Tag Archives: Reference

Journalists Citing Wikipedia: Rarely an Option

Reuters has just published its handbook online. A smart move (declaration of interest: I’ve done some training work for Reuters. I’ve got my old dog-eared copy on a shelf nearby.)

I posted (approvingly, but without comment) a retweet from Nieman pointing out that Reuters generally forbids quoting from Wikipedia:

Online information sources which rely on collaborative, voluntary and often anonymous contributions need to be handled with care. Wikipedia, the online “people’s encyclopedia”, can be a good starting point for research, but it should not be used as an attributable source. Do not quote from it or copy from it. The information it contains has not been validated and can change from second to second as contributors add or remove material. Move on to official websites or other sources that are worthy of attribution. Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries. It is only acceptable to link to an entry on Wikipedia or similar sites when the entry or website itself is the subject of a news story.

This is good policy, but the point could be made more clear. Wikipedia does not encourage the writing of entries that don’t cite existing sources:

Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

In other words, if it’s in Wikipedia it should have been somewhere else first, and anyone using the information should go to that original source to check before citing it.

This is true of any journalistic endeavour,  and so it’s no great issue. (“Who told you that?” “What’s your source for that?” “Where did you hear that?”: all questions a journalists asks of someone who tells them something that’s not their own direct experience.)

People should not be offended by Reuters’ polic; indeed, they should be following it already—as writer, as reader, as consumer of Wikipedia.

Confirming is easy enough to do, by the way: just click on the small number that should be next to the information you’re planning to use:


That will take you to the footnote, highlighted in blue:


Then click on the link, if any, in that footnote which should take you back to the source:


If it doesn’t—either because the link no longer works, or the source is an offline one–then you need to do a bit more digging before you’re ready.

Of course, if no footnote exists, then you should be skeptical, or look elsewhere to confirm the information.

Encarta’s Passing: Harbinger of Redmond Doom?

Microsoft has announced that Encarta, its digital encyclopedia, will be dead by year’s end. First off, hands up who thought it had died long ago?

Secondly, and before we get on to the whole Wikipedia thing, I’d like to make a more general comment about Microsoft: its online stuff is awful, and Encarta is no different. There are already plenty of people musing on why Encarta died, but I’d say one good reason is that it’s hard to access and get your mind around as pretty much every Microsoft online property.

What worries me is that this isn’t a small problem anymore. It seems indicative of Microsoft’s’s online strategy, or lack of it, and seems to suggest they’re having bigger problems than we thought.

First, you visit its webpage. Well you don’t actually. The highest result in Google is the online version, parked at MSN.com: encarta.msn.com. Before we go there, you may notice that lower down the search results, past an MSN dictionary—which may or may not be Encarta—and the Wikipedia entry on Encarta (already updated to include Encarta’s announcement) lies another Microsoft site: Encarta the product. (Interestingly, its immediately followed by articles discussing its demise, giving you a pretty good idea of how little Encarta has been discussed or linked to up until now. That such articles could rise so quickly on Google is a surprise.)

The latter website is for the downloadable software. Interestingly, no mention there that it’s a product that is dead. (By contrast, there’s mention of “web encyclopedias”, which it contrasts itself to:

Editorially approved content you can trust. In contrast to many web encyclopedias, the authors of the 60,000 plus detailed articles in Microsoft Encarta Premium 2008 are experts in their field. Your kids get relevant age-appropriate information from reliable sources.

(Many? How many web encyclopedias are there?)

Maybe it’s a glitch but try clicking on any of the links to buy said software and you get an error from DigitalRiver, the online store:


Another example, for me, of how Microsoft online is a shambles.

Indeed, visit the first Encarta-branded link you see a different kind of logo:




and a page that hums with mediocrity: a slice of Flash that cycles between several nothing teasers about nothing articles, tabs above that, confusingly, have one for encyclopedia—so is online Encarta not just an encyclopedia?—and some more pretty lame teasers “Beware dihydrogen monoxide! Relax, it’s just water. What other scientific pranks have people pulled?” better suited to some magazine website.

Clicking on the encyclopedia tab takes you a page that is a travesty of design and revealing about the state of the problem Microsoft faces:


Two big MSN ads tell you they’re not pushing much ad inventory.The blank middle bit, filled only by the less than heplful instruction “Select a type of article to see a list of categories.” suggests someone there hasn’t done Design 101.

