Wikipedia and breaking news: The promise of a global media platform and the threat of the filter bubble

I gave this talk at Wikimania in London yesterday. 

In the first years of Wikipedia’s existence, many of us said that, as an example of citizen journalism and journalism by the people, Wikipedia would be able to avoid the gatekeeping problems faced by traditional media. The theory was that because we didn’t have the burden of shareholders and the practices that favoured elite viewpoints, we could produce a media that was about ‘all of us’ and not just ‘some of us’.

Dan Gillmor (2004) wrote that Wikipedia was an example of a wave of citizen journalism projects initiated at the turn of the century in which ‘news was being produced by regular people who had something to say and show, and not solely by the “official” news organizations that had traditionally decided how the first draft of history would look’ (Gillmor, 2004: x).

Yochai Benkler (2006) wrote that projects like Wikipedia enables ‘many more individuals to communicate their observations and their viewpoints to many others, and to do so in a way that cannot be controlled by media owners and is not as easily corruptible by money as were the mass media.’ (Benkler, 2006: 11)

I think that at that time we were all really buoyed by the idea that Wikipedia and peer production could produce information products that were much more representative of “everyone’s” experience. But the idea that Wikipedia could avoid bias completely, I now believe, is fundamentally wrong. Wikipedia presents a particular view of the world while rejecting others. Its bias arises both from its dependence on sources which are themselves biased, but Wikipedia itself has policies and practices that favour particular viewpoints. Although Wikipedia is as close to a truly global media product than we have probably ever come*, like every media product it is a representation of the world and is the result of a series of editorial, technical and social decisions made to prioritise certain narratives over others. Continue reading “Wikipedia and breaking news: The promise of a global media platform and the threat of the filter bubble”

Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)

First posted at

Last month’s Wired magazine showed an infographic with a headline that read: ‘History’s most influential people, ranked by Wikipedia reach’ with a group of 20 men arranged in hierarchical order — from Jesus at number 1 to Stalin at number 20. Curious, I wondered how ‘influence’ and ‘Wikipedia reach’ was being decided. According to the article, ‘Rankings (were) based on parameters such as the number of language editions in which that person has a page, and the number of people known to speak those languages’. What really surprised me was not the particular arrangement of figures on this page but the conclusions that were being drawn from it.

According to the piece, César Hidalgo, head of the Media Lab’s Macro Connections group, who researched the data, made the following claims about the data gathered from Wikipedia:

a) “It shows you how the world perceives your own national culture.

b) “It’s a socio-cultural mirror.

c) “We use historical characters as proxies for culture.

And finally, perhaps most surprising is this final line in the story:

Using this quantitative approach, Hidalgo is now testing hypotheses such as whether cultural development is structured or random. “Can you have a Steve Jobs in a country that has not generated enough science or technology?” he wonders. “Ultimately we want to know how culture assembles itself.”

It is difficult to comment on the particular method used by this study because there is little more than the diagram and a few paragraphs of analysis, and the journalist may have misquoted him, but I wanted to draw attention to the statements being made because I think it represents the growing phenomenon of big data analysts using Wikipedia data to make assumptions about ‘culture’. Continue reading “Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)”

One cable, many stories

On the 3rd of January this year, Guardian contributor, James Richardson wrote an article about how Wikileaks would have committed the same ‘collateral murder’ it accused the US military of (in their edited video of an Iraq drone operation)  if Zimbabwean Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangarai was convicted of treason. One of the cables (published 8 December 2010) indicated that Tsvangarai was privately supporting sanctions by the US against Zimbabwe when he had publicly denounced them. The Zimbabwean Attorney General responded by launching an investigation into the matter, saying that ‘The WikiLeaks appear to show a treasonous collusion between local Zimbabweans and the aggressive international world, particularly the United States.’ Richardson complained that ‘WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life’.

Soon afterwards, in a Twitter response to the article, Wikileaks alerted the Guardian to the fact that the Guardian, not Wikileaks, had actually published the cable in question. Eleven days after the story was published, it was edited to reflect the new facts with following statement: ‘This article was amended on 11 January 2011 to clarify the fact that the 2009 cable referred to in this article was placed in the public domain by the Guardian, and not as originally implied by WikiLeaks. The photo caption was also amended to reflect this fact.’

