Archive for the web society Category

On January 20, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law that banned political spending by corporations in candidate elections.  As Justice Stevens said, this decision makes  “corporate speech the same as that of human beings”.   I think it is only a matter of time before corporations begin to assert their unalienable rights as human beings and demand full citizenship.  If all goes as planned, the high court will rule favorably in the precedent setting “Apple vs the State of California” and Apple will win the governor’s race in the state elections.

When this happens we can look forward to a new era of fiscal responsibility and visionary leadership for a state that is sadly overwhelmed by failed ideas and big government spending.  Here are some of the insanely great public policy innovations that we can expect from the brilliant engineers at Apple:

  • California is re-branded iCal.  New logos and graphic look and feel standards are instituted.
  • Apple introduces the iCar, the only vehicle to pass California’s tough new vehicle usability standards and thus, the only car available for sale in the state.
  • A two year contract is now required for California citizenship.
  • Apple launches iTunes Liquor Store.  The Liquor Control Board mandates that all alcoholic beverages must be purchased through iTunes.  Purchases are licensed to a single household, but can be shared with up to five other iTunes users.
  • A slew of trademark violation suits are filed against companies using the name CaliforniaTM without permission.
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Via Making Light

Here is a fascinating presentation about traditional media vs user generated content; the “Cognitive Surplus” created by TV. Clay Shirky answers the question that a TV producer asked him about Wikipededia – “Where do they find the time?” Transcript is located here.

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I’m interested in how people use Wikipedia, so I analyzed the Top 100 articles in the English Wikipedia for June and July 2007. Some observations:

  1. You can not extend this analysis by inference to characterize all of Wikipedia because it represents only the most popular 0.2% of the traffic of around 50 million visitors per month.
  2. 48% of articles are purely popular culture. Top categories include Pokemon, Anime, Movies, TV, Music, but there are also
  3. 14% of articles are biographies. Most of these are related to popular culture, including Princess Diana, Pop Singers, Pro Wrestlers
  4. 11% of articles are voyeuristic. These include the articles on Sex, erotic art, etc.
  5. In the month of June, Science, History and Politcs accounted for about 28% of the top 100, but that number dropped to 23% in July. Perhaps this is a reflection of how much Wikipedia is used for school work, since summer vacation starts somewhere in that time frame for many primary school kids.
  6. I filtered out certain articles such as the home page from this analysis. After filtering, the top 100 articles in June accounted for only about .2% of the total US traffic to Wikipedia (1,636,000/816,000,000).
  7. Overall about 70% of the top 100 articles are about popular culture (This certainly does not mean that 70% of all wikipedia articles or 70% of all wikipedia traffic is about popular culture).
  8. For one sample, I stretched the analysis from the top 100 to the top 167. The % Voyeristic went from 4% to 2.4% and other categories also changed slightly. This indicates that an analysis of the top 10,000 articles may yield different results.

One note about the data: the total article counts for July 07 is sparse for some reason. I worked around this by checking the Top 100 on July 7, July 11 and July 31. The percentage breakdown for July was pretty much the same for all three readings.

Here’s a summary data table:


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The other night my nephew told me he doesn’t contribute to Wikipedia much. He feels that all of the good articles are taken and he doesn’t want to waste his time editing an article only to have an editor or administrator revert his work because they jealously guard that territory already. I wonder if this is a widespread feeling?

In the the life sciences, the “carrying capacity” of a species is the population that an environment can support without significant negative impacts to the given species and its environment. A common example is White Tailed Deer population in the United States. In wild areas, the normal predator-prey interaction keeps deer populations in balance. In areas where people have removed predators, the deer populations can exceed the capacity of the local environment to the point where deer starve. Conversely, when the population drops below a certain point, the population is unable to sustain itself and disappears. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Modeling populations of organisms is a popular and notoriously complex subject of systems theory.

