2010 Wikimedia Study of Controversial Content/Archive


Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Robert Harris. I’m the consultant that’s been asked by the Wikimedia Foundation to conduct the research study outlined in the resolution posted on June 24 by Michael Snow, (http://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/foundation-l/2010-June/059451.html and further discussed by his series of FAQs (http://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/foundation-l/2010-June/059452.html)

I’d like to use this page to be something of a clearing house for information about the study, where I can post the research I’m amassing for the Board, answer questions about what I’m doing (to the best of my ability), and provide a forum for all Wikipedians to discuss the various relevant issues at play.

To that end, I thought I’d start by creating my own list of FAQs.


Who are you?

I’m a broadcaster and journalist who has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for the past thirty years. The CBC is an interesting place. Like Wikipedia, it is a powerful (in its world) and respected information-providing institution, dedicated to public service and the provision of unbiased (the analog equivalent of NPOV) news and information to the Canadian public. However, like your projects, the power of the institution, and its public-service character, make it the focus of intense and perfectly legitimate discussions over content, balance, mandate, and the need to serve different publics simultaneously. I’m hopeful, therefore, that the many battles in which I’ve participated over the years within the CBC, and the thinking to which I’ve been heir within the institution (75 years old next year) serve me in good stead to understand the complexities of the issues I’ve been asked to look at. As well, I recognize that in a public-service context, competing points of view are inevitable and important -- to be expected, not feared.

What experience do you have with Wikimedia projects?

As an editor – none. As a user, a lot. Like literally hundreds of millions of other people, I use Wikipedia several times a day, and continue to marvel at the quality and depth of the work I find there. Not every article is a masterpiece, but so many are beautifully researched and written, that – along with the rest of the world, or a good portion of it – Wikipedia has become a significant part of my intellectual life. In terms of understanding your world from the inside, rather than the outside, your famous transparency serves me very well – as you know, I can more or less relive every discussion on every topic that’s transpired on the projects since 2001, or whenever. So, I’m reading like mad, but, as I’ll note later, you can help me fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge as well, if you are interested in so doing.

Is anyone helping you with the study?

Yes, my daughter and associate Dory Carr-Harris (who will be contributing to this page as well). Dory is just finishing her MA in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London (her thesis is on the impact of the Internet on historical memory and alternative archive production). Dory will be attending WikiSym and Wikimania next month to represent the study. My hope is that our gender and generational differences and balance will help ground the study in a more comprehensive and complete world-view.

Do you have any preconceived notions about what you’ve been asked to look at?

Not really. Every human being comes to things with certain values, and I’m no exception, but in terms of preconceived, or already formulated conclusions about what I’m going to find in my work, or recommend in the end, not at all. I will say one thing, however. My background is in political science, and I am struck by how important Wikipedia is in the political life – big P and little p – of the planet. In the end, I believe the essence of this study lays in the complex, and constantly evolving relationship between your community and the wider community that you serve and in which you exist. It’s a vitally important relationship, and a tricky one to navigate. Getting the balance between these two communities right is very important, I believe, and one you deal with all the time. So, I guess that’s one preconceived notion.

What are the issues you’ve been asked to look at?

Basically, I’m dividing my work into two related, but distinct segments. The first is to look at the whole question of potentially sensitive and controversial content within the projects. However, having said this, much of the work, I believe, although not all, will center around images rather than text. The role of sexual images within this universe is undoubted – to what extent the questions surrounding appropriate and inappropriate sexual images stands for the larger question of controversial images in general I’m still struggling with. (I can argue it both ways). I fully realize that the question of the appropriateness of certain kinds of images, sexual and other, is not new in the projects. One of the very first posts to a Commons discussion group more than half a decade ago raised many of the very same issues that are being discussed today by Commons editors and administrators. However, I am hoping that I might be able to provide a bit of a fresh look at some of the issues, by bringing to bear policies current in other areas of the Wikimedia universe (and in other communities, online and offline) to these discussions.

Secondly, I’m going to look at the wide range of issues surrounding the relationship of children, their parents, and their educational institutions to Wikimedia projects. Although some of the issues in this part of the project overlap with those outlined above, I’m separating the discussion in my own mind. The question of the relationship of the projects to children encompasses many aspects – from questions of treatment of sensitive content on the one hand to the kind of discussions I’m following on Foundation-l about the advisability of creating special kids’s sites within the Wikimedia universe. The question of the relationship of children to the projects cannot be simply centered on restriction; it must balance outreaching and protecting elements, I believe.

How are you approaching the work?

As the Board FAQ noted, I’m basically compiling information on a number of fronts. How have other organizations online and offline dealt with similar issues? What techniques are used by other user-generated, big-tent sites, to handle similar problems? How relevant are these techniques to Wikimedia projects? What do experts in the field of free Internet speech think of the issues we’re grappling with? How do family educational groups feel? School libraries? The Wikimedia communities? I don’t mean to suggest that I am simply vacuuming up opinions around this subject, but I am trying to expand as widely as possible the thought universe that will be brought to bear on it. As the study progresses, I’m assuming that themes will emerge and that more specific areas of study and research will present themselves. At the moment, I’m keeping things quite open.