On January 13, The Guardian’s Deputy Editor, Ian Katz wrote an explanation of the mistake, saying that technically it was both Wikileaks and the Guardian that published the cables. He explained the process as follows:

‘The Guardian and four other international news organisations had – and has – access to all 250,000 leaked US embassy cables. When the Guardian released a story based on one or more documents, we generally published Continue reading “One cable, many stories”

The Missing Wikipedians

This essay <download below> is being published as part of the ‘Critical Point of View: Wikipedia Research Initiative’ Reader. Thank you to Geert and Nathaniel and the rest of the folks at the Amsterdam-based Institute of Network Cultures (INC) and the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society for making me realise that you can love something and be critical about it – and that sometimes you have to love it to be truly so.

Much has been said of the future of Wikipedia. Some have prophesied that the online encyclopaedia will fail due to increasing spam. Others have said that, as large parts of the world go online, Wikipedia might see a wave of new editors as countries from Zambia to Indonesia begin to fill in Wikipedia’s blank spots. In a project that aims to ‘make all human knowledge accessible’, those blank spots can mean many things: the hundreds of thousands of places that aren’t talked about on Wikipedia, the thousands of languages that either don’t have their own encyclopaedia or are struggling to build one, and the countless things that people know about their world but aren’t in written form.

This essay is concerned, not so much with the future of the English version of Wikipedia (about which much of the prophesying occurs) but with the 277 other language Wikipedias. Will this number shrink as editors grow tired of their lonely pursuits, or will it grow as more of the world goes online? As large parts of Africa go online, it is expected that they will start to edit Wikipedia and that they will edit it in their own language. Both of these assumptions may be incorrect. Firstly, there are a number of external and internal limitations to this new wave of editors joining Wikipedia, and secondly, the scale of smaller Wikipedias may mean that they are over-shadowed by stronger motivations to edit the larger, more powerful English version.

‘The Missing Wikipedians’ in Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (eds), Critical Point of View: A Wikpedia Reader, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011. ISBN: 978-90-78146-13-1. Download PDF

Why I won’t support Creative Commons or Wikipedia this year

It’s that time of the year again. Creative Commons and Wikipedia are working towards their fundraising goals for the coming year and asking users to donate to support the cause.

I spent the last five years working on building a global perspective on the commons and will probably spend the next working out what I did wrong. I worked directly with both organisations during this time, so it’s really sad for me to say this (and probably not very politically astute) but I feel like the only way we’re ever going to attack the problem of a lack of global agenda and global solidarity is by the funding issue. Here are my reasons in brief:

– Creative Commons (despite pressure from its international volunteers) still has a mostly male, mostly white, almost all American leadership. If CC is really committed to an international agenda, then they must at least attempt to involve a more diverse leadership in planning for the future.

– I know it’s a fundraising campaign but statements like this by Hal Abelson: ‘By supporting Creative Commons, you are helping to realize the promise of the Internet to uplift all of humanity’ leave me speechless. Until we have an international *common* agenda, until ‘all of humanity’ or at least major parts of it have ownership of this agenda (South Africa is the only African country in the CC International stable), we should feel ashamed to make statements like this.

Wikipedia plans to spend $9.4 million in the 2009-10 financial year (up 53% from last year) and has, at last, a plan for spreading the wealth with a $295,000 new grantmaking program (that’s only 3% of spending that goes to chapters but it’s better than almost 0). Problem is that this money seems to only be going to existing chapters (there are no chapters in Africa). This means that, if you wanted money to go specifically to outreach on the African continent, you couldn’t do it since you can only donate to Wikipedia or to existing Wikipedia chapters.

I think that one of the worst things that organisations who have global goals can do is to stop people from countries who are left out of the agenda from donating money. Even if it’s just a small amount, CC and Wikipedia are perpetuating the myth that we don’t care about these issues in Africa.

My small contribution has, instead, gone to Global Voices. They spread the small amount of money that they receive pretty widely and their leadership team reaches each region at least.

Call me when I can trust you

I just found an email dated over a month ago from a representative from the agency Atmosphere Communications asking me to contribute to a project that they are working on ‘on behalf of the Economist’ in SA. According to the representative, the project aims to set up a temporary South African “microsite” called in order “to build closer links with its readers across the globe” with an especial “focus on the country due to the 2010 FIFA World Cup”.

How, you may ask, is the Economist attempting to build closer links with its readers across the globe? Is it connecting journalists and bloggers to hear the real story about South Africa? Is it really listening to its readers on the ground? It is profiling the work of aspirant local writers in its publication?

None of the above, it seems. The only ‘closer links’ the company wants to build is ‘closer links’ to your pocket. Continue reading “Call me when I can trust you”

Digital Open seeks a few more international stewards

From now until and August 15, 2009, Institute for the Future, Sun Microsystems, and Boing Boing invite young people from around the world, age 17 and under, to join us as we explore the frontiers of free and open innovation.

