(Cross-posted at Medium)

Is there anyone reading this who does not use Wikipedia routinely? Be honest.

The online encyclopedia (and more) is just 15 years old this week. Consider that for a second. When I do, I tend to think this global collaboration is close to miraculous.

Needless to say, Wikipedia and other projects of the site’s not-for-profit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, are far from perfect. Moreover, foundation and community are facing some internal struggles over key issues and decisions. Dig deep and you see an adolescent organization at a number of turning points.

But we should recognize, and celebrate, the achievements of the Wikimedia community. And we should all ask ourselves what we can do to help ensure that this unprecedented project not only survives but thrives in decades to come. In a word: Participate.

Before I go on, a disclosure: Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, is a friend, and I’m a small shareholder in his separate, privately held consumer-wiki service, Wikia.

I was amazed by Wikipedia from the minute I saw it. But I had no real idea how big, or important, it would be come. When I first wrote about it in my Silicon Valley newspaper column in 2004, I focused more on the wiki phenomenon — sites that anyone could edit? really? — and marveled that such a thing could possibly work. At the time, Wikipedia was nearing the then-stupendous number of 200,000 articles in English. Now it’s up to some 35 million articles in scores of languages, and still growing. English remains the top language, for all kinds of reasons.

Even if you rarely go to the Wikipedia site, you’re probably seeing its content, especially if you do a significant amount of searching on Google or other search engines. The results pages often include excerpts from Wikipedia, and those snippets can be enough to get a good sense of the topic at hand.

And if you’re like me, you go often to the site itself. It has become, for me, a first stop for all kinds of quick lookups. But as I tell students, with Jimmy Wales endorsement, while Wikipedia is often the best place to start, it is almost always the worst place to stop. At the bottom of any solid Wikipedia article is a long list of original sources from which site editors have drawn the information that appears in the article. Don’t quote Wikipedia, I tell students; quote from the source material.

The site’s most obvious drawback is, of course, its best feature: the ability of almost anyone to edit almost any article. Trolls, PR people and sock puppets abound. You can never, ever absolutely rely on the accuracy or neutrality — a core principle — of an article at any given moment. Inaccuracies, some deliberate, are usually fixed quickly. Sometimes they aren’t, however, and several high-profile cases of sustained inaccuracy have pointed to what looks to many (including me) like an nearly unsolvable problem: even if I, as the subject of an article, know that something is wrong, I can’t fix it without some kind of outside documentation (such as a news article) “proving” that what I know is right. The site’s rules, aimed at reinforcing a “neutral point of view,” make perfect sense in principle, but can lead to real problems for individuals.

The Wikimedia Foundation operates other ventures, including the Wikimedia Commons, a collection of (as of this week) more than 30 million media files that anyone can use. Probably the most important new initiative is Wikidata, an astoundingly useful linked database from a host of different sources of publicly available data. This is worth a separate column in its own right; watch this space.

For all their amazing qualities, Wikipedia and the foundation have more than a few problems. The finances appear to be in relatively good shape, but the foundation has been shaken by internal changes and dissension, and the legions of volunteers who make Wikipedia what is is are in what looks like a constant state of angst. Little of this has reached the wider public, but arecent blog post on “The Wikipedian,” a site that obsessively keeps track of what’s happening inside the project and the foundation, suggests the latest turmoil — with major leadership changes — is more than the usual stuff in any organization of this kind.

Andrew Lih, a professor at American University in Washington and author of what I consider the best book on Wikipedia (disclosure: he’s also a friend), tells me he hasn’t “seen this kind of (internal) tension in a long time.” “The overall health of Wikipedia is still strong,” he says, but the project and its parent are at what he calls a “pivotal point” in their evolution.

Among the pivots Wikipedia has to navigate is the shift from desktop to mobile computing. Wikipedia has a great mobile web version, for looking things up and browsing. But the mobile site’s editing mode is crude and the opposite of user-friendly, which strikes me as a major drawback since community editing is part of the point. The rise of video has also left Wikipedians somewhat uncertain; thanks largely to Hollywood’s insistence on locking down everything it can, open video formats remain somewhat stalled.

One of the longstanding issues, meanwhile, has been a lack of diversity in the community, especially among editors. The foundation has made this a priority, as it should.

