Jimmy Wales defends Wikipedia

This is a debate that has completely escaped me until now, but apparently conservative blogger Robert Cox — who maintains a site called Olbermann Watch, devoted to criticizing sportscaster and news anchor Keith Olbermann — believes that Wikipedia is deliberately censoring him by not allowing him to edit the page at Wikipedia that is dedicated to Olbermann. He claims that comments he makes are repeatedly ignored, that edits he makes are repeatedly changed or “reverted” and that this is clear evidence of a liberal bias.

So Marc Glaser of PBS’s MediaShift got an email debate going between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Cox, which has some fascinating parts to it. There’s this exchange:

MARK GLASER: So you feel that Wikipedia having a “slightly more liberal” slant than the U.S. is OK? How does it affect the goal of neutral point of view and should you do something to counteract it in some way?

JIMMY WALES: I do not think it affects the goal at all. The question totally misapprehends the process. The idea that neutrality can only be achieved if we have some exact demographic matchup to United States of America is preposterous, as I am sure you will agree.

And then there is a long rant in which Robert Cox details how his changes to the Olbermann page — which he says were made in an attempt to make it more balanced, not just to be critical of Olbermann — were repeatedly erased, and when he made some without discussing them (as Wikipedia rules require) he was turned in to the “Wikipedia cops.” Jimmy Wales has this response:

JIMMY WALES: Just make some good faith edits, and write in a non-hostile manner on the talk page that you have an interest in trying to make the article high quality and neutral. Reach out with love and kindness to your opponents and see what happens. I will watch and not interfere.

Glaser also asks about why the entry on George Bush, which is described as very critical, was “locked down,” and Jimmy Wales describes the process by which some entries used to be “protected” so they wouldn’t be vandalized, and how that has evolved:

Protection to deal with vandalism was overkill. So we invented what is called “semi-protection.” Semi-protection is a state in which articles can still be edited by any user of the site, but not by anonymous IP numbers.

All in all, it’s a fascinating look at the inner workings of Wikipedia, and along with the recent kerfuffle over Digg.com and the accusations of manipulation by senior editors there, it’s a worthwhile look at some of the issues surrounding “social media,” all of which will make great fodder for our discussion of Web 2.0 and society at mesh in May. If you have even more time on your hands, you could also read this transcript of an address given by Jason Scott of textfiles.com about how Wikipedia is flawed in many ways, including the control that Jimmy Wales exerts over it, and also that Wikipedia’s failures have a lot to say about human nature and anonymity.

The Economist on “social media”

Does this mean “social media” has peaked? The Economist doing a big take-out on the idea brings back memories of the magazine’s infamous “$5 a barrel oil” cover from the late 1990s, which pretty much marked the turnaround for crude (it’s $73 a barrel now) — another classic example of the “magazine cover indicator.” In this particular case, of course, it’s not the cover story, so I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t mean the end of social media as we know it. In fact, as The Economist describes, things are really just getting started. The main article begins with this:

“The era of mass media is giving way to one of personal and participatory media, says Andreas Kluth. That will profoundly change both the media industry and society as a whole.”

The piece begins with the creation of Gutenberg’s movable-type machine, the printing press, in the 15th century and then quickly segues into the creation of the blog platform Movable Type in 2001 by Ben and Mena Trott as the beginning of the new age of “social media.”

With participatory media, the boundaries between audiences and creators become blurred and often invisible. In the words of David Sifry, the founder of Technorati, a search engine for blogs, one-to-many “lectures” (ie, from media companies to their audiences) are transformed into “conversations” among “the people formerly known as the audience”.

Not everyone agrees with this theory, however. The article quotes media mogul Barry Diller as saying that participation can never be a proper basis for the media industry. “Self-publishing by someone of average talent is not very interesting,” he says. “Talent is the new limited resource.” Others who think along the same lines include Nick Carr of roughtype.com, the former editor at Harvard Business Review who has written in the past about how blogs and social media threaten to turn culture into the lowest common denominator (a charge that is also often levelled at television, with some justification).