The Digital Open: An Innovation Expo for Global Youth seeks projects in a variety of areas ranging from the environment, art and music to the more traditional open source domains of software and hardware. We’re looking for new and fresh ideas that could make a real difference, whether to simplify a process or potentially have a huge global impact. In the spirit of collaboration that defines free and open technology movements, we encourage entrants to start from scratch or to improve upon existing innovations across eight broad categories.

We’re seeking Open Innovation Stewards in as many parts of the world as possible to help us make this a success. As a steward, you should be willing and able people to help mobilize, mentor, and inspire young innovators. You will become an integral part of our outreach effort in finding young people who have something to contribute. Our stewards should be experienced users of all major social networking tools, applications, and media and be confident working with a Drupal website. And, of course, you should have a passion for free and open technology innovation.

An Open Innovation Steward’s responsibilities will include:

* Translating our call for submissions, rules, and category descriptions into the local language(s) of your particular geographic area
* Recruit a minimum of 10 projects from young people between the ages 17 and under
* Promote project by:
1) distributing posters & postcards
2) giving talks in local junior high and high schools
3) reaching out to schools around your country/region
4) blogging about the project
5) reaching out to local publications or other prominent area bloggers
* Participation as judges of submissions
* Translating project descriptions as needed
* Verifying that a project chosen as a category winner meets our rules and requirements, and facilitate contact between the winner(s) and Boing Boing Video

Stewards who recruit the requested 10 projects from their regions will receive a cash reward of $500 USD. And as a thank you for helping out, all stewards will receive a schwag package that includes a Vy&Elle recycled billboard backpack or bag, a solar-powered flashlight, a t-shirt, and some other goodies. We’ll also include your bio on the Open Innovation Stewards page of

To apply, please visit

The ‘Digital Open’ is now open

Friends Jess Hemerly and David Evan Harris have asked Simon Dingle and I (from SA, at least) to be judges in this awesome competition/community initiative from BoingBoing, Sun and the Institute for the Future where they work. As always, the devil is in the detail, and I really love the details of this competition – great social networking features and badges that will be unlocked when users achieve things like writing 10 comments etc. Best among the prizes (gear, tech, bags etc) is that winners in each category will be featured on BoingBoing Video.

Institute for the Future, in partnership with Sun Microsystems and Boing Boing, invites youth worldwide, age 17 and under, to join us as we explore the frontiers of free and open innovation. The Digital Open: An Innovation Expo for Global Youth will celebrate projects in a variety of areas ranging from the environment, art and music to the more traditional open source domains of software and hardware.

From April 15 until August 15, 2009, we’ll accept text, photos, and videos documenting projects from young people around the world who want to contribute to the growing free and open technology community.

But the Digital Open is more than an online competition. By submitting a project, you’ll become a valuable member of a community of creative young innovators working in the exciting world of free and open technology.

Collaboration is encouraged! In addition to a variety of prizes and achievements you can earn through community participation, the top project in each category will earn a fantastic prize pack and be featured on Boing Boing Video!

The future is yours to make! Get started at

The organisers are looking for stewards to help get the word out and gather submissions in South Africa (one of the target countries). If you’re interested in helping out, please contact me.

Gatvol with Getty

picture-7I’ve been trying to buy an image from Getty Images for the last few days and it’s been a harrowing experience. I’ve spent at least 2 hours trying to login to the system on Firefox. My relief was short lived when I eventually moved over to Safari: it appears that South Africa is not on the list of countries that I can choose in order to get a %$@ price.

This is my first experience using (or at least trying to use) rights-managed photos – and I can honestly say that I’d rather scour Fickr for Creative Commons-licensed images instead of frustratingly trying to get this system to work for me. It appears that Getty is very good at taking pictures of us in South Africa, but not very good at offering us a service to actually buy those photographs.

More translation, please

The Publius Project (Essays & conversations about constitutional moments on the Net collected by the Berkman Center) has just published an essay from Ethan Zuckerman (originally written for the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet) about the need to address translation issues on the Internet in order to retain its global conversive nature:

If we do not address the problems of the polyglot internet, we introduce another possible way our shared internet can fragment. There are competing – and likely incompatible – visions for future governance of the internet. As the internet becomes less of a global, shared space and more of a Chinese or Arabic or English space, we lose incentives to work together on common, compatible frameworks and protocols. We face the real possibility of the internet becoming multiple internets, divided first by languages, but later by values, norms and protocols.

The internet is the most powerful tool created by humans to allow connection, collaboration and understanding between people of different nations, races and cultures. For the internet to reach its potential in bridging human differences, we need to make the problems of language and translation center to our conversations about the future of the internet.