What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

Editing Wikipedia

I’ve been asked this question a few times recently, so thought it worth sharing my answer with everyone that reads this blog:

What’s the best way to approach editing Wikipedia articles about us?

There are a number of reasons why you might want to do this – the most obvious being that there are some factual inaccuracies that you want to correct – though sometimes there are other reasons too.

There have been several high profile incidents where Wikipedia has been edited – by either the individual who is the subject of the article or by an employee of an organisation with a page on the site – with various degrees of success or humiliation. Here’s my guide to getting more of the former and less of the latter.

My instinctive reaction is: don’t do it. Editing Wikipedia is a minefield and getting it right will take up an awful lot of time. Think about another way around it – could you publish a list of corrections on your own website, or on a blog? Perhaps encourage someone else who reads it to make the corrections, but leave Wikipedia itself well alone.

If you are determined to get involved, here’s what to do. Firstly, do not edit anonymously but create an account on the site. This is for the very good reason that your edits will not be anonymous anyway – your IP address will be recorded and if you are using a work computer, people will easily be able to find out where you are.

Instead, give yourself a username that’s understandable, not some random pseudonym. Then, open your personal user page and edit it to explain exactly who you are and who you work for. What you are aiming for is complete transparency – the last thing you want is people thinking that you are being sneaky.

Once that’s all done, it’s time to edit the entry itself. Or, rather, not – because my advice would be not to edit the text of the article itself first of all. Instead, I’d limit my edits to the article’s talk page initially. Explain in the page the inaccuracies, and perhaps link to the web page I mentioned earlier with a list of corrections. Then let the community do its work – some corrections will be made to the page – maybe all of them. What you are doing is giving the Wikipedians the facts, and allowing them to put their own house in order.

If that doesn’t happen, or if there is an urgent correction that needs making, then edit the text itself. Firstly, make the change, ensuring that you clearly link back to sources to back up your edits – and make sure you use the edit summary box to explain what you have done and why. Then, drop by the article’s talk page and again explain who you are, what change you made and why you did it.

Once all that is done, sign up to get email alerts when the page is changed so you can keep on top of what further edits people are making.

If you find that someone just goes in right away and reverts – that is, removes your edits and restores the page to how it looked before you started – do not get tempted into reverting their reversion! These tit-for-tat “edit wars” do nobody any good! Instead, try and engage with the person making the reversion, again through the article’s talk page, or on that user’s own page maybe. Most Wikipedipedians are friendly, conciliatory folk and you should be able to talk them into being more reasonable.

Of course, if that fails, there is always the Wikipedia arbitration process. Good luck with that.

For more on Wikipedia culture, I found Andrew Lih‘s book The Wikipedia Revolution pretty good. Lih is clearly a fan of Wikipedia, so it is hardly an unbiased account, but there is some really useful background in there.

Backup! Backup!

Computing in the cloud is great: you get to keep all your data somewhere online, which means that you – and anyone you authorise – can get at it wherever you are.

But there can be problems. One is of finance – in these somewhat tricky economic timed, companies are burning out, and taking your data with them. There is also, however, technological problems. We all know we should take regular backups of our own stuff, don’t we? And surely those startups with whom we trust are stuff do the same…

Ma.gnolia users must be feeling pretty bummed right now. The social bookmarking service (think Delicious but, er, slightly different). At the moment, their homepage displays a rather bleak message in black text on a plain white background:

So far, my efforts to recover Ma.gnolia’s data store have been unsuccessful. While I’m continuing to work at it, both from the data store and other sources on the web, I don’t want to raise expectations about our prospects. While certainly unanticipated, I do take responsibility and apologize for this widespread loss of data.

Oh dear. All those bookmarks people had been accumulating over the years, with their descriptions and tags…gone. And it doesn’t seem like they are going to be back, either.

For those lucky enough to have backed up their bookmarks from Ma.gnolia, there might be some good news coming out of the open source project. Let’s hope so.

There are a couple of issues that this raises. One is around the efficacy of hosting data in the cloud. If Ma.gnolia weren’t backing up bookmarks, what about some of the webmail providers? Is Google properly safeguarding our documents? Can we trust PBwiki with our collaborative material? What about all the data inside social networks and Ning communities?

I’d think that we probably can, still, but don’t take any chances. Back up everything you have online locally. Most sites let you export content to a file, those that don’t might mean you have to undertake a tedious cop-and-paste exercise. I’ve started with my bookmarks, which are thankfully hosted with Delicious – if you do too, the export tool is here.

The second issue is whether there is much of a future in social bookmarking. Mashable questioned it last year. I disagree and still believe that social bookmarking is an inherently useful tool to have available. Not least because it is a great introduction to the core social web technology for newbies: tagging, sharing, RSS, mobility – it’s all there and is easily understood, especially in terms of its usefulness.

What appears to have happened at Ma.gnolia is an administrative cockup, which has broken the service irreparably. I don’t think it spells the end of social bookmarking as we know it.

Update: Wired notes that Ma.gnolia folk are using Friendfeed to try and repopulate their database!

PollDaddyPress & Automattic reliance

Matt Mullenweg, the irritatingly youthful founder of WordPress, has announced that his company, Automattic, have purchased the internet polling service PollDaddy, and immediately integrated in into WordPress.com and made a plugin available for self-hosted WordPressers.

I took a secret trip to Sligo and put back a few pints with the team and we decided to make things work. They went to bed every night and woke up every morning thinking about polls and surveys, and were iterating at a great pace. By plugging into Automattic’s experience at creating internet-scale services and the distribution of WordPress.com, I knew we could take Polldaddy to an entirely new level in a relatively short amount of time.

It’s certainly interesting that Automattic are acquiring stuff at the moment in what are testing times for any company, let alone relatively young web startups. Especially when the whole WordPress platform is potentially reliant on this company to keep it on the right tracks, and to keep the development moving forward.

WordPress the platform is open source, which means that the code is available to anyone to use, modify and sell on for themselves – as long as they published their version under the same terms. However, much of the organising of the project, and the hosting of the websites, forums, bug trackers etc is done by Automattic, a company whose main motive, one must assume, is profit. Many other open source projects work in similar ways: much of the development of Linux has been done with the help of big companies like IBM and others, for example. But where a platform is so reliant, as I believe WordPress is, on one company to provide direction, does that company have an obligation to the people that use that code?

Now, I doubt very much that the amount of money that PollDaddy will have cost Automattic will have been that big a deal, and I am sure that Matt, Toni and the other Automattic guys would do anything deliberately to jeapordise their company. I’m just thinking hypothetically – do companies involved in open source have to be more risk-averse, because their failure could potentially damage a far wider group of people that just specific clients.

Or for those using open source, is it a case of downloaders beware?