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July 19 2011

19:15

Wikipedia Taps College 'Ambassadors' to Broaden Editor Base

From what I can tell, most of my fellow educators spend more time criticizing Wikipedia than engaging with it.

The conversation tends to go round in a fairly tiresome circle: The first educator points to an article on the subject of his/her expertise and points to a glaring error to demonstrate that the whole enterprise is worthless. The interlocutor responds with a (highly debated) study to argue that "Wikipedia is more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica."

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But neither side comes to terms with the real Wikipedia revolution: It represents a restructuring of the architecture of knowledge. In the decade since its founding, the crowdsourced platform has grown exponentially, radically improved its content, and established a firm foothold in the online environment, now ranking as the fifth most-visited site in the world. The entire enterprise is based on Wikipedia's utopian vision, as spelled out on the back of the staff business cards: "Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge."

Campus Ambassadors

That said, many observers -- starting with the Wikimedia Foundation itself -- realize that this vision is far from realized. This has led the foundation to launch a series of initiatives designed to improve the infrastructure and broaden participation. One of the most intriguing developments is the Public Policy Initiative and its corps of campus ambassadors.

The challenges are formidable. Let's leave aside, for the moment, the two-thirds of the world's population that has yet to gain access to the Internet. The creation of Wikipedia content has striking limitations, even among the 400 million users who visit the site every month. According to Wikipedia's own estimates, only 0.02-0.03 percent of visitors actively contribute to articles.

And although technically, content can be created by anyone with an online account, the pattern of participation is admittedly skewed. According to Barry Newstead, the foundation's chief global development officer, "Eighty percent of our page views are from the Global North, and 83 percent of our edits." The English language Wikipedia's content and participation far outstrip those for its 270 other languages, especially non-Western. Of the active contributors, between 80 and 85 percent are male, and half are under 22. Furthermore, participation has plateaued (and even declined) over the last few years, settling in at somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 active editors per month in all languages.

What are the obstacles to growth? First of all, "Wikipedian" culture is known for its contentious behavior, especially toward newcomers who haven't mastered the arcane style and coding. One result is that the content has become skewed toward geek topics, featuring state-of-the-art articles on technology, science fiction and military history, with more erratic offerings in the humanities and social sciences.

straightening a skewed pattern of participation

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In early July, the Wikimedia Foundation renewed its efforts to improve the balance by holding its first Higher Education Summit as part of the Public Policy Initiative. According to the foundation leadership, the goals of the year-old project are to:

• bring in more quality content in underserved fields, starting with public policy;
• narrow the gender gap by recruiting increased female participation;

• improve diversity of contributors, and

• make the initiation process more user-friendly.

Backed by a new strategic plan and a $1.2 million grant from the Stanton Foundation, the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative was born. The foundation decided that the natural focal point for the effort was academia. Colleges and universities were, after all, the traditional centers of learning -- and it made sense to look to students who were researching and writing papers as potential contributors of content.

Mentoring Professors and Students

The missing link was the Wikipedia knowledge. This was addressed by the creation of a cohort of Wikipedia "ambassadors" to coach and mentor professors and students through the wickets. Fifty-four campus ambassadors were selected over 2010-2011, charged with offering on-site support in classroom and personal tutorial settings.

These were often students with an extensive (and successful) record of creating and editing Wikipedia content. In other cases, they were university librarians, tech support, and other staff who took on the challenge as part of their classroom support services. (At the summit, Sue Gardner, director of the Wikimedia Foundation, proudly pointed out that almost half of the campus ambassadors are female.) The campus ambassadors were complemented by 91 online ambassadors, experienced Wikipedians who offer support to students in any school.

The United States was divided into 10 regions, each assigned a regional ambassador. Professors from 24 colleges and universities signed up as inaugural Wikipedia Teaching Fellows to participate. In return, the professors made a commitment to assigning Wikipedia content creation as part of their course requirements, and to stage the assignments over the course of the semester, to allow for an editorial learning curve.

By coincidence, I had created an unwitting control group for this effort. Last fall I assigned my Media & Society class at Bard College to write or edit a Wikipedia entry, unaware that there was a Wikimedia program for classroom support. I had a few Wikipedia edits under my belt, but I was unprepared for my students' struggles with Wikipedia policies on issues such as notability, verifiability and sourcing. These policies are highly specific, not always intuitive, and don't necessarily mirror academic practice.

