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October 06 2011

14:30

Blackout in Italy: “The first time Wikipedia worldwide has done anything of this kind”

For the past two days, Italian Wikipedia replaced its site’s standard content with a message:

Dear reader,
at this time, the Italian language Wikipedia may be no longer able to continue providing the service that over the years was useful to you, and that you expected to have right now. As things stand, the page you want still exists and is only hidden, but the risk is that soon we will be forced by Law to actually delete it.

As the message continued, it became a manifesto: The Italian Wikipedia website had gone (voluntarily) dark as a protest against DDL intercettazioni, an anti-wiretapping bill being proposed in Italy’s Parliament. The law (its title loosely translates to “Wiretapping Bill”) is apparently a reaction to recent wiretapping escapades that have caused trouble for, among other Italian officials, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi — who’s been caught both dismissing Italy as “a shit country” and making some rather crass comments about Angela Merkel.

The bill’s most contentious section is paragraph 29, which stipulates that, should any blogger publish information deemed to be defamatory — deemed to be so not by a process of judicial review, but simply by the subject of the alleged defamation — then the blogger will be forced to print a correction within 48 hours of publishing the offending entry. Or else pay a fine of €12,000 (nearly $16,000).

Arbitrary/reckless/dangerous/ridiculous/a further blow to press freedom in Italy — insert your preferred objection here.

The outrage over the proposed law has been brewing for a while now, but it gained force this week, as the bill’s being debated in the Italian Parliament. And Wikipedia’s blackout of all its entries in Italian — around 800,000 of them — brought the protests to a head. The Wikimedia Foundation itself voiced its support for the protest, couching its argument in the idea that Wikipedia is self-policing, and therefore beyond the auspices of government regulation:

The Wikimedia Foundation stands with our volunteers in Italy who are challenging the recently drafted “DDL intercettazioni” (or Wiretapping Bill) bill in Italy. This bill would hinder the work of projects like Wikipedia: open, volunteer-driven, and collaborative spaces dedicated to sharing high-quality knowledge, not to mention the ability for all users of the internet to engage in democratic, free speech opportunities.

Wikipedians the world over pride themselves on their ability to rapidly remove false information from their project. Wikipedia has established methods to receive complaints or concerns from individuals or organizations and a strong system exists to remove incorrect or false information, and if necessary to remove complete articles in an effort to prevent vandalism. For Wikipedians, there is no value nor need for this proposed legislation.

Jimmy Wales put it more bluntly: “Wikipedia Italy is on strike against an idiotic proposed law.”

As Wales explained to Chris Potter, the Perugia-based director of the International Journalism Festival, “Italy already has perfectly fine laws against defamation, and this proposed law overreaches dramatically. I have never heard of any law like it anywhere else in the world.” The decision for this week’s blackout, he continued, “was taken by the Italian community in part because they felt that there was no genuine avenue for protest in the mainstream media without a bold action.”

And it looks like the protest may have worked — sort of. Yesterday, the Italian government announced that it will be modifying the proposed law to include only large online news sites — meaning that any information outlets that don’t fall into that category, Wikipedia among them, will be excluded from the law’s reach.

So: good news? The hashtag #graziewikipedia, which popped up in response to the development, would suggest so. But while the update, and today’s return to a blackout-free site, may represent a superficial victory for Wikipedia — and a nod to the encyclopedia’s network-effects-rooted power as, yep, a political lobbying force — the bill still holds. And the episode overall is a good reminder of the generally dismal state of press freedom in Italy. Berlusconi owns the influential private media company Mediaset; he exercises direct control over state television. Italy’s 100,000 professional journalists, to get work, must belong to the Ordine dei Giornalisti — a group that is, in effect, a modern-day guild. This year’s Freedom House survey of global press freedom, citing “heavy media concentration and official interference in state-owned outlets,” ranked Italy as only “partly free.”

It’s a worrisome state of affairs — one that Italian journalists are both keenly aware of and, as the DDL intercettazioni episode suggests, largely powerless to fight. As La Repubblica’s Vittorio Zambardino, the paper’s “Scene Digitali” blogger, told me when I met him in Perugia last year, over-regulation of journalism and the online space is a constant threat in Italy. And, for that matter, in Europe (and elsewhere) more broadly. “There’s a wide array of social processes that are produced by the Internet that are also endangering the virtue and the value of the Internet,” Zambardino said. He continued:

Freedom is going to be killed by strict regulation taken by governments. In Italy, we are very worried about this. But it’s not only Italy: the European Union has very strict views about privacy, about anonymity, about what they call “the freedom of the Internet.” In an ironic way — because they don’t believe in the freedom of the Internet.