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has also written about how social media relies on a conceit that everyone wants to (or has time to) become a creator of media, and also that in any cases people don’t really have much worth saying or contributing. I responded to this with a post of my own, in which I accused Scott of being an elitist (he responds to me in the comments). The Economist quotes Jerry Michalski on this topic:

Not everything in the “blogosphere” is poetry, not every audio “podcast” is a symphony, not every video “vlog” would do well at Sundance, and not every entry on Wikipedia, the free and collaborative online encyclopedia, is 100% correct, concedes Mr Michalski. But exactly the same could be said about newspapers, radio, television and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

There are a whole series of related articles that go along with the main one, and are definitely worth reading, including one on blogging (entitled “It’s The Links, Stupid”), but most of the related pieces are for paying subscribers only. One is about wikis, another is about business models, and so on. Is it worth paying just for those? You’ll have to be the judge of that. There are also audio interviews (which should be called podcasts, but aren’t) with the writer of the main piece, as well as Dave Sifry of Technorati.com and several other sources that appear in the stories.

Is there a perfect kind of conference?

Since I’m involved in organizing one in May, my eye always gets caught by any mention of what makes a good conference versus a bad one, which is how I wound up reading Euan Semple’s post on his blog The Obvious, about a forum on blogs and society that he is attending in May. In it, Euan (former head of knowledge management at the BBC) says that he has grown wary of “being taken advantage of by commercial conference organisers,” and was also concerned about “being associated with yet another money-spinning, bandwagon-joining, pointless exercise.”

As are we all, Euan, as are we all. That’s why I keep writing about how with mesh we are trying to create something part-way between a traditional conference and an “unconference.” Can’t get enough of my thoughts on that topic? Here’s another one. I think Euan and I share a similar thought — that boring, stale, PowerPoint-filled conferences are useless, but also (as he puts it) that he’s kind of irritated by “a small group of people who have attended mind-boggling numbers of conferences… over the past four years in the US getting bored with themselves and declaring conferences dead.”

And what would a post on conferences be without a reference to Dave Winer? Euan includes in his post a reference to the fact that the idea of an unconference “wasn’t invented by Dave Winer,” and gets a comment from — naturalement — Dave Winer.


My fellow mesh organizer Mark Evans has some thoughts about the perfect conference too, and so does Stuart at the mesh blog and Mike. We may not hit perfection but we’re certainly going to try 🙂 Stowe Boyd, who is coming to mesh, says he isn’t tired of conferences, he’s just “tired of tired conferences.”

Doug Englebart’s “mother of all demos”

This may be old news to some people, but I had never seen it before — it’s a video clip of Douglas Englebart from 1968, giving what some have called the “Mother of all Demos,” involving a computer display, remote keyboard and a prototype of the computer interface device he invented, known as a “mouse.”


Is Digg.com rigging its diggs?

When it comes to examples of “social media,” Digg.com is right up there with del.icio.us and Flickr as the standard-bearer for “user-influenced content,” or whatever you want to call it — and the story of Kevin Rose and the development of Digg.com is a great startup tale as well. Which is probably why there is such a stink being raised about suggestions that the service is somehow rigging which stories get “dugg” or promoted to the front page of the website — and also censoring anyone who tries to post an article about the affair.

The accusations started with ForeverGeek.com, which mentioned that two stories posted to the front page of Digg were “dugg” by the same people — and not just a few of the same people, which wouldn’t be that hard to imagine. The first 16 diggs were all by the exact same people, and in the exact same order, and Kevin Rose was one of them — the 17th, as it turns out. When several readers tried to post the article from ForeverGeek.com to Digg, they were banned and the link was removed. According to them, the site said it violated the terms of the user agreement at Digg, which bans articles that allege misbehaviour by other Digg users.

That’s ForeverGeek’s side of the story. According to Digg.com, however, its URL has been banned because it has been “spamming” Digg with its own stories and trying to get them on to the front page. Kevin Rose posted a response of sorts to the Digg blog, in which he said ForeverGeek violated the terms of service. He also responded obliquely to the comments about him digging the stories in question, saying he diggs stories all the time — but no response to the point about the first 16 diggs all being from the same people. Kent Newsome says this is part of what he doesn’t like about the “news by contest” format.

There are two issues here, it seems to me: one is the suggestion that Digg (like other social media sites) is susceptible to being influenced by a small group or clique of insiders. That one is difficult to prove, although the screenshots from ForeverGeek are suspicious, and it’s probably not all that surprising (Update: the site has posted a response to Kevin’s response here). The other issue is whether Digg.com should be banning people who post stories that are critical of other Digg users — as it did with the ForeverGeek stories, and has done with others. These are issues that have also been raised in the past at Slashdot, as several posters have mentioned.

