Democracy Downloaded

More Wikipedia Headaches

Posted by joevoeller on March 7, 2007

Today’s UK Telegraph has this interesting story about the firing of a Wikipedia editor who lied about his credentials. The prolific editor, known on the site as Essjay, had claimed to be a professor of religion with advanced degrees in theology and cannon law. But this week it was revealed that Essjay is actually Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old college drop-out from Kentucky.

The piece also reports that  Jordan consulted such august books as Catholicism for Dummies for advice on articles about penitential rights and transubstantiation.

Jimmy Wales apparently “forgives” the editor but has insisted he resign because “Wikipedia is built on (among other things) twin pillars of trust and tolerance.”

But how can a site that is made up of thousands of anonymous editors be successfully built on “trust”? Who knows how many other editors are misrepresenting their credentials? Which makes me wonder, shouldn’t “truth” trump “trust?” Who cares if the editor is a college drop-out. If he has his facts right, and is committed to editing entries, won’t that help make Wikipedia a better site? 

Maybe this editor’s real problem is the same as Scooter Libby’s — he just never should have lied in the first place.  

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McCain in black and white…and grey

Posted by joevoeller on March 1, 2007

Call me old-fashioned, but it seems a little odd that John McCain is announcing his candidacy tonight on the David Letterman show. It certainly represents a different strategy than the one behind Barack Obama’s Lincoln-esque announcement in Springfield, Illinois. But apparently a “formal” McCain announcement will take place in April. And the clip I just saw shows a relaxed and personable McCain, so maybe his people are on to something after all.

I was also a little surprised by the design of McCain’s campaign website. The black and grey color scheme is more reminiscent of a professional hockey team than a presidential candidate. But at least it helps him stand out from others. (I was starting to think that red, white and blue were simply required of any campaign website.)

Still, something about the site just doesn’t seem right. Maybe all the black is a subtle sign of mourning for the old John McCain — the straight talkin’ moderate who didn’t have time for partisan or religious pandering. (That John McCain is collecting dust at an old website called straightalkamerica.com, which now directs vistitors to the new campaign site.)

And the black and white pictures posted on the homepage? Quite a change from the sun-drenched living room shots that permeate Hillary’s site.

Does any of this matter? Probably. Websites are now a critical way to excite the netroots, boost fundraising and build brand image. I wonder if McCain did any focus groups to test the design of his Web site. He must have found that traditional conservatives still like their politics delivered in black and white.

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Campaign Blogging

Posted by joevoeller on February 26, 2007

The John Edwards blogger flap continues to spark some interesting discussions about the role of bloggers and Election 2008. The most interesting piece I’ve found so far — and one that I happen to agree with — was posted today to Salon.com.

In an opinion piece entitled “Why I refused to blog for Edwards,” blogger Linsay Beyerstein writes about being courted by the Edwards campaign and her ultimate decision not to join its payroll. The questions she posed to the Edwards campaign during the courtship process (“I’m on the record saying that abortion is good and that all drugs should be legalized, including heroin. Don’t you think that might be a little embarrassing for the campaign?”) foreshadowed the trouble that was about to come.

But more interesting are Beyerstein’s thoughts about the role that independent bloggers should play in an election, and how campaigns should go about building relationships with friendly bloggers:

“Every campaign needs a blog, but the most important part of a candidate’s netroots operation is the disciplined political operatives who can quietly build relationships with bloggers outside the campaign. And the bomb-throwing surrogates need to be outside, where they can make full use of their gifts without saddling a campaign with their personal political baggage.” 

You can read her entire piece here.

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Huckabee Online

Posted by joevoeller on February 25, 2007

Presidential contender Mike Huckabee has revamped his website since we checked on him last. The new site features an appropriately flattering photo and cheery tagline: “Optimistic. Hopeful. Conservative Leadership.” Though somewhat bare-bones in terms of functional features–the campaign blog is still “coming soon”–the site is a definite improvement from the old one. Besides, the campaign can still count on the efforts of unofficial bloggers who have apparently been psyched about the guy for years.

