Evan Prodromou's Blog

Some things I wrote

Wikipedia is a two-way street

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tl;dr Publishers that re-use Wikipedia content, like Apple and Microsoft and Amazon and Google, have an obligation to include an easy way to edit that content.

I’ve had a ton of fun over the last couple of days at the Wikimania 2017 conference in Montreal. The event brought together 900 people from around the world involved in Wikipedia in many languages, related Wikimedia projects like Wiktionary and Wikivoyage, and allied organizations like Creative Commons and Mozilla. I was fortunate enough to moderate the keynote address between my friends Jimmy Wales and Biella Coleman, and then spent the rest of the weekend thinking and talking about Wikipedia and friends.

(I’ve been especially interested in Wikidata, a huge knowledge base chock full of important facts in machine-readable format. It’s a deliciously interesting project, and I anticipate that a lot of the cooler hacks in the next few years are going to use data from Wikidata. Learn SPARQL now, folks.)

One thing that struck me about the event is that Wikipedia has become the de facto authoritative source for information in the modern world. Let me say that again: Wikipedia is the authoritative source. What is on Wikipedia is your best introduction to literally any topic on earth. It might be the only information you need.

This is mind-boggling, but mostly because it has become true for me, and maybe for everyone, without a lot of fanfare. For me, it’s been a gradual process of always looking for the Wikipedia link in search results, or going straight to Wikipedia if I’m interested in some topic. For the rest of us, it’s meant that whenever a question is asked on almost any subject, our software systems will typically turn to Wikipedia in order to get an answer.

But along with this development has come a more sinister one — one that is a huge potential problem for literally everyone on the Internet. Here’s the problem: Wikipedia users are being impeded from editing Wikipedia.

A wiki depends on active participation from its readers. Readers must be able to create and modify content on the site, because they are the defense against abuse and misinformation. Only if vigilant readers carefully review content on the wiki, and can easily create new content, does the information stay relevant or even correct.

That may not seem like a big deal to you, but let me make this absolutely clear, as someone who has founded and managed a big wiki: it is literally invaluable. Increasing participation is one of the most important goals of the Wikimedia Foundation and anyone running a wiki of any size.

Editing Wikipedia isn’t just a right; it’s a responsibility. It’s something we owe to each other and to our children and grandchildren. Wikipedia is our common cultural heritage, created and managed by all of us. It may be the most important cultural artifact ever created by human beings. Which is why it’s such a tragedy that Wikipedia users are being impeded from editing Wikipedia.

It’s not by repressive governments, either. It’s by companies that are re-publishing Wikipedia in other formats, and intentionally making it difficult for those users to contribute back to the project.

Short-circuited by search

Here’s an example from a Google search I just did for Pytheas of Massalia:

pytheas-results

As you can see, on the left there’s a link right to the “Pytheas” article on Wikipedia. Clicking on that link will take you to a page like this:

pytheas-wikipedia

Importantly, there’s an Edit button on that page. Anybody can edit this article — improve the grammar, make a factual correction, or reflow the prose for easier reading. That edit button is what makes the rest of the site worth using.

On the right in the Google results, is a summary of the data on that Wikipedia article — put there so that casual readers can get a quick review without having to go to the Wikipedia site. Let’s focus in on that interface:

pytheas-box

This information comes from Wikipedia. When you look at this information, you are a Wikipedia user. You can see that there’s no indication that this information could possibly be edited by the current user, and no affordance to edit it. Every user who sees this interface has been misinformed about their right and responsibility to maintain that article.

I like Google. I have friends who work at Google. Google is an excellent supporter of Open Source software and Open Content projects like Wikipedia. They were a sponsor of the Wikimania conference I attended this weekend. But by intentionally keeping users from going to the Wikipedia web site, without providing an alternative way to contribute, they are doing harm to the Wikipedia project and thus to humanity.

I know, that sounds crazy. But it really is that important.

There is a lot of room in that interface for an “edit” button. It would be the work of an afternoon to add it in. (I know, nothing’s ever that easy, especially in a large software project, but it is a simple syntactic transformation to make a link to the edit page of an Wikipedia article if you know its title.) It would be reasonable to add it with a Google Chrome extension or even a Greasemonkey script, but it’s important that Google add it for less sophisticated users.

Let me point out before the license lawyers get riled up that as far as I know Google is under no legal obligation to include an edit link here. Nothing in the copyleft licenses used by Wikipedia requires them to link to the edit page.

What does impel them to do it, though, is an obligation to make Wikipedia better. That’s both altruistic (helping humanity by making a better source of information) and selfish (improved information on Wikipedia means improved infoboxes on their search results). Google has every incentive to make this interface include some way to edit.