Perhaps certain collaboration “environments” also have a carrying capacity for contributors. This seems especially applicable to collaborations like a Wikipedia article where many people are contributing to a finite set of tasks (as opposed to a social network where there are as many tasks as there are people). If this is so, then there is a threshold beyond which every contributor you add to an Article actually has a negative impact on the Article’s community. Likewise when the population of contributors drops below a certain threshold, the health of the Article’s community suffers. Just as with animal populations, modeling this effect would be a complex task, since the “population” of contributors is very dynamic as is the “environment” in which the contributors operate.

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[Update 8-6-07: I've updated the wikipedia contributor map based on my recent discoveries. Please see this post for a better contributor map]

Here are some interesting factoids culled from Wikipedia contributor statistics.

Compare the population of world countries to the Wikipedia contributors. In the hierarchy of users the vast majority of visitors to Wikipedia, 48 million of them, are readers; for the most part they don’t edit articles. Next are the regular contributors who contribute between 5 and 100 times per month. There are about 77,000 of those. Finally, there are the 10,000 anchor contributers (I’ve borrowed this phrase from retail marketing) who contribute more than 100 times per month.wikipedia-contributor-math.png

So if Wikipedia readers are like China, then the regular contributors are like Macedonia and the anchor contributors are like the Barbados. To extend this analogy to absurd extremes, Barbados and Macedonia do all of the work, have the highest GDP and provide humanitarian aid to China!

[Update 7-16-07: Here's the spreasheet I used to calculate this data. The inspiration to make this map came from the Strangemaps blog. ]

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The Google Earth Blog recently mentioned an article by Michael Jones, Chief Technologist of Google Earth, in the IEEE “Computer Graphics and Applications” magazine. The article can be downloaded here.

Michael quotes from Rudyard Kipling:

I Keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.

The rest of the article is devoted Google’s vision of “Where”. But I think there is also a hidden meaning in that particular analogy. The poem is from Just So Stories, The Elephant’s Child which is an allegorical children’s tale about the dangers and rewards of ’satiable curiosity (Kipling’s words). Here’s the full text:

I Keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five.
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men:
But different folk have different views:
I know a person small —
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends ‘em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes —
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

The person small in this case was Rudyard Kiplings daughter, but we could easily substitute “company large and ambitious” in its place. Perhaps ’satiable curiosity is at the heart of Google’s success.

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The Wikipedia article on Neutral Point of View is an official policy statement, but it is not the kind of “policy” that is typically spewed by bureaucratic IT departments, corporate HR groups or local politicians. I find it inspiring.

NPOV policy is summarized as: “All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view, representing views fairly, proportionately and without bias.”

The reasoning behind the policy is beautifully written and thoroughly reasoned. Here or some of my favorite passages:

…A solution is that we accept, for the purposes of working on Wikipedia, that “human knowledge” includes all different significant theories on all different topics. We are committed to the goal of representing human knowledge in that sense, surely a well-established meaning of the word “knowledge”. What is “known” changes constantly with the passage of time, and so when we use the word “know,” we often enclose it in so-called scare quotes. Europeans in the Middle Ages “knew” that demons caused diseases; we now “know” otherwise….

…There is another reason to commit ourselves to this policy, that when it is clear to readers that we do not expect them to adopt any particular opinion, this leaves them free to make up their minds for themselves, thus encouraging intellectual independence. Totalitarian governments and dogmatic institutions everywhere might find reason to oppose Wikipedia, if we succeed in adhering to our non-bias policy: the presentation of many competing theories on a wide variety of subjects suggests that we, the editors of Wikipedia, trust readers to form their own opinions. Texts that present multiple viewpoints fairly, without demanding that the reader accept any particular one of them, are liberating. Neutrality subverts dogmatism. Nearly everyone working on Wikipedia can agree this is a good thing…