July 13 2010

21:10

What Working for Wikipedia Taught Me About Collaboration

A little over three years ago, I started working as the communications manager for Wikipedia. I had just moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., and was ecstatic to hear that this quirky website, which had begun to pop up in many of my web searches, was based there. Having grown up in New York, my culture radar detected that this was a one-of-a-kind project that attracted eccentric individuals. Needless to say, my radar never fails me.

At that time, Wikipedia's internal structure did not match the widespread success and attention it was beginning to enjoy. I found myself working in a thrifty "rent-by-the-month" office building with three other employees: An administrative assistant, a fundraiser/hardcore Wikipedian, and a CFO. I was told that most tasks, including the communication projects, were carried out by a large network of international volunteers.

I immediately began to review the public relations materials available to me, and almost immediately went into panic mode. There was no polished press kit, press list or, dare I say, communication strategy. In fact, the majority of individuals on the communications committee had little to no public relations training, and were more intellectual and techie than the average PR practitioner at that time.

Crisis Mode

A few weeks into the job, with little training and a very primitive understanding of the wiki ethos, I encountered my first PR crisis. A hardcore and well known Wikipedian, Essjay, had lied to the New Yorker about his credentials. Not surprisingly, the years of crisis communication training I received was useless in the context I found myself in. For a brief moment, I honestly thought that my career as a PR specialist had come to an end. The New Yorker, in my mind, was the bible of the media world; there was no way that our online encyclopedia was going to survive the PR damage.

In the midst of my concerns, I soon became a believer in the power of collaboration. That crisis was the moment when the new media landscape unfolded before my eyes.

Essjay.jpg

The volunteers took charge. They created a Wikipedia entry that documented the event in gruesome detail. It was honest, direct and, amazingly, had no PR spin. In fact, for most Wikipedia members, the biggest concern was that Essjay had used his false credentials in content disputes. It was apparent to me that there was never any malice or hidden agenda. Essjay himself had revealed his real credentials on his user profile when he was hired by Wikia, a company owned by Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales. In fact, in the months that followed, I found the community became self-correcting by encouraging the use of real names and identities. It found a way to help prevent this type of issue from happening again.

At the time, some critics argued that the incident ruined Wikipedia's reputation. Of course, this was the farthest thing from the truth. Since then, the site has grown both in content and in language versions. (My husband is a philosophy professor, which means I regularly meet academics who are quick to point out how "surprisingly accurate" the site is, and how fascinated they are with how it has impacted how our society views information.)

Learning From Collaboration

As someone who identifies herself as a bicultural New Yorker who specialized in cross-cultural communication in college, I was not a stranger to collaboration. In fact, that was my biggest criticism of American culture -- we were too individualistic and not group focused enough. But nothing prepared me for the wiki world. I learned some valuable lessons about collaboration and how to make it work. Below are some of the key learnings.

  • Trust the Crowd; Its Smarter than You -- The sooner you trust the group and empower it, the sooner it can produce high quality results. The group can make up for any weaknesses you may have as an individual. The idea is to bring out the strongest skills and downplay the weakest in each person.
  • Diversity and Creativity Are Intrinsically Connected -- Creative brainstorming is significantly improved by diversity. Individuals not only challenge each others' ideas, but they also inspire each other as well.
  • Collaboration is Messy -- When Jimmy Wales said "[Wikipedia is] like a sausage: you might like the taste of it, but you don't necessarily want to see how it's made," he wasn't kidding. Chaos, in many ways, seems to be the spark of great collaborative endeavors.
  • Be Open to Receiving and Giving Criticism -- When working collaboratively, it is important to let go of your ego. Learn to not take things personally and be honest about what you think without being disrespectful.

Wikipedia still receives a lot of flack -- it's an easy target for institutions and individuals who are desperately trying to survive in a digital world. However, I feel grateful for having worked for a short time with the "free culture" trailblazers behind the project who are responsible for making the world a bit more open, democratic, smarter, and much more collaborative.

Sandra Ordonez calls herself a web astronaut who has been helping organizations navigate the internet since 1997. Currently, she helps run OurBlook.com, a collaborative online forum that gathers interviews from today's top leaders in the hopes of finding tomorrow's solutions. Since December 2008, the site has been conducting a Future of Journalism interview series. Sandra also heads up the Facebook page, "Bicultural and Multicultural People Rule." Previously, she was the Communications Manager for Wikipedia. She graduated from American University with a double degree in International Relations and Public Relations.

