Access to research: sign the petition!

In case you’re in the very small population of people who is reading this and who hasn’t seen the White House petition to require that federally funded research be made publicly accessible, go look at it now and sign before June 19th. The Access2Research site has more context about why a petition, and a catalog of some of the press around the issue.

I could say here why I think open access is important, but instead I will just point you to the Wikimedia blog entry, which I contributed to as well:

Wikimedia Foundation endorses mandates for free access to publicly funded research

Dirty secrets

My dirty secret, as a musician, is that I enjoy listening to recordings more than going to concerts. Not because the quality is better–I’m often as happy to listen to a good student group as the symphony–but because I don’t have to watch the group performing without me.

Derek Sivers asks “what do you hate not doing?”

I hate not performing music. It’s one thing to listen to a recording, to know that the performance already happened. The actual performance is far enough separated from you that you can put the thought of participating aside and concentrate on the sounds.

It’s quite another to watch it in front of me, close enough to just run up onto the stage and join them. And especially hard to be in the audience for beautiful pieces I’m unlikely ever to play (works that need a large orchestra, for example)–knowing that the performers are in the middle of creating something beautiful and that I have to just watch. I hate not being part of it. Meanwhile, hearing someone perform something I can’t–a guitarist, for example, or a men’s choir–has nowhere near the same effect.

It’s nowhere near as compelling to play alone in my room; if it were perhaps I would practice more.

True names and other dangers

The “use real names” debate pops up everywhere. Usually the same boring back-and-forth: real names are/aren’t good for improving civil discourse online, anonymous speech is/isn’t. I rarely see anyone acknowledging that what it implies to use your real name is different for different people. But it’s because of this that real names are not the solution to bad behavior online.

I’m attached to my real name. I use it in most spaces because I don’t think of there being much separation between my online and offline identity; in some places I use “mindspillage” simply because it’s been my online handle for so long I’m attached. In some places I don’t feel the need for a consistent identity at all, leaving anonymous comments to be judged on their content alone. I’m civil there too, though not everyone is. Perhaps I’m more careful about what I say when it’s easy to be connected to the rest.

But some of the worst online behavior I’ve seen, the most threatening and the most hurtful, has been from people who are completely open about using their real names. And it’s had the most power to harm when directed to other people also using their real names. The biggest problem with real names isn’t about what kind of consistent identity you use. It’s about the imbalance of power involved with sharing that information.

The people behaving badly under their real names do so because they can. They lose nothing they care about by doing so. (Or very little, at least.) Attaching their bad behavior to their name doesn’t put them in a position to lose their livelihood or their safety. Maybe not even their reputation: imagine a “John Smith”, single, self-employed, seriously unhinged. John uses his real name everywhere, and takes pride in doing so. (Not afraid of being out in public, he says.) It would take a lot of effort to determine exactly which John he was. And if you did, so what? Maybe you expose him, and the thousands of other unfortunately-named John Smiths cringe when the tale shows up in search results, for fear someone thinks it was them. But our John is proud of being a first-class jerk. You can’t harm his reputation because he doesn’t care about it, which is at least partially because very little of the damage he does attaches to him anyway. (Getting a restraining order only works in the most extreme situations.) John can say whatever he wants.

Meanwhile, if you stand to lose a lot by being threatened–if others want to hurt you or your family, or if you will lose your livelihood if anyone so much as alleges anything horrible about you–then even when everyone else is using their real name, you are still at a disadvantage using yours. What happens when John calls the school where you teach (because you’re easy to track down by name), claiming that you’re a criminal? When John calls your parents and tells them lies about what you’ve been up to? Implies that he might hurt your children if you tell anyone he’s harassing you?

You don’t have to be hiding from an oppressive government to be affected by the imbalance of power when you expose your real identity. An oppressive government (or a mostly reasonable government, when it is being oppressive) does not hide itself either. It doesn’t need to. You are at great risk when you anger it; it is at nearly no risk when it angers you. On a smaller scale, it’s the same with you and John.

A consistent pseudonym, like a real name, is something to lose–you are hurt when its reputation takes a hit; you lose the value of time and effort you invested in it. But using one restores balance–you aren’t starting from such a massive disadvantage that you can’t even afford to join in.

