Knowledge, power and mobilising a lobby through Wikipedia

Last night I added my tuppence worth to Wikipedia’s entry on the History of Virtual Learning Environments. As manager of an online learning consortium in the late nineties, I helped the software company Fretwell-Downing Education build a pilot web-based Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Though you would not know it from the entry as it stands at the time of writing, the description I’ve added of this case study — and the catalogue of others being collected in the Wikipedia entry — are not there just to add to the store of the world’s knowledge: they are there to prove a point.
Last week the e-learning systems company Blackboard announced that it had been issued a patent (in the US) covering a number of software features that have been standard components of VLEs for several years. This quickly had several e-learning bloggers up in arms: I found out about it from Jay Cross and Seb Schmoller; and Stephen Downes has a good round-up as usual.
I share the widespread contempt for this development, and the disrepute that it brings on the ethos of patents. That’s why I was more than happy to add my contribution to the Wikipedia entry to demonstrate the ‘prior art’, which could invalidate the patent by showing that the claimed invention was in public use prior to the date of the patent filing. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling slightly uneasy about this politically and commercially motivated use of Wikipedia.

By coincidence, I came across this New Yorker article on Wikipedia just this morning. It’s a detailed and balanced account that is duly awe-struck at some of Wikipedia’s accomplishments, while also retaining some wariness and scepticism concerning its weaknesses. At one point, Stacy Schiff, the article’s author, writes “It can still seem as though the user who spends the most time on the site — or who yells the loudest — wins.” She goes on to explain that there is no ultimate and foolproof means to remove all bias from Wikipedia entries.

[Original Wikipedia employee] Larry Sanger… argues that too many Wikipedians are fundamentally suspicious of experts and unjustly confident of their own opinions. He left Wikipedia in March, 2002, after [Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales ran out of money to support the site during the dot-com bust. Sanger concluded that he had become a symbol of authority in an anti-authoritarian community. “Wikipedia has gone from a nearly perfect anarchy to an anarchy with gang rule,” he told me… Even Eric Raymond, the open-source pioneer whose work inspired Wales, argues that “‘disaster’ is not too strong a word” for Wikipedia. In his view, the site is “infested with moonbats.” (Think hobgoblins of little minds, varsity division.) He has found his corrections to entries on science fiction dismantled by users who evidently felt that he was trespassing on their terrain. “The more you look at what some of the Wikipedia contributors have done, the better [Encyclopaedia] Britannica looks,” Raymond said. He believes that the open-source model is simply inapplicable to an encyclopedia. For software, there is an objective standard: either it works or it doesn’t. There is no such test for truth.

Wikipedia’s entry on the History of Virtual Learning Environments was created on 29 July, three days after Blackboard’s announcement, by Michael Feldstein. Based on the timing and what Michael has written in his blog, the intent behind creating the entry appears to have been to counter Blackboard’s patent, though, to be fair, he does say “This would be a Good Thing To Do even if the Blackboard patent fight didn’t exist.”
There have been over two hundred edits by tens of different contributors in the five days since the page was created, and it seems likely that many of these shared the original intent.
So I was wondering if the entry should have some kind of disclosure/disclaimer at the top to explain that it was originated and developed to demonstrate a particular point. I could add such a disclaimer myself. But I have never seen any precedent for this elsewhere on Wikipedia, and what right do I really have to add such a comment? I can say that the disclaimer is definitely true of my contribution, but when it comes to the others I’d just be speculating.
Nevertheless, if my speculation is right, then it seems to me that the intent behind the entry inevitably colours it to some degree. Perhaps this colour will fade and wash out over time, as further edits with different motivations are made. Perhaps it will linger subtly for years, after the Blackboard patent has been forgotten. Who can say?
I raise these concerns not because I want to pour cold water on the Wikipedia model. On the contrary, I want Wikipedia to realise the grand ambitions that many of us have for it. But for this to happen, don’t we have to address issues such as the risk of it being used as a medium of lobbying — piggybacking on the goodwill it enjoys — by interest groups (including those aims we share)?

