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Charles Matthews: What did we learn from "Matthew Hoffman"?

This post is by Charles Matthews. Charles was a member of the English Wikipedia ArbCom from 2006 to 2008. His first guest post was On Notability. —Brianna

Some ArbCom (Arbitration Committee) cases on the English Wikipedia can reach the mainstream media: there was a recent decision on Scientology-related editing which did just that. Others are very much for insiders, and the innocuously-named Matthew Hoffman case, the topic of a recent ArbCom statement, is an example. I brought the case, a year and a half ago. This will be part retrospect, and part a meditation on “ArbCom 2009”.

What did we learn, then? The short answer is “not enough”. ArbCom 2009 has come to the view that the case should never have been accepted. I don’t think I’ll hire them as historians: the decision they have recently issued about the case is much the same as saying that in 2009 the case would not have been taken, and if taken would have been handled very differently. I’m not quarrelling with that conclusion since it is probably simply true, and it is well within ArbCom’s remit to reconsider matters and the way they were dealt with in the past. What catches my eye there is that justice was always an issue in the Hoffman case, since User:Matthew Hoffman was permanently banned by two admins on no evidence at all. That is one point, and the new statement changes nothing about it. And the other is that Wikipedia is a dynamic place. ArbCom 2009 is not ArbCom 2007 which accepted the case – only a couple of those Arbitrators are still there – and the whole context changes, particularly since ArbCom is an elected body. Elections also matter in this story, since both admins in the frame ran in the 2007 elections that could have put them on ArbCom 2008, and the case was concurrent with the election period.

The Matthew Hoffman case was brought by me because I thought the ArbCom (of which I was a member 2006-8) should look at how it could happen that two admins at the Adminstrators Noticeboard (AN) could decide on the flimsiest of grounds that the Matthew Hoffman account was a sockpuppet (of some other unspecified account), never think to ask for a CheckUser run to verify this and see what other accounts were involved, and one of them (SH as I shall call him) block the account permanently, with a misleading log entry saying “vandalism-only”. Now, in the light of the Scientology decision, the rationale on the admins’ side can be clarified this way: the class of ‘single-purpose accounts’ (SPAs) brings itself under suspicion, because an SPA edits just in one area. When (as for much Scientology-related editing) there is reason to believe that the editing of a group of SPAs is centrally organized, then worries increase. This argument was brought up in the Hoffman case, with creationism in the place of Scientology. The ArbCom of the time took little notice of this line of reasoning (rightly, in my view). It is still no crime to be an SPA, though it will in practical terms tend to tell against an editor in dispute resolution. Note the distinction, though: Hoffman was blocked by admins not trying to resolve a dispute, because the AN discussion of his case took place while he was blocked for 72 hours. That’s the key problem here with natural justice. Hoffman was locked out of responding on the site to the sockpuppet claim by a short block. (ArbCom found that while the Hoffman account was an SPA, there was no evidence at all that it was a sock. Suspicion is not evidence, but it plays a part in how matters are handled administratively on the site, so that justice is not always served.)

Someone else, before I got there, had put it to SH that the block should be reconsidered, only to be told that “sorry, it was consensus at AN”. Here’s another thing we learned, namely two admins on a noticeboard (meaning an unregulated onsite process) can decide to block someone indefinitely, on no evidence, and then fend off outside interest. That was as of 2007, and I don’t suppose the same uncritical attitude would pass muster now. It took some months for the matter to get to court, and I’ll not rehearse the whole history. The fact is that SH’s block was his personal responsibility, and was so treated by ArbCom when it took the case, which brought forth little general illumination beyond the SPA argument I have mentioned. It was shoehorned into being a case about SH; I (naturally) was recused, and this was not the inquiry I had wanted, but it was all out of my control. For more on the facts see my only extensive onsite discussion ; the matter is in the first two questions, but the joint statement in the blue box at the top of the page explains why I’m not going to cover this ground again, and indeed stopped short then.

