Saturday, May 17, 2014

Wikipedia to the dogs

Version 0.3

Wikipedia to the Dogs?

Mostly just feeling like summarizing my increasingly negative feelings about Wikipedia and noting why the good idea is coming to naught. Insofar as it's an Internet-based story and the Internet is so dominated by America, I nearly put it in the decline of America blog, but the top leadership of Wikipedia is quite British and the goal is quite international, so...

My last involvement with Wikipedia was a couple of months ago when there was controversy about the paid editors. I'm increasingly convinced that the entire NPV (Neutral Point of View) thing is a joke, but it's (intuitively) obvious (to the most casual observer) that an editor who is paid by a company that is related to the topic of an article cannot even pretend to be impartial or neutral. My own involvement was mostly in voting on the proposed solution, but at the same time I suggested ways to strengthen it. My basic position was that it couldn't be eliminated, but the best approach would be to make it visible in public, with a more serious public sanction for violations. The policy called for disclosure of such financial ties, but I felt that the disclosure should be made visible with a small annotation on the top of the article, whereas the detection of a violation (such as paid editing that is not disclosed) would result in a big permanent warning attached to the article in question.

At that time, no one at Wikipedia showed detectable interest. Upon reflection, I can imagine that they were worried about damaging their key assets: integrity and credibility. Integrity is about knowing the truth, but acknowledging paid editing has to cast a shadow on the how the truth may become slanted. In contrast, credibility is about being trusted to tell the truth, which would be weakened every time someone noticed a paid editing tag... However, those assets are valuable rather beyond Wikipedia, even including all journalists.

This week's unfunny interaction at Wikipedia involved spammer abuse of Wikipedia, which is obviously a successful but evil financial model. Some of the 419 scams include URLs that are exploiting the integrity and credibility of some website to fool more suckers. An excellent technical countermeasure is obvious, but as far as I know, not in use. (Perhaps some websites are using it, and therefore the spammers never use those URLs?) The countermeasure would be to add a warning to the cited webpage, something to the effect of "If spam led you here, you are NOT about to get big money after you 'help' by paying the scammer with some 'trivial' fee." The warning should obviously include a link to a more specific warning about that category of scam.

The situation is actually worse and better as regards Wikipedia compared to the most common targets, which are news websites. It's worse because the spammers could easily vandalize Wikipedia to support their scams, adding some juicy details to spice up the bait. If the scammers thought it was worth the effort, I'm sure they could add the bait a few weeks in advance, even with a citation to a plausible-looking external website that the scammer has set up. However, the Wikipedia situation is better in that anyone who receives the spam could pop over to Wikipedia and add a warning. Oh, wait. It just got worse again. The spammer could pop over and revert the article to remove the warning.

Now we're back to technical solutions that are (intuitively) obvious (to the most causual observer) and yet another suggestion that I've offered to Wikipedia a number of times over the years, always without detectable interest. There should be a convenient option to "Add a temporary warning" to an article. In a good implementation, it would let you paste in a copy of the spam and its headers, and you would categorize the scam and specify how long the warning should last. The warning would be temporary, but not easy to remove, so the spammer can't just pop over and zap it. Instead of fooling suckers, the potential suckers would see (for the next week or two) a warning such as (from this week's example): "Warning, if you received email claiming that you are about to receive a $10 million VISA card, it is a 419 scam", and including a link to the appropriate article on such scams.

My little story actually begin when I received such a spam this week (but only the latest of many times over the past years) and I added a warning (manually, since there is no such tool) to the spammer's Wikipedia article. A few hours later, I noticed that it had been reverted, so I looked at that person's page and discovered that the reverter of my warning was trying to become some kind of administrator or editor on Wikipedia. Therefore I went to the election page and said that I had to oppose the promotion because I was suspicious of anyone who seems to be helping spammers. I also included a short explanation of the scam in question and the obvious suggestion. That vote was quickly deleted, too, on grounds of some kind of club violation.

My new message to Wikipedia: "Sorry, but if you Wikipedia fools want to support spammers, you can shove your club where the sun don't shine. In addition, I hope the spammers pwn your children's computers to thank you for your contributions to their ongoing success."

I think the funny part is that I really like the idea of Wikipedia and think that broader and more democratic participation would improve the quality and value of Wikipedia. Contributing more to the joke is the oft-repeated claim that Wikipedia wants more support, but the punchline is that I was threatened in some manner for expressing my concerns. "Follow the money" is often a good way to figure out people's real motivations, so I still think my concerns are legitimate. Philosophy is nice but sound economic models are important, too.

Kind of a minor footnote, but maybe it's a karmic coincidence. Most of my involvement with Wikipedia has been to make minor grammatical corrections and ask a few questions on the so-called Talk pages (though perhaps this was the first time I was threatened for writing). However a few days ago I noticed some omissions on a Japanese page and I actually reserved a couple of books that contained the missing data. After this little episode, I dropped by the library and cancelled the reservations without opening the books.

I should make a boilerplate for this closing apology, but... I'm sorry about the need to moderate the comments, but unlike Wikipedia, I am strongly determined not to support any spammers. I welcome your comments and generally approve them within a day. I even prefer comments from which I learn something, which most often means critical comments, even if there's some sharpness in the tone.