The Wikimedia Foundation’s Erik Moller problem

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Erik MollerThe Wikimedia Foundation, which you will most likely know as being the folks responsible for Wikipedia (and a whole host of other projects), has a bit of a problem on their hands. Specifically, I’m talking about their recent hire in the Deputy Director position, Erik Moller. More specifically, it seems that has a rather … deep interest in child sexuality, and some “interesting” positions on it to boot.

I’m not the first to pick up on this, either. Valleywag quotes Erik as saying “What is my position on pedophilia, then? It’s really simple. If the child doesn’t want it, is neutral or ambiguous, it’s inappropriate.” Obviously, that’s leaving something important unsaid — namely, are children really mature enough to decide if they do want sex; and if they say they do, does that make it appropriate? And then there are his rather interesting essays on the subject.

But there are some other things that haven’t come to light yet. I’ll just list them off and let his words speak for themselves.

Erik created the Wikipedia article on Child sexuality in 2003, and it was definitely not a stub article (Wikipedia’s parlance for short, introductory articles intended to be expanded upon by others).

He inserted the following text into the article on Human sexual behavior:

It is generally acknowledged that children are capable of feeling sexual pleasure, even if they are not yet able to engage in sexual intercourse with each other, and/or are not yet biologically able to reproduce.

In the article on Homosexuality and morality, he writes:

“A small minority believes that children are capable of consenting to homosexual acts with older men, but all major pro-homosexual groups have rejected that view.”

And he has a rather curious definition of pedophilia:

Again, someone who sexually abuses a minor is not necessarily a pedophile (”exclusively” ”attracted” to ”preadolescents” — emphasis on every word), but may simply be acting out of opportunity. The title “pedophiles and pederasts” is redundant — pedophilia ”includes” pederasty. This does not in any way mitigate the definitional problems of this article.

So, why am I bringing this all up? I don’t think Erik is a pedophile, but he has some very wrong and dangerous views on the subject that cannot bear to be left unopposed. There is no room for sophomore philosophizing and moralizing on such a damaging subject, nor should we allow the subject to be normalized by turning a blind eye to such outrageous claims as those made by Erik. Erik embodies one of the main problems with Wikipedia: it allows people with no real training or knowledge in a subject area to nevertheless insert their own personal views into the encyclopedia by sheer force of being a prolific Wikipedian. It’s bad enough when such a person is writing the articles, but it’s terrible when they’re #2 in the line of people running the whole place!

Erik needs to speedily retract and denounce his earlier comments on the subject, not defend them. They are indefensible. If this keeps going the way it is, it puts the Wikimedia Foundation on a collision path with a huge PR nightmare that we really do not want to face; after all, can you really think of a subject that plays more badly in the media and in the general public than pedophilia? Erik needs to get apologetic or he needs to get out, and if he does not make that decision soon, it needs to be made for him.

Why I’ve (mostly) retired from Wikipedia

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

A week ago, Newyorkbrad of English Wikipedia Arbitration Committee fame (and if you don’t know what that means already, it’s not worth your time to delve into the intricate internal workings of Wikipedia to find out) asked me why I retired from Wikipedia. It’s a question I get asked fairly often and I’ve even heard it was being discussed on one of the ex-Wikipedian forums. So here’s my well put together answer that I can proceed to link to from now on whenever the question is raised again.

First of all, the basic presupposition of the question is false. I have not retired from Wikipedia. I still retain all access levels and keep in constant contact with many Wikipedians. I still run all the same bots. What is true to say is that I have “mostly” retired. If you look at my contributions, you’ll see that they’ve drastically decreased from their once high former levels.

The simple reason is that I’ve become bored with managing the inner workings of Wikipedia. Too much drudgery, not enough fun. Even the drama, which used to captivate me, has simply grown lame. I have some form of long-term ADD that leaves me progressively more and more bored with any single activity. Any sort of online community has a very limited shelf life for me. I can’t even remember all of the online communities I’ve been part of, including various newsgroups, web forums, chat rooms, online games, clans, etc., that I departed from just as quickly as I got involved in in the first place. Most of them I never look back at.