We are the media, and so are you

It’s been a while since I’ve used this thing. But I’ve written in a few other places.

Here is my editorial with Jimmy Wales in the Washington Post after the SOPA blackouts, “We are the media, and so are you”.

This was written after the anti-SOPA blackouts to combat two terrible memes. One, that the “content industry” means only the members of the MPAA and RIAA. And two, that Wikimedia is just another tech company, aligned with the “tech industry” interests, making top-down decisions in isolated boardrooms.

It has almost completely failed at fighting those memes. But its other purpose was to give Wikimedia something positive to say that didn’t sink to simply countering the shots fired at us from the bills’ supporters. And at that I hope it was a success.

Random play

I keep my music player on random play, usually, because it chooses things for me I didn’t even know I wanted. (And sometimes I skip tracks.) I enjoy following a quiet classical piece with electronica, or nerd rock with Eastern European folk. Yes, I may be mostly responsible for the death of the album.

While finding things I didn’t realize I was in the mood for or had forgotten I enjoyed is great, finding an unexpectedly good segue is like hitting the jackpot. Usually this requires they flow into each other musically; sometimes it is thematic similarity also. Here are some I like:

* “Are You Gone?”, Cranes, into “Black-Dove (January)”, Tori Amos
* “The Unanswered Question”, Charles Ives, into “Trust”, The Cure
* “Holding Out For A Hero”, Frou Frou, into “I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From”, Kings of Convenience
* “Milonga Triste”, La Nueva Guardia, into “Army of Me”, Björk
* “Enjoy”, Björk, into “Mimi Pinson”, La Nueva Guardia
* “Army of Me”, Björk, into “Army Dreamers”, Kate Bush

(What? I like Björk.)

Some people enjoy technology because it allows them to find exactly what they would like and keep getting more of the same. I enjoy having it break up my patterns, allowing me to find exactly what I wasn’t looking for but should have been.

What’s so bad about follow spam?

I joined the herd of people signing up for Google+ this past week. I’m not as enamoured of the interface as everyone seems to be. They do seem to have taken more care with privacy and been better about allowing you to remove your data than Facebook; this isn’t really saying much. The main reason I signed up is everyone whose professional life involves knowing a lot about the internet is checking it out now too, which would be most of my social circle.

One thing I do like about Google+ is that it allows one-way relationships: you can follow someone who may choose not to follow you back. (Unlike Facebook, where “friendships” must be mutual. And like Twitter and, except that you can say more than a sentence at a time.) Strangely enough, several people I don’t know have chosen to follow me. I have looked at some of their profiles, curious who they are: some are friends of friends, for example, and some are Wikipedians I might know better by a pseudonym. And some of them appear to be following masses of people indiscriminately, hoping to get some sort of social validation to bolster their marketing efforts when some sucker automatically follows back.

I hate follow spammers, because they take advantage of people like me.

I follow several people on social networking services whom I assume know nothing about me, because I think they have interesting things to say, and I don’t expect any sort of acknowledgement unless I actually say something directly to them. And sometimes not even then. I assume others do not expect any more of me when they follow me. (I get added by many Wikipedians I don’t know very well, and who probably know only a little about me. I can’t keep up with all of them, especially the ones who primarily write in languages I can’t read. I try to respond to people who contact me directly and hope no one is too offended that I’m not very attentive.)

Several people complained that the main annoyance of follow spam was getting the email notification of a new follower. But those don’t bother me–it’s easy enough to ignore or delete them. It is the social validation aspect that makes me angry. If everyone were genuine, I’d probably put everyone who followed me into a circle of some kind–sorting based on how interested I was in their posts, so that people I am not as interested in are put in the circle I read least often. I try to be pretty approachable and at least look at the streams of strangers who follow me, to see who they are and why they’re interested. My default assumption is that people who are interested in what I’m saying are probably people I would be happy to know. In places where the only way for people to be able to see and/or comment on your posts is to make the relationship mutual, I am inclined to follow almost everyone back.