I was outraged by the whole business: a culture of admins being unreasonable rather than responsive in this matter just created a fall guy. Let’s hope that has changed. How should it all work, in the big picture? My view: admins should be granted plenty of discretion in using their powers to defend Wikipedia’s content and mission. But admins who make poor discretionary decisions should expect to have to defend those decisions rationally when challenged; and failure to engage and make an acceptable case is a serious question mark over the admin. It’s not the mistake (we all make them), but the attitude to discussing the decisions that make up the admin workload. The admin community is in potential conflict with the small ArbCom (of about 1% of the size of the admin body) that can remove their powers. Some other Wikipedias do without an arbitration process, and so the justice mechanism is the admin body and its self-regulation; but self-regulation can be flawed, too. ArbCom can review ‘community bans’, namely bans upheld by all admins, but this kind of review now rarely causes trouble and it is unusual for a community ban appeal to succeed; this path isn’t really controversial.

The dispute that arose could certainly have been avoided by applying the maxim “thoughtful, not combative”. It was disastrous (all round) that a block discussed briefly at AN was confused with a community ban, with so much muddle. Was Hoffman a vandal, a sock, or a disruptive editor, and did anyone care which? None of the above: it was a bad block being covered up. Perfunctory discussion at AN must not be held up as deciding these matters once and for all. Why would it not have been important at least to know of what other account the Matthew Hoffman account was a sock? Why was he run off the site before being asked whether it was a real name? Those questions are pretty much rhetorical, but let’s not lose sight of natural justice. There has been strong advocacy, and much procedural argument, but let’s also hear it for the facts, evidence, and setting matters straight.

Hoffman hasn’t returned to Wikipedia. Moving on, what do we learn about ArbCom 2009? The ArbCom, as of 2009, seems to be binding itself to operate in a more tightly constrained way, by placing emphasis in its Hoffman statement on procedural rather than evidential matters. We are back to justice, but this is more like the apparatus of the television lawyer drama. In fact the ArbCom was changing as of 2008, accepting many fewer cases than before, and we are now at perhaps 25% of the caseload numerically compared to the peak period in 2006/7. These cases are generally more complex, and take several times as long to close.

The bigger picture is of admins plus ArbCom in tension on the English Wikipedia, as a shifting relationship that went through an uneasy period in 2008. We are certainly seeing some movement at the moment.

19 June, 2009 • , , ,

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The Future Melbourne wiki - "the city plan that anyone can edit"

Future Melbourne is a wiki I’ve been aware of for a few months now. The City of Melbourne decided to put their city plan for 2020 (replacing the one for 2010) into a publicly editable wiki for a month, as part of the public consultation process. There is a kind of summary of the project on the Future Melbourne blog, declaring it a success. There is also a short video with Mark Elliot whose company CollabForge helped the city customise and use the wiki (the wiki engine was Twiki).

I think Future Melbourne is an awesome initiative, but considering it garnered just 200 edits, it barely scratched the surface of what is possible with government-public consulting.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that people now generally understand what wikis are and how they work. I have not seen any study or survey with this kind of conclusion and until I see that, I would work off the opposite assumption. That is, I would have multiple free and highly publicised “what is a wiki? what is our wiki for? how can you use our wiki?” hands-on information sessions. To just say “come and edit our wiki” is not going to get the best response, because it assumes that the technology is familiar enough to be invisible — which it is not, even for enthusiasts. Either that or it is making the mistake of focusing on the tool instead of what can be achieved by using it (e.g. “contribute to (y)our city plan”).

The second thing which I think was not much explored was: what does an ideal wiki page look like when you are editing a city plan? Wikipedia works in terms of having one page per topic because of the NPOV (neutral point of view) policy. But asking people to form a NPOV city plan doesn’t make any sense. People can contribute by sharing their vision for what the city could be. But no individuals’ vision is more right or wrong than anyone else’s. For me, I would like Melbourne to be a cyclists’ paradise. Others may prefer a pedestrian’s paradise and still others may want a car-centric highway heaven. When we are all editing the transport policy page together, what rules can we or should we use to find a version of the page that is acceptable to all of us? Is that even possible? Or could there be multiple pages representing our individual wishes? How are they then to be understood in relation to each other and the rest of the plan? Which one is canonical?

I tend to think that neglecting this “ground rule” is not a good idea, and that with this kind of document a more simple “comment” or feedback approach may be better. You could use this in combination with allowing people to suggest new or expanded policies/goals.

