8th London Wikipedia Meetup

We went for a sunday lunch pub meet up with some wikipedia enthusiasts last Sunday. It took us a while to get this organised (and I even ended up doing a bit of the organising) but eventually the turn out was pretty good.

In the pub we had a few others like me, but actually most were wikipedia sysops and some were even more “powerful” within the chaotic organisation of wikipedia. I’m an enthusiastic wikipedia contributor, or at least I’m enthusiastic about what wikipedia represents. I am fascinated by wiki technology, and the processes that it facilitates within wikipedia (the most extreme example of a wiki).  I would say I have a deep understanding of this, but actually as far contributing goes, I only dip in and edit articles briefly when I spot somewhere I can make a quick improvement.

I met James F. who is on the wikipedia arbitration committee, and Theresa knott who used to be, and WJBscribe who is current chair of the mediation committee. What this basically means is, these people dedicate a lot of time and energy into keeping wikipedia going. These are the people who essentially have the “final say” with a calming voice of reason, when disputes turn nasty. I have a lot of admiration for them, but I wouldn’t want to take on the task myself.

What do I mean by “disputes”? Wikipedia encourages good will among contributors, as it opens up every article to public editing. Anyone can edit anything, and provided people act in good faith, that might be the end of the matter; the encyclopaedia just gets built… bit-by-bit, collaboratively. Remarkably this actually works a lot of the time. Unfortunately this is not always a harmonious collaboration. You may have to engage in a discussion to persuade others not to revert your edit. Where there is discussion, there may be debate, which leads to arguments, which lead to furious rows. Still, the people involved in such a row are allowed to edit the articles. To prevent the disputes raging out of control across the community, there are hierarchies and layers of permissions, and processes for “mediation” and ultimately “arbitration”. The people on the mediation and arbitration committee must regularly deal with people who will argue their cases politely (otherwise they would just be blocked), but who are simmering with anger and vitriol.

Seth Finkelstein’s critical description of wikipedia as an “elaborate hierarchical structure which is infested with cliques and factional conflicts” isn’t so inaccurate, but what does he expect? It’s an open community of volunteer editors in which the voices of sanity and calm need to somehow triumph when debates erupt. Perhaps he could suggest a better way of organising it (Instead he seems to be deeply concerned about the state of Jimmy Wales’ ex-girlfriend’s biography article). The mediation and arbitration committee have a kind of a position of power at the top of some hierarchy, but it looks like hard emotionally draining work. Clearly they are an essential part of what allows wikipedia to keep running smoothly. I am grateful that some people have the energy to do it.

Anyway… Those guys obviously enjoyed the opportunity to meet up face-to-face, chatting enthusiastically about organisational voting processes, and other such topics which went way over my head. The rest of us had some more down-to-earth chit-chat about general topics of interests. I briefly showed people some OpenStreetMap stuff before laptop battery died. This was all good fun. Hopefully we can arrange another London meet-up pretty soon.

Drive-by Contributions – The typo that never got fixed

I spotted a minor typing error in the Apache JMeter user manual. Most people wouldn’t worry too much about this, but I thought “This is a nice open project. I’d like to help out by fixing this typo”. I had thought that this might involve finding a file in a CVS repo and then submitting a patch, in which case… yeah maybe I won’t bother. The barrier is way too high. Too much hassle.

But to my delight I found that the manual was replicated (through some snazzy automated process no doubt) in a wiki. A simple search for the mispelling revealed it

“Great! Wikis are easy and openly editable! I’ll have this typo fixed in a jiffy”. Unfortunately not. Since web spammers moved in on the wiki scene its become increasingly difficult to keep wikis openly editable. It’s not impossible, but it involves deployment of a lot of anti-spam filters and careful stewardship. Most wiki administrators dont bother with that. Instead they raise the barrier by requiring registration and login to edit. This is very sad really. Due to spamming scumbags, these sites become less easy and accessible.

This typo fix is a classic example of the kind of “drive-by contribution” which you will miss out on if you require registration. For the vast majority of typing pedants, you’ve raised the barrier too high. There’s no way a normal person would bother to go through a registration process just to fix a typing error.

But I’m no normal person. I’m a wiki enthusiast. I’ve registered on hundreds of wikis just to change something minor. “If I don’t fix this typo nobody will”. So I head over the registration page and fill in the details, but what’s this? There’s a field which says “ASF = ?”. I dont know what it means, but I can feel the barrier raising. Is this typo really worth the hassle? I enter “what?” and submit.

The message “Incorrect expansion of acronym ASF” comes back. OK… so as I had actually suspected, this field is actually a kind of primitive captcha. A little puzzle which makes it more difficult for spammers to automatically register themselves on the wiki. It’s the next irritating line of defense, necessitated by particularly sneaky new breed of spammers who automate the registration process and keep coming back and spamming with new users every time they are blocked. In this case I am supposed to be filling in what ASF stands for. An automated spammer would struggle with this, but a human… well actually in this case a human would struggle with it too, so I think whoever set up this captcha maybe didn’t quite get the idea of it.

The barrier has raised higher. Not only do I need to register on the wiki, but I now need to know what ASF stands for (not to mention decoding the fact that this is what the field means) I’m thinking “This is getting silly. The typo is definately not worth it.”