But Wikipedia is different. The reason I came to Wikipedia in the first place — that it is a great source of knowledge — hasn’t changed in the least, so I still find myself using Wikipedia every day on a purely educational basis. Wikipedia thus has some intrinsic value to it that everything else I’ve abandoned doesn’t, so I cannot foresee ever leaving permanently. So while I don’t go seeking out administrative tasks to perform anymore, I still reply to messages on my talk page within a reasonable amount of time. And if I come across an error while reading a Wikipedia article, I fix it. This level of activity probably puts me in the same boat as most Wikipedia users, but compared to my previous highs, it is a precipitous decline, leading people to ask the question why I quit Wikipedia.

Read the rest of this entry »

Big things going down in Wikipedia land

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Sorry, no specifics, but big things are going down right now in the Wikimedia Foundation (the foundation that runs Wikipedia). A year from now we’ll all be looking back on how things are now and wondering what in the hell happened. Keep your eyes peeled on the technical news websites.

Wikimania 2007 is a failure

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

Wikipedia is still growing exponentially, so it is thus such a shame that Wikimania 2007 is a failure in comparison to Wikimania 2006, when by all rights it should have been a much larger occasion. The problems all boil down to location, location, location. Wikimania 2006 was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was a very convenient location not only for Americans but also for Europeans, who could get cheap flights. Wikimania 2007, however, is being held in Taipei, Taiwan, which is surely a nonsensical location to be hosting it. It’s convenient for Taiwanese and maybe Australians, Japanese, and South Koreans. It’s not convenient for the Chinese, of course, because they can’t exactly just hop over to Taiwan.

Wikimania 2006, which I was at, had an attendance of around 500. The attendance for Wikimania 2007 looks to be less than half of that, at least according to the registration numbers. Few people from anywhere but Taiwan were able to make it; I certainly wasn’t able to justify the multiple days spent flying and the $2,500 round-trip ticket. Yes, there look to be a good number of Americans registered, but many of those are Foundation employees or Board members who are only able to go because of the free tickets, and in comparison to the huge size of the English Wikipedia, having a roughly even number of Americans as Taiwanese attending is not a good showing at all.

The other serious bid for the location of Wikimania 2007 was Italy. That would have been a much better location for pretty much everyone except for the Taiwanese (Australians seem irrelevant, as the numbers attending the convention in Taiwan are abysmal). Attendance would’ve easily been double what it is in Taipei (if not triple or even quadruple). The choice of Taipei simply doesn’t make any sense, and the only motive I can come up with for choosing it is the Board saying to themselves, “Which destination would I rather travel to for free?” Of course, choosing a destination for its foreignness and attractiveness of a free fare (a free $2,500 ticket is a better “value” than a free $600 ticket) will lead to pretty much opposite parameters being considered than if the location is actually being chosen based on its convenience for how many paying travelers can attend.

The Board screwed this up big time, and the sad thing this they may not realize it just yet, but everyone who wanted to but ultimately wasn’t able to attend is very well aware of how poor the choice was. For next year, the Board needs to re-evaluate their selection criteria and not just pick an exotic destination they’ve never been to before. This isn’t a vacation, it’s a meeting. Italy would be nice. Heck, really, any place in North America or Europe would be good. But picking a place in Asia? That just makes no sense. It’s not that I have anything against Asians, it’s just that geography discriminates.

Wikipedia meet-up in Washington D.C.

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

Yesterday was the first meet-up in a long while (maybe since 2002?) of Wikipedians in Washington D.C. As far as I can tell, a great time was had by all. It had the same kind of feeling to me as Wikimania 2006, a convention held just about a year ago. It’s quite interesting to finally meet people in person who you’ve been talking with and seeing online for years. Twenty-five people showed up in total. The demographics were quite skewed. Only two females showed up, one of whom was Kat Walsh, current member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation; I’ve known her since I met her last year at Wikimania. I was also the youngest (or maybe second youngest) person there, yet I had the oldest Wikipedia user account (I started editing in 2002). The majority of the people there were men in their forties and older; exactly the kind of crowd I had expected to see at a meet-up in DC. A good number of people came from far away, like Richmond, New York City, and Philadelphia.

We started the night with group introductions and dinner at Uno Pizzeria in Union Station. I can’t complain about the food. This was also the first time since I was a single digit age that I’ve even been in Union Station, and it’s quite different than I remember it. I’ve been to Grand Central Station in New York recently, which is what I expected Union Station to be like, but Union’s main open-air space is significantly larger. It has multiple levels of mezzanine and floor exposed to the airy vaulted ceiling. It was quite a nice place to eat dinner in.