My international students writing on foreign subjects had far more trouble than my U.S. students in publishing their articles, even if they were of comparable quality (partly, I believe, because it's harder to provide approved citations for local information about countries such as Afghanistan and Burma). I was also remiss in not directing my students toward the sandbox to develop their articles before posting them -- leading to some swift and merciless deletions.

For many of us, the Higher Education Summit was a welcome opportunity to meet campus and online ambassadors and to hear how fellow professors worked with the project in the classroom. I was surprised to learn that while some of the professors were experienced Wikipedians, many of them had little editing experience with the platform. This was not regarded as a problem. The program was structured to task the ambassadors with Wikipedia skills, allowing professors to focus on shaping syllabi and course content. (The summit's invitees included professors of law, anthropology, political science, and literature.)

More User-Friendly Editing

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At the same time, there are many signs that the Wikimedia Foundation is eager to make the editing process more user-friendly. It has been conducting usability studies to see where the bumps are. Wikipedia has been expanding its live help and a rich trove of learning materials for newbies. These resources are scattered across the Wikipedia terrain and not easy to locate, but the foundation is taking active steps to both build out and codify the materials. It's also sponsoring some friendly competition with a leaderboard to monitor which classes are posting the most contributions over the semester, as well as a "What's Hot" list of most edited articles by students.

The Wikimedia Foundation states that over the next five years it hopes to increase the number of readers to a billion, and the percentage of editors in the Global South to 37 percent. The international initiative is starting with Brazil, India and the Middle East/North Africa, which have already begun to receive advance guards of campus and online ambassadors. (The summit included academics from Brazil, India, Germany, the U.K. and Canada, as well as the U.S.)

The Wikimedia Foundation's Newstead told the summit attendees that the organization is still struggling with the challenge of adapting to mobile platforms, the bridgehead for online media in much of the world. "At this point you can't edit on mobile; it's read-only," he reported. "Most people who move to mobile stop surfing the web. They just surf apps."

Whatever the challenges, the Wikipedia ambassadors are recruiting a new generation of professors and students to carry the vision forward. There are all kinds of creative challenges to adapting classroom assignments to the mission. Students like publishing their classwork online, but express frustration at team members who don't pull their weight. Professors enjoy the classroom enthusiasm, but struggle with the mechanics of grading collaborative writing projects and articles that are edited by a broader community. Nonetheless, there's every indication that the Wikimedia Foundation's experiment in higher education will take Wikipedia to another stage of its wildly unpredictable ride.

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). She consults on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. Her most recent book is Red Orchestra. She tweets as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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March 01 2011

22:28

Shankbone's Wikipedia Photo Portraits Spread Like Wildfire

David Shankbone is arguably the most influential new media photojournalist in the world.

He has taken over 1,000 portraits of prominent people across a variety of fields for articles on Wikipedia.com and its foreign language equivalents. Because the pictures are copyleft -- or free for reproduction, alteration, and distribution -- they are used by numerous non-profits, schools, authors, television programs and well known publications, such as the New York Times and the Miami Herald.

He has also interviewed leaders ranging from Al Sharpton to former Israeli President Shimon Peres and given presentations in the United States and abroad about Wikipedia, new media and Internet culture.

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But, as a recent Columbia Journalism Review article about this famous Wikipedian revealed, Shankbone isn't even his real name and journalism isn't his profession. It's David Miller and his day job is doing legal work on Wall Street.

In spite of all that, Miller -- as Shankbone -- has had a big influence on the development of web culture. In a discussion conducted via email, I asked Shankbone about his controversial contributions to Wikipedia, the way the web and WikiLeaks are changing journalism, and what he thinks legacy media organizations need to do to survive in the digital age.

Your portraits of famous people range from Taylor Swift to Gore Vidal, and they have been used by news sites ranging from Vanity Fair to Forbes. Do you identify yourself as a photojournalist, artist, or what?

Shankbone: Probably more of an artist. Information is realist art and I create information. The challenge to be empirical was more exciting for me than infusing my work with my own perspective.

A few years ago your photo documenting the making of an adult film was banned by the Australian government. Do you think the Internet pushes society's limits of what is acceptable, or does it reflect what is already there?

Shankbone: Knowledge pushes those boundaries. Few aspects of society are hidden any more and Wikipedia's approach to unadulterated information plays a hand.

Explicit images on Wikipedia have been very controversial, but time is on the side of the editors who want little censorship of reality. There's a rational line to be drawn, but what kind of porn researcher would be surprised and offended to see an example of how it's made on the pornography article [in Wikipedia]?

