PR people in the EU: obey the bright-line rule, or suffer legal consequences.

I’d heard of the German ruling, but hadn’t realised it meant that editing with a commercial COI, violating the bright-line rule, could be a legal hazard in the EU, violating the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. In Germany your competitors may be able to sue you for it, and in Britain you could be prosecuted. That’s as well as the media hanging you and your client out to dry.

(The Signpost article claims with no justification that the ruling “complicates” the issue of COI editing, rather than making it much simpler, i.e. damn well listen to us and don’t do it. Some PR people may not like it, but that’s rather a different thing.)

PR industry: “Our bad actions are Wikipedia’s fault.”

Fig. 1: Your client’s reputation when you get busted.

Yet another PR agency is blatantly busted doing the thing we patiently warn them against over and over, with the consequences we warn them of over and over.

The apparently-unanimous industry response, per PR Week: “It’s all Wikipedia’s fault, they should make it easier for us to spin.”

PRCA in particular appear to have turned their opinion 180° since June, when they heartily endorsed the CIPR/WMUK guidelines.

Guys, this really doesn’t help your case.

(CIPR have strongly dissented. PR Week didn’t get around to asking them.)

“it does get to the heart of the accuracy and lack of control of social media” – yeah, it’s accurate and you don’t control it. — Denny de la Haye

Update: Followup from PR Week. They’re also doing a print piece.

Please do not email me an infographic to run in this blog.

Have you ever wondered how some infographics seem to show up across the blogosphere all at once? It’s because the PR people who make these things actively promote them to bloggers.

I fully concur with Tom Morris’s excellent post on the matter, Infographics are porn without the happy ending. I’ll just steal the good bit, explaining why these things are actually seriously problematic, and why you’d have to be a bit of a cock to send one to anyone to do with an organisation like Wikimedia:

If you make an infographic, you are basically saying fuck you to blind people, fuck you to the Googlebot and often fuck you to people with colour-blindness. And you are definitely saying fuck you to people on slow connections. If you are paying £4 a megabyte to get data in Paris (yeah, I hate you too, Orange), putting an infographic where text could do the job isn’t just a giant fuck you but a waste of actual money. And by the time you notice, you can’t complain. If you are out in India and your only connection to the WWW is a phone we Westerners called shitty and threw away about three years ago, the infographic is completely inaccessible to you.

If I run a graphic here, it’ll be either because it’s pure decoration, because I think it’s important to getting the point across or because the image is the point. It will not be because five lines of text is best expressed in 200 obfuscated kilobytes.

A piece on corporate representatives and Wikipedia for iABC’s CW Bulletin.

I wrote this for CW Bulletin, a magazine for PR people whose September 2012 issue has several articles on Wikipedia. Minor gratuitous changes from the original text, but nothing actually wrong. I tire somewhat of liaison with PR, but it’s arguably worth doing.

Internet Brands sues people for forking under CC by-sa.

Wikitravel was started in 2003, as a Wikipedia-inspired collaborative travel guide, under the Creative Commons attribution-sharealike licence (CC by-sa). The founders sold it to Internet Brands in 2006, who promptly plastered it in ads. The German and Italian versions forked, forming Wikivoyage. The English version held on until 2012, but finally, when the technical neglect got too much, asked if they could bring the content to a similar project hosted by Wikimedia. Wikivoyage asked to join too. After the requisite bureaucracy, the board approved the project.

Along the way, Internet Brands did their best to derail the proposal, which is stupid and annoying but not actually intolerable — until they went as far as lawsuit threats against several Wikitravel contributors for encouraging a fork, and then actually brought a suit against unpaid volunteer contributors James Heilman and Ryan Holliday — for using the word “Wikitravel” in the phrase “Wikitravel community” in promoting the fork. (And various other spurious complaints. Read the suit, it’s gibbering.)

(Internet Brands has a track record of scorched-earth litigation against perceived competitors. Google “Internet Brands” “vBulletin” “xenForo” and wince.)

Apart from being an excellent way to render both their own brand and that of Wikitravel utterly toxic, and hopefully collect a mob of geeks with pitchforks and torches (it’s just gone Friday as I write this, after all), this also prompted Wikimedia to act. This Wikimedia legal blog post buries the lead somewhat, but what WMF is doing is asking for a declaratory judgement that you can in fact fork free content, given that’s pretty much essential to what we do. Read the PDF, it’s a cracking good tale in the genre “legal brief readable by humans.”