Click on the first link, to Encyclopedia Articles and you’re still hunting: “Select a category to see a list of subcategories.” By then I’m guessing you’ve probably lost interest, both in Encarta and this blog post, so I’ll leave it there. But I suspect that this poor branding, presentation, navigation and lack of non-inhouse ads has as much to do with Encarta’s demise as anything else.

My point: Is this just Microsoft scrambling around to find its way online (still) or is it a symptom of a deeper malaise at Redmond that is going to usher in a slew of announcements like Encarta’s? If so, what is next for the chop?

I’d submit a couple of candidates off the top of my head:  played with Microsoft Office’s Live plugin the other day, that supposedly lets me save and collaborate on documents online. Boy did that one suck! Then there’s FolderShare, which used to be a great product—sharing folders and files online between users and computers—which is now called Windows Live Sync, and which doesn’t seem to work. At all. (I’ve tried it on a few computers, and despite installing the software, you’re still prompted to install it even when it’s running.)

So disappointing. I’d imagined Microsoft eventually embracing and extending online but all I see is a congealed mess of half-products that can’t decide what they’re called, and where they belong. Critical though though I’ve been of Microsoft in the past, I hate to see this.

Clint, Veganism, and Maligning the Net

Great interview in the International Herald Tribune/NYT with Clint Eastwood, but once again, it’s old media slagging off new media and ending up looking the worse for it.

The interviewer, presumably, asks Clint to confirm that he’s a vegan. Turns out he’s not.  Apparently the writer did his research on Wikipedia, because that’s what he cites as a source:

Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is. “I never look at the Internet for just that reason,” he said.

Trouble is, the source is not Wikipedia. As anyone who uses Wikipedia knows, any information on there must be sourced. A glance at the actual Wikipedia page would reveal that the source for this ‘fact’ about Clint is, in fact, a fellow old media source, The Los Angeles Times:

People ask him to autograph rifles, but Eastwood is no Charlton Heston. A vegan, he was distressed to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton boast recently about bagging a bird.

This piece was subsequently run in the San Jose Mercury News, the Providence Journal and PressDisplay.

In fact, you won’t be able to see this on the Wikipedia page anymore because it’s been removed. That’s because some new media moves faster than old media: on December 11, the day the NYT piece was first published, a Wikipedian spotted the reference and prompted a discussion, and the removal of the reference on the grounds that a direct denial from Eastwood trumps an LAT piece. (You can see the discussion here.)

In other words, from what we can judge, the journalist involved researched Clint on Wikipedia, and was ready enough to accept that as a source on which to base his questions. When the fact in question turned out to be wrong, he allowed Clint to make a familiar sideswipe at the Internet, and not further research the origin of the myth.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The LA Times doesn’t cite a source. But there are plenty of them—apparently. Clint is quoted on dozens of sites as saying

“I try to stick to a vegan diet—heavy on fruit, vegetables, tofu, and other soy products.”

Sites like GoVeg.com have been happy to include him in their Animal-Friendly Celebrities (although, to their credit, they seem to have removed him. Compare this page with this cached version.)

What’s perhaps most intriguing is the source of this quote. I’ll admit I can’t find it. But it’s been bouncing around the net for a couple of years; this forum cites it in September 2006. I found a  piece in Glasgow’s Daily Record on May 23, 2006 that also listed Clint as vegetarian, although the web site does not seem to contain a record of it. The oldest reference I can find is in the Miami New Times, on October 13 2005, which lists Clint among a number of (supposed) vegans.

In other words, a myth arose on the net, without any straightforward way of establishing its provenance or authenticity, which was then happily picked up by websites, businesses, and organisations whose purpose it served, then found its way into a mainstream news article, before finally being authoritatively quashed.

So yes, in a way Clint and the NYT reporter are right. The Internet isn’t reliable. But Wikipedia is. Or at least, it’s no less reliable than the sources it cites. Which in this case, happened to be old media itself.

Lesson? As a journalist I guess I might too have fallen into the trap of trusting the LA Times. But it’s a timely reminder that there’s no fact too small or apparently established that it can’t stand to be fact-checked.

Just don’t blame the net if you get it wrong. It’s cheap and it’s old wave.

The veteran power of Clint Eastwood – International Herald Tribune

The Inanities of the Visionary

I have a lot of respect for Doris Lessing but her recent remarks about the Internet reveal an ignorance and lack of understanding that is depressing and unbecoming of such a literary giant. Here’s what she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature:

We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.