For all the problems, the promise — and achievements — remain awesome. I find it difficult today to imagine a web without Wikipedia. The criticism, often justified, has led to improvements in the service and to competition from traditional and new entrants in the research arenas. But many places, Andrew Lih notes, Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia in a local language. On a recent trip to Armenia, for example, I discovered a vibrant Wikimedia community, which is working hard, with an explicit endorsement from senior public officials, to expand the localized Wikipedia.

But those of us who just use Wikipedia should do more than donate money. By a key measure, participation on the site has flattened. The community is in what Andrew Lih calls a “steady state,” but that’s not enough.

More people should become editors, and encourage others to do the same. I require students in a media-literacy course I teach to edit an article and participate in the online conversation (every article has a Talk page) about it. I ask that they pick a topic they know a lot about already — when they’re at a loss for what that might be, I usually suggest they add or fix something in the article about their home town — and that they understand the rules before they start editing. The exercise is illuminating, for them and for me.

About a decade ago, I was giving a talk about journalism at a midwestern university, and mentioned Wikipedia. This was still in the relatively early days of the project, remember. A professor jumped to his feet and, almost shouting, denounced Wikipedia as a pox on scholarship, and went on a sustained rant about a specific article that had, he said, a glaring error.

I asked him, “Did you fix it?”

Mediactive_amArmenia-based “Journalists For The Future” has led a project to translate my book Mediactive into Armenian, and I visited there last week to help launch the new edition. I met some extraordinary people and learned a lot about the media scene there.

As with the original, the book is freely available online, in an interactive edition. You can find it at this link.

Special thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan for funding the project, and for covering the costs of my trip there.

 

Patrick Frey, aka Patterico, and I appear to agree on several things when it comes to government’s role, if any, in assuring freedom of speech by promoting an open Internet. This is progress.

(If you’re spending your valuable time following any of this, here’s his first attack post; then my reply; and now his further response.)

We agree there is currently no genuinely free market in providing Internet access. We agree that it would be great if a free market did exist, and support various measures that would help get us there. And we agree that government, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, has behaved badly in the past. There’s more, but those are the highlights.

We continue to disagree, firmly, on whether government can play a positive role in helping to ensure free speech on the Internet. Frey is convinced that the FCC’s recent net-neutrality decision is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, and that’s that, it seems. In his view, I’m naive to believe it could possibly be different.

Read the hard-core libertarian language in his post to understand where he’s coming from. He loathes government in just about every way. Consent of the governed, he says, is meaningless in modern America (bold lettering in the original):

Fuck this notion that we are the government and the government is us. That is total bullshit. We are the ruled. Period. End of story.

So what is the way forward for Frey? Naturally, the free market, full stop.[1. I like a lot of what libertarians say, but their free-market philosophy seems to go something like this: There’s really no such thing as a monopoly. Even if there is, the market will cure it. Even if the monopoly is so entrenched that the market takes decades to respond, that’s not our problem. Even if the market never responds, we’re all dead in the long run.] Not that we have one or, given the political system he believes we have, any possibility of one. And I’m naive.

Frey would have you believe that our conversation boils down to this basic–though profound–disagreement:

[Gillmor] trusts government. I (Frey) don’t. He thinks government will “forbear” from exercising powers that it can get away with exercising. I don’t. He thinks government getting its mitts on a part of the Internet will improve our lives. I don’t.

Anyone who’s read even a tiny amount of what I’ve written for, oh, the past 20 years or so is surely aware that I do not trust government as a general rule. I don’t trust Big Government, Big Business, Big Anything. I do leave open the possibility that they can (and sometimes do) get it right. This isn’t because they tend to do things based on good will, though sometimes they do. It’s more often because countervailing forces, such as voters, courts, customers, etc., can apply enough pressure to get a better outcome.

We may well need those countervailing forces–checks and balances–in a Title II future, because no one in this debate, least of all me, thinks the FCC’s action was the perfect solution. Its net neutrality ruling was distinctly less bad than the alternative it was floating earlier: handing control over the Internet’s key on-ramps to the rapacious telecommunications cartel that has demonstrated its unfitness to have such control.

We were heading toward control of speech by a cartel that, being businesses, have zero First Amendment obligations. Frey says we’re heading toward control of speech by a cartel of bureaucrats. Because, you see, since the FCC did it with broadcast, they’ll do it with the Internet.