Jani Patokallio posts a useful diagram of how this is going to play out:

(Forked and edited from Gyrovague under CC by-sa 3.0 without even asking. SUE ME!)

PROTIP: if you rely on unpaid volunteers to run your website, don’t sue them. — Tom Morris

Update: A Slashdotting is about 6000 hits these days, if you were wondering. Hacker News netting 3300 hits in two hours was a slightly more noticeable strain until I correctly tweaked WP Super Cache. Techdirt: 17 hits total.

Update 2: Spammy oblivion. It turns out 48 dedicated volunteer admins can’t be replaced by one incompetent employee.

Deprecating Creative Commons -NC may not be a good idea.

There are serious calls to remove the -NC and -ND license options from Creative Commons 4.0. The reasons are solid in their domain (software, science and education) and well thought out, but I suspect they’re still badly wrong and will hinder the idea of sharing culture outside that domain. Culture is not (quite) software.

I’m not a fan of -NC and I do think the world would be better off without it in the long run, but you can’t just declare it so in the short run. My thesis is that there is a strong demand for an -NC option, by-nc-sa accurately describes how Internet culture actually works and that without -NC, people will share significantly less in general than they would with it. Either the -NC licenses will linger without maintenance, or stuff that would have been released -NC will just be left all rights reserved.

I’ve had occasion to explain to people how proper free licenses work and why Wikipedia uses them. You can reliably explode their heads by explaining just what “free content” means. For them, by-nc-nd is radical openness. There’s a lot of room out in the big world to spread the very notion of shareability and letting go of control.

For an encyclopedia, and education in general, you actually want to allow all the stuff -NC forbids. For other fields, you may actually not. People also have a strong resistance to allowing someone else to make money from their work when they don’t. (For whatever reason.)

Quite a lot of photographers happily -NC their images but want to be able to sell them. I submit that having their images -NC is better for the world than having them all rights reserved. (That being so very concerned about £5 a year from Getty Images is frankly delusional when you’ve spent thousands of quid and hundreds of hours getting there doesn’t change this.)

Bloggers don’t necessarily want to put everything under a CC-by-sa licence. Ask the ones who’ve had the Guardian reproduce their stuff in Trolling Is Free without asking, notice or preserving the licence (but with their name and a lifted photo). This blog isn’t under any CC licence. Even Richard Stallman doesn’t put everything he writes under a free licence.

I noticed a while ago (though I can’t find where I said so Update: here) that Internet folk culture — Tumblrs, fan fiction, LiveJournal icons, that sort of thing — tends to an ethos of the following:

  • can reuse each other’s stuff;
  • give credit;
  • not doing it for money.

Note that that just happens to add up to by-nc-sa. So that licence is a good fit for the categories in people’s heads. And it doesn’t matter that -nc is a magical category, which sounds simple in English but turns out to be fractally complicated when you look closely, nor that the ethos of “noncommerciality” is a First World luxury that, applied to science, software or educational materials, results in reifying various privileges at the expense of doing the thing you thought you were actually doing.

(The other reason for noncommerciality is that culture as it’s actually practiced these days is a string of copyright violations, and not taking money increases the chances of being allowed to keep doing it. And with much Internet folk art, tracing the copyright is just stupidly unfeasible. Copyright doesn’t encourage culture, it blocks it by claiming ownership of the building blocks of thought.)

I suspect this is a subclass of “nobody gives a shit about freedom 0 until the lack of it bites them in the arse personally.”

I think the correct course of action for us is:

  1. Maintain Wikimedia as a firm bastion of proper free content, without any -NC or -ND.
  2. Continue to encourage sharing in the wider culture, using -NC where suitable.

I could, of course, be wrong in practice.

Anyone who advocates advertising on Wikipedia is still a drooling moron.

Remember when Google AdSense messed around TVTropes a while back? They’ve done it again. Every trope with “rape” in the title, or porn tropes, has been deleted, even when it’s absolutely valid with a ton of good examples (and ridiculously relevant to current popular culture), because AdSense doesn’t consider that sort of thing suitable. The Geek Feminism Wiki has stepped in to recover the culled stuff that’s useful and important.

If you have advertisers, that’s who your customer is.

(This is also why Wikimedia tends to try to get as many small donors as possible, rather than rely on a few large ones: to reduce the risk of a large donor deciding that their opinion counts more than the readers.)

CIPR TV webcast on PR people and Wikipedia.