By sheer chance, I ended up sitting across from Mike Godwin, General Counsel to the Wikimedia Foundation, at dinner. Yes, that Mike Godwin. I was tempted to wear a shirt with a large swastika on it and announce “Dinner’s over” as soon as Mike showed up, but really, that’d be a stupid thing to do; when would I have another occasion to wear that shirt? Maybe fifty years from now, when World War II reenactment becomes a lot more commonplace?

After dinner the majority of the group ended up leaving, but eleven of us went to Brickskeller, a bar/tavern renowned for its world-record-holding selection of beers (over a thousand). We stayed there until midnight, chatting, discussing, and feverishly planning cabal activities, while several of our number got a good ways toward drunk. The bar was a much more intimate setting; our numbers were reduced and the table was smaller and more cramped. Not that that’s a bad thing. Finally, right before midnight, we all headed out. I didn’t get home until 1am because I seemed to just miss all of the trains on the Metro. Waiting for fifteen minutes each at two separate stops is no fun, though it was a nice opportunity for people-watching.

So that was the meet-up. Hopefully we’ll be doing another one soon enough. I think I heard someone tossing around a date in September. Meeting people once is nice, but meeting people twice is what’s really significant to me — that allows you the opportunity to, having remembered what they said they were up to the first time, ask them what they’ve been up to in the intervening period. This information I typically find more relevant than a general life story.

Essjay quits Wikipedia

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

Well, that didn’t take so long to resolve. A day after Jimbo asks Essjay to resign his positions of trust within the community, Essjay has quit. I suppose the situation is mostly resolved now. However, I’m still worried by a lack of contrition from Essjay right up to the very end. He never really apologized for what he did, rather, rationalized it as a method of keeping the “trolls” unsure about his real identity (looks like that backfired horrendously). His resignation notice didn’t even acknowledge the ongoing situation; he merely said:

I’m no longer taking part here. I have received an astounding amount of support, especially by email, but it’s time to go. I tried to walk away in August, and managed to do so for quite a while, but I eventually came back, because of the many requests I received urging me to return. Many of you have written to ask me to not leave, to not give up what I have here, but I’m afraid it’s time to make a clean break.

A clean break! He thinks this is a clean break! I beg to differ. This is the ugliest break I’ve seen in the history of Wikipedia. Essjay had a distorted perception of reality up to the very end. An apology would’ve gone a long way, but I guess Essjay thinks he doesn’t owe one to anyone. His departure message was basically one grandstanding Good-Bye.

Hopefully this ends the on-wiki issue. Yes, there seems to be a secondary wheel-war brewing over the protection of the Request for Comment on Essjay, but anyone getting involved in that basically deserves what’s coming to them. That should be ironed out relatively soon. In a week, nobody will particularly care about the RFC any longer. One lasting problem that Essjay may be facing, however, is his allegation of lack of journalistic integrity on the part of Stacy Schiff, the reporter who originally interviewed him for the New Yorker. Even in Essjay’s one offered “apology”, he was lying. It’s a sad state of affairs, and it might still have future negative consequences for Essjay, as this claim is potentially actionable libel. Kelly Martin has more analysis on the issue.

This is the last post I feel that I will end up writing on this issue, as it seems to be over, at least on Wikipedia. I do feel kind of bad for “piling on” Essjay in his moment of weakness, but it was necessary for there to be a strong showing of community outrage so that Jimbo would quickly get involved and force Essjay out. Every day that Essjay remained on the project was making us look bad in front of the outside community, and I make no apologies for my role in trying to salvage Wikipedia’s credibility by making it perfectly clear that we do not tolerate this kind of behavior.

Jimbo Wales asks Essjay to resign

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

It looks like the Essjay situation is finally coming to a resolution, after generating enormous levels of fallout. Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia and resident God-king of the English Wikipedia, has asked Essjay to resign. Here’s the text of his statement:

I have blanked my entire talk page to make sure this statement gets adequate attention. Hopefully someone more clueful than me :-) can archive things properly.

I have been for several days in a remote part of India with little or no Internet access. I only learned this morning that EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes. I understood this to be primarily the matter of a pseudonymous identity (something very mild and completely understandable given the personal dangers possible on the Internet) and not a matter of violation of people’s trust. I want to make it perfectly clear that my past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on. Even now, I have not been able to check diffs, etc.