But it’s interesting to note what else lurks on the Net when Mr. Huckabee is Googled. 

Earlier today, when I did a Google search for “Mike Huckabee,” a site called mikehuckabee.com comes up as the third link from the top. What’s missing from this site is the flattering photo and optimistic campaign language.  Instead, readers are invited to peruse an article that raises ethical questions about Huckabee’s alleged use of free private plane service while governor. If that weren’t enough, readers can click to find a veritable digest of other “various scandals through 2002” that have been alleged against Mike.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is the prominent language running across the top of the site. It reads “For Sale or Lease. If you would like to own or lease this site email your offer to makeoffer@mikehuckabee.com by March 1st.” In case any potential bidders underestimate the value of the site, the owner adds “Over 20,000 hits in January 2007 alone!”

I wondered if the owner of this site is simply trying to get the Huckabee campaign to buy him/her off. So I decided to ask. I sent an email to the address above, asking why he/she decided to sell or lease the site. I also asked if he/she had been contacted by anyone on behalf of the Huckabee campaign. For good measure, I asked if he/she wanted to throw out a ballpark estimate of what the site was worth.

I’ll let you know if I get a response.

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A not-so-Fuzzy Zoeller

Posted by joevoeller on February 23, 2007

Allow me to veer away from politics for a bit to discuss this interesting new development in the land of Wikipedia.

Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is turning to the courts to try and punish the mystery Wikipedia editor who added (allegedly) defamatory material to his entry. According to the AP, “the law” won’t allow Zoeller to sue Wikipedia. And he can’t sue the editor because he doesn’t know who he or she is. So what to do? Zoeller’s lawyer has gone ahead and filed suit against a Miami consulting firm that owns the computer that was used to make the edits.

This will be an interesting case to watch. And it’s a great example of how the law has not necessarily caught up with the digital age.

According to Zoeller’s lawyer, “courts have clearly said you have to go after the source of information.” But what happens when, as is often the case with Wikipedia, the source is anonymous? Zoeller’s lawyers have filed suit against the closest thing to the source they can find. Now it’s for the courts to decide.

But the legal and ethical questions don’t stop there. Let’s assume the orginal source is an employee of the Miami “education consulting firm” that is now being sued. Should he/she be fired? If the company loses in court, can she/he be held liable for any of the losses? Can the company even prove that he/she was the person who made the post?

Sitting comfortably outside the legal crosshairs, Wikipedia seems to be taking a laid-back view of it all. Responding to the case, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales simply says, “We try to police it pretty closely, but people do misbehave on the Internet.” In other words, Fuzzy, defamation might just be part of the rough and tumble of the new digital age. If you don’t like your entry, edit it.

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Running from the netroots

Posted by joevoeller on February 22, 2007

Ari Melbar makes some interesting points in this Comment piece, which was posted earlier today to The Nation’s website.

Citing the Edwards blogger scandal, Melbar writes that the controversy “was not so much about religion or online obscenity as power.”

The power of progressive bloggers, that is. In Melbar’s words, the netroots are the “most ascendant force in progressive politics, wielding more members, money, and media impact than most liberal organizations.”

And what’s the response strategy for the GOP? Divide and conquer. Melbar writes that the Republicans are trying to “drive a wedge between Democratic candidates and the netroots by attacking bloggers–and their readers–as an extreme vitriolic embarrassment.” Put simply, the strategy is to “scare Democratic politicians away from tapping their motivated base.”

Relunctant kudos must be given to Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who was able to execute this strategy so successfully.

Unfortunately, Melber’s solution for Democrats seems a little too neat-and-simple: “Democrats should focus on tapping bloggers’ energy while managing their passion–and disregard the self-serving complaints of their opponents.”

After the Edwards flap, that is easier said than done.  

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Wikia interview, continued

Posted by joevoeller on February 21, 2007

Here’s the second part of my interview with Dan Lewis of Wikia’s new politics site:

 Democracy Downloaded: Just to understand the difference between blogging and posting an article to Wikia, walk me through the process. Are the articles on your site personally authored?

