A manipulated picture, a manipulated competition?

Frühjahr im Dorumer Moor (Spring at the Dorum Bog), by Herbert Rohde CC-BY-SA 3.0.

An unpleasant finding: It seems that a winning picture of Wiki Loves Earth was manipulated in a inappropriate way. A Wikipedia user noticed some unusual elements of the picture winning 5th rank.

At the talk page of the ‘Kurier’ of German Wikipedia, user:Sitacuisses presented his thoughts on a picture called ‘Frühjahr im Dorumer Moor’. A nice landscape photo, but with geese flying suspiciously low over the bog. Two storks sit in the bog looking overly perfect. The sun is shining bright, but does not have to do much with the shadows of the trees.

These elements were likely photoshopped into the frame, although the terms of participation prohibit strong photo editing.

The problem of such a photo competition is that we want a lot of (new) people to come to a Wikimedia wiki (Wikimedia Commons) and contribute in their way. All pictures are contest contributions and have to be examined by the jury. A lot of work, and obviously sometimes a frame slips through that shouldn’t have.

The users of German Wikipedia discuss now what the consequences might be, also for the WLE competition of next year.


A new wiki: Klexikon, the Free Encyclopedia for Children

In Summer 2014 started a project for a new wiki, supported by Wikimedia Deutschland: Klexikon, the Free Encyclopedia for Children. Since December 1st, we are creating articles.

Klexikon_LogoAfter the journalist Michael Schulte proposed the wiki, and received funding, I became engaged with the project as a wiki consultant. The host for our wiki is ‘ZUM’, a German association of teachers who use wikis and open educational resources in their lessons.

The name “Klexikon” comes from the German words “Kinder” (children) and “Lexikon”, a common German expression for an encyclopedia. “Klex-” has also a funny pun because of the German word “Klecks”, a blot or splodge.

In general, the Klexikon is supposed to become a kind of Wikipedia:

  • It is based on the concept of Free Knowledge.
  • It’s a wiki, an instrument for collaboratively creating user-generated content.
  • It’s an encyclopedia, meaning a structured collection of a certain text sort.

Not (just) imitating Wikipedia

But there are also some important differences to Wikipedia. First of all, it is directed to children to the age of ca. six to twelve years. Writing for children means to make it absolutely comprehensible for this section of the population. A child-oriented writing has also to pay attention to the ‘Lebenswelt’, to the world in which children live. We cannot ignore all the negative things on our planet, but they should be presented in a way really suitable for children.

In some aspects, we want to have the Klexikon very different from Wikipedia – not necessarily because Wikipedia is something bad. But there is simply no need to imitate all of the Wikipedia content and structure. Articles about all members of the German parliament, all subway stations in Vienna or the entire flora and fauna of Switzerland: we have that already in Wikipedia. We also don’t try to recreate the whole Wikipedia category system in the Klexikon. Possibly, in future, Wikidata will help us with certain connections between pages and content.

What about existing childrens’ wikis?

Banner Klexikon
It’s time for a Free Childrens’ Encyclopedia. Help us to explore the world.

There are a number of wikis, outside the Wikimedia movement, that are occupied with a similar challenge. Many of them are ‘instructional wikis’, their primary goal is to teach something: pupils learn how to use a wiki, how to write a text, how to edit the texts of others. This is an important goal by itself. But it is not a suitable way to create quality content. After the class has used the wiki for some days or weeks, the young participants usually are not interested in improving the articles anymore.

Other wikis are content wikis indeed, they seriously work to create an encyclopedia for children. When we browse the articles of these wikis, we see a lot of extremely short articles. Many articles are hardly easier to understand than a usual Wikipedia article.

At the Klexikon, we are afraid that poor quality can make a bad impression on readers. They might not give us a second chance. A Klexikon article does not have to be perfect – but it shouldn’t be ‘unready’. It must be recognisable as a ‘real’ article. Therefore, we start articles in a name space called ‘Entwurf’ (draft). This takes speed from the article creating process and provides a space where you can make errors. When three collaborators deem a draft to be good enough, it is transferred to the article name space. Of course, the article can still be worked on later.