It seems to me that even a “social media” network like Digg or Slashdot.org needs to have rules, and if it decides to ban certain spammers or block overly-critical articles and comments, then perhaps that is part of the tradeoff for having a civilized atmosphere rather than total anarchy. But Digg — and others — need to realize that a large part of what drives their services forward with users is trust, and once that trust is lost it is very difficult to regain. That war is one that traditional media fight each and every day.

The mesh wiki — create a workshop

I’ve written before about the debate over conferences versus “unconferences” — which Dave Winer and Jeff Jarvis and some others (including the whole FooCamp and BarCamp gang) feel is a better way of organizing things. As I’ve said before, I think there are benefits to both approaches, whether it’s the free and self-organizing approach or the more structured, charge-a-fee approach. And with our mesh conference in Toronto on May 15th and 16th, we’re trying to do a little of both.

So our keynotes — with Om Malik, Tara Hunt, Paul Kedrosky, Steve Rubel and Michael Geist — are not going to be traditional keynotes; instead, they will be more like interactive interviews, with (hopefully) lots of audience participation (and Tara is planning to make hers even more interactive, which I can hardly wait to experience). The panels are also going to be unconventional, with a lot more participation and a “No PowerPoint” rule in force. We’ve also got an “unconference room,” which will be available for anyone to host a demo or workshop or whatever they wish.

And, as Stuart MacDonald writes on the mesh blog and Rob Hyndman writes on his, we’ve got a new wiki set up (thanks to David Crow and the TorCamp gang) that is open for whatever kind of ideas you might have — about what you want to do in the unconference room, about where to stay when you’re in Toronto, about where the good Wi-Fi hotspots are, or whatever. Giddyup. Mark Evans has more, and so does Mike McDerment of SecondSite.

A VC who didn’t want to cash out

Interesting quote from an interview John Battelle did with Toni Schneider in Business 2.0 magazine, where they talked about why Toni has left Yahoo to work at Matt “WordPress” Mullenweg’s Automattic.com. Schneider helped start Oddpost, the Ajax-ified Web-based email service that Yahoo snapped up awhile back, and worked at Yahoo for awhile before deciding he liked the startup game better. Right at the end of the article he says of the Yahoo acquisition of Oddpost: “The only person who didn’t want to do the deal was Tim Draper, one of our lead investors. He said, ‘You’re selling too cheap. It’s too early. You could be the next Microsoft. They’re stealing this company.'” See? Not every venture capitalist wants to just cash out at the first sign of a takeover offer 🙂

Bloggers and money — the eternal debate

Wow, has a few months gone by already? Time for another “blogging vs. money” debate. This time, it’s courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, which decided to cover off the topic by having Alan Meckler of Jupitermedia debate Jason Calacanis of Weblogs Inc. — who sold his blog network to America Online and therefore presumably knows a thing or two about money. My favourite part of the discussion is when Jason mentions that Meckler makes $242,000 a year, which he found out by looking it up on Yahoo Finance (that is so old school — everyone knows Google Finance is the best). And my second favourite part is how the WSJ uses a headshot of Calacanis that makes him look completely deranged.

As Paul Kedrosky points out, this debate is already old and tired, and the WSJ debate adds virtually nothing to it. As he puts it, “When Jason Calacanis seems like he is the sober, sensible, and empirically-minded one in an argument, you know something’s awry.” Well said, Paul. Om Malik also has a nice line in his post, when he says this debate is “as important as arguing why April comes before May.” B.L. Ochman has a great take on it as well, and so does Cynthia Brumfield of IPDemocracy.

The last time this kind of theme came around, it was spurred by a couple of pieces in the mainstream or traditional media, including one in the Financial Times, and an even more shallow take on the topic at Slate. I wrote this response at the time, and I would stand by it.

As more than one person has already pointed out, whether blogs can make money or not misses the point in a lot of ways. And as I mentioned in a comment on Paul Kedrosky’s blog, the ones that were deliberately designed to make money are often the worst ones out there — and some of the ones in Jason’s stable would fall into that category (some thoughts from Jeremy Wright of b5media along those lines and a response from me can be found in Paul’s comments).

For more on this topic, there’s Scott Karp and Stowe Boyd and Mark Evans. As Mark points out (warning: shameless plug) he and I are involved in organizing a conference about these and other blog and Web 2.0-related topics, one which everyone with any interest in the subject should feel an almost overpowering compulsion to attend. Paul Kedrosky will be there, and so will Jeremy Wright. My fellow organizer and all-around marketing whiz kid Stuart MacDonald has his own thoughts about money and blogs on the mesh blog.

Software, patents and innovation

My friend Mike McDerment of SecondSite has a post up with some of his thoughts about patents, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write one as well, but I’ve kind of been putting it off because it’s a complicated subject and I wanted to think about it a bit. Like Mike, I’ve been thinking about those kinds of issues a fair bit lately — Mike because he runs a Web-based services startup, and me because I’ve been writing about Research In Motion a lot.

Like Mike, my thinking (this time around at least) got jump-started by a great post from software designer, artist, venture capitalist and all-around Renaissance guy Paul Graham on the topic of software patents. It’s a long post, but it’s definitely worth reading if you care about the topic, and you should, because it will impact your life in some way eventually (and likely has already).

As Paul points out, if you’re against the idea of software patents — as many people are, including VC Brad Feld, who writes about it here — then you’re probably against the idea of patents in general, since much of what is being patented on the technology front is in some sense software. By the end, Paul seems to be arguing that patents are almost a necessary evil, in the sense that small companies need them to defend themselves from larger companies, like a nuclear weapons program.

Brad, meanwhile, says that they are “an abomination,” and that software patents — such as Amazon’s infmaous “one click” patent on buying things online — should be done away with entirely. Like me, he also turns to the military analogy:

“If we continue on the path we are on, patents will continue to increase in their overall expense to the system, everyone will feel compelled to continue to apply for as many (and as broad) patents as possible, if only for defensive reasons (one of Fred’s VC Cliche’s of the Week was “Patents are like nuclear bombs, you just got to have some.”) Let’s take a page from geopolitical warfare and focus on global disarmament, rather than mutually assured destruction.”

The Fred that Brad is referring to is Fred Wilson of A VC, who says that while he feels they are almost useless, he also advises his portfolio companies to apply for as many as they possibly can (this will make for interesting fodder when Mike and I talk with Paul Kedrosky and others about the issues surrounding VCs and startups at the mesh conference in May). In one of the best parts of a recent post on the topic, Fred sums up his feelings thus:

“I think of the patent system in our country a bit like the tenure system in our academic institutions. It protects ideas and people that may not deserve to be protected and it allows for underperformance and it stifles creativity and energy.”

As Fred and Brad and Paul also point out, one of the biggest problems with patents is that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office keeps awarding them to things that are both obvious and not new (they’re not quite the same thing). One of the best examples is a recent New York Times story, which told the story of Geoff Goodfellow, who came up with the idea of sending wireless email to a mobile device in the 1980s and started a company to do just that, although the company failed. Later, a company called NTP would file a patent for just that technology and much later would successfully sue RIM for infringing it. TechDirt has an even more recent cautionary tale.

And what does Geoff Goodfellow say about why he didn’t patent his idea?

“You don’t patent the obvious,” he said during a recent interview. “The way you compete is to build something that is faster, better, cheaper. You don’t lock your ideas up in a patent and rest on your laurels.”

Kottke joins The Deck ad network

If you read Jason Kottke’s blog at all, you might know that he spent a year trying to blog full time, financed by donations from both “micro-patrons” and regular joes (and janes), and brought that experiment to a close in February, with what he described at the time as mixed feelings. Now, Jason has joined an advertising group called The Deck, which was set up by online marketing whiz Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners as a kind of specialized, blog-based ad network — one which also includes 37signals.com, A List Apart, Waxy.org, Daring Fireball, The Morning News and (of course) Coudal Partners.

The Deck is an interesting effort. The network describes itself as “The premier advertising network for reaching web and design professionals [which] serves up millions of page views each month and is uniquely configured to connect the right marketers to a targeted, influential audience.” It also has some unusual rules, including that “We won’t take an ad unless we have paid for and/or used the product or service.” Deck ads are also the only ones that run on a site — no fighting with Google AdSense. And Coudal says the ads aren’t about cost per click or cost per thousand (which just to confuse everyone is referred to as CPM), but are about “cost-per-influence.”

I’m not sure what anyone else out in blog-land thinks, but I think Jim Coudal is pretty smart — and I don’t think that just because he’s coming to our little mesh conference in May (get your seats early, Jason Fried of 37signals is coming too). The Deck sounds like a great way to get a focused advertising buy, without splashing a whole pile of money out on text ads without any clue about who is really seeing them. Jeff Jarvis has written about how the blogosphere needs an open ad marketplace (although Chas Edwards isn’t so crazy about the idea), and one of the elements of that is ad buying that takes account of the audience it is reaching. The Deck seems like a great way of achieving that.