Government, unlike business, actually does have some First Amendment obligations. And the Internet could hardly be more different than the broadcast system that the FCC did regulate poorly in the bad old days. 

The Supreme Court has weighed in, firmly, on the issue of whether the Internet is like broadcast, which was heavily regulated on the (increasingly specious) principle that the airwaves were scarce. Not even close, the court said in a key 1990s ruling about the “Communications Decency Act, which the court mostly tossed out as violating the First Amendment. (I appreciate the reminder of the CDA ruling from Seth Finkelstein, a longtime correspondent, and critic, who has persuaded me I was mistaken on more than one issue over the years.) Key language:

[U]nlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low cost capacity for communication of all kinds. The Government estimates that “[a]s many as 40 million people use the Internet today, and that figure is expected to grow to 200 million by 1999.” This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” 929 F. Supp., at 842 (finding 74). We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.

Maybe some future Supreme Court will totally abandon us, and decide that tight regulation of Internet speech is constitutional. If so, the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, will have long since become just meaningless ideas. For now, I’ll give some trust to a system where we still have some checks and balances–and work hard to hold Big Government and Big Business accountable. If that makes me terminally naive, so be it.

 

Patrick Frey, aka Patterico, and I appear to agree on several things when it comes to government’s role, if any, in assuring freedom of speech by promoting an open Internet. This is progress.

(If you’re spending your valuable time following any of this, here’s his first attack post; then my reply; and now his further response.)

We agree there is currently no genuinely free market in providing Internet access. We agree that it would be great if a free market did exist, and support various measures that would help get us there. And we agree that government, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, has behaved badly in the past. There’s more, but those are the highlights.

We continue to disagree, firmly, on whether government can play a positive role in helping to ensure free speech on the Internet. Frey is convinced that the FCC’s recent net-neutrality decision is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, and that’s that, it seems. In his view, I’m naive to believe it could possibly be different.

Read the hard-core libertarian language in his post to understand where he’s coming from. He loathes government in just about every way. Consent of the governed, he says, is meaningless in modern America (bold lettering in the original):

Fuck this notion that we are the government and the government is us. That is total bullshit. We are the ruled. Period. End of story.

So what is the way forward for Frey? Naturally, the free market, full stop[1. I like a lot of what libertarians say, but their  free-market philosophy seems to go something like this: There’s really no such thing as a monopoly. Even if there is, the market will cure it. Even if the monopoly is so entrenched that the market takes decades to respond, that’s not our problem. Even if the market never responds, we’re all dead in the long run.] Not that we have one or, given the political system he believes we have, any possibility of one. And I’m naive.

Frey would have you believe that our conversation boils down to this basic–though profound–disagreement:

[Gillmor] trusts government. I (Frey) don’t. He thinks government will “forbear” from exercising powers that it can get away with exercising. I don’t. He thinks government getting its mitts on a part of the Internet will improve our lives. I don’t.

Anyone who’s read even a tiny amount of what I’ve written for, oh, the past 20 years or so is surely aware that I do not trust government as a general rule. I don’t trust Big Government, Big Business, Big Anything. I do leave open the possibility that they can (and sometimes do) get it right. This isn’t because they tend to do things based on good will, though sometimes they do. It’s more often because countervailing forces, such as voters, courts, customers, etc., can apply enough pressure to get a better outcome.

We may well need those countervailing forces–checks and balances–in a Title II future, because no one in this debate, least of all me, thinks the FCC’s action was the perfect solution. Its net neutrality ruling was distinctly less bad than the alternative it was floating earlier: handing control over the Internet’s key on-ramps to the rapacious telecommunications cartel that has demonstrated its unfitness to have such control.

We were heading toward control of speech by a cartel of rapacious companies that had zero First Amendment obligations. Frey says we’re heading toward control of speech by a cartel of bureaucrats. Because, you see, since the FCC did it with broadcast, they’ll do it with the Internet.

Government, unlike business, actually does have some First Amendment obligations. And the Internet could hardly be more different than the broadcast system that the FCC did regulate poorly in the bad old days. 

The Supreme Court has weighed in, firmly, on the issue of whether the Internet is like broadcast, which was heavily regulated on the (increasingly specious) principle that the airwaves were scarce. Not even close, the court said in a key 1990s ruling about the “Communications Decency Act, which the court mostly tossed out as violating the First Amendment. (I appreciate the reminder of the CDA ruling from Seth Finkelstein, a longtime correspondent, and critic, who has persuaded me I was mistaken on more than one issue over the years.) Key language:

[U]nlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low cost capacity for communication of all kinds. The Government estimates that “[a]s many as 40 million people use the Internet today, and that figure is expected to grow to 200 million by 1999.” This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” 929 F. Supp., at 842 (finding 74). We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.

Maybe some future Supreme Court will totally abandon us, and decide that tight regulation of Internet speech is constitutional. If so, the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, will have long since become just meaningless ideas. For now, I’ll give some trust to a system where we still have some checks and balances–and work hard to hold Big Government and Big Business accountable. If that makes me terminally naive, so be it.

 

(Note: This is adapted from a Thanksgiving Day editorial I wrote many years ago in the Detroit Free Press, and then adapted in my blog starting in the early part of the last decade. It changes each time I write it, to reflect current realities)

Today, we Americans celebrate our finest holiday, Thanksgiving. I’m overseas, in Hong Kong. I expect to join a couple of expatriates this evening. I will miss my family and friends at home.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time at the “Occupy Central” locations since I’ve been here, with growing admiration for the young people who have created and persisted with their Umbrella Movement. They want a Hong Kong that respects personal liberty and offers a genuinely representative government. The authorities are starting to evict them from their street encampments here on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon across the harbor.  It’s both an inspiring and sad sight.

Across the ocean people are in the streets to protest a corrupt system of justice that has produced the Ferguson case and so many others like it. A student at the University of Hong Kong, where I’ve been teaching for a few weeks, asked me to explain Ferguson after the grand jury reached its obviously pre-ordained decision and anger spilled over. I couldn’t. I still want to believe the best about my country.

The young people who’ve camped in the streets of Hong Kong’s Admiralty, Monkok and Causeway Bay, and the angry but overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson and other American cities, remind me of what a friend once said, many years ago:

We need more pilgrims, and fewer turkeys.

There are still plenty of pilgrims around. They refuse to accept the way things are. They reject pure grasping for money and control and status. They are outnumbered and outspent in the halls of power, but their day may return if the people ever recognize what is happening.

My material table overflows with bounty this Thanksgiving. Tonight I will raise a glass to family and far-away friends. I’ll salute the brave people worldwide who champion and fight for justice. I’m grateful beyond words for my life of comfort and relative safety in a deeply troubled world.

I’m grateful, too, for my opportunity to constantly explore and learn. I hope to sustain, as long as I live, a spiritual pilgrimage — for life, for justice.

And on Thanksgiving Day 2014, I wish the same for you.

Occupy, but study

I’m visiting Hong Kong for a month (with a side trip to Shanghai toward the end of the trip). I find myself agog, again, at the pure energy of the place.

Over the weekend I got guided tours of the student protest encampments widely known as Occupy Central (it really should be called Occupy Admiralty and Mon Kok and Causeway Bay) with local journalists who’ve been covering the students since before this started. I find myself totally admiring these kids — but I wish they had a better sense of security in their communications. They’re using Facebook for the most part, which is basically an invitation to be surveilled.

Transcript of a voicemail message left for me today at Google Voice:

And I don’t know if you’re gonna get this message but both teams, and I feel more dot com address is, R pouncing, the bye for maybe a problem with a hold of me and just when I send you an email. I’ll try that. Now to you later that pounces as well.

Glad they keep the actual audio for playback…

For six years starting in 1999, I spent 5-6 weeks each fall at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre, co-teaching an online media course. I’m certain that HKU was the first university in the world to require students to create blogs, because Dave Winer gave us space on a server to test his then-beta blogging software in the very, very early days of the mass-blogging movement.

I’ll be based in Hong Kong again this November, co-teaching a class at HKU and visiting the mainland. The JMSC has changed a lot over the years, but it’s still leading the way in Asia. I’m looking forward to seeing the centre’s director, Ying Chan, and her terrific colleagues.

Over the years Hong Kong became one of my favorite places. A friend accurately called it “Manhattan on speed” — capturing the frenetic energy of the place. It revs me up, too.