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« Uncyclopedia and Categories | Main | The Power of Us »

June 9, 2005

Wikipedia, Authority, and Astroturf

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Slashdot, one of my few ‘must scan three times a day’ sites, has notoriously poorly coordinated and unskeptical editors. As a result, they often run stories that are different from ads only in that /. doesn’t charge for the service.

Yesterday, though, I saw a new wrinkle: a post sent in by an esavard, using the already pointless sound and fury around the Apple/Intel matchup, to flog a new! improved! YALD (Yet Another Linux for the Desktop) with the goals — who could imagine such audacious goals! — of making Linux easier to use, making applications simpler to create, and just generally making sure everyone has a pony.

So, to add a little foam to what was pretty small beer, esavard pointed to the Wikipedia entry about their YALD, saying “If you want to know more about Symphony OS, a good starting point is a Wikipedia article describing the innovations proposed by this new desktop OS.

Now at that point the Wikipedia entry was around three weeks old, had been edited 29 times, and 20 of those edits were by the same user, EliasAlucard. The first edit to that page after being picked up by slashdot (from an IP address with no associated username and with no other history of edits) added a note under the header Trivia: “On 8 June 2005, the Symphony OS website was a victim of the Slashdot effect.” (I deleted this bit of self-aggrandizement just now, though we’ll see how long Elias lets it go.)

Then, today, when someone pointed out on the related Talk page that our pal EliasAlucard had created a Wikipedia advertisement, he replied “Guess what? No one cares about your opinion of what it looks like. Give it a rest already.”

This is an interesting kind of spam, or maybe we could call it a reputation hack. I have no way of knowing who esavard is in relation to EliasAlucard, but I am betting they are pretty closely related. They create a Wikipedia page, point to it as if to demonstrate independent interest for the project in their potential slashdot post, then point to the slashdot effect on the Wikipedia page as proof of said independent interest. Voila, an instant trend.

This is the downside of the mass amateurization of publishing. Since the threshold for exclusion from the Wikipedia is so low, there is almost no value in thinking “Hey, it’s got a Wikipedia article — must be serious.” We have the sense-memory of that way of thinking from the days where it cost money to publish something, and this class of reputation hack relies on that memory to seed the network with highly targeted ads.

And it’s a hard hack to stop, since it isn’t exactly vandalism. Most articles have only a few editors in the early days, so it’s an attack that doesn’t have an obvious signature either. It’s relatively to see how to defend against vandalism of high-stakes pages, but it’s hard to see how to defend against the creation of pages where so little is at stake for anyone but the advertiser.

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Bud Gibson on June 10, 2005 6:40 AM writes...

My observations:

1. Most web pages wind up wasting in obscurity. I suspect that is true of wikipedia pages also.

2. Would it be hard for wikipedia to d something like add a sandbox or other means for things to have to build reputation over time before they gain full authority?

Point 2 would add a cost to gaining reputation. That way, publication is still open to all, but getting noticed has a cost.

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2. Branko Collin on June 10, 2005 10:14 AM writes...

Wikipedia collects opinions about facts. Unlike traditional encyclopedias, it cannot be selective about which facts make suitable subjects. As a result, Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia, but also an almanac.

I remember that at the Dutch Wikipedia, there was a fairly unknown sculptor or painter who had created a page about himself. The Wikipedians were quite upset about this, but what could they do? They had to figure out which artists to write about and which not; something EB can afford to do, but not Wikipedia.

Something completely different BTW: I am a volunteer at Distributed Proofreaders, a website at which thousands cooperate to produce etexts for Project Gutenberg. A change in our software has gotten a lot of people upset, and I wonder if you could shed your light on this.

Distributed Proofreaders is as successful as it is, because it breaks up the tedious process of scanning, proofreading, and formatting of an etext into managable bits. It does this by letting people work on a book a page at a time. If you understand what DP wants from you, you can often help out in as little as five minutes per day.

A great influx of new proofreaders has laid the weak points of the system bare: although proofreading goes fast, formatting goes slow, because currently we have no system to do that one page at a time. The system is slowly being rewritten so that the formatting part (what we call Post-Processing) can also be broken up in more manageable chunks, and last week a new version of the software was installed that is the first step on that path.

This got a lot of people upset; they felt they had not been involved enough in the transition.

The hit-and-run nature of DP would suggest that DP mainly is dependent on its Audience. But it also needs it community, because from the community come the people that do all the glue work: the programmers, the site administrators, the forum moderators et cetera.

How do you make individual contributions less and less important without giving the contributors the feeling they are less and less important?

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3. Ryan Quinn on June 10, 2005 10:31 AM writes...

Hello, I am the project maintainer of Symphony OS. I wanted to let all of you know quite simply that while you may consider the slashdot article and the wikipedia article advertisements neither were solicited by myself or Jason Spisak who jointly run the project. We are happy with our little community and the influx of new visitors takes time away from development to answer questions and work the forums. Not to mention that I pay out of pocket for webhosting. Who in their right mind, who pays for hosting and makes zero revenue off their site would want slashdot listing them? I understand your point of view but please do not rush to judgement about our project becuase of the actions of a few over-zealous people.


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4. Jamie McCarthy on June 10, 2005 11:40 AM writes...

We're poorly coordinated, sure, and we might be insufficiently skeptical (though you should see the stuff we weed out before you decide).