I think this topic basically didn’t arise because of the low participation, but it is really something I would want to come to grips with before launching a wiki project with greater participation.

Another thing that makes me think a wiki is perhaps not the perfect tool for this is the short editing timeframe – one month. Wikis show their strengths over months and years and probably decades. For one thing the longer time scale allows for a community to develop. While in Future Melbourne’s case they had staff monitoring and responding to edits, and that’s good, certainly better than nothing, and probably the best you could hope for in a short time frame — it’s still something that reflects a top-down power structure. The reins may have been loosened a bit but they’re still ready to be snatched back up should things go awry. It wouldn’t hold a candle to a truly community-run/powered/managed wiki. You have to be in charge, have some power, to really own something, and it’s then that you become invested, engaged. It’s then that you care.

The City of Melbourne has made some bold steps but I think there are many more ahead. Once they start to be taken the relationship between government and the public will become very vibrant and interesting. And not a moment too soon, eh?

18 October, 2008 • , , ,

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Charles Matthews on Notability

This is a guest post by Charles Matthews. Charles has been a Wikipedia editor since 2003, an Arbitration Committee member since 2006, and is one of the authors of How Wikipedia Works. He commented on my post Wikipedia, the deeply conservative and traditional encyclopedia and I invited him to expand his thoughts on the topic into a complete post. The links were added by me; apart from that it is wholly his text. —Brianna

Should Wikipedia have an article on Charles Herman Kuhl? Some people would think so. Kuhl’s claim to fame is to have been slapped around by George Patton, in “shell shock is for cissies” mode. The fact that we even have to discuss such an issue seems to me to be a good example of what is wrong with the “notability debate”.

Starting in another way, I was asked in conversation at Wikimania about a proposal to create Wikipedia articles for each human gene. What were my reactions here? I said immediately, there should be no orphans, and the articles shouldn’t be any kind of walled garden. A walled garden would be some sort of sub-project that ordinary Wikipedia editors would find tough to relate to: say if the articles were hard to understand and edit in the ordinary way, or if standard deletion criteria were somehow suspended by fiat. Well, nobody can call off the deletionists that way.

What I did not have as a first or second reaction is “are human genes notable”? I thought, I guess, that the genes are a big part of what make us us. It isn’t interesting to quibble about that kind of thing. I also didn’t react with a query about “reliable sources”. The way I’d go about such a project is with a big listing of the genes, first. Create articles (therefore not orphans) from the listing page(s). If gene XYZ is not really well documented yet, don’t create the article, but leave it on the listing with whatever verifiable info there is so far. If a new gene article is a bit thin, agree to merge it back into the listing pro tem. Over the years, the gene articles project should grow up to reflect the science.

Where’s the problem here? Well, Wikipedia has its content policy, and part of that (or allied to that) is “topic policy” and/or “title policy”, the business of ruling of what topics the encyclopedia should cover, and the details of titling per topic. We tend not to talk about “topic policy”, and only vaguely about what is “encyclopedic”. Wikipedia anyway is only approximately an encyclopedia. What it is, really, is a tertiary source. And Wikipedia only approximately operates by choosing notable topics, in the everyday sense. It has a topic policy that allows topics in Sumerology to be selected according to what is notable to a Sumerologist. Quite rightly. Per field of endeavour, per academic discipline, Wikipedia is interested in surveying the major and minor but still reckonable topics. This is a different issue, by the way, from the mission statement “to provide the whole world’s information”. It is the question of the packages, not the contents.

So, there are a few annoying and catchy misconceptions around. They are like the tunes to bubblegum pop songs, in the way that you can’t get them out of your head even if you want to. Notability doesn’t apply to facts, but to topics: you are probably thinking of verifiability. We don’t have “notable” facts, but facts have salience or not relative to a given topic (very relevant to BLP). Notability is just a guideline. It therefore cannot be a reason to force inclusion of a topic. This is where US Army Private Charles Herman Kuhl comes in. For all there may be a guideline saying notability can be assessed by the presence of good sources, it cannot be the last word: Kuhl was written up by Time magazine, doesn’t make him within sensible “topic policy”. An article about him, simply based on the Patton incident, is probably a classic ‘coatrack’ in fact, written to make Patton look bad rather than to inform. The catchy tune here is that “enough reliable sources make a topic notable”. Oh no they don’t. Enough good sources are probably necessary for a topic’s inclusion, otherwise the article will be paltry. But the witness, bystander or (in this case) passive victim in a famous incident is not really notable: the “Patton slaps GI” topic is clearly destined for all time to be a subsection in the Patton article. The necessary condition of reliable sources isn’t sufficient.