Frankly, I’m not sure Ms. Lessing knows what blogging is. And I am also one of those people who are concerned that the Internet is changing our society in ways we haven’t thought through. But it’s certainly not killing reading, learning and writing. In fact the opposite: the Internet is actually offering us so much information, and so much knowledge, the problem now is being able to judge what is important and what is not, and to retain a sense of mystery about the world.

If we can look down from heaven on any point of the globe via Google Earth, if we can look up any fact on Wikipedia, if we can communicate with any person in any country via voice for free via Skype, if we can listen to any radio station on the planet (and watch 100s of different tv channels) or read more or less any newspaper, if we can read tens of thousands of different books for free via Project Gutenberg, not to mention hundreds of thousands of excellent blogs, I can’t really see what is “inane” about the Internet.

Ms. Lessing is concerned that amidst all this online inanity, books will die. Of course books won’t die. Books as books (pbooks) won’t die. They come in a form that has proved perfect for their content. They will also be available as ebooks, too, and in forms we can’t yet imagine or create.

The point is that writing will continue. Online it may be shorter — but not always — and it may be interspersed with other media. But I would say that there are more people reading and writing now than any time in history. As Ms. Lessing herself says, according to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy:

She contrasted her experiences in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa, where people were hungry and clamouring for books even though they might have no food, where schools might not have a single book and a library might be a plank seat under a tree.

In a way the Internet is the solution to this kind of problem; in some ways it’s easier to bring knowledge to people and institutions via the Internet than by bringing them books. Or, failing that, bringing them the single biggest repository of free, community-based knowledge in the world: Wikipedia — printed out, or put on a CD-Rom and given via a refurbished $100 PC. I don’t think that the One Laptop Per Child idea is necessarily the correct way to go about it, but I do believe on the whole the Internet has brought people in the developing world closer to knowledge than any physical library ever has.

I’m sad that Ms. Lessing, who has been considered a social radical and has written some great science fiction, has not seen the Internet for what it is: a great leveller, redistributor and repository of information and knowledge.

( PS I just looked up dorislessing.com and dorislessing.co.uk: the first is up for auction (and sports a picture of a young woman in white with a white laptop in a white chair; definitely not Doris Lessing) and the second redirects to a radio and TV tuning website where you can tune in to dozens of radio and TV stations. Meanwhile anyone online wanting to know about her can find it on Wikipedia. It all seems somehow fitting.)

Nobel prize winner Lessing warns against ‘inane’ internet | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Books

Wikipedia: Important enough to whitewash

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Wikipedia has gone through some interesting times, good and bad, but I think the last couple of weeks has proved just how powerful it is.

Powerful enough for those who feel denigrated by it to have been trying to spin, airbrush and generally rewrite how history — or at least Wikipedia — remembers them.

Take WikiScanner, cooked up by a young student, Virgil Griffith. WikiScanner does something very simple: It searches the Internet addresses of an organization — government, private, company or whatever — and matches them with any anonymous edit of a Wikipedia entry.

This means that while the edits themselves may be anonymous, the organization where the person is based is not. We may not know who did it, in other words, but we’ve got a pretty good idea of whom they work for.

The results have been surprising. Users of WikiScanner have come up with dozens of cases of companies, organizations and government departments apparently changing entries to either delete stuff they may not like, or making the text more palatable.

Some examples of apparent — none of these is confirmed but the Internet addresses match — self-interested alterations that have hit the news in the last few weeks:

* Diebold removes sections critical of the company’s electronic voting machines

* Apple and Microsoft trade negative comments about each other

* Amnesty International removes negative comments about itself, according to the Malta Star

(My own searches threw up no examples at all of institutions in my current home of Indonesia spinning on Wikipedia. Shame on them. What have they been doing with their time? One Indonesian embassy official seems to have spent most of his day editing an entry on rude finger gestures, but that’s about it. Clearly these people are not working hard enough for their country.)

The point about all this: Wikipedia is often derided as irrelevant and unworthy. Clearly, though, it’s important enough for these people, either officially or unofficially, on their own initiative or at the behest of higher-ups, to rewrite stuff to make themselves or their employer look better.

You might conclude from this that Wikipedia is not reliable as a result. I would argue the opposite: These edits have nearly all been undone by alert Wikipedians, usually very quickly.