I am open to new experiences. I seek out serendipity. And spammers want to take advantage of people like me.

Auto-following everyone back–if only to place total strangers into a “figure out who this is later” circle–has very little cost. But sorting the spammers from the genuinely interested strangers is much more costly. I’d like to give friendly strangers an acknowledgement that I saw them and am happy to have them join in my public conversations. I would like to kill the spammers with fire, or at least refuse to give them the pageviews and social validation they seek.

The main difficulty of the world where we’re overloaded with information is in filtering good from worthless, of allocating your attention to the things you want to see. And one major way you figure out what’s worth your attention is to see what others you trust and respect are paying their attention to. But the spammers provide no value to me or my social circle–they’re trying to divert our attention from the things we want to see, instead bringing it to things we wouldn’t go near unless we were fooled into it. One is a nuisance. Thousands are a problem.

(Prompted by Evan Prodromou‘s posts on the topic.)

Women and Wikipedia

This is probably the most popular thing I’ve written all year. Prompted by the question a NYT reporter asked, “do you agree that Wikipedia’s culture is unfriendly to women?” The article is here and quotes one sentence, but I had several thoughts about this topic that the article did not reflect (and in fact most writing on the topic does not reflect) that I believe the discussion is incomplete without.


I don’t agree that Wikipedia has a culture that is unfriendly to women–if I did I wouldn’t have stuck around for long. So why aren’t more women on Wikipedia?

It’s a little odd, asking this question of the women who are currently participating; in some sense we are exactly the wrong people to ask. I remember joining in 2004 and feeling at home, that these were people a lot like me, and why hadn’t I known of it before? When I’m online I don’t think about my gender very much. I think of myself as a geek, a freedom of information advocate, a researcher, but I only think of “woman” as part of my identity when something reminds me of it; say, someone addresses me with the wrong pronoun. And then I remember: “oh yeah, I’m one of those too.”

Most of the women I know personally on the projects are a little bit unusual–at least a little bit geeky (maybe a lot), probably somewhat introverted, would rather participate in a mostly goal-directed activity than a mostly social one. (This is also true of most of the men.)

I’m not a sociologist, so I’m hesitant to make a lot of generalizations. But I’d say there is definitely a culture on Wikipedia that has its own quirks, and not everyone finds it welcoming or appealing. It’s very skeptical, and criticism and correction is
often valued more than pure social interaction. (I have to remind myself not to fall into the same patterns–that I should make an effort to let people know when I see good things happening, rather than only when I notice something going wrong.) Many people are very young and this is the first place they’ve ever had any kind of power or authority, where people have taken them seriously. Some still don’t think that interacting on Wikipedia is very serious, that it has any real effect on people. I suspect that some of the least welcoming interactions come from people who are still very new to Wikipedia themselves, who are learning the culture by trying to copy what they see others do (and especially others who seem to have a lot of experience or social capital) without knowing the reasons behind it or when it doesn’t apply. It’s a little bit argumentative–or at least, you won’t go very long without encountering something that is going to spark dispute, and it’s expected that sometimes this will happen; you have to either be able to handle conflict without taking it personally, or be able to let it go and find something else to work on. It requires a little bit of self-confidence, to be able to handle criticism well, or to contradict a total stranger when you don’t agree.

It also requires at least a bit of boldness, to think that you might have something to contribute to the encyclopedia! Maybe even more so now than years ago–before, there was still enough low-hanging fruit that a casual visitor would easily stumble across something which was obviously poorly-written or incomplete and think “I could do better than that”. It’s a lot harder now to find areas to contribute where it’s obvious your work will be useful. (Though any experienced Wikipedian can rattle off long lists.)

It seems almost disingenuous to say that the culture is not biased against women, but rather biased toward certain traits and against others–and that generally men are more likely to be in the group whose characteristics are more accepted. But it makes me genuinely angry when I read “women don’t like X because they’re Y”–am I less real because I am a woman who does like X and isn’t Y? It’s making the same mistake in reverse, just choosing a different group to dismiss. I don’t think it’s about gender in particular, and I hate to focus on gender specifically; it discounts the experience of the women involved and it makes things uncomfortable for the men involved. I think the disproportionate lack of women in the community isn’t about gender so much as it is about a culture that rewards certain traits and discourages others. And we’re not getting people who don’t have those other traits, male or female; more of the people who do fit the current culture are male. But the focus should be on becoming more open and diverse in general–becoming more inclusive to everyone, which will naturally bring in more women.

