How Wikipedia’s Dr Jekyll became Mr Hyde: Vandalism, sock puppetry and the curious case of Wikipedia’s decline

This is a (very) short paper that I will be presenting at Internet Research in Denver this week. I want to write something longer about the story because I feel like it represents in many ways what I see as emblematic of so many of us who lived through our own Internet bubble: when everything seemed possible and there was nothing to lose. This is (a small slice of) Drork’s story. 

Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.
Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Abstract This paper concerns the rise and fall of Wikipedia editor, ‘drork’ who was blocked indefinitely from the English version of the encyclopedia after seven years of constructive contributions, movement leadership and intense engagement. It acts as a companion piece to the recent statistical analyses of patterns of conflict and vandalism on Wikipedia to reflect on the questions of why someone who was once committed to the encyclopedia may want to vandalize it. The paper compares two perspectives on the experience of being a Wikipedian: on the other hand, a virtuous experience that enables positive character formation as more commonly espoused, and alternatively as an experience dominated by in-fighting, personal attacks and the use of Wikipedia to express political goals. It concludes by arguing that the latter behavior is necessary in order to survive as a Wikipedian editing in these highly conflict-ridden areas.

Introduction

Recent scholarship has painted two competing pictures of what Wikipedia and Wikipedians are “like” and what they are motivated by. On the one hand, Benkler and Nissenbaum argue that because people contribute to projects like Wikipedia with motivations “ranging from the pure pleasure of creation, to a particular sense of purpose, through to the companionship and social relations that grow around a common enterprise”, the practice of commons-based peer production fosters virtue and enables “positive character formation” (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006). On the other hand, we have heard more recently about how “free and open” communities like Wikipedia have become a haven for aggressive, intimidating behavior (Reagle, 2013) and that reversions of newcomers’ contributions has been growing steadily and may be contributing to Wikipedia’s decline (Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, & Riedl, in-press).   Continue reading “How Wikipedia’s Dr Jekyll became Mr Hyde: Vandalism, sock puppetry and the curious case of Wikipedia’s decline”

Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events. 

Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.

________________________________________________________________

A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.   

npaper
In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.

A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations.

In the next few days in Nairobi, I became steeped in the narratives around this event – on television, in newspapers, in the bars, on Twitter, and FB. I learned that the story was not actually a story about the invasion of one country by another, and that there were more salient stories that only people living in Kenya were aware of:

  1. This was a story about Kenyan military trying to prove itself: it was the first time since independence that the military had been involved in an active campaign and the country was watching to see whether they would be able to succeed.
  2. The move had been preceded by a series of harrowing stories the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and tourists on the border with southern Somalia – one of Kenya’s major tourist destinations – and the subsequent move by the British government to advise against Britons traveling to coastal areas near the Somali border. [Another narrative that Mark Kaigwa pointed out was that some Kenyans believed that this was a move by the government to prevent spending cuts to the military, and that, as an election year in Kenya, they wanted to prove themselves]
  3. There were threats of retaliation by al Shabaab – many sympathizers of whom were living inside Kenya. I remember sitting in a bar with friends and remarking how quiet it was. My friends answered that everyone had been urged not to go out – and especially not to bars because of the threat of attacks at which point I wondered aloud why we were there. Al Shabaab acted on those threats at a bar in the city center only a few miles away from us that night.

I used to think that these kind of deletions were just an example of ignorance, of cultural imperialism and even of racism. Although some of the responses could definitely be viewed that way, the editor who nominated the article for deletion, Middayexpress, was engaged in the AfD (Articles for Deletion) discussion, and has contributed the highest number of edits. His/her actions could not be explained by ignorance and bad faith alone.

What I realized when I was interviewing Wikipedians about these and other articles that were threatened with deletion for so-called “lack of notability” was that editors in countries outside of Kenya didn’t have access to these narratives that would make it obvious that this event was notable enough to deserve its own page. People outside of Kenya would have seen the single narrative about the incursion/invasion without any of these supporting narratives that made this stand out in Kenya as obviously important in the history of the country.

The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign
The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign

These narratives don’t travel well for three reasons:

a) The volume of international news being covered by traditional media in the West is declining. The story that Western editors were getting was a single story about a military offensive, one they thought must fit within a broader narrative about the Somali war;

b) Much of the local media that people in Kenya were exposed to (and certainly not buzz in the streets and in bars or the threat of bodily harm by terrorists) did not go online in traditional formats but was available on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and

c) Even where it did, front pages of news websites are especially ineffective at showing readers when there is a single story that is really important. In newspapers, we fill up the entire front page with the story, make the headline shorter, run it along the entire page, and run a massive photograph when there is a war or a huge story. The front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation is always going to be busy, with a lot of competing stories, making it really difficult just by looking at the site whether a story was relatively more important than others.