(Wikipedia automatically stores all previous versions of a page and keeps a record of all the edits, and the Internet address from where they originate.)

The truth is that Wikipedia has come of age. Wikipedia is now important enough for ExxonMobil, The Church of Scientology, the U.S. Defense Department and the Australian government to spend time and effort trying to get their version of events across. If it was so irrelevant or unreliable, why would these people bother?

Of course, coming of age isn’t always a good thing. A recent conference on Wikipedia in Taiwan highlighted how Wikipedia is no longer an anarchic, free-for-all, but has somehow miraculously produced a golden egg.

It is now a bureaucracy, run by the kind of people who like to post “Don’t … ” notices on pantry walls. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. We all hate such people until our sandwich goes missing. Then we turn to them — or turn into them.

WikiScanner reveals that it’s probably good that such people take an interest in Wikipedia, because it’s clear that the site is under threat from people who would censor history and whitewash the truth to suit them.

Thanks to Virgil and the Wikipedians, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

Enough Mainstream Silliness, Please: The Social Web Works

I’m a big fan of mainstream media — course I am, I work for them — but I’m also a big fan of the other stuff. Like Wikipedia. It’s usually the first place I start if I’m trying to familiarize myself with a new subject, even a new one.

Which is why I get uppity when mainstream media disses Wikipedia with the kind of broad-brush strokes it usually accuses the online world of making. Like this one from The Boston Globe, in a story (not a column) about social finance sites:

The wisdom of the crowd may be a fine way to discover the most amusing YouTube video, but Wikipedia has been vilified for inaccuracies, and the online world hardly has a reputation as a trustworthy source.

In one short sentence the writer manages to dismiss

  • YouTube as a mere site for “amusing” videos,
  • the “wisdom of the crowd” as a mere mechanism for finding stuff,
  • Wikipedia as apparently the mere butt of vilifiers, and
  • the online world as, basically, untrustworthy.

Sources? Examples? A measure of balance? Er, none.

Now I like the Globe, and I love the IHT, where I read this, so I’m guessing this might just have been a bit of sloppy editing or last-minute “background” so enamored of editors. But frankly I can find very little vilifying of Wikipedia, at least if one counterbalances the criticism with the praise  — and the sheer numbers: nearly 2 million articles in English, in the top 10 websites. (The best source, by the way, for criticism of Wikipedia is, er, Wikipedia; the piece has 125 external references.)

So, come on, mainstream journalists. The time is past for sniffy, unsubstantiated asides about things like Wikipedia. The social web has already established itself and proved itself. It ain’t perfect, but neither are we.

Sharing the wealth – The Boston Globe

The Wrong Guy Goes to Hollywood

The ‘Wrong Guy’ story just keeps going. The Congo-Brazzaville man who was interviewed on the BBC mistakenly as a computer pundit back in May could have his own movie, according to the BBC:

The incident involving Guy Goma is the basis for a film being planned by Alison Rosenzweig, who produced the 2002 Nicolas Cage film Windtalkers. “If they want to do a movie, I don’t mind talking with them,” Mr Goma, 38, told the Associated Press news agency. .. “He’s a fun, kind of internationally famous person that I think is an interesting source for movie material,” Ms Rosenzweig said. “We’re developing the project, and hopefully we’ll be able to set it up on a major studio.” She added that the amount of money Mr Goma could make would depend on the financing of the project.

Lovely stuff, although I’m not sure the one incident may suffice for a movie. Anyway, he’s big enough to have his own Wikipedia entry, his own web-page, and lots of half-baked news stories that turn out not to be true. No one loves a celeb more than the Brits.

powered by performancing firefox

Boingling Along

Another social annotation tool, this time called Boingle, put together by Greg Martin, who writes:

Boingle is a stripped down social annotation system that lets you annotate within web pages with the result being a simple markup (“Boingles (2)”) that looks as though it belongs in the page, much as a link titled “Comments (4)” looks normal within a blog. It is very understated in nature, and lets the annotation content itself be the star.

Social annotation, in case you’ve not done it, is a method to leave comments (annotations) on web pages so others can see them when they visit. It’s mildly popular, though of course only starts working when a critical mass develops of people using the same tool.

Boingle is a toolbar for Firefox and IE, allowing you to add comments (Boingles) by selecting portions of a webpage and then typing in comments (no need for an account; just enter your name, or anyone else’s).