“…ooh but what does ASF stand for? I’m actually quite curious now. Is this some basic knowledge that any human should have?”. I ponder it breifly but nothing comes to mind. In fact it ocurrs to me that there surely must be several different things that ASF stands for. “Which definition is it expecting? Probably the most widely known and accepted use of ASF, which according to google is… ‘Advanced Systems Format’. Never heard of it. Fine. Whatever. Paste it in…”

“Incorrect expansion of acronym ASF”

“&#*$*£&+ Fine! You know what! Screw your manual. You can keep your typo and I hope you choke on it!”


[This was originally a top level harrywood.co.uk website section, written approximately 2007. Moved to the blog archive]

Wikis are a great thing. Maybe I am not the first person you’ve heard raving about them, so I’ll try not to harp on about them in general terms, but for those who don’t know…

What is a wiki?

A wiki is a website where the text is freely editable by everyone on the internet. Through a process of community contributions the content keeps getting bigger and better. The editing system is simplified so that writing text, and linking between pages, requires no technical skill at all (a kind of CMS)


The prime example is wikipedia.org, a free online encyclopedia. This site is so popular that unfortunately it tends to slow down to a crawl when america wakes up in the afternoon. But go there in the morning look up the definition of some obscure word, or a random historical event. You will be impressed. Look at the ‘recent changes‘ and you can see the wiki is being edited by hundreds of people simultaneously (all these changes have taken place in the last minute or so!).

Here is a list of my contibutions to wikipedia.

A wiki is an ideal way to arrive at a community consensus on definitions of things, and so an encyclopedia site is the ideal application of wiki technology, and wikipedia is the daddy of all encyclopedias, but there are many other wikis around the web. Mostly they are trying to define things on a particular subject, and not doing a very good job of keeping up with the superior wikipedia definitions, but some of them attempt to build up different non-encyclopedic styles of information.


As a keen kayaker, I soon stumbled upon “kayak wiki”

Compared with wikipedia this gets extremely low traffic. Myself and Michael Daly (the guy hosting it) are pretty much the only people editing it at the moment. I think its a project with great potential, especially the “kayaking places” section, which I instigated. This could evolve into a giant free online kayaking guidebook. Building any kind of online community is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’/’critical mass’ type problem, but some day soon kayakwiki will take off! [Update: Some time since 2007 Kayakwiki went completely offline. I think it got sp@mmed to oblivion]

WikiTravel WikiVoyage.org

If you like travelling, or if you just want to share your knowledge of a local area WikiVoyage.org is the wiki for you. It also has language phrasebooks. Like wikipedia, it seems to be very big and professional, with clearly defined goals, but unlike wikipedia you’ll quickly find areas where there’s scope for you to leave your mark, i.e. lots more travel guide information still to be added. There’s also some very interesting ideas in the map-making subproject. Here’s my contributions to WikiVoyage.org

[Update: Previously I linked “WikiTravel”. This still exists but the community moved to “WikiVoyage” under wikimedia’s wing (better)]


OpenStreetMap is a project which I understand the value of, due to my involvement in wikivoyage and wikipedia. These days publishing a map on a website is easy. You use google maps (or possibly the new Ordnance Survey offerings) but once you go beyond the flexibilities offered by the google API, or step outside the realm of straightforward web map display, you hit a very nasty issue of copyright. All of google’s maps are licenced from mapping agencies (such as Ordnance Survey in the UK). The underlying information is all heavily protected by copyright, and there is no easy way around this.

OpenStreetMap is project to provide open content maps. The only way to provide them, is build them from scratch. Without using any existing copyrighted maps, people like me are going out and surveying the streets using GPS receivers. It’s a brute force solution to the copyright problem, which will seem ridiculous until you follow through the reasoning.

Some enthusiasm for the project is fed by the wiki community, who aim to conquer these final frontiers of free and open information, but the project is wiki related for another reason, in that the map editing process of the project is itself modelled on wiki principles. Everyone can get involved in contributing to the map, and correcting each other’s edits.

A third wiki aspect to this project (and actually this has been my main area of contribution) is the OpenStreetMap wiki. A conventional MediaWiki installation used for describing the project, documenting the software, and coordinating mapping activity.

Wiki sp@m and chongqed.org

Everyone knows what email sp@m is. Well wiki sp@m is worse. The community carefully builds up some informative articles, and then along comes a wiki sp@mmer, and dumps a load of advertising links on the page, often completely destroying the text that was there before. It’s not permanent damage, because any change can be reverted, but it’s pretty annoying, and slightly depressing, that such inconsiderate people exist in the world. [Update: Originally I linked chongqed.org here, since they were finding interesting ways of fighting this menace. Sadly they are no more]

Wiki Obsession

As you can see I’ve been on a journey across several wiki projects, but actually you’ll find me getting involved in wiki communities all over the internet. I’ve become a little bit wiki obsessed. I think they appeal to my psychology because I get a buzz from collaboration and I am perhaps more altruistic than avarage. I am willing to chip in a little effort in the name of building something great. I’m also quite pedantic/perfectionistic when it comes to text (documents, websites etc) I sometimes find myself editing technical documents I’m working with, even when I know I can’t save my changes. If only all information was as freely editable as a wiki!