I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the community. In terms of the full parameters of what happens next, I advise (as usual) that we take a calm, loving, and reasonable approach. From the moment this whole thing became known, EssJay has been contrite and apologetic. People who characterize him as being “proud” of it or “bragging” are badly mistaken.

On a personal level, EssJay has apologized to me, and I have accepted his apology on a personal level, and I think this is the right thing to do. If anyone else feels that they need or want a personal apology, please ask him for it. And if you find it to be sincere, then I hope you will accept it too, but each person must make their own judgments. Despite my personal forgiveness, I hope that he will accept my resignation request, because forgiveness or not, these positions are not appropriate for him now.

I still have limited net access… for a couple of hours here I will be online, and then I am offline until I am in Japan tomorrow morning. I believe I will have a fast and stable Internet connection at that time, and I will deal with this further at that time.

Wikipedia is built on (among other things) twin pillars of trust and tolerance. The integrity of the project depends on the core community being passionate about quality and integrity, so that we can trust each other. The harmony of our work depends on human understanding and forgiveness of errors.

–Jimbo Wales 06:42, 3 March 2007 (UTC)

So there you have it. It looks like Jimbo simply wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the lies that had been thrown around, and was prepared to accept Essjay’s false identity, but not the way he used it to his advantage in content disputes. Jimbo’s a very busy guy, and he can’t really keep up-to-date on internal wiki matters too well. One thing that worries me, however, is this statement: “I understood this to be primarily the matter of a pseudonymous identity (something very mild and completely understandable given the personal dangers possible on the Internet) and not a matter of violation of people’s trust.”

I’m going to have to disagree on that mark. Even if someone wasn’t using fake credentials in content disputes, I still think it’s wrong. The possession of PhDs automatically gives you a higher level of respect on-wiki even if you don’t throw their weight around, and claiming to have degrees that one doesn’t is wrong no matter the situation. If you’re worried about protecting your identity, either don’t reveal any personal information at all, or make up something discreet, like, “I’m a plumber in Florida.” I could live with someone lying about being a plumber. I can’t really accept someone lying about being a professor.

One thing I was saying yesterday was that Essjay should tender his resignation immediately before he loses the chance to do so. Well, it would appear that that window has closed. If he tenders his resignation now, it won’t be of his own recognizance, but rather, because Jimbo forced him to do it. And if he still doesn’t resign he’s simply going to find himself fired.

Update: See here for a follow-up post; Essjay has resigned.

More fallout over the Essjay scandal

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

The on-wiki fallout over the Essjay scandal is just beginning. It’s only about a day old, but already it is rapidly turning into a forest fire. It first started on Essjay’s talk page, with a large number of people expressing disappointment (and some expressing support). Then it spread over onto the Community Noticeboard, with a lot of arguing there.

Simultaneously, someone created an article on Ryan Jordan, what we think is Essjay’s real name. Which of course ended up being sent to Articles for Deletion almost immediately, which is already at over three sections of arguing over whether Essjay himself is notable, or if there should just be an article on the “2007 Wikipedia fraud incident”, or neither. Meanwhile, at the noticeboard, someone branched off a separate subpage to hold a straw poll on Essjay’s privileges. The majority of people thought that he should be removed from the Arbitration Committee (ArbCom), oversight/Checkuser access, and bureaucrat status, while most people did not favor removing his administrator status. Well, some people didn’t like the straw poll, so they filed a Miscellany for deletion trying to delete the straw poll. Speedy closing of that one was edit-warred over repeatedly, with one of the most ironic comments being made by one of the people trying to delete the straw poll discussion, saying of the MFD, “Don’t try to close discussion early!”

The Community noticeboard subpage was moved to a proper Request for Comment, where the straw poll was archived and the discussions were begun anew. That’s where we stand now, just one day later. See how quickly the forest fire spreads? Oh, and for every page I mentioned here, there was an active talk page full of people arguing that I didn’t link. So double the number of pages devoted to this one incident.