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May 19 2010

15:30

Andrew Keen on why “the Internet is ideology”

Is the Internet technology or ideology? Is our media culture today really more meritocratic than it’s been in the past? And when we talk about the web fostering democracy, what kind of democracy, actually, are we talking about?

Worthy questions, I’d say. They’re ones that arose last night during a debate at the National Press Club — a debate sponsored by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, and centered on another question: Is democracy threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet?

Taking the “no” position in the debate were the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Taking the “yes” were Farhad Manjoo, the Slate technology columnist (and author of the homophily-focused True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur.

Unsurprisingly, given the topic, much of the discussion tread ground whose trail is, at this point, well defined. (As Sifry noted, “When I was asked to participate in this, I was astounded that there would be anybody who would defend the notion that democracy is threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet.”) Also unsurprisingly, while the participants’ contributions were uniformly smart, the most provocative comments came courtesy of Keen — gadfly, polemicist, “antichrist of Silicon Valley,” and, in this case, the debater who questioned the premise of the debate in the first place. (“I think the resolution is a little dodgy,” the Brit put it, British-ly.)

In that, Keen transformed what could have been an eloquent-but-musty debate — echo chambers, but, then again, diversity! homophily, but, then again, intensity! — into a lively exchange. And whether you agree with his perspective or (vehemently) oppose it, the ideas Keen discussed last night are worth consideration, as a countervailing presence if nothing else, as we navigate between the mass democratization of the web and the insistent particularities of American democracy. With that in mind, here’s a sampling of his commentary.

On the notion that the web can harm democracy:

It depends, of course, what you mean by democracy. Jimmy [Wales]’s definition of democracy was an anti-federalist position, a sort of an idealized, direct-democracy rhetoric which suggests (and I’m quoting him now) that “It’s all about the people deciding.” But of course at the foundation this country is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, in which the federalists won over the anti-federalists.

The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community. So I think Jimmy is falling into the old trap of appropriating democracy for his own ends.

On the notion that the Internet is, fundamentally, technology:

One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise, on what Jimmy calls “the mainstream media,” which includes shows like this, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. And the idea that representative democracy, experts — whether in media, in politics, in the arts, in legal affairs, in intellectual affairs — are unreliable and need to be replaced by what Jimmy calls “the people” is deeply dangerous.

What I most fear about the Internet — which…we all use; I’m as addicted as everybody else — is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy.

On the web’s facilitation of a mass meritocracy:

I think it’s one of the fundamental illusions — or delusions — about this critique of mainstream media: that somehow, before the Internet, it was just the rich, the privileged, who controlled the media — that it was a racket. And then the Internet came along, and suddenly the people had a voice. And that’s simply nonsense. I mean, we’re all — the four of us are all — part of an Internet elite, which is no more or less of an elite than in traditional media. But I am very troubled with this idea of the Internet replacing a flawed meritocracy. It’s simply wrong.

On the Internet’s need of a new social contract:

Many people see the Internet as a right and not a responsibility. Jeff Jarvis, who I think we’re all friendly with, said the Internet is the next society. And he may be right. In the 18th century, when we were figuring out modern industrial society, we came up with social contract theory about rights and responsibilities. I think the same is true of the Internet. It’s a reality, for better or for worse. It is perhaps the central fact of social and political life in the 21st century. And it needs to be understood not only in terms of rights — of taking, of stealing, of getting it for free, and all the other problems associated with the Internet — but also one of responsibility.

On the distinction between democracy and an informed citizenry:

The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes and author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.

March 12 2010

09:36

New financial stocks site for Wikia; hopes to attract whistleblowers

In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and also internet media company Wikia, reveals that he has recently bought a new stocks site, which he hopes whistleblowers will contribute to. Value Wiki is now part of Wikia, his consumer publishing company (Wikipedia is part of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation).

[I] just bought a site called Value Wiki which is about stocks and we’re hoping people will come forward, maybe whistle blowers, whoever, will come forward with some information about companies.  The same thing can happen to politicians.

Wales also spoke about the accuracy and editorial issues for his encyclopedia, Wikipedia:

We’re trying to look at different software tools that allow the community to monitor what’s going on. There’s always a core of good people managing Wiki who really want it to be high quality. The main thing is making sure that they have what they need.

[Hiring editors] doesn’t even seem like the right approach to us. When we really dig in deep and we look at where there are problems, and what the problems are, they’re never about not having enough core people who are really passionate about it but about making sure the software tools are available to them.

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