Also, those other wikis usually imitate Wikipedia in many ways. They are hardly easier to edit than Wikipedia, because they use more or less the same complicated wiki code. In the Klexikon, we allow only very few basic wiki code in the source code of the texts. This reduces the amount of what new collaborators have to learn.

Who is allowed to participate?

One of the first charts to explain how the Klexikon works.

Another challenge of Wikipedia and many other wikis is the technical openness for unregistered and new collaborators. Anyone is allowed to edit, even without registration. I call this a technical openness, because socially Wikipedia is actually very closed: the edits of newcomers are very likely to be reverted.

In the Klexikon, you can edit only with an account. You can ask the project leader Michael for an account, which will be your real name. This makes vandalism rather unlikely. We believe that much of the negative work climate on Wikipedia and other wikis relates to the fact that vandalizing and mobbing is made rather easy. We also intend to be not so forbearing with trolls and others who disturb the work climate.

In general, everybody can ask for an account. We find it unlikely that many children will participate (childrens’ books are written by adults, too). Now we gave an account to the first minor, only with the Christian name, and in contact with a parent. We expect that minors will be treated with an appropriate delicacy by other collaborators.

What is the progress of the Klexikon?

another klexikon bannerDuring November we more or less build up the wiki as such, with the help of the ZUM people such as Karl Kirst. Since December 1st, 2014, we have collaborators and articles, by now even more than a handful. We produce ca. ten articles a week, and hope that this will increase with more collaborators. Many, but not all of them, have a Wikipedia background.

Our phase of experimenting will end in March 2014. By then, we will be able to present to Wikimedia Deutschland a concept of a childrens’ encyclopedia, based on our experiences with the Klexikon.

And after that? Of course, we hope that the Klexikon will have a flourishing community working on a ever growing pile of drafts and articles. The community will decide how to go on. Our host is aware that this might include a migration to the Wikimedia movement.

But until then, the Klexikon means to us, above all: learning, learning, learning. What content is really suitable for children, how to we attract constantly new collaborators, e.g. teachers or parents without Wikipedia background? We will go on with approaching school classes and receive more feedback from actuall pupils, and want to improve ourselves as writers in real life meetings.

Do you speak German and want to join? That’s great! Please contact Michael via kontakt@klexikon.de

Wikipedia 48: revolutionary articles

Wikipedia 48
On October 9th, 2014, I uploaded 48 articles to German Wikipedia, about the Revolution of 1848/1849 in Germany. I explain my motives on my user page and on a historians’ blog, and here also in English.

In 1848, revolutionary events occurred in many parts of Western and Central Europe, most notably in France, Germany, Italy and then Imperial Austria. Of course, Wikipedia has a lot of articles about these events. The quality shows a huge variety; sometimes even central articles (such as Frankfurter Nationalversammlung, the German national assembly) were hardly improved over the past six or eight years. They reached a certain quality early, some are even marked as “exzellent”, and a real makeover seemed to be too much work.

After I left the board of Wikimedia Nederland, in March this year, I wanted to write more articles again. While working on the article about the provisional constitutional order of 1848, I made up my mind about what needs to be done and how I wanted to contribute.

Ships of the German Imperial Fleet (1848-1852). Though I am not much of a navalist, I felt obliged to consider also this most visible result of the Revolution.

Why not writing or rewriting 48 articles about the Revolution? After very long articles such as Erste Kammer der Generalstaten I had learned from feedback that at least some readers found them way too long to consume. It is much better to distribute the knowledge via several articles with more general and more specific ones. This enables the reader to choose how much he wants to read, how substantial the information has to be.

In a speech for this year’s Historikertag in Göttingen, the major German historians’ convention, I put this into a larger perspective: what makes knowledge readable, what is the specialty of a reference work such as Wikipedia, in contrast to a general overview monograph? A reference work should consist of rather small units that can be consulted quickly. Encyclopedists have, for centuries, complained about readers who read ‘too little’ and are happy with a ‘ready reference’, while the encyclopedists wanted to provide a ‘depth in knowledge’ (hence the names for the two large parts of the 1970s Encyclopaedia Britannica; hence the hostility of some Wikipedians when ‘readability’ is discussed).

