Friday, December 14, 2007

Google Has a Better Idea

Google has just announced a new initiative called Knol, which will compete with Wikipedia.

Unlike the anonymously written articles on Wikipedia, the articles in Knol will be signed by their credentialed authors and will rise in Google's PageRank like other web pages. Reader's will be able to rate the articles and provide comments to the author.

Google will provide both the web hosting and the authoring interface tools for Knol. Authors may optionally choose to have ads inserted into their articles, in which case they will earn a share of the ad revenues.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wikipedia Redux

It's been a busy week for Wikipedia watchers, with three in-depth articles in the UK Register and one in the UK Guardian reviewing and analyzing a tapestry of misadventures involving high-level figures in the Wikipedia power structure.

The disclosures reveal both structural and ethical issues that have divided the participants and observers into rival camps espousing competing interpretations, philosophies, and practices.

Whether Wikipedia can achieve a stable and sustainable model remains to be seen.

The jury is still out, but there is some ominous handwriting on the wall:

Money, money, token and portion.

One thing is clear. The negative press is not helping the fund drive one bit.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Boston Herald Photographer Assaults MIT Researcher

The courtroom proceedings were routine today at Star Simpson's third courtroom appearance to date in Commonwealth vs. Star Simpson. Simpson's legal team submitted a motion for dismissal which will be heard on Monday December 3rd. If the case is not dismissed, there will probably be a bench trial that same day.

Outside the courtroom, there was a bit more drama, when an abusive and disorderly Boston Herald photographer named Michael Adaskaveg assaulted and threatened an MIT researcher named Ted Moallem, after Moallem stepped in front of the photographer, blocking his line of sight.

The confrontation continued on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, as Adaskaveg resumed his loud-mouthed and unprofessional ranting and raving when I walked up to him to ask him his name.

Fortunately for me, he was wearing a Boston Herald ID badge with his name on it, which I was able to read while he foamed at the mouth at me on the grimy streets of East Boston.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Blogs and Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games

Every few years, the Internet spawns a new technology that captures the imagination of the public.

The World Wide Web has given rise to Web Forums, Blogs, and Wikis.

Now we have Massive Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games (MMPORGs) such as World of Warcraft and Second Life.

What's interesting is that the social dynamics on these diverse systems all have a lot in common.

On an MMPORG, one expects to sign onto an adventuring guild and do battle against dragons, monsters, and rival guilds.

Oddly enough, the same thing can happen on Web Forums, Blogs, and Wikis. Guilds, cliques, and alliances form and do battle with competing factions. The social dynamics can vary from that of a Chess game to a Soap Opera to an epic Greek Tragedy.

So what does any of this have to do with Media Ethics?

After all, an adventure drama is a far cry from a journalistic enterprise.

Or is it?

After all, the talking heads on the 24/7 cable channels mix journalism with verbal jousting.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert convert newscasting in satire.

One of the strangest beasts in this transformation of journalism into drama is Wikipedia — the encyclopedia that "anyone can edit." Superficially, Wikipedia may look like a high-tech encyclopedia. But in many ways it functions as a Massive Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game, not unlike Dungeons and Dragons.

Guilds, cliques, and cabals battle it out on a daily basis. Like Chess, one tries to marginalize opposing pieces, or remove them entirely from the playing board. There is an obscure variant of standard Chess, called Put-Back Chess, where a captured piece is returned to the board on the next move. On Wikipedia, the equivalent variant is the Sock-Puppet, in which a defeated Editor surreptitiously returns wearing a new identity.

Not surprisingly, the ethical scholar or journalist would find Wikipedia a bizarre medium in which to craft a high quality article, especially on a controversial subject where competing factions are pushing competing points of view. To survive on Wikipedia, it helps to be mean-spirited, evasive, and allied to a powerful guild.

The ethical and scholarly journalist need not apply.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Conflict Junkies

True or False: Journalists are attracted to conflict like moths to a flame.

Ben Stein is a freelance commentator who occasionally appears on CBS Sunday Morning. He narrates a new film, due out in January, entitled, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

The film explores aspects of the conflict between science and religion arising from the controversies over Intelligent Design vs. Darwinian Evolution.

There is a good NY Times article by Cornelia Dean about the film, and the controversy surrounding it. The controversy isn't just about the subject matter of the film, but the ethics of making the film, itself. Some of the scientists interviewed for the film claim they were misled about the film's slant.

I suppose people can argue about the character of the film's slant, but it occurs to me it's slanted toward controversy. And so are the characters who step up to these controversies.

There is already a Wikipedia article about the controversial film, written by members of the controversial Wikipedia Project on Intelligent Design.

It's unclear whether these Wikipedia editors consider themselves to be journalists, but it's increasingly apparent they are attracted to controversy like moths to a flame.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fake Bombs and Fake Art

I'm not an artist. I only play one on the Internet.

Which is to say that any art I produce is merely fake art of the lamest variety.

Here is my latest attempt at art...

You probably can't make out what this is, but it's a telephone punch-down block with a computer battery on the right, an electrolytic capacitor on the left, and a cluster of NE2 bulbs in the middle. It took me about 20 minutes to make it, mostly looking for the box of NE2 bulbs in the basement. Actual fabrication time was about 3 minutes.

Last week, a 19-year old MIT student with marginally more artistic talent than me constructed a similar artifact, using green LEDs instead of NE2 bulbs. She arranged them into a star pattern, since her name is Star. It was her name-tag for MIT Career Day.

