Jim Redmond has a post on his blog that almost read my mind, called One thing that Wikipedians often overlook: not everybody gets it:
Most non-Wikipedians still don’t get how Wikipedia works; they still think that its content is centrally controlled.
This is part of the reason this week we saw the SMH report More woes for Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, about Jeff Merkey’s claims of “cash for kindness” or donations for Wikipedia article editorial favours.
When Wikipedia was small and ranked on the 10th page of Google results or worse, it didn’t matter so much if a person’s Wikipedia article was full of nonsense. But when your Wikipedia article can rank higher than your official site, you have a problem. That’s the major reason for the English Wikipedia policy, Biographies of living people. I really recommend having a look at it, even if you’re familiar with the acronym.
Biographies of living persons (BLPs) must be written conservatively, with regard for the subject’s privacy. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a tabloid; it is not our job to be sensationalist, or to be the primary vehicle for the spread of titillating claims about people’s lives. An important rule of thumb when writing biographical material about living persons is “do no harm”.
Jimmy Wales has made it clear repeatedly that Zero information is preferred to misleading or false information.
And that is why you might blank a poorly written article about a controversial figure.
It may be hoping too much to ask the general public or the media to understand the purpose and process of OTRS, but it is worth noting that it is a private method of complaining about one’s article. It’s a selection of trusted volunteer editors working together with WMF staff and board (when appropriate) to answer the questions of those who can’t or won’t use a wiki talk page, but can use email.
It is, quite frankly, thankless and largely invisible work. If disputes are resolved successfully, you’ll never hear about it.
As the figurehead for Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is often approached or written to personally, by people that should actually be writing to OTRS, but the process is too esoteric to figure out. It’s rather like contacting Rupert Murdoch to complain about an article by a staff writer in some random NewsCorp paper, except that Wales takes it on himself to be involved in this resolution process, rather than palming it off to a secretary.
So in blanking Merkey’s article, Wales was actually following the single most ethically serious policy Wikipedia has, showing that Wikipedia is not an anarchy or a free-(libel)-for-all, but a project that takes the responsibility of high web visibility seriously and tries to minimise the negative impact it has on people’s lives.
And while Wales was acting to minimise the harm Wikipedia causes in other people’s lives, the news media shows that when there’s a whiff of controversy, that idea doesn’t apply.
If you had even the vaguest idea about how Wikipedia works, you would surely reject out-of-hand as unlikely if not ridiculous, the idea that Wales would offer editorial favours in exchange for donations. Because he better than anybody knows how impossible that is. The whole article history is right THERE.
But if Wikipedia is just a big black box that somehow produces timely articles, then it is not an unreasonable idea.
Ultimately, recent new stories say to me that while Wikipedia has developed responsible processes over the past couple of years, it has done an extremely poor job at communicating their existence to the outside world. So it’s not enough to be big; we really do have to try and get everyone involved. Only by being a part of it, and understanding how it works, will people know enough to be able to dismiss nonsense claims when they see them.
If Wikipedia was a type of travel, at the moment it’s somewhere between a rocket and a aeroplane, in terms of accessibility and participation and general understanding of how it works. There’s still too much that’s mysterious and seemingly random and magical.
Reading and editing Wikipedia needs to be as familiar as riding a bicycle. Almost everyone can do it, with a few hours practice and maybe some training wheels. No special test or license. You can go anywhere. That’s what Wikipedia needs to be like.
The Wikimedia Foundation uses a software package called OTRS for a variety of purposes. OTRS volunteers are chosen from various Wikimedia projects, usually if not always admins, as the OTRS chores often require checking of deleted edits.
If you manage to dodge the inbound links on Wikipedia:Contact us, you’ll eventually reach an email address. Most of the addresses on that form represent OTRS queues. So one function is for answering queries from the public. Other similar functions include answering press queries, fundraising queries, and legal queries.
One function dear to the heart of many Wikimedia Commons users is that of permissions. “Permissions” means forwarding emails in which an author agrees to license their work under a free license to OTRS, to act as a record of the permission being given.
Typically it would play out like this:
- Wikimedian goes hunting for an image for their pet topic. They find a good candidate, but it’s all-rights-reserved copyrighted or under a non-free license.
- Wikimedian writes a begging email to the author, hopefully using a template request. (This is important: if you only ask “for Wikipedia”, the author will probably give Wikipedia-only permission. That’s not free enough.)
- Author is dazzled by flattery and/or the possibility of having their image appear on Wikipedia and replies, assenting to the free license terms.
- Wikimedian uploads the work and forwards the email to OTRS as evidence of the license release.
- The Wikimedian or OTRS volunteers tag the work with a template providing a link to the relevant OTRS ticket as a reference.
Ideally this would be quite straight-forward and move along in a timely fashion, but of course it doesn’t work like that. :) Common problems faced by OTRS volunteers checking the permission queues are:
- Lack of context: where was the image originally published? Where is the image on Wikimedia? What makes the Wikimedian think the person they are corresponding with is in fact the author?
- Is it reasonable that the correspondent is in fact the author or as they just the webmaster? (Some people who curate sites like to enthusiastically give away copyrights that in fact belong to other people.)
- Does it appear from the correspondence that the author understands the extent of what they are agreeing to? Especially regarding use by people other than Wikipedia and potential commercial use. If not, the OTRS volunteer has to communicate with the Wikimedian and some back-and-forth ensues. This can be especially annoying if you’re the Wikimedian and you don’t want to hurt the goodwill of the author by hassling them again.
- Permissions or correspondence in languages other than the small dozen or so spoken by OTRS volunteers create another layer of difficulty.
While I was at Wikimania I gave an impromptu tutorial on using Wikimedia Commons. When I’d finished and said “any questions?” I think the first one was about: what should I do if I have my friend’s photo and he just told me OK? How does that work in the context of OTRS?
I had to lamely reply that he should ask his friend to send him an email granting the permission. I would like to say “talk about an edge case!” but that is less and less true.
How can we solve this problem, of shallow verification of permissions? I say “shallow” because of course OTRS is only represents a first basic check. This is “balance of probabilities”, not “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Should someone later come along with a convincing claim to own particular images and never have given permission for them to be used, we’ll chalk that OTRS ticket up to “well, we made an effort”. We’re not checking for passport fraud…these are projects that we let anyone edit, after all. ;)
The second part of the “permissions problem” is that of longevity. What is an acceptable statement of “proof” may not be 12, 24, 36, 48 months later. Or even further into the future. And how long will those tickets be preserved? Perhaps the permissions tickets should be shipped with the database dumps? Or will WMF maintain the OTRS system for perpetuity?
Or, more likely, they will degrade with time, and slowly be deleted over time, with more and more being replaced by definitively free works. This is what’s happening with “web-sourced” free works, I think. Websites die. Even the US government department websites get rearranged and all the convenient “evidence” links die. What can we do about it?
When confronting the problem of changing Flickr permissions, it was put forward that we should have a bot or something taking screenshots of the images on Flickr showing the free license.
So, dear world, any thoughts about how to approach this vexatious problem?
- More OTRS than you can handle: Meta