Social Graph

It’s also worth noting that Facebook maintains a mirror of every single Wikipedia article in their system. Here’s the one for Pytheas:

pytheas-facebook

You might think that the “Suggest Edits” link would take you to Wikipedia to edit this content. Actually, it’s just the standard editing interface for any page, letting you suggest Pytheas’s phone number and home page. And, y’know, you can send a message to Pytheas on Facebook Messenger, but don’t wait too long for an answer, since he’s been dead for 2300 years.

The Voice of Reason

Another, more troubling unidirectional interface for Wikipedia and Wikidata content is the increasingly important voice assistant interface. Four major ones exist: Amazon’s Echo (“Alexa”), Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Assistant. (I like the Free Software Mycroft system, but you probably guessed that already.)

All of these use Wikipedia content to answer questions by users. Some of them (Siri and Google — I don’t know about Echo and Cortana) also use Wikidata for answering questions.

None of these systems include a way to edit the articles or data.

Voice assistants are becoming more popular every day. Every user of a recent iOS or Android device has access to the respective assistant on that platform. That is a huge number of people.

But the interfaces don’t include a mechanism for editing articles or items. There’s not any way to tell Siri, “No, Siri, George Washington was born in 1732, not 1742,” and get a meaningful action out of the assistant.

Is that an important part of Siri’s interaction with end users? I, for one, find it really frustrating when I talk to someone and they won’t listen to what I have to say back to them, or won’t learn from my response. The one-way flow of information with voice assistants is one reason I’m not a big user… and you may not be, either.

What is important is that, as voice assistants become a primary way for people to interact with Wikipedia content, they must be able to contribute back to the wiki. Remember: it’s not just a right, it’s a responsibility.

Getting to Yes

I think it’s important that the Wikimedia Foundation, and the hundreds of millions (possibly billions) of Wikipedia users, and the billions of people for whom Wikipedia is an artifact of inestimable value, make it clear to these publishers that they need to start treating Wikipedia’s editing functionality seriously.

I know it’s not easy building reliable interfaces to editing systems, and that novice users might get confused by editing capabilities. I’m aware that some people will intentionally or unintentionally add incorrect or unclear information.

It’s important to know that Wikipedia is totally ready for that. For the last 15+ years, Wikipedians have been developing social and technological systems to make it easy for new editors to contribute and to gently dissuade bad actors from corrupting our cultural treasure (or repairing it quickly if it does get damaged).

Wikipedia is a two-way street. Treating it as a source for information without providing an easy way to edit is a disservice to everyone: readers, contributors, the Foundation, and humanity as a whole. Publishers need to stop putting up barriers to editing Wikipedia, and start putting up edit buttons everywhere they can.

Written by evanprodromou

August 14, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Posted in wikipedia

YxYY 005

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“I really admired the way Richard built up an entire political movement to address an issue of profound personal concern,” Sarah said, explaining her attraction to Stallman.

My wife immediately threw back the question: “What was the issue?”

“Crushing loneliness.”

Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom, 2002.

I thought it might be a good idea for me to capture some of my thoughts about YxYY 005 while they’re still fresh in my mind. It’s been a great weekend for me, and it’s an important event to me, so I figure it’s worth some decompressing over.

Yes and Yes Yes is an annual event that started 5 years ago and if the numbering system is any indication was maybe planned to continue for 1000 years. It came from a social group loosely associated with the San Francisco tech community — or, really, one branch of it. I think maybe a word cloud of tags on people involved in this network would have tags like “web20” and “sxsw” and maybe “foocamp” or “burningman” appearing. But it’s been loose, too — there are people who’ve been involved from lots of different communities.

It was intended to replicate, and extricate, the social experience from Austin’s South by Southwest Interactive conference from the mid-2000s (the “Web 2.0” heyday). 

What experience, exactly? Eating good food, in part. Drinking good beer and artisanal cocktails. Seeing the people that you admire over the Internet from afar and finding out they admire you in return. Appreciating and being appreciated. Laughing at obscure references. Reinforcing the ties of that compose the dispersed social network.

There was a general consensus around the turn of this decade that the explosive growth of SxSWi made this experience much harder to have at the event itself. The powerful and lucrative platforms that had come out of this event attracted too many people trying to capitalize on it. At least two events (YxYY and XOXO) rolled out of a desire to provide a venue for this experience.

Both events worked well. XOXO because it had amazing, intelligent, diverse and fantastic speakers and a deep integration with the hipster wonderland that is SE Portland. YxYY took a different tack: a mostly social event sited at the tony and Portland-ish Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, CA. With no official schedule and an agenda centered mostly around chatting in a big pool, it seems like the lightest possible take on “tech conference” imaginable.