Recorded yesterday. Put together by Philip Sheldrake and the Chartered Institute for Public Relations, hosted by Gemma Griffiths who has previously done PR for Wikimedia UK.

I took the approach of assuming good faith and trying to be as helpful as possible in getting the encyclopedia improved and PR people not shooting their foot off. I don’t think there will be hordes of Wikipedians at the door with pitchforks and torches. I hereby invite nitpicking from Wikipedians, PRs and the general public.

The draft guidance for PR people, as facilitated by Wikimedia UK, is still live for editing. Please dive in. (I think it should be about half the length, but Wikipedians are wordy, picky and didactic.) The idea is to help inform the people of good faith, as the people of bad faith don’t care.

The suit suitably frightened my coworkers. Cheers to Stevie Benton for the Wikipedia lapel badge. I really look my age, though — I kept seeing mannerisms I’ve picked up from my father — and I promise the ponytail is going, however much the loved one might protest.

You need to read Nonprofit Kit for Dummies.

I have an inchoate (and, of course, all-encompassing) theory of collaboration. I think in terms of someone desiring an improvement to the world. They may form a conspiracy to achieve the given end. They may set up as a tax-deductible charity. Or just a non-profit corporation. Or a for-profit corporation. Or a trade association. Or a political party. Or a rock band. Or a poetry collective. Or a religion. Or a cult. Or no defined body at all, just a bunch of people.

Most such groups are incompetent and fail. This is normal.

In the case of charities, the failures tend to linger arse-disabled, shuddering along, sputtering out occasional results, burning out good people and not dying. The organisation can be a net negative for its actual goals, as it can appear to have staked out its area.

It can take years before a not-quite-competent charity finally works out how to transition from a board-run/individual-run tax-deductible band of conspirators to being a professional staff-run organisation tuned to doing the particular thing it does. The changes always seem simple and obvious in hindsight and everyone involved feels stupid at having taken years to achieve the retrospectively obvious.

I have seen this pattern close-up in the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikimedia UK (the first attempt at which died before achieving adequacy) and the West Australian Music Industry Association, and I have considerable anecdote from others. (I ran the ideas in this post past Sandra Ordonez, WMF’s first communications director, and James Forrester earlier this week. Both got that post-charity stress disorder look in their eyes.) All of these professionalised and are going great now, but it was not a sure thing.

(I have sufficient experience with lame-duck charities that I am at the stage of my life where small charities ask me onto their board. I say “no,” because my experience is in failing. If only more people realised this sort of thing.)

The example that provoked me to write this post is the Singularity Institute, an artificial intelligence research organisation (that also runs LessWrong) full of computer scientists and philosophers. Since it’s made of humans, even startlingly intelligent humans, it spent about ten years failing to get much done in a manner just like lots of other charities. It was founded in 2001 and only got its shit together in about the last year, having been kept alive in the meantime only by rich fans like Peter Thiel. It got a detailed and cutting assessment from Holden Karnovsky of charity directory GiveWell, who considered that at this stage, “withholding funds from SI is likely better for its mission than donating to it.” Ouch.

Luke Muehlhauser, the Singularity Institute’s Executive Director, described his perspective on events in response to the founder, Eliezer Yudkowsky:

I had significant ambiguity aversion about the prospect of being made Executive Director, but as it turned out, the solution to almost every problem X has been (1) read what the experts say about how to solve X, (2) consult with people who care about your mission and have solved X before, and (3) do what they say.

When I was made Executive Director and phoned our Advisors, most of them said “Oh, how nice to hear from you! Nobody from SingInst has ever asked me for advice before!”

That is the kind of thing that makes me want to say that SingInst has “tested every method except the method of trying.”

Donor database, strategic plan, staff worklogs, bringing staff together, expenses tracking, funds monitoring, basic management, best-practices accounting/bookkeeping… these are all literally from the Nonprofits for Dummies book.

Everyone who’s ever interacted with a sub-competent charity will know that feeling.

Luke’s recommendation, Nonprofit Kit For Dummies (Wiley 978-0-470-52975-1), is precisely the book all the examples I’ve been involved in desperately needed to have someone throw at them before they even formed an organisation to do whatever it is they wanted to achieve. Even those not in the US — the legal details are US-centric (a UK or Australian version would be nice), but the framework to help you actually get your shit together is the key takeaway.

