Wikipedia is a two-way street

tl;dr Publishers that re-use Wikipedia content, like Apple and Microsoft and Amazon and Google, have an obligation to include an easy way to edit that content.

I’ve had a ton of fun over the last couple of days at the Wikimania 2017 conference in Montreal. The event brought together 900 people from around the world involved in Wikipedia in many languages, related Wikimedia projects like Wiktionary and Wikivoyage, and allied organizations like Creative Commons and Mozilla. I was fortunate enough to moderate the keynote address between my friends Jimmy Wales and Biella Coleman, and then spent the rest of the weekend thinking and talking about Wikipedia and friends.

(I’ve been especially interested in Wikidata, a huge knowledge base chock full of important facts in machine-readable format. It’s a deliciously interesting project, and I anticipate that a lot of the cooler hacks in the next few years are going to use data from Wikidata. Learn SPARQL now, folks.)

One thing that struck me about the event is that Wikipedia has become the de facto authoritative source for information in the modern world. Let me say that again: Wikipedia is the authoritative source. What is on Wikipedia is your best introduction to literally any topic on earth. It might be the only information you need.

This is mind-boggling, but mostly because it has become true for me, and maybe for everyone, without a lot of fanfare. For me, it’s been a gradual process of always looking for the Wikipedia link in search results, or going straight to Wikipedia if I’m interested in some topic. For the rest of us, it’s meant that whenever a question is asked on almost any subject, our software systems will typically turn to Wikipedia in order to get an answer.

But along with this development has come a more sinister one — one that is a huge potential problem for literally everyone on the Internet. Here’s the problem: Wikipedia users are being impeded from editing Wikipedia.

A wiki depends on active participation from its readers. Readers must be able to create and modify content on the site, because they are the defense against abuse and misinformation. Only if vigilant readers carefully review content on the wiki, and can easily create new content, does the information stay relevant or even correct.

That may not seem like a big deal to you, but let me make this absolutely clear, as someone who has founded and managed a big wiki: it is literally invaluable. Increasing participation is one of the most important goals of the Wikimedia Foundation and anyone running a wiki of any size.

Editing Wikipedia isn’t just a right; it’s a responsibility. It’s something we owe to each other and to our children and grandchildren. Wikipedia is our common cultural heritage, created and managed by all of us. It may be the most important cultural artifact ever created by human beings. Which is why it’s such a tragedy that Wikipedia users are being impeded from editing Wikipedia.

It’s not by repressive governments, either. It’s by companies that are re-publishing Wikipedia in other formats, and intentionally making it difficult for those users to contribute back to the project.

Short-circuited by search

Here’s an example from a Google search I just did for Pytheas of Massalia:


As you can see, on the left there’s a link right to the “Pytheas” article on Wikipedia. Clicking on that link will take you to a page like this:


Importantly, there’s an Edit button on that page. Anybody can edit this article — improve the grammar, make a factual correction, or reflow the prose for easier reading. That edit button is what makes the rest of the site worth using.

On the right in the Google results, is a summary of the data on that Wikipedia article — put there so that casual readers can get a quick review without having to go to the Wikipedia site. Let’s focus in on that interface:


This information comes from Wikipedia. When you look at this information, you are a Wikipedia user. You can see that there’s no indication that this information could possibly be edited by the current user, and no affordance to edit it. Every user who sees this interface has been misinformed about their right and responsibility to maintain that article.

I like Google. I have friends who work at Google. Google is an excellent supporter of Open Source software and Open Content projects like Wikipedia. They were a sponsor of the Wikimania conference I attended this weekend. But by intentionally keeping users from going to the Wikipedia web site, without providing an alternative way to contribute, they are doing harm to the Wikipedia project and thus to humanity.

I know, that sounds crazy. But it really is that important.

There is a lot of room in that interface for an “edit” button. It would be the work of an afternoon to add it in. (I know, nothing’s ever that easy, especially in a large software project, but it is a simple syntactic transformation to make a link to the edit page of an Wikipedia article if you know its title.) It would be reasonable to add it with a Google Chrome extension or even a Greasemonkey script, but it’s important that Google add it for less sophisticated users.

Let me point out before the license lawyers get riled up that as far as I know Google is under no legal obligation to include an edit link here. Nothing in the copyleft licenses used by Wikipedia requires them to link to the edit page.

What does impel them to do it, though, is an obligation to make Wikipedia better. That’s both altruistic (helping humanity by making a better source of information) and selfish (improved information on Wikipedia means improved infoboxes on their search results). Google has every incentive to make this interface include some way to edit.

Social Graph

It’s also worth noting that Facebook maintains a mirror of every single Wikipedia article in their system. Here’s the one for Pytheas:


You might think that the “Suggest Edits” link would take you to Wikipedia to edit this content. Actually, it’s just the standard editing interface for any page, letting you suggest Pytheas’s phone number and home page. And, y’know, you can send a message to Pytheas on Facebook Messenger, but don’t wait too long for an answer, since he’s been dead for 2300 years.

The Voice of Reason

Another, more troubling unidirectional interface for Wikipedia and Wikidata content is the increasingly important voice assistant interface. Four major ones exist: Amazon’s Echo (“Alexa”), Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Assistant. (I like the Free Software Mycroft system, but you probably guessed that already.)

All of these use Wikipedia content to answer questions by users. Some of them (Siri and Google — I don’t know about Echo and Cortana) also use Wikidata for answering questions.

None of these systems include a way to edit the articles or data.

Voice assistants are becoming more popular every day. Every user of a recent iOS or Android device has access to the respective assistant on that platform. That is a huge number of people.

But the interfaces don’t include a mechanism for editing articles or items. There’s not any way to tell Siri, “No, Siri, George Washington was born in 1732, not 1742,” and get a meaningful action out of the assistant.

Is that an important part of Siri’s interaction with end users? I, for one, find it really frustrating when I talk to someone and they won’t listen to what I have to say back to them, or won’t learn from my response. The one-way flow of information with voice assistants is one reason I’m not a big user… and you may not be, either.

What is important is that, as voice assistants become a primary way for people to interact with Wikipedia content, they must be able to contribute back to the wiki. Remember: it’s not just a right, it’s a responsibility.

Getting to Yes

I think it’s important that the Wikimedia Foundation, and the hundreds of millions (possibly billions) of Wikipedia users, and the billions of people for whom Wikipedia is an artifact of inestimable value, make it clear to these publishers that they need to start treating Wikipedia’s editing functionality seriously.

I know it’s not easy building reliable interfaces to editing systems, and that novice users might get confused by editing capabilities. I’m aware that some people will intentionally or unintentionally add incorrect or unclear information.

It’s important to know that Wikipedia is totally ready for that. For the last 15+ years, Wikipedians have been developing social and technological systems to make it easy for new editors to contribute and to gently dissuade bad actors from corrupting our cultural treasure (or repairing it quickly if it does get damaged).

Wikipedia is a two-way street. Treating it as a source for information without providing an easy way to edit is a disservice to everyone: readers, contributors, the Foundation, and humanity as a whole. Publishers need to stop putting up barriers to editing Wikipedia, and start putting up edit buttons everywhere they can.

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