But it’s worked really well. For a number of reasons:

  1. A great network of intelligent and interesting people who branch out fractally from the root nodes of the 5 founders.
  2. An emphasis on diversity and particularly female participation. At every event, women have been more than 50% of ticket-holders. As you’d expect, this gives a largely polite and  positive environment.
  3. It’s only marginally technology-oriented. There are fun things to do, like the Maker Lounge and some sessions about technology, but mostly it’s a social event for tech people and their friends, rather than a tech event with some social stuff layered on top.
  4. A central thesis that you should say “YES” to things. Leaping into the unknown, taking opportunities. People at the event are relentlessly positive without being pollyannaish, and they make a big deal about trying new things.

XOXO decided to stop its annual event after 5 years, and YxYY’s founders decided to end their run for YxYY 005. They’re wonderful people and they all work hard and I’m happy they are taking time to live their lives, but ending the conference runs raises a lot of questions.

Did these events have a bigger meaning or mission? If so, was that mission achieved, so the event is no longer necessary? Or did we fail to achieve it, and it’s no longer worthwhile to try? It’s hard to tell where things lie, or what groups will take up the mantle after these two events end.

On this year’s event: I had a great time. Several things mattered a lot to me. First, I’m in probably the best physical shape I’ve been in since my teen years. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as OK walking around in just my bathing suit as I do now. I realize that that’s incredibly shallow but it’s surprising how much feeling comfortable in your own skin affects your ability to enjoy an event.

Second, I had a project that I’d been planning to do for three years that finally came off. The idea was based on the Long Now Foundation‘s Long Conversation from 02010. (I called my version The Long Con, which was both a nice abbreviation and a call-out to my favourite episode of Lost). (There are some interesting overlaps between Long Now and YxYY, not least their use of aspirational leading zeroes.)

The project was a chain conversation, starting off with 2 people A and B speaking to each other, and after 10 minutes person C joins and person A leaves so B and C can talk for 10 minutes, then D joins and B leaves, and so on for about 4 hours.

It was a resounding success. We had about 25 participants talking together, which makes for a lot of conversations, perspectives, and discussions. Everyone who was part of it really loved it, and it was a real pleasure to see it unfold. I’m excited to get the audio up to share privately with the YxYY community.

I feel like there are a lot of friends for me at YxYY. Many of them I knew from pre-YxYY times. Some I’ve met at the event. I feel recognized and validated by this community. It’s something I feel part of. I have a lot of variance between together-time and alone-time at YxYY, but I feel like I’ve found a good balance between them.

I am sad to have the event be over. It’s a unique slice of the tech-ish Bay-Area-ish community that matters to me, and I’ll miss spending time with them in that particular place. The founders have some ideas about what they are going to do next, but I’m pretty sure they will take at least 1 year off. I don’t know yet what will fill that same role for me in my life, if anything. Maybe that’s just not something you can replicate exactly the same way again.

Written by evanprodromou

July 11, 2017 at 1:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Earbuds update

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A lot of people have been worried about my headphones situation so I thought I’d give a quick update here.

If you’re joining for the first time: I was breaking a pair of earbuds about once per week. I wear them for walking around, weightlifting and running. Because I was going through them so often, I was mostly using cheapo $20 earphones I bought at drug stores.

I bought a pair of more expensive noise-cancelling Head Rush Earbuds, about $60, from La Source. La Source offered me a no-questions-asked extended warranty for these headphones: as long as I had the receipt I could exchange a broken pair for the same model as often as I wanted.

I bought them in mid-August 2016 and in the following eight weeks I replaced them 6 times. To their credit, the staff at La Source never gave me a hard time about it. But doing the math by the end of the 1-year period I’d be getting about $2160 worth of headphones for my original $60 outlay plus $16 for the extended warranty.

That’s where I left things last time. Most recently, in mid-October I went into La Source to get a new free pair, and decided to change things up a bit. Instead of getting the same model, I applied the credit to a pair of wireless earbuds from the same manufacturer. I had to pay about $50 difference plus another $15 for the extended warranty.

The difference has been like night and day. I have not got a new set of earbuds since mid-October, so about 10-12 weeks. My guess is that a lot of the damage to my previous pairs of earbuds had been due to stress on the connector that linked up to my phone. Without this connector, there’s less of a point of failure.

A confounding factor has been that I’ve also been trying to carry them in a case rather than just wrapping them around themselves and jamming them in a pocket. I think this is also being a lot kinder to the wires.

The biggest downside is that I have to remember to charge my headphones and my phone, which is one more thing to worry about. I usually get 2 days of use out of a full charge on the earbuds, so I can skip a night without worrying too much.  It’s a mixed blessing; skipping nights keeps me from having the discipline to plug in every night.
So that’s where I am at. I’ll keep you posted as further news develops.

Written by evanprodromou

December 30, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized