The academic, the wikipedian, the vandal [Full version, updated 05.11.2012]

The French translation of this essay is available on OWNI (part 1 and part 2), as installments of my column Addicted To Bad Ideas.

With the new academic year kicking in, my colleagues and I have decided to add a little wiki twist to a couple of courses we teach at Telecom ParisTech. I started a Wikispace for my digital culture class, and with Isabelle Garron and Valérie Beaudouin we’ve made compulsory for first year students to try and edit and discuss at least one Wikipedia page, as part of their initiation to online writing.

Sure, Wikipedia has been used as teaching tool in academia for some years now, to say nothing about its increasing popularity as a research topic. But the main rationale for using it in the classroom is that it has become the one-stop-shop for bibliographical research and fact-checking.

Challenging the Academic Mindframe

Think about your own online information habits. What do you do when you don’t know the first thing about a given topic? You probably google it, and the first occurrence is most likely a page from Jimbo Wales’s brainchild. You do it, we do it, our students do it. So we have to incorporate Wikipedia in our academic activity, not because it’s a cool gadget, but because otherwise it will create a dangerous blind spot.

[Don’t panic… Ok, panic]

And yet, admitting to this without panicking is not simple. At least here in continental Europe, ill informed judgments about the allegedly poor quality of Wikipedia articles are still commonplace in higher education. Some – like the French high-school teacher Loys Bonod, who had his 15 minutes of fame earlier this year – go as far as to add false and misleading information to Wikipedia, just to demonstrate to their students that it… contains false and misleading information.

Such paradoxical reactions are a case in point. Wikipedia is just as accurate and insightful as its contributions. Hence, the need to encourage its users to relinquish their passive stance and participate, by writing about and discussing relevant topics. Of course, one might say, when it comes to Wikipedia the Internet iron law of 90–9–1 participation applies: for 90 simple readers of any article, there will be only 9 who will make the effort to click on the “modify” tab to actually write something in it, and maybe just 1 motivated enough to click on the “discussion” tab and start a dialogue with other wikipedians.

Social scientists can come up with many explanations for this situation. The claims about the dawn of online participatory culture might have been largely exaggerated. Or maybe the encyclopaedic form tends to recreate cultural dynamics that are more coherent with an “author vs. reader” dichotomy than with many-to-many communication. Or maybe Wikipedia editors tend to intimidate other users in an effort to increase their own social status by implementing specific barriers to entry.

Try starting a new article. In all probability, its relevance will be challenged by some editor. Try starting the biography of a living public figure. Chances are that a discussion will ensue, focussing not on the public figure in question, but on the private qualities of the biographer. Is the author just an IP-based anonymous, or a legit logged-in user with a recognized contribution track record?


Online censorship in Berluscoland: even Wikipedia goes on strike!

You can tell that in a nation the cultural and political situation has reached a height of obscurantism when even encyclopedias go on strike. That’s right, encyclopedias… the pure product of Enlightenment, over the centuries the reference for theorists of modern democratic thought, go on strike in that xenophobic kleptocracy that goes under the name of Italian Republic. This is the press release just published on the Italian Wikipedia. Be scared. Be very scared.

Dear reader,
at this time, the Italian language Wikipedia may be no longer able to continue providing the service that over the years was useful to you, and that you expected to have right now. As things stand, the page you want still exists and is only hidden, but the risk is that soon we will be forced to actually delete it.

The Bill – Rules on Wiretapping etc., p. 24, letter a) states that:

«For the Internet sites, including newspapers and periodicals delivered by telematic way, the statements or corrections are published, with the same graphic characteristics, the same access methodology to the site and the same visibility of the news which they refer.»


Introducing Proveit, a new free open-source referencing tool for Wikipedia

Just a quick post to announce that Kurt Luther and his social computing crew at Georgia Tech have released Proveit, an amazing little open-source tool that allows you to find, edit, add, and cite references in Wikipedia articles! Proveit is designed specifically for Wikipedians, so all you need is a Wikipedia account. You install it once, and each time you log in – from any computer – there it is. Better than Zotero, from this point of view 😉 Plus, it works with virtually any browser, from Firefox to Chrome, from Safari to Opera. It is even said to work with Explorer – although admittedly this hardly is a plus.

Anyway, that’s how it looks on screen, and if you wanna try the live demo, click here. If you are an OSS developer, there’s a Google Code project at And if you just want to send Kurt Luther and his team a little feedback, notes of appreciation, or sheer flattery – they are all welcome at this email address.


Scratch the surface of any vandal and you find a “regular” Wikipedia user

On August 13, 2010, a database of the most reverted English Wikipedia pages has been released by Dmitry Chichkov on the Wiki-research mailing list. “Reverts ratio” (i.e. the ratio of invalidated changes to a certain article / the total number of revisions) is considered as a reliable indicator of vandalism in Wikipedia. (In case you wanted a piece of the action, here is the link to the list of the most reverted pages and here is the python script used to calculate it). A preliminary analysis performed by one of the administrators, Utkarshraj Atmaram, provides us with a good insight as to who vandals are.

Source: Utkarshraj Atmaram, / blog

Of course, the target pages fall in some predictable categories, like sex (16%), excrements (7%), and insults (7%). (more…)

Creative Commons or Wikipedia? Who to support?

(This is just my opinion. But in case you had to face a similar decision this might help…)

It’s the end of the year – it’s time to make a donation to one of the many worthy causes this big network called the Internet is full of. I don’t want to enter into details as to my financial situation – suffice to say a choice had to be made.  And the choice was between  Wikimedia Foundation and Creative Commons. I just want to say that many factors were weighed in order to make this decision.

Creative Commons:

* is the license that already covers the entirety of the contents of this blog;

* is the best possible compromise between gung-ho copyright protection and no-copyright at all (a solution that I still found fancy, but not implementable in the present situation);

* messes up with the law through uncontrolled license proliferation and sometimes downright misuse;

* gives away free t-shirts to donors ;)!


* produces the de facto go-to reference for every first search on the web;

* is a philosophy I enforce through the creation of collaborative wikis in my everyday research activity;

* has MASSIVELY pissed me off this year with the Wikipedia art controversy in February, and the MEGA FAIL over the deletion of the page of Brazilian activist Daniel Padua in November;

* is recreating (through a complex “caste system” of gold-star editors, administrators, experts, etc. ) the same academic hierarchies it was supposed to stand up to.

So if you scroll down this page, you will see where my money went: to Creative Commons – which gave me in exchange a cheesy green badge for “Premium” users. This titillates my narcissism and also voices my dissent as to the directions Wikipedia has taken in the last 12 months.


A crazy idea everybody's having: using Wikipedia for health information
Laurent, M., & Vickers, T. (2009). Seeking Health Information Online: Does Wikipedia Matter? Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 16 (4), 471-479 DOI: 10.1197/jamia.M3059

Back in the day, patients used to show up at doctors’ practices with a set of symptoms. Since the advent of the Internet, though, they show up with a set of symptoms and a diagnosis of their own design. Now, this diagnosis is often concocted using whatever health information they run into while googling their scared asses around the web after the appearance of that skin rush or of that nasty lump. Traditionally, health professionals have expressed their disapproval towards these web-savvy patients who challenge medical diagnosis, multiply clinically-inappropriate requests [1], disrupt physician-patients relationship [2] and ultimately create a widespread climate of “cybercondria” [3].

A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association deals with this situation in a different way.  The basic assumption here is that people do use Wikipedia to find relevant medical information, and that doctors should simply deal with it by contributing to the online encyclopedia. (more…)

The end of Wikipedia as we know it

“Wiki, c’est fini?” one would ask (if one was a cheesy French singer from the 1960s). More seriously, is the dream of an open access encyclopedia over? According to a recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education the wiki model has “run out of steam“. Don’t worry, the article is not a trite invective insisting that Wikipedia is not reliable because the author of the article on Platonism is also the author of the one on Desperate Housewives. The message here is mainly that the participatory knowledge base  model turns out to be a utopian dream (at best). As of today, Wikipedia is mainly just another social network service (with its profiles, friend counts and online grooming rituals) – and not a very performing one, either.

But this is not the worst part. I’m more concerned with Wikipedia losing its liberal street cred and becoming yet another ivory-towering knowledge institution, with its coercing ontologies and its bigbrotheresque rules. If, in the current intellectual debate over scientific authority, we’re actually fighting the academic equivalent of Star Wars, last thing we need here is to discover that the rebel HQ Coruscant has been replaced by the Death Star.  

Wikipedia: the next inevitable step?

Wikipedia's next logo?