This story made me realize how important it is for Wikipedians to expose themselves to social media sources so that they can get access to some of these supporting narratives that you just don’t get by looking online, and that despite Wikipedia’s general aversion to social media, this kind of contextual understanding is essential to gaining a more nuanced understanding of local notability. This finding influenced the eventual report for Ushahidi on how Wikipedians manage and debate sources and citations, and lent legitimacy to Ushahidi’s plans to develop news filtering tools for use during rapidly evolving news events such as disasters, elections and political violence.

Featured pic by NS Newsflash (CC-BY) on Flickr

A new chapter: hFord in oxFord

After four months of travel to visit friends in amazing places and visiting some wild places on my own, I have at last settled down in Oxford for my next adventure: three or four years doing my DPhil here at Oxford University. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe it!

This was my itinerary from June to October:

San Francisco – Johannesburg (with family) – Cape Town (with Liv) – Johannesburg – Rome (with Steph)- Falerone (with Steph and James and Jon) – Naples – Ravello – Vescovado di Murlo (with Sarah and Eric and Ellie and Helena) – Rome – Washington D.C. (for Wikimania) – Rome – Tel Aviv (with Elad) – Jerusalem – Tiberias – Ashdod – Tel Aviv – Berlin (with Vicky and Alex) – Münster (with Judy and Meinfred) – Baden-Baden – Berlin – Linz (for WikiSym) – Johannesburg – Exeter (with mom) – Padstow – Penzance – Torquay – Oxford – Painswick – Oxford (me, just me)

So many adventures were had. It wasn’t easy (it’s no surprise that the word ‘travel’ comes from the word ‘travail’, to toil, or labor) but I was surprised at how I felt like I could do this forever – wander from one place to the next, visiting friends and peeking in on their lives. Because of the visa insanity and the fact that I need a lobotomy, I didn’t have a camera (not even my iPhone!) for most of the trip. I really wanted to capture everything and so I drew a lot. This, below, was one of my favorite moments:

Image

Continue reading “A new chapter: hFord in oxFord”

Can Ushahidi Rely on Crowdsourced Verifications?

First published on PBS Idea Lab

During the aftermath of the Chilean earthquake last year, the Ushahidi-Chile team received two reports — one through the platform, the other via Twitter — that indicated an English-speaking foreigner was trapped under a building in Santiago.

“Please send help,” the report read. “i am buried under rubble in my home at Lautaro 1712 Estación Central, Santiago, Chile. My phone doesnt work.”

A few hours later, a second, similar report was sent to the platform via Twitter: “RT @biodome10: plz send help to 1712 estacion central, santiago chile. im stuck under a building with my child. #hitsunami #chile we have no supplies.”

earthquake.jpg

An investigation a few days later revealed that both reports were false and that the Twitter user was impersonating a journalist working for the Dallas Morning News. But this revelation was not in time to stop two police deployments in Santiago that leaped to the rescue before they realized that the area had not been affected by the quake and that the couple living there was alive and well.

Is false information like this one just a necessary by-product of “crowdsourced” environments like Ushahidi? Or do we need to do more to help deployment teams, emergency personnel and users better assess the accuracy of reports hosted on our platform?

Ushahidi is a non-profit tech company that develops free and open-source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. We’ve just published an initial study of how Ushahidi deployment teams manage and understand verification on the platform. Doing this research has surfaced a couple of key challenges about the way that verification currently works, as well as a few easy wins that might add some flexibility into the system. It’s also revealed some questions as we look to improve the platform’s ability to do verification on large quantities of data in the future.

What We’ve Learned

We’ve learned that we need to add more flexibility into the system, enabling deployment teams to choose whether they want to use the “verified” and “unverified” tagging functionality or not. We’ve learned that the binary terms we’re currently using don’t capture other attributes of reports that are necessary to establishing both trust and “actionability” (i.e., the ability to act on the information). For example, the “unverified” tag does not capture whether a report is considered to be an act of “misinformation” or just incomplete, lacking contextual clues necessary to determine whether it is accurate or not.

We need to develop more flexibility to accommodate these different attributes, but we also need to think beyond these final determinations and understand that users might want contextual information (rather than a final determination on its verification status) to determine for themselves whether a report is trustworthy or not. After all, verification tags mean nothing unless those who must make decisions based on that information trust the team doing the verification.

The fact that many deployments are set up by teams of concerned citizens who may have never worked together before and who are therefore unknown to the user organizations makes this an important requirement. Here, we’re thinking of the job of the administering deployment team providing information about the context of a report (answering the who, what, where, when, how and why of traditional journalism perhaps) and inviting others to help flesh out this information, rather than being a “black box” in which the process for determining whether something is verified or not is opaque to users.

As an organization that is all about “crowdsourcing,” we’re taking a step back and thinking about how the crowd (i.e., people who are not known to the system) might assist in either providing more context for reports or verifying unverified reports. When I talk about the “crowd” here I’m referring to a system that’s permeable to interactions by those we don’t yet know. It’s important to note here that, although Ushahidi is talked about as an example of crowdsourcing, this doesn’t mean that the entire process of submission, publishing, tagging and commenting is open for all. Although anyone can start a map and send a report to the map, only administrators can approve and publish reports or tag a report as “verified.”

How Will Crowdsourcing Verification Work?

If we had to open up this process to “the crowd” we’d have to think really carefully about the options we might have in facilitating verification by the crowd — many of which won’t work in every deployment. Variables like scale, location and persistence differ in each deployment and can affect where and when crowdsourcing of verification will work and where it will do more harm than good.

Crowdsourcing verification can mean many different things. It could mean flagging reports that need more context and asking for more information from the crowd. But who makes the final decision that enough information has been provided to change the status of that information?

We could think of using the crowd to determine when a statistically significant portion of a community agrees with changing the status of a report to “verified.” But is this option limited to cases where a large volume of people are interested (and informed) about an issue, and could a volume-based indicator like this be gamed especially in political contexts?

Crowdsourcing verification could also mean providing users with the opportunity of using free-form tags to highlight the context of the data and then surfacing tags that are popular. But again, might this only be accurate when large numbers of users are involved and where the numbers of reports are low? Do we employ an algorithm to rank the quality of reports based on the history of their authors? It’s tempting to imagine that an algorithm alone will solve the data volume challenges, but algorithms do not work in many cases (especially when reports may be sent by people who don’t have a history of using these tools) and if they’re untrusted, they might force users to hack the system to enable their own processes.

An Enduring Question

Verification by the crowd is indeed a large and enduring question for all crowdsourced platforms, not just Ushahidi. The question is how we can facilitate better quality information in a way that reduces harms. One thing is certain: The verification challenge is both technical and social, and no algorithm, however clever, will entirely solve the problem of inaccurate or falsified information.

Thinking about the ecosystem of deployment teams, emergency personnel, users and concerned citizens and how they interact — rather than merely about a monolithic crowd — is the first place to look in understanding what verification strategy makes the most sense. After all, verification is not the ultimate goal here. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time is.

chile1.png

Image of the Basílica del Salvador in the aftermath of the Chilean earthquake courtesy of flickr user b1mbo.

The future of “the media”: What exactly are we trying to save here?

Below is the first, unedited draft of an article for the next edition of the Rhodes Journalism Review.

Chris Anderson’s new book ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price’ has stoked the fire of a debate that seems to be never ending in media circles. In it, Anderson talks about how in the digital world, the most effective price is ‘zero’ and that those who have recognised this are generating revenue from models like cross-subsidies (giving away a DVR to sell cable service) and freemiums (offering Flickr for free while selling the superior FlickrPro to serious users).

Anderson’s book has angered (mostly traditional) media professionals whose business model seems to be threatened by such claims. In a post on Twitter (11 July 2009), Mail & Guardian publisher, Trevor Ncube wrote: ‘We need to collectively recover from the cardinal sin of giving content for free & move to sustainable biz models.’

Ncube’s reaction is endemic to the traditional media sector around the world. Unlike Anderson, he does not equate a system where content is given away for ‘free’ with a sustainable business model. People need to once again value the credible information that the media produces, he believes. That is the future.

How do we navigate through the clearly emotional defensiveness of big media and the utopian ideals of technologists to understand an age in which the media have, according to Chris Anderson, ‘lost their monopoly on consumer attention’ and are now flailing about trying to re-assert their value proposition in the midst of all the new competition? Continue reading “The future of “the media”: What exactly are we trying to save here?”