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Recently Michael Gorman at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog has published a series of screeds against Wikipedia and Web 2.0. Clay and Danah at Many To Many have written some fantastic responses and even though the posts are longer than the average blog post, their writing is so luscious that it is worth the effort. Here are my favorites:

Gorman, redux: The Siren Song of the Internet

Knowledge access as a public good

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I ordered Cinema 4D for my kids who currently are using Bryce for 3D modeling. But I clicked on the wrong button


and received the “CINEMA 4D WIN NON CG STUDENT/PROFESSOR” instead of the “CINEMA 4D MAC NON CG STUDENT/PROFESSOR.” In case you missed it, the kids use a Macintosh (a sweet Mac Pro – the quietest computer I’ve ever owned) but I bought the Windows version by accident. I didn’t notice the difference so I opened the box. Even though the software installs fine on the Macintosh, the serial number in the box won’t work. I found out from the Academic Superstore, the reseller, and Maxon, the manufacturer, that they won’t take a return on an open box but I can pay a $100 fine to switch the license from Windows to Macintosh. I must also sign a document promising not to use my Windows serial number. I tried to persuade them to cut me some slack for being honest but careless, but no dice. Luckily, after much groveling on my part, the reseller agreed to take back the open box for only 15% plus shipping. I am proud that I’m only paying a $55 stupidity tax instead of $100!

Obviously Maxon is concerned about software piracy but it is amazing to me that they haven’t been able to think of a better strategy than this. Software companies have more options than ever for creative distribution of their products, yet they seem to be stuck in the 1990’s. It reminds me of the Recording Industry Association of America’s battles over online music, which I hope will end badly for RIAA.

Cinema 4D is an awesome tool that is used to make movies and TV productions. Here’s one of Jonathan’s latest creations.


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In an earlier post, I speculated that one might use the variance between Quantcast and Alexa as a predictor for success. The basis for this was that Alexa toolbar users seem like early adopters. Another possible explanation can be found in the general feeling that Alexa users are heavily represented in Asia. Do a search on Alexa user demographics and you will find a number of blogs and forum posts suggesting this.

If this idea is correct, I think that under some circumstances, you may still view Alexa as a predictor for success since much of the growth in the population of internet users is coming from Asia.

Here’s the latest data on my Wikia watch:


According to Alexa, Wikia’s rankings were

Yesterday: 849
1 Wk Avg: 1102
3 Mo Avg: 1456

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Phil Butler reported on June 22 that Wikia has gotten a face lift. I think the UI and AJAX features are insignificant compared to the new collaboration features; tagging, voting and sharing.


They still haven’t implemented a way to get an RSS feed from a page to show edits. This is a very useful feature on Confluence and I wonder why they don’t do something similar?

I’ve also noticed that wikia is gaining some traction with Alexa users:


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When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in the 1860’s, he sprinkled it with side chapters where he ranted against the historians of the day. He complained that they told history as a progression of major events precipitated by “great men” when in fact history is a much more complicated progression of cause and effect. Tolstoy was particularly sarcastic when he highlighted the conflicting conclusions of various historians (for instance English vs. French vs. Russian). At one point, he proposed applying the scientific method to history, asserting that a complete understanding of an event could be obtained by slicing that event into smaller and smaller pieces, in exactly the same way that a math student performs integral calculus.

Perhaps Tolstoy’s idea can finally be realized by using the power of mass collaboration?


I’m posting this from Cashiers, North Carolina. I wanted to visit some local civil war battle fields on the drive home (Interstate 81 in Virginia), but it is turning out to be quite difficult to find the information on the web.

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Despite its many innovations, Wikipedia is still a very traditional encyclopedia, following a pattern that was laid down in the late 1700’s by Diderot and others. Each article summarizes a particular topic, discusses details and provides references. Each article is a linear discourse that starts at beginning and reaches a conclusion about the topic, which in wikipedia is termed “consensus.”

The problem is that there can be only one consensus (as they said in Highlander) . One of the biggest criticisms of Wikipedia is that its articles are not accurate. Accordingto wiktionary, accuracy means “…exact or careful conformity to the truth...” Since everyone has a different view of what is true and false, by definition every article in Wikipedia is inaccurate.

It turns out that this is nothing new. Encyclopedias have been controversial since the very beginning. For instance, the encyclopedists in eighteenth century France were considered to be radicals, distorting the truth in order to weaken the might of the catholic church and the monarchy.

Wikipedia proponents feel that it harnesses the “wisdom of the masses” in order to optimize the truth of articles. On the other hand, critics could claim it optimizes the truthiness of articles.

I believe the biggest problem with Wikipedia is the encyclopedia format itself because most interesting topics defy consensus. Take my original example of the American War of 1812: was it the result of upstart United States taking advantage of Britain’s preoccupation with Napolean or was it U.S. finally fighting back after years of oppression? The answer is “yes to both.” You might argue that a skillful writer can illustrate both viewpoints in a single article, but that is an over-simplification. Even seemingly objective areas such biology and physics can be fantastically controversial.

Why does Wikipedia need to be like this? Is Wikipedia an anachronism; an eighteenth century idea repacked as a modern day internet phenomenon? What would happen if Wikipedia somehow removed the imperative for consensus, instead embracing and requiring differing viewpoints? It certainly would no longer fit the established pattern of an encyclopedia, but perhaps that pattern is no longer useful.

I’ll conclude with a quote about history and historians from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Book 11 (which I am reading and enjoying right now):

The first fifteen years of the nineteenth century in Europe present an extraordinary movement of millions of people. Men leave their customary pursuits, hasten from one side of Europe to the other, plunder and slaughter one another, triumph and are plunged in despair, and for some years the whole course of life is altered and presents an intensive movement which first increases and then slackens. What was the cause of this movement, by what laws was it governed? asks the mind of man.

The historians, replying to this question, lay before us the sayings and doings of a few dozen men in a building in the city of Paris, calling these sayings and doings “the Revolution”; then they give a detailed biography of Napoleon and of certain people favorable or hostile to him; tell of the influence some of these people had on others, and say: that is why this movement took place and those are its laws.

But the mind of man not only refuses to believe this explanation, but plainly says that this method of explanation is fallacious, because in it a weaker phenomenon is taken as the cause of a stronger. The sum of human wills produced the Revolution and Napoleon, and only the sum of those wills first tolerated and then destroyed them.

“But every time there have been conquests there have been conquerors; every time there has been a revolution in any state there have been great men,” says history. And, indeed, human reason replies: every time conquerors appear there have been wars, but this does not prove that the conquerors caused the wars and that it is possible to find the laws of a war in the personal activity of a single man. Whenever I look at my watch and its hands point to ten, I hear the bells of the neighboring church; but because the bells begin to ring when the hands of the clock reach ten, I have no right to assume that the movement of the bells is caused by the position of the hands of the watch.

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Breaking news! – Earlier I pointed out a trivial example of conflicting editorial views on history within Wikipedia. Recently, someone resolved the conflict by completely deleting the entire sentence:

Smaller scale conflict occurred in North America with the USA finally reacting to years of British assaults on US shipping, but the conflict ended inconclusively.

The poster gave the following reason:

I edited a line about the war of 1812, because it isn’t actually relevant to the Napoleonic Wars.

Some people will disagree with this line of reasoning and so the attempt to resolve the conflict has actually created a new conflict. Luckily there is a mostly reasonable discussion of the problem on the talk page and I suspect we haven’t head the last of this ongoing drama.

Wikipedia’s detractors like to point to this type of conflict as an example of the problems with community driven content, but to me it is a beautiful thing. Here you see a small group of regular people who, in the process of creating a summary of the Napoleonic Wars, are interacting and learning in a deep, personal and permanent way. At the same time they are creating something that is pretty good, and it is useful to many, many other people.

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