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☍ Links for 2009-01-25

Some nice things showed up in my feed reader while I was at LCA.

25 January, 2009 • , ,

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Book, book, book, book

I have toooooo many books on my reading list! A great problem to have.

01 November, 2008 •

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☍ Causes, books and other links for 2008-10-16

This “☍” “linky” symbol is something I picked up from Josh Bancroft to denote “linkblog” posts, ie. posts that are basically just sharing links with some small commentary. I think it is a neat convention.

16 October, 2008 • , ,

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Wikibooks, and books about wiki*, on Amazon

While catching up on some reading, I was astonished to notice that there are some Wikibooks on Amazon!


Wikibooks published and for sale on Amazon.

So I have two questions.

1. Is this old news, or is someone doing this publishing on the sly? (Either way, I like it.)

2. What books are essential reading for those interested in Wikipedia-as-a-phenomenon/free culture, and related ideas in that space?

So far I have thought of:

Books I’m not sure about but suspect that they don’t offer significant insight:

Hm, I thought there was more. What am I missing? If you’ve read any of the above books, are they worth reading or a waste of time?

02 October, 2008 • , ,

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Book authors and eating one's own dogfood

Mike Linksvayer is actually riffing on a remark in an article on free software, but this remark stayed with me last week when I attended a free talk at the State Library of Victoria by Charles Leadbeater on his new book We-think: The Power of Mass Creativity.

In software development they tend to call it eating your own dogfood but it’s pretty much the same as “practice what you preach”.

Leadbeater put that the motto of the current generation is “We think because we are“ and that all this mass collaboration that people are doing for, gasp, reasons other than making money, will be

Insert standard caveats about privacy. quality and loss of earnings.

Based on Leadbeater’s talk I am not sure the book would tell me a lot new (although I did appreciate his historical perspective – often lacking in commentary on the effects of the internet, as he noted), but then, I am probably not his target audience. I am probably more like his step-son who rolled his eyes and walked out halfway through viewing his YouTube book promo. What he’s saying is not really news to me; it’s just life as it is currently being lived.

As far as I can tell from Amazon’s “search inside” feature, Leadbeater only mentions Creative Commons once, in the “We-think business” chapter, with this parenthetical explanation: “Creative Commons is a form of copyright that allows users to share content very easily.” He also doesn’t seem to go into detail about the ideas of copyleft or the history of the GPL in the free software movement.

We-Think will succeed not because it is noble, altruistic or morally uplifting but because it is the most effective way to organise mass innovation at scale. It works. As more share-holder-owned companies are drawn towards more open approaches to innovation, so they will have to experiment with more shared ownership of ideas.

This strikes me as quite a cop-out to the power of the legal idea of copyleft and its influence. Although now free software prospers under non-copyleft licenses (like the BSD, MIT or LGPL – these don’t require that derivatives are released under the same license), there is no guarantee (and IMO it is unlikely) that history would have turned out the way it has, if the GPL had not existed. Likewise Wikipedia and its use of the GFDL with a copyleft clause. It could have been a whole different kettle of fish.

I think this book is for reassuring people who feel troubled or or feel a twinge of concern about “web 2.0” but aren’t sure why.

Back to the talk.

At question time I asked why Leadbeater had chosen to write a book, given he was extolling the virtues of all this free sharing, and books are a rather traditional top-down respect-my-authoritay tradition. I asked if it was just for pragmatic reasons, or if he thought that books were actually really conversational in nature. He replied that he just wanted to communicate his ideas with the widest possible audience.

I am not entirely convinced.

There are still lots of good reasons to write a book, let’s not doubt that for a second:

  1. traditional source of authority
  2. make money (unlikely as it is, it’s still possible)
  3. reach an audience that is (still) influenced by books of ideas

Reaching the widest possible audience mostly relates to #3, but really, if you wanted to reach the widest possible audience, wouldn’t you release it as a book and also as a free PDF download? A la Cory Doctorow:

Practicing what he preaches, all of the author’s books, including this one, are simultaneously released in print and on the Internet under Creative Commons licenses that encourage their reuse and sharing. He argues persuasively that this practice has considerably increased his sales by enlisting readers to promote his work.

“This one” is Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future (Amazon, download), which I am looking forward to reading. (I’m still halfway through The Long Tail — only two years behind!) I’m still mulling over purchasing a copy or just reading it on my Palm. I read Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture on my Palm and it genuinely counts as a book that changed my life — it energised and concentrated the vague warm fuzzies I had from editing Wikipedia into something much more purposeful and righteous. OTOH, I really do like books as physical objects. So, we’ll see.

Back to Leadbeater… while I definitely think he should release his book under a Creative Commons license, in the meantime what he has is a comment-less blog (wait, is that really a blog?), the first three chapters in PDF (under no specific license, tch tch) and a wiki, although it is not even linked from the book website, I think.

A blog without comments is not conversational. PDFs are not conversational. A wiki is conversational, but you do need to let people know it exists.