In my “Wikipedia 48” project, for example, I decided to write “from the bottom to the top”. After having written rather specific articles such as ‘Basic Rights of the German People’, ‘Imperial Election Law’, or ‘Imperial Citizenship’, ‘Imperial Head of State discussion’, it was quite easy to write the overviewing article ‘Frankfurt Imperial Constitution’. All those specific topics could be dealt with in a couple of short paragraphs, in a summarizing manner. Who wants to read more about the Basic Rights or the Citizenship, can click on the related link. We already had this distinction between overviewing and specific articles in Wikipedia, of course, but I made this a conscious decision a priori, not a technique of shortening a long article afterwards.

I implemented the 48 articles (and some more, for context) on October 9th, the 25th anniversary of the Monday demonstrations in communist East Germany in 1989. I uploaded them together at the same time, because they contained many links to each other and I did not want ‘trigger happy colleagues’ to delink temporary red links. This worked fine with almost all articles with the exception of especially one case (the Revolution article itself): another Wikipedian has prevented ‘his’ article, though unreferenced, to be overwritten. A more positive reaction were the many edits from friendly Wikipedians who corrected wiki markup and typos in the articles’ source code.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1852: Window scene at the entrance of the Imperial Regent [in Frankfort, July 1848]
Reading and writing about the revolution era became a fascinating learning experience for myself. I thought of myself knowing German history of the 19th and 20th century rather well, but actually I did not remember much more than the National Assembly and the Imperial Constitution. Somewhere in the back of my head there was a shadow of an ‘Imperial Regent’ (Reichsverweser), but it never occured to me asking myself what Empire he might have been a part of.

I realized that we have a tremendous scholarly literature in German about the revolution era, but the overview works and text books provide only a very condensed version of what happened. Partially we still see a tendency to trivialize, even ridicule the Revolution and the revolutionaries, quite in line with the conservative propaganda of the 1850s. But the Revolution was not just ‘some political unrest’, the National Assembly was not a ‘talking shop of impractical professors’, the Constitution was not merely ‘a proposal that did not find enough support’, the National Assembly did not end because its members ‘lost interest’. Instead, the Revolution found a broad resonance in German society, it was crushed by force, and its legal (!) institutions were abolished unlawfully. The Constitution is still highly praised by modern law experts and sometimes even referred to by our German Constitutional Court.

There remains a lot to learn and to do about 19th century Germany.

See the list of the 48 articles on this Wikipedia user page.

Just another survey on Wikipedia, you lost me

From time to time I am asked to take part in a survey on Wikipedia. What are your motives to edit etc. Usually, I am willing to help people who are doing research on the free encyclopedia and am happy to see later the results. But the last time I more and more refuse to answer.

It seems to be that some researchers (often students) hardly know anything about the processes in Wikipedia, and that they don’t know previous surveys with a similar interest. Honestly, sometimes I have the impression that a student wants to get easy study points and makes a list of questions in the time between news and weather report.

Does it make sence to answer a question about my ‘membership’ in Wikipedia? Did I ‘join’ Wikipedia in order to ‘improve my methods’? What is the difference between ‘because I can see the fruits of my work’ and ‘because I can see my work / my accomplishments’?

It’s more of the same, I miss any innovative approach. And I am sorry, after having answered to the Wikimedia Foundation surveys, I don’t see the need to invest time in this kind of surveys.

Understanding Jimmy Wales, but not free knowledge

At the end of December, I was invited to an Esperanto convention that took place in my relative vicinity. Some 30-40 people (of 110 participants) came to my two lectures on the history of encyclopedias and Wikipedia. Essentially I presented what I show to German school teachers, with a special focus on free knowledge, free licenses and the benefits of that for everybody. People had smart questions and the tendency to go into detail; many have a website or edit an Esperanto newspaper and want to know how to use Wikimedia Commons, whether they are allowed to use free content commercially etc.

