Wikipedian meeting in Egypt

Great, lengthy article in today’s Wall Street Journal about Wikipedians’ largest-ever meeting just held in Alexandria, Egypt, at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina:

Wikipedians Leave Cyberspace, Meet in Egypt

In Alexandria, 650 Devotees Bemoan Vandals, Debate Rules; Deletionists vs. Inclusionists

By James Gleick

“James Gleick is the author, most recently, of ‘Isaac Newton.’ He is working on a history of information.”

From the WSJ article:

. . .

Even without vandals, even without trolls and sock-puppets and other notorious malefactors, anarchy can always break out. Because everyone in the world has the power to edit, Wikipedia has long been plagued by the so-called edit war. This is like a house where the husband wants it warm and the wife wants it cool and they sneak back and forth adjusting the thermostat at cross purposes. One Wikipedian says “potato,” another says “potahto,” and they reverse each other’s edits ad infinitum. There have been edit wars over gods and edit wars over commas. “Betwixt” or “between”? Is the Conch Republic (aka Key West) really a “micronation”? Is it “Daylight Saving Time” or “Daylight Savings Time”? You may know the answer for sure; rest assured, a significant faction of humanity knows you are wrong and can prove it. At the end of 2006, people concerned with the “Cat” article could not agree on whether a human with a cat is its “owner,” “caregiver” or “human companion.” Invective was hurled. Over a three-week period, the argument extended to the length of a small book.

Anyone looking at the ebb and flow of edit wars may wonder how equilibrium can ever be established. Yet invariably factions reach accommodation, and articles tend to be, if not perfectly consistent, amazingly accurate. This, too, is part of the maturing of Wikipedia. All editors are created equal, but they don’t stay equal. There are unmistakable signs of hierarchy (another dirty word). A longtime trusted user can become an “administrator,” with special powers: to protect articles, to delete articles, and, in cases of vandalism or other bad behavior, to block other users. In Alexandria, as newbies mingled with old-timers, complaints were heard: The community has gotten less friendly; its organization is more “top down.” And who administers the administrators? There are “stewards,” “sysops” and “arbitrators.”

“It changes the dynamic, and think I miss the old days,” Kat Walsh, aka Mindspillage, a law student and Wikimedia board member, tells an introspective session called “Welcome to the Wiki-Cabal.” There’s no glory in adminship — “It’s like going around behind people and picking up the trash.” Articles get rated now, too: A “good” article must have met the “good article criteria” and passed through the “good article nomination process,” always subject to “good article reassessment.” Predictably, the emergence of hierarchy has demanded a structure of policy and rules.

. . .

The Wikipedia Zeitgeist

One of the many joys of my job — and a reason why I’ll never retire — is the steady stream of interesting publications that pass my desk.  Today brought the August 2008 issue Super Lawyers, Corporate Counsel Edition, and it includes a profile of Wikimedia’s in-house counsel, Mike Godwin.

Godwin was the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s first lawyer, after catching its founders attention with a computer crime true story involving the Secret Service’s raid on Steven Jackson Games (which is documented in Bruce Sterling’s The hacker crackdown : law and disorder on the electronic frontier)

According to the Super Lawyers story, “The Wikipedia Zeitgeist: Why Mike Godwin disowns his own content,” by Larry Rosen, Godwin joined Wikipedia in July 2007 because he was “intrigued by Wikipedia’s impact on copyright liability and free speech.”

“We expressly disown our content,” he says.  “The legal framework set up in the ’90s protects publishers from liability for content they did not produce. . . . The thing we set out to do philosophically — provide free content and not own it — actually provides us with a lot of legal protection.”

Since Wikipedia includes articles about people who are still living, the protection is tested often.  “I do a lot of explaining,” Godwin says.

The explanation includes an invitation to join the Wikipedia community.  “Add your voice to it; correct the record,” he tells critics.  “We’ll show you how.”

The power of Wikepedia, and the entire Internet, is that “everyone now has a chance to correct the record.  But,” he cautions, “this is such a fundamental social change that it’ll take at least a generation to get accustomed to it.”

. . .