I got the photo for his Wikipedia article that I wanted. (I asked him if he had ever read it. He said no, on the advice of Jimmy Wales, which is good advice.) Now that’s an even easier way to eat your own dogfood (not to mention get good free publicity on a top 10 website): if you have a Wikipedia article, release a flattering press photo of yourself under a free license!

20 September, 2008 •

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Wikipedia: the Missing Manual

O’Reilly sent me a copy of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (also amazon) for review. Really I am a bad person for such a task — they should give it to newbies and encourage them to dive in, see how they go, and then report how they feel about the book. But I guess there is some value in a perspective that learned it the hard way first (or at least, blog buzz).

Is this book needed or necessary? Yes. Wikis are very good at two tasks, at least: writing an encyclopedia and writing documentation. Interestingly, Wikipedia fails massively at the latter. Well, not so much at the writing of it as the organising, culling and simplifying of it.

I suppose it is not helped that policies, guidelines, manual of style, essays and wikiprojects all share the same space. Perhaps it would be useful to create new namespaces for some of these – at least MOS and wikiprojects. Essays could be folded back into user subpages (like userbox templates were). When they are all cited as if they held equivalent weight (I was surprised to learn WP:COOL was only an essay), it makes it extremely difficult to get a grasp on what you’re supposed to know.

Another idea might be to explicitly flag versions of policies and guidelines for “experience”, e.g. everything with a “experience rating 1” would be expected to be read by newbies. “5” would be howtos for bureaucrats, arbcom and Mechanics.

But because devoting oneself to organising and sorting projectspace has bad consequences for encyclopedia involvement, I don’t think it will happen.

On first read I got quite a kick out of seeing the familiar screenshots and policy statements in dead-tree format. Yeah — “we made it”. Chapter 15, on uploading images, was especially dear to my heart as I helped design the current upload forms. (With any luck those screenshots will soon be out of date, actually. A vastly improved JavaScript modified form is in the works.)

We made it all right… Wikipedia is now an institution, there’s no doubt about it. Not looking so radical now.

There are two major omission from this book and one of them is related to this. There is not a single mention of the policy Ignore all rules. That’s right, Wikipedia’s first ever rule doesn’t rate a mention in a book devoted to the minutiae of how to get an enhanced watchlist and get an article deleted. It’s really quite strange. The author John Broughton would undoubtedly be familiar with it, having authored the Editor’s index to Wikipedia. One can only assume he thinks it’s on the way out. Then, Wikipedia will be a much less interesting community.

The other major omission is an explanation or discussion of the concept of free content. “Free content” scores one reference in the book’s index, to a section “Uploading a Non-free Image” in the “Adding Images” chapter. He refers to the WMF licensing policy and says,

Free content is any work that doesn’t require permission or payment for any use, including commercial. At most, free content requires attribution: crediting the person who created the image. Free content also has no restrictions on redistribution of the image by others.

Well, for a start, this is just wrong. Free content can also require ShareAlike use, which is a “restriction on redistribution”.

He then breezes over Wikipedia’s fair use policy. Considering how much trouble people have with it, I think it would be better to cover it thoroughly or not at all. Simply reciting the conditions that must be met is not that enlightening. Better would be a full expanded explanation of the ideas of free software, free culture, freedom for users, copyleft, etc.

Aside from these two gaping holes, I can’t really fault Broughton’s writing, which is refreshingly free of cynicism. If he sometimes belabors a point of process, it is actually a good indication that that process is due for massive simplification. Adding references, for example. He goes into great detail about article deletion nominations; I thought these could all be done more or less by magic JavaScript now? That would seem a much better option to explain, IMO.

The organisation of the book’s content is not bad, although I don’t understand why the appendices “A Tour of the Wikipedia Page” and “Reader’s Guide to Wikipedia” don’t lead the book rather than being hidden at the back. This book would also become 20% cooler if the inside of the covers had the MediaWiki syntax cheatsheet and a list of frequent shortcuts/policies and guidelines printed inside them. That would be so much cooler!

Physically, the book is a little crowded. The pages need to be bigger, or the margins smaller, to allow the many screenshots to take up more space. I am not sure the frequent “note” and “tip” asides wouldn’t be better worked into the main text. (Hey, just like trivia sections!) And unfortunately the binding is cheap. Having finished reading it, my index pages are now falling out. That’s disappointing, but a book like this is not really intended to be a tome for all time anyway, so it’s not that surprising.

Sooner or later I will post my smaller nitpicks to the publisher’s errata page, but they’re just small fry.

There is a pretty nice piece in the New York Times only just about this book – The Charms of Wikipedia. The author is clearly pretty enthralled with Wikipedia. Hey, more power to him. The real test is if this book can convert a Wikipedia skeptic, or maybe tame a troublesome user.

Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, Ben Yates, and SJ Klein (four upstanding Wikipedians all) are working on a book called How Wikipedia Works. (see also meta) Reportedly they will license it under the GFDL. This is excellent news.

I hope Broughton’s book is not only massively successful, but that it inspires a host of measured, high-quality documentation of all the Wikimedia projects, and then some.

03 March, 2008 • ,

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