Archive for the 'Wikis' Category

Second Life – Part One (A Changing Society)

Posted in cyberlaw, Cyberlaw Project, Second Life, The Internet, Wikis on December 8th, 2006

The course has simultaneously been going on as an extension school course and a project for the internet community at large. Many of the meetings have been taking place in Second Life, a virtual community. In the beginning of the course, we were instructed to download the program and create an avatar. We were later paired up for tours of Second Life (but of course by then I had begun exploring on my own).

I was a beta tester for the Sims Online. In college, Sim City was about the best way to waste time; a shared addiction to that game united me with another young dormer who is now (11 years later) my husband. When the Sims was released I was nearly as enthusiastic, and would spend way too much time teaching my Sims to cook, making sure they slept. The Sims Online was a place to unite with others playing the game. You could join up and make pizza for profit, combine your profits to buy land and build a house.

When the beta test was up, I was offered the chance to stay on, keep my character and her money and all she had accomplish. Perhaps at the cost of all I had accomplished. A monthly fee plus my spare time was too high a cost . . .

Second Life, on the other hand, is free and far less addictive. Instead of doing repetitive tasks to earn money, you can create and share items, which people do, freely. Since an item can be replicated, it is far more of a collaborative environment. You can earn money in-game, and I’m sure people do, but many people are just there to learn, to create, and to share.

It does have a strong connection to many other things in the course, such as Creative Commons, Copy Left, the GNU Software License, and Wikis, especially Wikipedia. People operate by something other than market forces, in a decentralized way to build upon what each other has created and improve it. This is more than just technology, this is a change in culture itself fostered by that technology. Perhaps those of us who marvel at the technological age we are living in will not see it until the future, but we might be living though changes larger than we realize. . .

Course Logo Mockup

Posted in Wikis on September 20th, 2006

Logo Mockup


Posted in The Internet, Wikis on September 19th, 2006

I have previously discussed Wikipedia in relation to the way it is run and edited. I would like to turn now to discussion of Wikipedia itself.

A friend of mine is a year into his PhD, and in the grand tradition of grad students everywhere, is helping teach courses to the undergrads. Having spent some time teaching, I asked him how that aspect of the program was going. His one complaint? Students were using Wikipedia as a source, and could not understand why this was not allowed.

The answer to that was mentioned in class, and is simple. Professional editors vet each article; they are written by scholars and fact-checked before publication. Once published, it would be hard for someone to break into your home and edit the articles. Even though such vandalism is often caught quickly on Wikipedia, it is still possible. And while encyclopedias have been found to have nearly as many mistakes, they are still considered, for these reasons, to be a more verifiable source.

Although I do have to ask – who uses encyclopedias period as a source for a college paper? I seem to remember that being something that ended in seventh grade, when our subject matters turned more complex and more in-depth research was required. Except for the occasional tangential topic, you’re going to need a more heavy-handed resource to cite.

In any case, one of the ideas I came across in my venture into Wikipedia article writing was that it was, after all an encyclopedia. This is one of the 5 Pillars of WP itself. It states:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia incorporating elements of general encyclopedias, specialized encyclopedias, and almanacs. Wikipedia is not an indiscriminate collection of information. It is not a trivia, a soapbox, vanity publisher, an experiment in anarchy or democracy, or a web directory. Nor is Wikipedia a collection of source documents, a dictionary, or a newspaper, for these kinds of content should be contributed to the sister projects, Wikisource, Wiktionary, and Wikinews, respectively.

Wikipedia is not the place to insert your own opinions, experiences, or arguments — all editors must follow our no original research policy and strive for accuracy.

So, for example, you are not to make an entry about your mom. She may be grand, it may be 100% true, but it doesn’t pass the notability test. It is worth noting that even this is not a rule of Wikipedia in the true sense. Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia, (and fellow at the Berkman Center, which is behind the course itself) has given his official imprimatur to the notion that there are no rules etched in stone. Nonetheless, as discussed previously, there are some policies and guidelines that have gained such universal acceptance on WP that they are, for the most part, followed.

Even this idea cannot be followed consistently. If you do make that entry about your mom, one of the volunteers who has devoted enough time to editing to gain sysop status will likely flag it for deletion and insert a section on your user talk page about why. I assume that most will accept such a decision, as I did. (my entry was not about my mom, but fell in more of a grey area that nonetheless fell outside the strictest sense of the notability standard)

But what about entries for current events? In the WP article about spinach, there is a section on the recent e coli outbreak. Is this notable? Certainly. Is it encyclopedic? Well, not quite. If you traveled 20 years into the future and opened the Encyclopedia Britannica (assuming, of course, that Wikipedia and other online sources don’t kill it), I think it is unlikely that the entry on spinach will contain a paragraph, letalone a long section, about the outbreak. It is notable here and now, but in the greater scheme of things it is not a notable part of the definition and history of spinach itself.