And then she was arrested for displaying a 'hoax device' that journalists covering the story labeled as a 'fake bomb' in their breathless national headlines.

The only hoax was the one perpetrated by the authorities, who took one look at a harmless cluster of green LEDs and trumpeted 'hoax device' to a gullible press.

Shame on the authorities and shame on the press.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Antisocial Darwinism: Diversity and Wikicide

The popular CBS series, Survivor, illustrates the political drama of the elimination of one's rivals by voting them off the island.

The term, Social Darwinism, reflects a more conventional version of that political practice, when it comes to extinguishing an unwanted socio-cultural lineage. In the worst case, Social Darwinism devolves into Ethnic Cleansing and even Genocide. On the other side, there is the celebration of Cultural Diversity.

At the intersection of politics, culture, and religion, those of us with a scientific or journalistic perspective find no shortage of human phenomena to observe and chronicle.

On the other hand the practice of observing and chronicling the phenomenon of Social Darwinism can sometimes subject a scientist or journalist to a firsthand experience of being voted off the island.

A good example is the case of Judd Bagley vs Gary Weiss.

Judd Bagley is one of the principals behind OverStock.Com, a commercial website that remarkets surplus retail merchandise. Incidentally, Bagley is also the owner of another website, AntiSocialMedia.Net, which levels criticisms at writers who "abuse social media for personal gain." In Veni, Vidi, Wiki, Bagley turns his sights on a business journalist, Gary Weiss, whom Bagley also identifies as a frequent contributor to Wikipedia. Bagley's criticisms of Wikipedian practices and ethics is so scathing and so stinging, that neutral editors on Wikipedia can't decide how to present the controversy in Wikipedia's own article on OverStock.Com and Judd Bagley. Some editors want to brand AntiSocialMedia.Net a "Bad Site" and forbid its mention on Wikipedia. Other editors adopt the view that if a Wikipedia article is going to mention and characterize AntiSocialMedia.Net, then the article should include a live link to the so-called "Bad Site." The editors have taken their impasse to arbitration on Wikipedia.

Without passing on the merits of the charges and counter-charges arising in the above kerfuffle, there does appear to be some kind of liminal social drama in play regarding cultural diversity, freedom to publish responsible criticism, and Wikicide.

Whether Wikicide refers to critics killing off Wikipedia, or Wikipedia killing off its critics remain to be discovered.

After they finish voting each other off the island, there may not be any survivors at all.

There may not even be any island left when this war is over.

See, for example, this proposal to supplant Wikipedia by a more intelligently designed system:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wikipedia and Ethics in Online Journalism

Wikipedia is classified as a "tertiary source" for the purposes of finding information to support a student's investigative report on a subject. That is, a student cannot cite a Wikipedia article as a source for information in a student paper.

Last week, I learned firsthand why the content of Wikipedia articles are considered unreliable.

Elsewhere, I wrote an essay on my experience trying to correct an erroneous article in Wikipedia. It was a dispiriting nightmare.

The editors on Wikipedia are anonymous and largely untrained in journalism. The concept of ethics in journalism isn't even on their radar screen. One of them told me that truth is not even an objective of Wikipedia. Rather the criterion is whether a piece of (mis)information came from a "reliable source."

And therein lies the problem. The New York Times, for example, runs stories on lots of controversial subjects. The Times will quote the views of partisans, typically providing counterbalancing views to help the reader understand how to assess the claims of competing factions in a controversy.

But it's easy to mistake a report in the Times delineating the claims of a partisan from an affirmation that the claim is valid or factually correct. And mistakes like that evidently abound in Wikipedia, since the main criterion is whether there is a reliable source which published the claim. In other words, if the New York Times reports a quote from Bush, that would justify (in the minds of some Wikipedians) that what Bush is quoted as saying is an independently verified fact.

Wikipedia is a rule-driven system, so participating in Wikipedia is a lot like playing chess. Every move can be challenged if the challenger can cite a rule that the move violates. That makes every participant both a player and a self-appointed referee. As a result, some Wikipedians become very adept at gaming the system. They don't participate with an ethic of crafting accurate articles in a responsible manner, but with the personal goal of winning the match. Of course the outcome of any rule-driven game is arbitrary. It just depends on which player is better at citing the rules. When this practice is combined with the tendency to cherry-pick which reported claims found in the legitimate press to elevate to the unwarranted status of facthood, one finds a miasma of half-truths, misinformation, unwarranted inferences, and political spin-doctoring masquerading as verified fact.

Most of the time, this isn't a big issue. But it matters when false and defamatory material finds its way into the Wikipedia biography of a living person. Wikipedia is supposed to have extra filters in place when inserting content into a biographical article. But my experience reveals that the chess game just turns into a frustrating stalemate, with no reliable method for resolving the case and getting to the ground truth. Wikipedia is not designed to get to the ground truth, especially since there is also a rule forbidding original research. Not surprisingly, there isn't much source material on a lot of living persons. If one's name is mentioned in a New York Times article, and some Wikipedia editor misinterprets the article, there isn't much hope for fixing it. Once a bureaucracy makes a mistake, it generally cannot be fixed. And Wikipedia is a rigidly rule-driven bureaucracy without sufficient responsible supervision to ensure that the chess games produces anything of lasting value to the general public (such as accurate stories that one can rely on).

No wonder teachers don't allow their students to cite Wikipedia as a reliable source.

But Wikipedia does provide an interesting example of a good idea gone awry.

And it provides a good example of how a rule-driven system becomes profoundly dysfunctional.