I agree Boingle is understated, which is good, but not being able to see what the comments are on the actual web-page reduces its effectiveness, I suspect. Clicking on the ‘Boingles (2)’ link will open another browser window, which surfers may feel is one browser window more than they need. The other problem, I suspect is that perhaps the ‘Boingles’ links are too understated, sometimes not really being visible to anyone who isn’t looking hard for them.

I think I’d rather see the Boingles appear either as a pop-up or in the browser sidebar. But there might be sound reasons why that may not work.Anyway, great to see people exploring this avenue again.

List of all the social annotation tools I can find here. Please let me know of more I’ve missed.

technorati tags:

A Directory of Social Annotation Tools

Update July 24 2006: Diigo is now live, combining “Social Bookmarking, Web Highlighter, Sticky-Note & Clipping to make it a powerful tool for online research, collaboration and information discovery”. Looks good; I’d be interested in hearing how people get on with it.

Social annotation, sometimes called web annotation, is back. Put simply, it’s software that allows users to “leave” comments on webpages they visit, so that others visiting the page,  and using the same software, can see their comments. Used well, it’s very useful, as useful as Amazon book reviews, say. Used badly it ends up laden down with offensive and sophomoric graffiti. A few years back (around 1999/2000, if I recall. I’m thinking uTok and ThirdVoice) there were quite a few of these around. Most have gone. Now, with social tagging and blogs, perhaps it’s time for a comeback. (I’m not including any social bookmarking tool here; I guess the distinction is that these tools allow the comments to be read without the surfer leaving the site itself. For ordinary clippings tools go here.)

Here’s the beginnings of a list:

  • WizLite “allows you to highlight text (like on real paper) on any page on the Internet and share it with everybody (or just your friends).” Nicely executed, though development has been sporadic.
  • trailfire marks “web pages that interest you and add your comments. Stitch them together to form a trail. Send trails to your friends, post them in your blog, or publish them on Trailfire.com. Use Trailfire to communicate your own view of the web.” Yes, I’m not quite sure what it means either.
  • Diigo combines “social bookmarking, clippings, in situ annotation, tagging, full-text search of everything, easy sharing and interactions.” Now live.
  • Squidoo lets you join thousands of people making their own “lenses” on their favorite stuff and ideas. It’s fast, fun and free. (And you could even get paid).
  • Jeteye enables users to create, send, view and share any type of online content, add notes and annotations and save it all in user organized Jetpaks™ through an easy drag and drop interface.
  • Chatsum “is a FREE add-on for your web browser that lets you chat with all the other Chatsum users that are looking at the same website as you.” (thanks, pieman)
  • Gabbly  “enables people to instantly connect and collaborate around any content, topic or interest.”
  • Wikalong “is a Firefox Extension that embeds a wiki in the Sidebar of your browser, which corresponds to the current page you are viewing. In its simplest form, a wiki-margin for the internet, but it can be much more.” I like this one because it makes best use of the sidebar. But it’s basic and only works on Firefox.
  • BlogEverywhere “is a simple way for you to log your thoughts and comments on any web page “without leaving it” . It enables you to have a conversation with other readers of that page.” (Thanks, Charles)
  • stickis by activeweave “is a simple and unobtrusive part of your web experience: wherever you are, stickis are there with you, helping you see, compose, and remix all the web, your way.” Still in closed alpha, so I’m not quite sure what that means.
  • Annozilla is another Firefox extension that is “designed to view and create annotations associated with a web page”.
  • Boingle “is a stripped down social annotation system that lets you annotate within web pages with the result being a simple markup (“Boingles (2)”) that looks as though it belongs in the page, much as a link titled “Comments (4)” looks normal within a blog. It is very understated in nature, and lets the annotation content itself be the star.”
  • HyLighter “extends the potential of documents as a medium for the negotiation of meaning. Use HyLighter to make what you understand more transparent and how you understand more effective.” Whatever that means. Website seems to be idle.
  • Plum Why is collecting and sharing, beyond photos and email, so hard? Why can’t I put all my favorite stuff in one place? (still in private beta; it’s not as hard as it was before, guys)

Please do let me know what I’ve left out; I’m sure there’s more. I do get the feeling that this kind of thing is going to make a comeback. But the ones which work will be those that allow either everyone, or groups of users to see each other’s comments on web pages, and to leverage tagging and other new things we’ve gotten used to see comparable pages. And some way of filtering out the silliness would be good.

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