But that's not why we ran that story, or others you might be thinking of. We run them because they interest us and we figure they might interest readers.

I'm puzzled by your concept of content that differs from ads "only" in that we don't charge. Our stories also differ from elephants only in that they are not at all pachydermal. :)

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5. David Gerard on June 10, 2005 8:48 PM writes...

Dude. Have you ever tried reading Votes For Deletion? Obscure stuff gets knocked out of Wikipedia all the time. Often when it doesn't actually deserve to. Your homework: all 2.5 megabytes of this week's VFD. (that's an index page, not the 2.5 meg)

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6. SJ on June 12, 2005 3:01 AM writes...

Branko: Wikipedia can and is selective about what subjects are 'encyclopedic'. The weeding process is nevertheless slow in comparison to the influx of new content; in contrast to a traditional encyclopedia, where both proceed at roughly the same rate.

Every now and then there are projects to merge a certain class of stubs, giving them prominence more suitable to their importance; or projects to rename or remove other classes of articles. This was in fact part of the genesis of Wiktionary; dictinoary definitions were considered unencyclopedic and Had To Go.

Bud: The Wikipedia author in question has been an active contributor to the project over the past seven months; this isn't actually a reputation hack, although one could imagine a similar event which was.

Clay: Assume good faith. In this case, assume that both the /. poster and the WP editor were enthusiastic about the tool, not out to scam up some quick advertising. Your post above was pessimistic, and, if you look at the situation from EliasAlucard's perspective, offensive. As you noted yourself, the article was edited 20 times by this person during its first three weeks, on many different days. That's not a sign of someone trying to drop in an ad for a favored tool via a quick reputation-hack. Check the article's revision history, and you'll see the early edit summary "added info box that I pasted from the Fedora Project. This article needs cleanup and expansion. I will ask for help from the Symphony OS forum." Not the comment of a long-time project devotee.

You say "I have no way of knowing who esavard is in relation to EliasAlucard" (and then proceed to lightly defame the two of them), but the world of amateur publishing is not quite so anonymous. A glance at the forum on the Symphony OS website turns up EA's request for help, and shows how [un]familiar EA was with the OS when creating the initial one-sentence stub.

Finally, you say "the threshold for exclusion from the Wikipedia is so low... it’s hard to see how to defend against the creation of pages where so little is at stake for anyone but the advertiser" -- little may be at stake for you; not so for those editors who obsess about the quality of the encyclopedia. For love of Shirky, I trolled thorugh the latest 50 new pages (going back 45 minutes)... about a quarter of them had already been flagged as lacking or unsuitable in some fashion. (TMI)
The threshhold may be low, but it's not limited to hot-ticket items.


PS. Wikipedia doesn't take the definite article ;).

Permalink to Comment

7. Branko Collin on June 12, 2005 7:39 AM writes...

SJ: "Wikipedia can and is selective about what subjects are 'encyclopedic'."

It should not, and any editor who "weeds out" subjects s/he thinks are unencyclopedic should be banned, IMO.

Wiktionary was started, not because of subjects that were unencyclopedic, but because descriptions were unencyclopedic.

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8. EliasAlucard on June 12, 2005 2:42 PM writes...

Well, I almost promised myself to not post anything on this blog, but since SJ posted here, an objective analysis of it all, I figured: what the heck. I got to say though, that SJ just about got it all right. Many thanks.

I've been wasting a lot of time, on Wikipedia. Why? I find it educating, and fun. Now, this entire Symphony OS thing, I saw a news article about it on a Swedish computer site. On that site, it stated that it was a Linux distro. Since I'm a huge fan of music, and I like/use Linux, I checked it up. I didn't find much information about it at first, so, I started the Wikipedia article in hope of someone, with much more knowledge than me, would fill it in, so I could get a conception of what it was all about.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that Clay Shirky made all this advertisement stuff up. Although he was very detailed in his explaining, there's a lot of untrue stuff in what he wrote. I can't speak for the Slashdot dude, maybe he was trying to advertise. I don't know anything about that, since I wasn't involved. But I seriously doubt that he was advertising. It's all a big coincidence, and no one on Slashdot has accused him of advertising, so I guess that's how Slashdot works.

Here's the article to that Swedish computer site about Symphony Linux:

Permalink to Comment

9. Ralph T. Gerwing on June 17, 2005 4:13 AM writes...

I have read this article 3 times.
I have a sense of what the author is saying.
Over the years reference texts, where mearly
that; inviting the reading to look at the material
and follow on if necessary.
Know, the follow on may take one to Commercialization; that in itself may not seem
that nefarious ; but to hijack the follow on to
blatent self grandization seems a bit much.
Innocent readers may fall for the ploy.
At least it is discussed here , and readers are
responding. Certainly the little I know about
this subject matter is: that there are no checks
and balances. The project seems to matter, not
content validity or accuracy, Or in a style that
begs for differing views of close explanations.
This is a topic that, if Cpramt. cam revoew in
a year or so may be of great value to establishing
a comittment to standards. I can see fair use;
but also abuse. I am open to further comments
rspectfully RTG.

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10. Ralph T. Gerwing on June 17, 2005 4:21 AM writes...

Corante can review... correction...

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11. gnhcvxvc on June 21, 2005 10:12 AM writes...

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