  • Maybe you have an idea that will help solve a problem in your community, and you believe that starting a nonprofit organization is the best way to put your idea into action.
  • Maybe you serve on a board of directors and wonder what you’re supposed to be doing. [Oh dear Lord, yes.]
  • Maybe you work for a nonprofit and need some ideas about fundraising, managing your organization, or working with your board of directors.
  • Or maybe you’re simply curious about the nonprofit sector and want to find out more about it.

I wish I’d had this book twenty-five years ago, when I first needed it.

(The “For Dummies” series is reliable introductory-level material on pretty much every subject. It’s like one-day courses in everything.)

Of course, a charity is only a tool to get something done. Positing a thing called “the charity sector” over here and a pool of potential donations over here and a not very differentiated flow of money from one to the other is an economically accurate and useful model, but not necessarily the best way to solve an actual problem the donor is interested in solving. But that, like the iron law of institutions, is a problem of success. Think in terms of there being a group of people in a conspiracy to achieve a given end — going to all the faff of setting up as a charity may not be the right approach.

But even if you’re just at the stage of a couple of people who think something is a good idea, and even if you’re not in the US, Nonprofit Kit for Dummies is a thoroughly worthwhile read.

Charles Matthews on the public relations problem.

Charles Matthews on wikien-l discussing this paper (on which I’m sure there will be more to say) on this vexed topic. I’ve had this conversation a few times:

“Look, we’re all impressed with Wikipedia. But you seem to be saying that to edit I have to put your project ahead of my day job; and so I think you guys are just a bit crazed.”

“Right both times.”

“And you’re now telling me I have to flack for the opponents of the guy I am paid by, and put their criticisms into due form in the the way that, frankly, they are too dumb to do, using the skills I have but against the brief I have been given.”

“Yup, that’s what it says on the page about neutrality.”

“Well … where I come from … words fail me …”

This is really not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The public relations agency problem.

Someone’s set up a Facebook group, Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement. I see a pile of Wikimedians engaging with them, which is promising. Thomas Morton, Steve Virgin and Wikimedia UK are also working on an event where Wikimedians and PR people can work this stuff out.

PR people have a legitimate issue: Wikipedia is this huge scary thing people don’t know how to approach, and sometimes our articles are in fact rubbish. How do you fix that? I get asked this a lot and have a ten-minute reply that I play back like a voice macro, on the themes of:

  • be totally upfront about who you are, where you’re from and who you’re working for;
  • only ever edit the talk page, never the article itself. Not ever;
  • imagine every little thing you do on Wikipedia being picked over by the newspapers a year from now, with your name and photo on it — the papers love this stuff;
  • if there’s a serious problem with an article, like defamation, email info@wikimedia.org and someone experienced will look at your issue and take it seriously. (I can’t guarantee any particular response, but I can guarantee it will be taken seriously.)

I visited the Wikimedia UK office on Tuesday and chatted with Stevie Benton (the new media person), Richard and Daria about this topic. In all our experience, even sincere PR people seem biologically incapable of understanding “conflict of interest,” but will understand generating bad PR.

The approach we could think of that could work is: “if you’re caught in what other people think is a conflict of interest, your name and your client’s name are mud.” Any PR who doesn’t comprehend that deserves what happens to them.

Think it’ll help? I realise that you can’t legislate stupidity or malice out of existence … it also looks too much like a threat, which isn’t the intention. Better ideas with some chance of working are much needed. Wikipedians? PR people?

Update to clarify: my comments are strictly advisory and based on watching the press absolutely crucify PR people who have edited clients’ articles, which becomes bad PR for the client — even if what they did was within Wikipedia rules and they arguably didn’t deserve it. I’ve been repeatedly amazed at just how upset the press and the public (e.g., people I talk to) get about this, much more than the actual Wikipedians do.

I expect discussions will involve a bit of the good people on both sides apologising for the actions of the not so good ones …

SOPA blackout post-mortem.

Ah, the luxury of seeing the media storm coming. That said, I was expecting it Wednesday and the phones started ringing the moment the warning banner went up on Tuesday. The UK press volunteers managed most of what we were asked for, though we had a shortage of faces for television — cheers to Steve Virgin, Jon Davies, Roger Bamkin, Martin Poulter, Mike Peel and of course Jimbo.

I spent two days doing radio. The analogy I bludgeoned into the ground (nicked from Cory Doctorow): “Banks notice that bank robbers use cars for getaways. Their solution: we have to ban cars. You say that’s ridiculous and damaging and won’t work anyway. They say ‘YOU JUST LIKE BANK ROBBERS!'” I’m told I suitably scared people on Radio 4 PM (38:50 on) with the consequences for UK business, though I could have done better. (Must not engage with the lying RIAA bullshit. Must not engage with the lying RIAA bullshit. Just repeat the soundbites. Must not engage with the lying RIAA bullshit.)