Notability works adequately as a way to exclude topics at AfD: given five days to dig up reasons to keep an article, a sensible decision can often be taken, and the false positive and negatives are not so serious. A marginal decision at AfD decides the issue for six months, but not in fact forever, and debates are curtailed where they might cover imponderables. This works well enough. CSD A7 has worked much worse, in the past, and the bar has now been lowered: “An article … that does not indicate why its subject is important or significant. This is distinct from questions of verifiability and reliability of sources, and is a lower standard than notability.” This used to read in terms of an “assertion of notability”: the problem being that some people wouldn’t take office-holders to be notable for their office alone. An arguable point, but it seems to have been admitted that the “assertion” thing was broken.

Topic policy isn’t as broken, but what we now know is that the catchy isn’t always helpful in this area. [[Category:Wikipedia notability]] is a subcategory of [[Category:Wikipedia content selection]], but completely dominant … around 100 pages in there, and only the Fancruft, Neologism and Recentism pages escape. Really, we should start to revamp, explaining more clearly what the policy on topics is. There were recent polls to try to change the policy, but I thought the proposals were nearly all wrong-headed, and probably aimed at some of the successful tenets we have. In effect we do not allow subpages in article space and insist that summary style, highly desirable as it is, operate only through individually notable topics. Here we see topic policy plus concision constraining content policy, and a good thing too.

15 October, 2008 • , ,

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Playing within the rules: Free content communities and copyright

“no sé qué licencia aplica”:
© Stephan Baum, Sanbec, ttog, CC-BY-SA-2.5

It is commented sometimes that Commons is a haven for a particular variety of wikilawyering known as copyright wikilawyering. It is one of the most irritating types of wikilawyering to be on the receiving end of (and I have, several times), because for Wikimedians there is no trump to the “non-free content” card. It can seem utterly petty and pointless.

But (although we don’t have to be jerks about it) we have no choice. There are two ways to protest the current copyright system: use the existing system to subvert the traditional conclusions from within the system; or fight through courts and parliaments to have the system changed. If you use Creative Commons, or like to think of yourself as part of the “free content movement” like Wikimedia does, then you are part of the former.

And if you choose to play the game, you have to play it better than anyone. You accept the limitations as soon as you deal yourself in, and you work within those parameters. And that’s why you learn about freedom of panorama and sadly find yourself applying it to all kinds of previously-thought-free scenes. Just as Wikiquette has “Assume good faith”, Free content has “Assume unfree content”. They play off each other uneasily at times.

The benefits of this approach, of playing the copyright game, are that anyone can do it, today, right now. They can give up some of their copyrights and let people copy their work as suits them. Fighting in courts and parliaments is expensive and difficult with no great hope or guarantee of victory.

Cory Doctorow says

It would be nice if our lawmakers would go back to the drawing board and write a new copyright that made sense in the era of the Internet, but all efforts to “fix” copyright since the passage of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 have only made things worse, granting more unenforceable exclusive rights to an ever-increasing pool of “authors” who have no need or desire to sue the people with whom they are engaged in the business of “culture” — holding conversations, publicly re-imagining the stories that make up their lives.

Creative Commons aims to do what Congress won’t or can’t do — offer an approach to copyright that helps those of us who don’t want deal that Disney and their pals have insisted on for every snatch of creativity. Creative Commons achieves this through a set of licenses, legal notices that set out permitted uses for creative works.

In explaining the benefit of Creative Commons, he also exactly highlights its weaknesses. Lawmakers have failed us (most jurisdictions worldwide now have ridiculous copyright terms). Creative Commons is a soothing non-answer to this failure.

It reminds me, in a strange way, of how the media promotes outrageous ideals of beauty for women, and many women feel it is their personal failure for not meeting these ideals rather than the extremity of the outrageous system in the first place. It’s the twisted system that needs your attention, not your personal behaviour.