(I don’t think of the “Wikipedia community” as a monolith–it’s more like hundreds of different communities some of which overlap with each other just enough. I cringe whenever I hear “Wikipedia doesn’t think this is notable” or “Wikipedia decided to change” for a decision that was probably made by four or five people which no one else even knew about; unless it’s really one of the rare occasions where some big decision is made and there is a huge effort to inform everyone, most everything is only seen by a very small group of people.)

I think there need to be many different ways to be a part of Wikipedia–if you’re the kind of person who reads the manual first and wants minimal interaction, there should be a place for you; if you want someone to talk you through your first interactions and spend time getting to know people personally before you contribute, there should be a place for you too.

One problem with Wikipedia’s culture, like a lot of subcultures, is that it is self-reinforcing. For some groups that’s less of a problem–a purely social group can split into a lot of subgroups. For something like Wikipedia, where the goal is to reflect all of the world’s knowledge, that is a problem. Occasionally you have the experience of reading something where it’s clear that the writer doesn’t know what they don’t know; for example, they have never experienced poverty, never left the USA, never genuinely tried to consider why others hold a different political position, it’s written from a perspective that is too limited for the subject it’s trying to cover. The more insular and homogeneous Wikipedia’s community is, the more danger we have of being that limited as well, the less useful we are to everyone. The world’s knowledge isn’t only the knowledge of a single demographic group; some subject areas and some important perspectives are going to be undercovered if we rely only on what a single group is most knowledgeable about. There’s enough media in the world that represents only a very limited perspective on the world, what is and is not important–our mission is to do more than that. Being more inclusive means having access to the knowledge and skills of people whose input is not already widely available, and to share it with people who weren’t aware of it before. And we, unlike many sources using a more traditional model, do have the capability to do that; we’re not fulfilling our mission if we don’t.

The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally–trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change. How do you become more inclusive without breaking the qualities that make the project happen to begin with? (Any easy, obvious answer to this question is probably wrong.) That Wikipedia works at all is an improbable thing; that it works, for the most part, well, nearly miraculous. Wikipedia’s culture doesn’t have to be hostile or unfriendly to a group for it to be underrepresented–it merely has to be not one of the most attractive options.

On having a blog again

I am a little ambivalent about having a blog. I had one when it was still cool (I think), and gave it up, about 6 years ago. I’m not very good at being timely, and I really, really like having revision history easily available–Wikipedia has spoiled me. So I have a wiki I’ve been using for the writings and media I’ve managed to collect that I’m not too embarrassed to put on the web. I love the timelessness of wikis, and anything serious will get posted there so history is visible. But it’s nice to see something that indicates when the author was present, too. And with most of the people I communicate with using feedreaders and update monitors–or at least checking updates on social media sites–it makes it possible for me to write sporadically, not to feel pressured to dash off something miserable just to let everyone know I’m still here.

Now I want everything to have a feed… so it seems I should publish my own stuff as I want others to publish. And it seems a little bit ridiculous to be an open content advocate and keep most of my own stuff hidden away on my hard drive. (Yes, as the footer says, everything I post is licensed under CC-BY-SA, unless noted otherwise. If that doesn’t work for you, ask.)

Of course, I intend to cheat a bit and repost some things from my archives that I might have posted elsewhere. But you probably haven’t seen them. And anyway, if you’re expecting up-to-the-minute journalism, you’re probably in the wrong place…

First Post

It’s so easy to keep delaying when you don’t know how to start. I could think of the perfect thing to write about what I want to say, why I’m giving in to the desire to blog even though I’m ambivalent about the format, who I am and why you might be interested in my ramblings. But I won’t. I have a few half-written drafts of such posts, from months ago–and they’re not posted yet. So I give up on the idea of the perfect introduction. I’m just going to make a first post.