But the two sessions were also very useful for me because I learned once more about what people already know about Wikipedia and what are the usual wrong conceptions. Explaining/understanding free knowledge is very challenging, and it really needs the large approach I provide at a slow pace, with examples and simplifications.

The sessions were part of the ‘International Winter University’ of the convention, organized by astronomy professor Amri Wandel of Tel Aviv. At the end of the second lecture, I examined those listeners who were eager to obtain study points. Most of the content did reach the audience, and it is obviously easy to follow on practical things and pure facts, like that Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales.

An abstract concept such as free knowledge is a different thing: for about half of the examinees had severe difficulties picking the right multiple choice answer. And as a matter of fact, doesn’t the expression ‘free knowledge’ sound like ‘free access for everybody’, ‘sharing knowledge freely in an open way’? I always emphasise – and maybe I should even more – that our ‘free knowledge/content/culture’ is a very specific concept, that the word ‘free’ should be in quotation marks with a clear, short definition.

Joint seminar of UEA and WMNL on free knowledge

Marek Blahus in Rotterdam

‘Libera Scio’ was the title of a seminar organized by Wikimedia Nederland together with the World Esperanto Association (UEA) in Rotterdam. Marek Blahus and I presented the Wikimedia movement, multilingual Wikipedia and above all the secret ingredient of Wikipedia: free knowledge.

The UEA holds an open day twice a year in its headquarters; it is usually on Saturday, and on Sunday some guests from abroad still stay in town. For about a dozen people (age 20 to 70) joint us for a tight schedule with lots of information and exercises. The participants were not only impressed by Wikipedia’s size (and the size of Wikimedia Commons) but also by the many ways you can go wrong when it comes to copyright.

Unexpected reencounter

Wikipedia class in Antwerp, 2007. From the scene in question only my left ear is visible. (Picture: Yves Nevelsteen, CC-BY-SA)

In early summer 2007 I travelled to Flanders. The Esperanto club of Antwerp had its 100 years anniversary, and I was invited for a lecture on the history of that language. The weekend included a morning with Wikipedia class.  Interested persons were mentored, except by me, also by Yves Nevelsteen and Chuck Smith, the founder of Wikipedia in Esperanto (Vikipedio).

It was not so much a class like a lesson, we also lacked the teaching aids for that, but we guided the people personally. I was occupied among others with an elderly Flemish lady, who attended with her new laptop and told me about her father.

The father I had met in the early 1990s, a couple of years before his dead. A true citizen of the world, founder of a school in Belgian Congo, a very respected and friendly member of the Esperanto community. With his pursuit of knowledge he would have been enthusiast about Wikipedia, she said. Friends wanted her to write an article on him, but she was in doubt that it was really a good idea to write about relatives.

The morning opened my eyes for the difficulties most people have with contributing to Wikipedia. So the focus of my guidance was less editing but actively using Wikipedia. At the end I wanted the mentees to recapitulate what they have learned. I asked the Flemish lady to search in Vikipedio the name of her father. Even if there is no article on him, maybe one of his works is mentioned elsewhere.

She did, and via a redirect we came to an article on her father, indeed. (I shouldn’t have been wondering, but I may have intuitively thought that she already had searched.) It was an even rather extensive article, with photograph and web link.

Telling this story I love to ask my listeners what the lady did in this moment spontaneously. Men suppose that she immediately edited the article. Or saved it on the hard disk. Or made a bookmark in the browser. Only women conject, as unanimously as aptly, that she burst into tears.

This reaction of a Wikipedia reader may be not representative. But it always reminds me of the fact that we have responsibility for our texts and never know, who is reading them with what eyes.

[Appeared in: Wikimedia Deutschland e.V.: Alles über Wikipedia und die Menschen hinter der größten Enzyklopädie der Welt. Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 2011, pp. 125-127. The original title of the text above is referring to ‘Unverhofftes Wiedersehen‘, a calendar story by Johann Peter Hebel.]