Another one of your photos, "Palestinian Boy with Toy Gun in Nazareth" (below, left) you placed on the Wikipedia article Children and Minors in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. This caused controversy because some critics believed you were trying to push a political view, since you had taken it on a press junket that was funded by the Israeli government. What prompted you to choose that photo?

250-Palestinian_boy_with_toy_guy_in_Nazareth_by_David_Shankbone.jpgShankbone: I saw the photograph and thought about the debate over whether children playing with toy weapons increases violence. A few years earlier in Israel, a child with a toy gun was shot by a soldier -- something that also happens in the United States with the police. There was also a study in Israel about the psychological effects the conflict had on children. So, given all of that, I thought the photograph of a child in Israel with a toy gun worked.

It was only a few people who took the worst possible interpretation, which is that I was portraying this child as a terrorist. At the same time I placed Palestinian Kids in Nazareth, a photo of his friends hugging, on the Friendship article, and that photo is now found on the Palestinian people article.

How do you feel about the role digital media is playing in the Middle East protests?

Shankbone: Satellite and Internet make it impossible to control what people know. I am as nervous as anyone about how it will all look a year from now, but the desire of a nation to be freer and find its own voice is something to be cheered, even when it's not clear that it's in America's best interest.

What impact have the Internet and bloggers had on journalism?

Shankbone: Corporatism hurt American journalism and the Internet exposed that it was no longer functioning as the Fourth Estate. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller admitted that the government vetted the Wikileaks cables before [his paper] published them. What a far cry from the Pentagon Papers. It's a problem. We need the media. But everyone across the political spectrum is angry because too often journalists fail at what they purport to do.

WikiLeaks is a polarizing force in American media. Is the radical transparency espoused by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange changing traditional journalism mores?

Shankbone: WikiLeaks means the public will expose lies, horror, and hypocrisy if the media won't. The best analysis is on blogs and the best journalism is public or foreign. American reporters crave 'access' -- and their editors demand it, no matter how much it corrupts.

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I recently had a drink with a writer from Gawker and I said, 'You guys must be invited to so many incredible parties.' He replied, 'Believe it or not, we aren't because people are worried that we will write something unflattering.' A real journalist should be able to say the same. Instead, I photograph them on red carpets.

Sadly for the foreseeable future, hacks will reign at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times will be a degraded mess, the New York Times will fumble along, and cable news will be little better than talk radio.

What changes would you like to see legacy media organizations make in the digital age?

Shankbone: They think to be neutral is to be uncontroversial and to not assert the truth. They think balance means two opposing views and that somewhere in the middle is moderation. Such ridiculous notions have come to define the attempt to present reality to their audiences. The jig is up: Everybody knows that it's impossible to be totally neutral.

Don't shout from the rooftops that you have a perspective, just stop insisting that you don't and try your damnedest not to let it bias your facts. Mimic the example of the profitable Economist magazine, the most respected publication in the world. Fox News would be great if it was a place where the interesting nuance of conservative thought was hashed out before its viewers.

Be daring. Try new things. Newspapers should involve local citizen reporters in their articles, with talent the only barrier to consideration. Discover the good local bloggers and photographers and develop relationships with them. Dispatch them. Pay them a nominal fee. Have regular reporters work with locals and give them one of those "additional reporting by..." credits. That would help foster a cohesive bond with the communities that they serve.

All images by David Shankbone, via Wikipedia.

Sandra Ordonez calls herself a web astronaut who has been helping organizations navigate the Internet since 1997. In the last two years, she has collected over 200 interviews on the future of journalism, and was one of the first Communication Managers for Wikipedia. She specializes in community management, collaboration, and artisan branding. Her official site, Collaborative Nation, is a home for tecno-activists. She also heads up the Facebook page, Bicultural and Multicultural People Rule." She graduated from American University with a double degree in International Relations and Public Relations.

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July 29 2010

08:00

#Tip of the day from Journalism.co.uk – online journalism how-to guides

The Online Journalism Review has a great resource of how-to guides for any journalist working on the web, from maintaining online communities to dealing with ethical matters. Tipster: Rachel McAthy. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link - we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.


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.

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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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February 05 2010

10:28

Online journalism lesson #9: Audio slideshows, community and wikis

The penultimate session in my 10-class module in Online Journalism from last year covered a range of areas. There’s a little bit on audio slideshows, a lot on community, and related to that, I covered wikis too. I’ve split them into 3 presentations for ease of use. This year (the module starts again on Monday) I’ll probably take an axe to all of this…

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