Dan Lewis: We have a form that an individual fills out and it asks you for a title, tells you to write the article, and then to tag it with appropriate key words. Then they hit the submit button and it goes into our publication que right away. And it is personally signed by the author.

So the articles are individually written, but they can be edited by the community. But this editing is typically limited to formatting and structure.

You’re probably not going to see substantive edits for two reasons: one, because the incentive to reply, while it might be very high,  is probably better handled by adding something to the comments section. If you wanted to hack up somebody’s piece, you could, but the author would probably just come back and fix the edits. Putting your changes in the comments section is a more permanent way to leave your mark. The second reason you probably won’t see a ton of substantive edits is that it is so easy to go ahead and post your own article. So there’s really no reason to come by and hack up somebody’s article when you can publish your own. 

DD: What role do you think the site could play in the 2008 elections? Do you think it will have more of an imact on small, local elections or on the national presidential campaign?

DL: Well, its really up to the community of writers who join our site; it’s really not up to us. And that’s just how Wikia communities work best. Let the people decide, let them hammer out the issues.

But if you are asking me about where it might have an impact, I would say everywhere. Online media first started having an impact in the 2000 elections, with magainzes like Slate. . .

But now online media is a lot more collaborative. As sites like blogger and wordpress came along, they helped remove the technological barriers to collaboration. What remains are the social barriers to publishing an article and getting it noticed, getting people to point to it. So we are going to take care of that and remove the social barriers.  

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Why Wikia?

Posted by joevoeller on February 16, 2007

Today I spoke to Dan Lewis, Vice President for Business Development at Wikia, to ask him a few questions about Wikia’s new politics site.

I wondered, with so many political Web sites and blogs already on the scene, is there room – or a need – for another?

Dan thinks so.

And he has some interesting points to make about the blogosphere. Today I present Part 1 of the interview. (Note: I have edited this Q+A simply to shorten and clean up both the questions and the answers)

Democracy Downloaded: Who is the initial audience for a new site like wikia.politics?

Dan Lewis: The initial users are going to be people who have recently started political blogs but have seen them fail — not because they weren’t writing good stuff but because it’s not easy to get readers.

I think the reason they are going to find politics.wikia appealing is because  — the fact of the matter is — it doesn’t really matter how well you write or how insightful your ideas are necessarily — what matters is how good you are at driving traffic to your blog. And its a very, very difficult thing to do.

I think right now if someone were to start up a blog they would be doing something similar to what people were doing 5-7 years ago, which was try to find new media outlets to point to them. Some years before the 2004 elections, when political blogs like instapundit and dailykos were really starting off, they were looking to mainstream media to point to them to help them drive traffic. But what’s funny is that now you see small bloggers trying to get dailykos and instapundit to point to them to get their sites started.

And our take on it is — why bother? We’re going to let everybody write for the site. We’re going to bring everybody together to form a community of people who are interested in politics, ideally on a friendly level.

Next time I’ll let you know how Dan responded to questions about what role the site might play in upcoming elections, and his thoughts about whether the site might polarize or divide people according to party preference (a play off Shawn’s comment.)   

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Edwards, Part III

Posted by joevoeller on February 14, 2007

The story continues. The second Edwards blogger who was targeted by Bill Donohue has now also quit the campaign.

See this udpate from the New York Times political blog.

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New Wiki site for politics

Posted by joevoeller on February 13, 2007

Just a brief post to note that Wikia, the organization behind Wikipedia, has announced a new open-source magazine for politics.

According to a press release, the new site “features national, state and local sections where users are able to search and contribute by state and/or zip code. Contributors can share and discuss their political opinions, build out historical resources and voter guides, or simply just read and comment on the others thoughts and learn about political issues.”

I know the site is brand new, but a quick glance earlier today left me wanting for more. First of all, I can’t find any rhyme or reason behind the stories and links posted to the homepage. The subject matter (a retread of 9/11 conspiracy theories is the second-most popular story) sure doesn’t add a sense of credibility or relevance. And the design leaves a lot to be desired – it looks like one of those fake sites you land on after you’ve misspelled a URL address.

This is the future of political news magazines? I’m still not convinced. 

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