I like Creative Commons. But I wish I had an angry noisy anti-copyright-system movement to go along with it.

12 November, 2007 • , , ,

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What's hard about Wikipedia?

Child + computer lessons = free knowledge?
(Nevit Dilman, GFDL )

Erik reported some good news to foundation-l recently: WikiEducator has won a grant of US$100,000 for ‘‘the Learning4Content project to assist in building capacity in MediaWiki editing skills for at least 2500 educators in 52 countries of the Commonwealth’‘.

I’m not very familiar with WikiEducator, but they look like WMF might if you dragged everyone away from their computers. I imagine they overlap a fair bit. Maybe it’s like: WMF is all about the content creation, and WikiEducator is about the content distribution.

The full Learning4Content proposal is here.

Luckily Erik has got in their ear – they only want to use CC-BY or CC-BY-SA. :D (see section G)

One of the outcomes is ‘‘The establishment of a community of free content developers.’‘ (I think they mean developers as in editors, rather than coders.) But the main activity that seems like it will lead to this is ‘‘Develop tutorials for Wiki editing[…]’‘ which is reflected in the summary as “MediaWiki editing skills”.

So, what’s hard about Wikipedia? Is it just learning how to use MediaWiki? I don’t think so. That is just the first step, and for the computer-literate, one that is soon passed.

What’s hard?

Although I’ve talked about Wikipedia, these points all apply to all Wikimedia projects, with the possible exception of NPOV.

So I wonder, what else is essential to the Wikimedian culture? Is anything here superfluous?

How well are we doing at sharing these as our values? (Especially given half of them are not explicitly stated)

I wonder if WikiEducator will cover these kinds of things?

28 October, 2007 • , ,

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The Wikimedia projects: history and deliberation

Time map of Wikimedia projects

After Wikimania was over, I caught a taxi to the Taipei airport with Adam Hyde and we discussed his pet wiki(s), FLOSS Manuals, and mine, Wikimedia. He asked me about the projects that WMF manages (I prefer that verb to runs, which implies rather more control), and like probably a good many Wikimedians, I struggled to make sure I hadn’t forgotten any as I listed them. “Did I mention Wikisource?… oh, and don’t forget Wikispecies…what is that other one… ah, Wikiquote!” As it happens I think I still left out Wikinews.

Why is it so hard to remember which projects fall under the WMF umbrella? Shouldn’t they be a natural consequence of the Foundation’s Mission statement?

On the 11 April 2007, the WMF Board accepted the Mission statement, the first line of which reads

The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.

This statement was formalised and accepted four years after the creation of the Foundation, and some six years after Wikipedia began. MetaWiki sprang into creation just ten months after Wikipedia, and Wiktionary followed hot on its heels two months later.

Why does WMF have a Mission statement? In his RFC, Erik commented

What’s the point [of a mission statement]? Aside from uniting behind a set of key goals, it helps us to decide which activities fall within our scope and which ones don’t — something that is not always easy, given the diversity of our existing projects and communities. Should we launch a WikiFoo project, or is Foo not part of our mission? Both the vision and mission statement will be frequently cited in future discussions of this kind, so they are relevant, and not just organizational fluff.

I argued at the time for the word “educational” to be included (originally it just said “knowledge”, and then “content” – then “educational content”).

It’s all been a bit backwards. By the time this document was made official, all the existing Wikimedia projects had been created (or at least conceived of), and dozens of others had been rejected. The driving force behind a project’s adoption or rejection (and by “project” here I mean Wikipedia, Wikinews, etc – not a specific language incarnation), lately, has been how noisy and determined the start-up group of users has been. So failing to make one’s case right now does not mean the project is forever doomed: it just means “not right now”. Get enough people on board and try again.

In the early days I believe it can be summed up by a single keyword: “WP:NOT”.

“WP:NOT” is Wikipedian short-hand for the Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not policy. It goes like this: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is WP:NOT a place for meta-essays. (Hence, meta, which as far as wikis go is kind of like the spare bedroom where you store all the junk you can’t quite bear to throw out, fix or find a proper home for.) Wikipedia is WP:NOT a dictionary. (Hence, Wiktionary.) Wikipedia is WP:NOT a place for how-tos. (Hence, Wikibooks.) Wikipedia is WP:NOT a collection of quotes. (Hence, Wikiquote.) And so on.