(If you’re an experienced UK Wikipedian, think you could acquit yourself reasonably well in real-time questioning and have no problem with being a very minor public figure, please make yourself known on the wikimediauk-l mailing list and/or local meetups and you may get lined up for next time stuff explodes, the press want a random Wikipedian, etc. And feel free to casually talk to your local media about Wikipedia as the occasion arises.)

I’m amazed that several hundred Wikipedians largely agreed on anything at all. The Wikipedia community will fiddle around the edges of an issue forever and then not do anything. If you say to a bunch of Wikipedians “the sky is blue”, they’ll come back with a hundred pages of referenced counterexamples. The key skill to being a Wikipedia editor appears to be generalised cross-domain bikeshedding.

I hope we don’t do this, or anything like it, again any time soon. Our power requires not being used very often at all. But then: if Wikipedia says you suck … you really, really suck.

Open Street Map beats Google Maps for business use.

Google have started gouging for Google Maps. It turns out that when you price like Oracle, people do the numbers and say fuck it:

$200,000 to $300,000 a year is, at the very least, the same as hiring a very good engineer for a year (and paying all the taxes and benefits and costs and still having a lot of money left). It was enough money to finally push us into doing our own maps.

(More detail. They didn’t actually spend less money — generating and serving all the map tiles is the expensive bit — but they got much more control and a much better result for the same money.)

I’ve long thought OpenStreetMap would have fit Wikimedia’s portfolio wonderfully — it’s a marvellous example of a project doing really well with the Wikipedia model, without being a linked entity. (And thus helping our mission without us doing the work.)

I remember a London Dorkbot presentation in 2004 on OSM — a friend who was working for Multimap pooh-poohed the idea that OSM could ever achieve a usable-quality map. I had been involved in Wikipedia for a few months at that time and considered this immediately obviously wrong, having seen what a few people just chucking in what they knew could achieve even at that stage.

OSM now has a foundation. Seeing as their server appears to be melting, they could probably do with a quid or two. They’re not yet officially a UK charity, but WMUK achieving charitable status does makes this more feasible.

There should be no chance to gouge for this sort of content. What other rent-seeking business models can the Wikipedia model destroy? Update: List of things that need to be free.

Chapters blog planet.

Bence Damokos of Wikimedia Hungary has made a nice thing: a Wikimedia chapters blog planet. All languages are welcome, so the page includes a Google Translate link at the top right.

(And don’t forget the official Planet Wikimedia aggregators and the Open Wiki Blog Planet … though that appears to have stalled in July.)

Royal Society proceedings, 1600-1923, now available!

Greg Maxwell pwns. (If that link is blocked to you, read the text here.)

The question is: what other utterly and unambiguously public domain works is JSTOR charging outrageous sums for? And can we get copies to free?

(JSTOR are not a soft and fluffy nonprofit. They are an exceedingly murky nonprofit.)

Some are already uploaded to Commons. Here is the Wikisource project.

(I’m in the UK, where the state of the law concerning slavish copies of public domain works is still in a state of quantum uncertainty, and no-one quite wants to joggle it until the lay of the land is clearer. If I were in the US, where the law is unambiguous and tested, I’d be uploading as we speak.)

In which I remember that writing on Wikipedia is fun.

Casual meet with some Wikimedia UK people last night. As is standard whenever two or three Wikimedians meet, we conspired to fix everything that’s wrong with Wikipedia and Wikimedia! Perhaps 1% will ever be attempted. One project that desperately needs participants is Wikisource, particularly so that it can handle incoming documents from museums and archives — Commons is doing okay with the images.

Last week I took The Wolfgang Press from two paragraphs to a proper article. Yesterday it was on the front page Did you know? section for six hours and got 3065 hits, compared to its usual 25-50. Not bad for an article about an obscure band approximately no-one cares about. (“Kansas”, from Bird Wood Cage, is a lost goth rock classic. DJs, please play. Thank you.) I’d forgotten how much quiet nerdy fun it is writing and researching a Wikipedia article. Writing about anything artistic on Wikipedia is arse, though, unless you can find critics to quote. Printed ones by preference. Wikipedia’s epistemology is severely broken at the edges, and knowing how it got that way doesn’t actually help.