Wikipedians aren’t taking this one lying down. They’ve already written over a megabyte of text on the incident. Wikipedians are, if nothing else, creators of voluminous amounts of text. They also realize the importance of what Essjay did and how bad it makes Wikipedia look, and most of them want some action taken to rectify the situation. I don’t want to predict another’s downfall, but Essjay’s removal from ArbCom seems inevitable. The ArbCom won’t be trusted so long as he is still on it, and in their own best interests, they may want to oust Essjay. Essjay has also already been removed from OTRS, which is the system used by over a dozen volunteers to respond to the huge volume of email and inquiries Wikipedia receives.

Update: And how could I forget the huge discussion on Jimbo’s talk page. The forest fire grows ever larger.

See here for a follow-up post.

How to deal with liars on Wikipedia?

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

About a month ago it became known to me that one of the most powerful and influential people on the English Wikipedia, Essjay, had been lying through his teeth for over a year. He claimed to have been a 40-something professor of theology, but it turned out in the end that was he was a 24-year-old with no such degree. I didn’t say anything publicly about it at the time in deference to my sources’ requests, but now that the cover has been blown off on this whole sordid affair, I feel obligated to comment.

The thing is, I could maybe forgive him if he had just made up this alternative identity to keep his own identity anonymous. But he didn’t. He exploited those fake academic credentials to gain the upper hand in content disputes. Kelly Martin already does a great job of covering this side of it, but there’s one thing he said in particular that I’d like to point out:

If you’d like to start a [Request for Comment] on the matter, I’d be happy to offer the community my evidence; I am, after all, one of Wikipedia’s foremost experts on Catholicism. —Essjay, June 23, 2005

He made lots of statements like these to get an upper hand in debates; see Kelly Martin’s blog post for more details. I cannot forgive Essjay for what he has done. He has permanently lost my trust as well as the trust of many others. The sad thing is, Essjay is still active in all of the highest areas of the English Wikipedia; he’s a bureaucrat, checkuser, oversight, and within the past week he was appointed to the Arbitration Committee (usually these appointments are decided by community elections). So what now? Essjay lied to all of us in a particularly egregious manner, and the “punishment” is that he gets appointed to yet another important position? What kind of message does this send about Wikipedia?

This is bad, bad news.

Update: Here’s an even more damning false claim of credentials by Essjay:

I believe the entry to be correct as it reads, and I offer as my reference the text “Catholicism for Dummies” by Trigilio (Ph.D./Th.D.) and Brighenti (Ph.D.). The text offers a Nihil Obstat from the Rev. Daniel J. Mahan, STB, STL, Censor Librorum, and an Imprimatur from the Rev. Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, Vicar General. This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility. —Essjay April 11, 2005

It must be easy to risk “losing” something you don’t even have in the first place.

Also, Larry Sanger (co?-founder of Wikipedia) has written an excellent blog post.

See here for a follow-up post.

Wikipedia gets CAPTCHAs for anonymous edits

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Yesterday, image CAPTCHAs were enabled for all anonymous edits on all Wikimedia Foundation wikis (including the popular encyclopedia Wikipedia). I noticed this by chance because I’m in a computer lab right now and found some vandalism on an article linked from the main page, but didn’t want to take the time to log in first. However, by the time I finished typing in the CAPTCHA, an admin had already reverted the vandalism. Drat.

The reason for the CAPTCHA is that we’ve been having some spam problems on-wiki recently, with spammers using automated bots to add links to dozens of pages before they end up being blocked. We have a global spam blacklist that does a good job of stopping spammers dead, but all of their edits still have to be manually reverted, which is a pain. Hopefully this new change will alleviate some of that. This change will basically stop all anonymous bot edits (including legitimate bots that get logged out by accident). It will also stop vandalism bots that are running anonymously, which we’ve seen a few of.

Unfortunately, this change still doesn’t do anything against spamming/vandalism being done using registered user accounts. Yes, you do have to pass an image CAPTCHA to register an account too, but that’s only once per account rather than on every edit, so people could conceivably manually register a bunch of accounts and then hand the account details off to their bots.

What I’d like to see is CAPTCHAs on the first twenty edits of each new user (in addition to each anonymous edit). This would make automated spam/vandalism impossible.

One thing I’m worried about though — are we making the barriers to edit too high? Anonymous edits do contribute significantly towards writing the encyclopedia. There’s a trade-off between making it hard for automated ne’er-do-wells and putting a burden on legitimate editors who just can’t be bothered to login or register an account. I hope we haven’t gone too far in one direction.

Update: It looks like CAPTCHAs have been disabled; read the comments for more information.