Is there a little warning box marking it for deletion? No. Although one like-minded person on the discussion page did state that:

IMO the outbreak, while notable as news, is not particularly relevant to the spinach article and deserves footnote status at best. Perhaps a note that spinach, like all leaf vegetables, has been occasionally contaminated with E. coli. — WormRunner 19:42, 19 September 2006 (UTC)

and there is a box suggesting a split (the event itself would be an entry), by and large the discussion has been limited to the nature and content of the section itself, not its propriety. The WikiPolice have added boxes for expansion, cleanup, and an update on the section, giving a tacit confirmation that it does belong in the article.

And so we see a contrast between things that are just plain not notable and those that do not warrant notability in a timeless, encyclopedic sense. This may well be entirely proper – it is, after all, a constantly changing and updating medium. As time passes, the article will be further edited. I suspect that when enough time has passed, the section will shrink, become its own historical section (in the broadest sense of ‘history’ imaginable) or even be edited down as that one user suggests to a mention that there have bee, from time to time, outbreaks.

In an ever-changing medium like Wikipedia, is timelessness necessary or even desirable? And if not, have we created a new kind of encyclopedia (aside from the obvious ways in which we have) one which documents notable elements of the here and now?

decentralized governance: programming and wikis.

Posted in cyberlaw, Wikis on September 19th, 2006

The class will be using Scratch, a programming tool that is being released just to this class. The program is still in development (@ MIT), and will not be released until February. As the username and password were about to be told to the class, it was pointed out that the class was being filmed for broadcast on the internet – did we want to turn off the camera?

Thus followed a long discussion on whether using software that is not yet public was in the spirit of openness that the class was centered around. If you ask me, we were overthinking it. This was not some great ethical dilemma – there is utility to keeping a program secret until the bugs are worked out, this was not our program to open up, and there are some utilities to allowing some programs to be proprietary, even (although not at issue in this case) indefinitely.

However, the exercise did, as Prof. Nesson pointed out, demonstrate that the class is capable of self-governance. It also showed some of the flaws of decentralized self-governance, such as several people speaking on points that were not really at issue. For example, it took a few rounds before people pointed out that there was already strong consensus as to whether it would be proper to just disclose the password (as opposed to not using the program as a symbolic gesture).

This plays back to the idea of Wiki, where administrators (volunteers) emerge to give some guidance, but cannot enforce hard and fast rules. However, they do make strides toward achieving those things regular posters have reached consensus on. The process to reach that consensus is doubtlessly more tortured and prolonged than a simple administrative, unilateral decision made within a typical framework. There are pros and cons of each, notably those things in which decisions are needed immediately or one person needs to possess a level of expertise to decide, versus those general knowledge based decisions without immediacy which are probably more likely to arrive at the ‘right’ result due to its deliberation.

Wikis and Contributions

Posted in cyberlaw, The Internet, Wikis on September 19th, 2006

Among the projects assigned to the law students is the ‘adoption’ of a week of class, with a particular topic. We are all free to edit the wiki. At first, I assumed I would dive right in. After all, after only one day of class I had submerged myself in the Wikipedia I had previously only waded in. (OK, enough swimming metaphors). I had written two new Wikipedia entries, instead of just making slight edits. Within a day, I was shot down by the sysops, who had posted a ‘welcome’ message in the discussion portion of my userpage and questioned the notability of my topics.

On one, they were right. I headed over to the pages that discussed notability and the discussion page paired with it. There was no complete agreement – and so with the organization (or lack thereof) of Wikipedia I could have simply disputed the deletion, pointing out that there are no hard and fast rules about how notable something needs to be. After all, there is no lack of band space, just a concern about disambiguation (crowding Wikipedia with many minute essays with similar names to notable ones, causing confusion) and just an over saturation. And, after all, it is an encyclopedia.

But there did seem to be general consensus about what should and should not be added in a particular area. The communitarian (anarcho-syndicalist commune?) format of Wikipedia works because people generally follow such consensus. I realized that there was no set consensus for the other subject, so I edited and expanded the entry to make it more obvious what was notable about the subject.

The finishing comment from the sysop urged me to clean up the article. I bristled a bit at that. Wasn’t the whole idea of Wikipedia that the entries are the result of a drafting process by other users? Why not just let it sit, letting others expand and write the entry, achieving the neutral tone that is so much easier with many cooks (I only promised not to make tortured analogies about swimming, remember?)

So back to my Week project – why had I done barely anything? Perhaps I was hesitant after being chastised by the volunteer so prolific he was crowned admin. But the class wiki is not the same, indeed expansion is in our interest at this stage, if only to ‘get things started’. I think the very idea that I bristled it had been compounded by the group aspect. Just as I expected others to ‘clean up’ my article, I was taking it for granted that the fact that other names were on my list meant that they would be expanding it – taking the pressure off of me. And putting it on. After all, this is a group project – who am I to decide its direction or express a point of view?

This is not a sitcom of a blog entry. I do not have some comment about how I figured it all out in the end and wrapped it up into a neat little package. I suppose that is why this is a class– and this is the stage where recognizing what I need to figure out is a necessary first step. The others will come later.