8 thoughts on “Knowledge, power and mobilising a lobby through Wikipedia

  1. I agree 100% with your reservations, though I have added two or three snippets to the History of Virtual Learning Environments section myself, as well as encouraging others with knowledge of the development of learning environments in the 1990s to do the same.
    Whilst contributing my snippets I had a look at some of the internal links from the page to other Wikipedia entries. I was struck by a long bloated biography that even included the subject’s client list. But in this case it was obviously either the work of a publicist, or a bit of self-promotion.
    The trouble with the History of Virtual Learning Environments page is that there is no way for the casual visitor to detect that the content has been put there largely by people who share a particular set of concerns.
    The temporary expedient would, as you say, be for “someone” (Michael Feldstein – who put the original stub page up?) to put a disclaimer at the top of the page. But that would not stop this particular use of Wikipedia from being an abuse of its purpose, albeit one which is both interesting in its own right, and “for the common good”. So the contents of the page should be moved somewhere else. Again, by “someone”!

  2. It’s a tricky one, for sure. I think the entry could be defended against existing Wikipedia guidelines such as those on vanity pages. It sticks mostly to facts, but they are ‘facts with attitude’.
    After the first flush of enthusiasm with any new collective venture comes the boring responsibility of defining processes and procedures to manage actively what has evolved with minimal management. Again Stacy Schiff’s article has spotted this:

    Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas, two researchers at I.B.M. who have studied the site using computerized visual models called “history flows,” found that the talk pages and “meta pages”—those dealing with coordination and administration—have experienced the greatest growth. Whereas articles once made up about eighty-five per cent of the site’s content, as of last October they represented seventy per cent. As Wattenberg put it, “People are talking about governance, not working on content.” Wales is ambivalent about the rules and procedures but believes that they are necessary. “Things work well when a group of people know each other, and things break down when it’s a bunch of random people interacting,” he told me.

    Which reminds me of Mitch Kapor’s old quote, “Behind every working anarchy there’s an old boy network”.

  3. As the guy who first created the stub, I thought about this issue too. (And I thought about it some more when Seb called my attention to your post.) The thing is, if people refrained from writing about subjects about which they are passionate (and therefore have particular points of view), Wikipedia probably never would have gotten off the ground.
    There are two keys to making this work the way it should, in my view. First, attract as many eyeballs as possible. The different points of view will help balance the article out. Heck, there’s nothing to stop a Blackboard employee from adding info about Blackboard’s milestones. In fact, I hope that they will.
    The second thing is not to be afraid to edit other people’s bullet points in the interest of fairness. If you see language that is loaded, then by all means, edit it. For example of this in action, check out Jon Udell’s screencast, “Heavy Metal Umaut: The Movie” ( It shows (among other things) how contentious language can be successfully negotiated in Wikipedia.

  4. Michael, thank you for taking the time to reply.
    I think we agree on almost everything: that the page you initiated has value; that more people should be encouraged to view, edit and add to it; and that that process will further improve the quality and value of the page.
    My concerns, such as they are, are about issues of degree, related to the ‘facts with attitude’ point. The page, as far as I can see, doesn’t infringe any of Wikipedia’s guidelines (on vanity, spam or disputes). In an ideal world, for the period of time before lots of eyeballs have sifted the content, I’d like to see some gentle indicator on the page to show ‘recently created page’, ‘initiated to prove a point’ and ‘could possibly be disputed’.
    Perhaps that’s unrealistic. Perhaps the point is that we all, as Wikipedia readers, have to keep in mind the wariness of caveat lector. But many of us have not got used to reference works on which the paint has yet to dry.

  5. OK, upon further search, I was finally able to find a method in Wikipedia to request peer review from the editors and notate the request at the top of the page. I have done so.

  6. I am very pleased that the peer review banner is up now. Having written quite a lot of “recent history” reports on e-learning over the last couple of years, and advised by a historian cousin from time to time, I feel that the wikipedia exercise is well worth doing, and continuing even if the particular issue dies away. (Cue relevant quote from LOTR here.) Should have been started earlier, really – and we all need to take more care with updating our web sites, not rely on some mega-rollback approach.
    But there are some issues of methodology to sort out – citations, as far as possible from public web and with evidence of their authenticity (no pre-aging tricks), bad news as well as good, etc. Let’s see how the peer review deals with these.

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