then they were too effective. The changes did much to improve Wikipedia’s quality and image, but they also led to a drop in participation that’s hounded the site ever since. Today, first-time users encounter byzantine editorial guidelines and swift reprimands for mistakes, leading many to simply leave: since 2007, Wikipedia has lost more than a third of its volunteer base. And with fewer newcomers comes less diversity. More than ever before the pool of volunteers is overwhelmingly Western, male, and nerdy, with predictable consequences for the site’s coverage (the ratio of Pokémon profiles to articles on female novelists is revealing, says Simonite).
A larger problem is that the internet’s social landscape has shifted over the past decade, from anonymous, collaborative communities to commercialized, egocentric hubs like Facebook. Wikipedia remains one of the last of the internet’s old-style gatherings and one of the largest. But with Twitter and Facebook dominating our online lives, “people steeped in that model will struggle to understand how and why they should contribute to Wikipedia or any project like it,” Simonite adds.
And while the folks at the Wikimedia Foundation are well aware of these issues, their authority to introduce changes is limited. Wikipedia has always been a community project, and it’s the community that takes the lead in determining and implementing policies (like it did to combat vandalism). If that community is going to survive, it needs to grow.
Image by Giulia Forsythe, licensed under Creative Commons.
Craigslist recently announced that it was getting rid of its “erotic” services section. Instead, the website will have an “adult” services section with more stringent screening and a $10 fee. Speaking with On the Media, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said to Craigslist, “you've got to recognize that your site has become the number one Internet brothel, and you have to take some responsibility for this.” The CEO of Craigslist countered, accusing politicians of “a bit of a witch hunt or a use of Craigslist as a political piñata.”
Largely absent from this conversation are the sex workers who have come to rely on Criagslist for their livelihoods. The latest issue of $pread, a magazine about “illuminating the sex industry,” has a point-counterpoint with two sex workers on the effect of the new Craigslist rules.
It’s understandable that Craigslist would bow to pressure from politicians and special interest groups, according to a writer known as Starchild, but that doesn’t make it fair. “Their new policy singles out folks who seek and provide erotic services from all other Craigslist users and subjects them to special discrimination, not to mention a greater risk of arrest, fine, and jail,” because of the ability to trace the fees. She does not, however, blame Craigslist. And she doesn’t advocate that people leave the site. Having the “erotic” services listed along side job and apartment listings on Craigslist, she writes, “can do nothing but help sex work be seen as normal and acceptable.”
The new rules aren’t unfair to sex workers, according to Mistress Matisse, but they are unfortunate. If sex workers don’t want to put down a credit card for the Craigslist ads, they can always go other places. And people who can’t afford the fee have bigger problems than Craigslist.
“Don’t blame Craigslist,” Starchild writes. “At least, not too much. Instead, let’s lobby them to send those $10 payments, which Craigslist says will go to charity, to groups like the Desiree Alliance, Sex Workers Outreach Project, and Erotic Service Providers Union, which are working to decriminalize prostitution.”
Sources: On the Media, $pread (article not available online)
Featured in this week’s episode:
- "Your Ultimate Home Bar Guide" and the fine art of aging coffee (not yet available online), from Imbibe
- "25 Beautiful Girls," from New Moon Girls (not yet available online)
- Women recover from sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide, from Herizons
Sources: Imbibe, New Moon Girls, Herizons
Featured in this week’s episode:
- A rumor mill for Baltimore, one of the ideas dreamt up by this year’s Urbanite Project participants (from Urbanite)
- Western innovations from High Country News
- The new Rad Dad, with dispatches from southeast Asia and a pair of essays exploring gender, identity, and parenting (not available online)
- Tapping Alaska’s grease market, from biodieselSMARTER
Sources: Urbanite, High Country News, Rad Dad, biodieselSMARTER
Remember those historical maps of European languages in the decades before World War I? They’re pretty common, especially buried in the Bargain Books section of Barnes and Noble. Anyway, the premise was that, by the middle of the 19th century, Europeans were beginning to identify more with their own nationality and language than with their imperial governments. Anachronistic states like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire had a hard time dealing with passionate nationalist movements erupting in places like Greece and Serbia, and a lot of this had to do with language.
The maps themselves are pretty telling. The boundary between, say, Russia and Austria is a single red line, thin and elegant. But large colored sections with labels like Ukrainian and White Russian straddle the borders, and form large, amorphous blobs across much of Eastern Europe. Because people are less predictable than countries—or at least less tidy—there seems to be little rhyme or reason. Pockets of Finns and Estonians color northern Russia, Greeks go as far east as the Black Sea, and Germans are everywhere.
From this information, it’s clear in hindsight that big changes were in store for Europe.
Today, borders are a lot less important. Innovations like the Schengen Area have made a ghost of centuries of European warfare, and trade pacts around the world further delegitimize official boundaries. A lot of this change is based on communication. By the numbers, Facebook is the third largest country on earth, and Verizon is (economically) bigger than Peru.
Aside from their sheer size, it’s also clear that social media networks, like European languages, are making political boundaries even less significant. Two maps on Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps blog come to mind. The first is a visualization of Twitter languages across Europe, which looks something like a multicolored “Europe at night” photo. As Jacobs notes, the maps illustrate not only that Twitter has expanded well beyond the English-speaking world, but also that languages are no more tied to national borders than they were in the 19th century.
In the U.S., language is a little more homogenous. But patterns of communication are just as messy and unpredictable as in Europe. Another Strange Maps creation superimposes pockets of cell phone “communities” on U.S. states, which, surprisingly, changes their layout quite a bit. Because people in southern Illinois are more likely to call St. Louis than Chicago, Missouri has grown in size, even taking parts of eastern Kansas. Minnesota has taken western Wisconsin and connected with Iowa, and one of the Carolinas has annexed the other.
Boundaries, even between states, still profoundly influence our lives, and it’s especially hard to deny their importance during a federal election cycle. But the way we connect with one another is not so clear cut, and that’s likely to inspire ever more complex ways of viewing the world around us.
Sources: Strange Maps, BBC, The Economist, Mongabay.com.
Image by Andrei Nacu, licensed under Creative Commons.
Utne Reader librarian Danielle Maestretti shares the highlights (and occasional lowlights) of what's landing in our library each week.
Featured in this week’s episode:
- "Adultery and Other Half Revolutions," from Briarpatch
- A two-mom family discovers the joy of half-siblings, and Noemi Martinez embraces the notion that activism begins at home, from Hip Mama (not available online)
- New Internationalist on the continuing scourge of maternal deaths
- The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report on "The Year in Hate"
Sources: Briarpatch, Hip Mama, New Internationalist, Intelligence Report
Forget putting video in magazines, it's high time we start putting our magazines in videos! That's what the Walrus did with their dramatic animated trailer for the September 2009 issue. It's a novel idea, and it's also an effective one. I was reading Helen Humphreys on the Plains of Abraham mere seconds after the trailer had ended.
Never heard of the Walrus? They won the 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for Best Writing. It's a fabulous magazine. But why take our word for it when you can hear it from Margaret Atwood, Broken Social Scene, Atom Egoyan, and Geddy Lee? They're all together (at last?) in another little video called Why We Need the Walrus.