It makes me wonder what Wikipedia might have ended up like if it had started life as “Wiki-almanac” or something other title altogether. What’s in a name, indeed. The idea that Wikipedia is WP:NOT an indiscriminate collection of information is, after all, one that came solely from the community.

Wikinews is perhaps the only “original” project after Wikipedia. (If it was supposed to counter recentism, I guess it has dismally failed, whereas the other projects have largely “succeeded” in ridding Wikipedia of their style of content.) The rest all began life as a definition of what something else was not. This is not a criticism: it’s my explanation for why it’s so hard to remember the precise set of projects. And it’s also the reason why the Mission statement rather fails the task Erik set for it. It doesn’t at all explain why we do have Wikiquote, after all, or why we don’t have a code archive like LiteratePrograms. (Erik proposed in April that it be adopted into the WMF family, an idea that was halfheartedly agreed with. The lack of enthusiasm was the real killer of this adoption, rather than anything ideological.)

I asked a question that I’ve not really seen answered: It’s not obvious to me that just because we could subsume a project with suitable qualities, we should. Are we aiming to host every such suitable project?

Does WMF succeed in its mission only when it is the organisation managing the projects that match its mission, or whenever any such project exists? The status quo would suggest that WMF feels the mission is met as long as someone, somewhere, is doing the thing in a vaguely neutral fashion with a vaguely free/open license. And maybe that’s fair enough. Splintering communities of contributors is not likely to be very helpful.

I was interested to learn recently that WMF once offered to take over management of Wikitravel. (This was well before the days of the Mission statement, though.) I wonder how such a prospect would go down today.

There are dozens upon dozens of rejected or ill-conceived projects. Anyone trying to start a new project today has a tough case to make. I suspect that each time a new project starts, part of the existing community is cannibalised, rather than the total community actually expanding. Wikimedia is already spread quite thin and I daresay in five years not all the existing projects will still be with us. I guess the first two to go will be Wikiquote and Wikispecies.

Wikiquote will go because it’s simply not justifiable on the free-content and educational grounds. On both these points it has a pretty weak case. In the end, “but quotes are WP:NOT part of Wikipedia” will not sustain a project forever, I feel. So the how and when of Wikiquote’s demise will be interesting. Like the disowning of a sibling, common sense will struggle with historical fact, lived history. But wait long enough and lived history will just be history. No-one feels nostalgia for events they have not themselves experienced. At that point, it will be bye-bye, Wikiquote. At this stage my guess is Wikia will offer to adopt them. (That makes it sound far simpler than I guess it will be. I expect a fair bit of drama — just like the disowned sibling.)

As for Wikispecies, it will be closed because it simply is a failure. It has not been able to tempt enough Wikipedia editors and Wikimedia Commons editors away from their regular wikis and over to Wikispecies. In the past I have tried to use Wikispecies to look up species information, but it has failed me. I turn to Wikipedia and wa-la, success. It now strikes me as an incomplete set of infoboxes of Wikipedia. So Wikipedia in effect WP:IS Wikispecies, and given its huge head start it is naturally much more successful at it. Wikispecies has failed to articulate its unique selling point.

Given WMF has nothing resembling a policy on closing projects, it will likely hang around for quite a long time, continuing to be stripped away by Wikipedia.

So why does any of this matter, anyway?

It matters because the WMF is the guardian of one of the most powerful and influential information sources of our time, Wikipedia. Wikipedia right now is not even seven years old. Most of the people around the world who use it, enjoy it, marvel at it, only understand a tiny part of how amazing a thing it is. When Wikipedia is 20 years old, imagine the potential it has to make a difference in people’s lives around the world. Imagine the potential the other projects have, who are still just toddlers to Wikipedia’s school-age. Now imagine how powerful the WMF umbrella may be, to say who is deemed worthy of shelter, and who is cast out to survive on their own luck.

This lift is going up. If you want to beat the crowds, best be hopping in now.

28 August, 2007 • , , ,


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