How are you planning to deal with the multilingual and multicultural reality of Wikimedia’s worldwide community?

By reaching out as much as I can to non-English speaking communities within Wikimedia and non-European cultural communities. I face the same difficulties that we all do in this endeavour, but, for this study, the need to include a wider perspective is essential. Images on Commons are shared by all language versions of Wikipedia, so decisions on their inclusion and exclusion should not be made from a single cultural and linguistic perspective. As well, many of the recent controversies within Wikimedia (about images and articles) often reveal a conflict which is cross-cultural in nature, so a wide international and multicultural perspective is increasingly desirable to make informed decisions within the Wikimedia universe. As a beginning, I would love those with the skills to help translate these FAQs into as many languages as possible.

How is the study report going to be organized?

I’m not exactly sure yet, and I’d be interested in your input on this one. Certainly, the bulk of the study will be an explanation of and a compendium of the research I’ve amassed on the various topics listed above. As much as possible, I’m hoping that that research will be in the form of explicit studies, but some of it may be anecdotal, with all the caveats that are normally associated with those kinds of analyses. As the Board FAQ noted, I’ll be conducting no formal research projects of my own. In terms of the final conclusions, I’m leaning towards creating a set of options that I think will address the issues on the table, with each set parsed for pros and cons, but with the ultimate decision-making power left out of my hands.

What’s the time frame?

I’m expected to report at least preliminary findings to the Board meeting in the fall, which I believe is tentatively scheduled for mid-October. Although the Board recognizes the complexity of many of the issues I’ve been asked to look at, there’s also a sense that a conclusion to my work should happen relatively soon.

Do you have any overriding principles with which you’re approaching your work?

Basically, only one. As I mentioned to the Board, and I noted above, I’m one of those hundreds of millions of people who use your projects on a daily basis, and whose life is enriched by the quality of work that you, collectively, have created. Consequently, as a citizen of the world, I can say that anything that strengthens Wikimedia strengthens me personally, and anything that weakens Wikimedia weakens me, personally. Thus, my overriding principle is: do no harm. Like many, many others, I have great respect for the work you’ve created, and I hope that respect informs everything I do.

What can we do to help you?

You can help me understand the complex structures of the community (more accurately, communities) that make up the city of Wikimedia. A good portion of my job is to gather and assess information from a wide variety of sources that might inform the questions on my specific table – of the appropriateness of images within the projects, and the criteria against which the discussion of appropriateness might take place, the relationship of the projects to children, their parents and their educational institutions, the position of Wikimedia within its own world, and within the larger public world, and the relationship between the two. Anything you can do to help me understand the values, procedures and practices, and the culture of Wikimedia would be helpful. Obviously, yours is a very transparent community, so I can and will avail myself of the rich archival resource that explains many of these questions. But in every community, there are subtleties and nuances that sometimes escape the official record. These also are of interest to me.

How can we reach you?

I’m hoping this wiki's discussion page can serve as a forum for general discussion of the many issues the study is raising. In addition, my personal email address is rmharris sympatico.ca, if anyone wants to avail themselves of it. Looking forward to hearing from you -- User:Robertmharris 23:04, 30 June 2010 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Questions for DiscussionEdit

It’s been just over a month since I began working on this study. During that time, I’ve spoken to many people inside and outside Wikimedia, but the time has come, I think, to actively begin a discussion within the communities about some of the questions with which I’ve been struggling, specifically around Commons and images within Commons. To that end, here are a series of questions for discussion that I hope will initiate some of your responses. I've also posted them as individual headings on the Talk page associated with this page, where I hope you'll post your answers and comments. Hopefully, that will allow the answers to the various questions to be posted in the same general area. Please feel free to visit the page and contribute to the discussion. I look forward to a vigorous and interesting dialogue. Here are the questions:

1. Wikipedia has put certain policies and procedures in place to deal with special contentious categories of articles, (controversial articles, biographies of living people, e.g.) (see Wikipedia: Controversial articles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia%3AGFCA) Do you think Commons could or should institute similar procedures with some classes of images?

2. If yes, how would we define which classes and kinds of images were controversial?

3. What policies and procedures might be put in place for those images? How would we treat them differently than other images?

4. Could uploading practices differ for these images than other Commons images?

5. If we assume that sexual images might be one of the categories included, or even if we don’t, do you think we have adequately defined sexual content historically in Wikimedia policies? (see Commons: Sexual content http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Sexual_content)

6. If not, how might the definitions be extended, or otherwise changed?

7. Commons identifies two goals for itself: supporting other Wikimedia projects, and creating an archive of visual images for use by all. Are these goals compatible with each other? Do they contradict each other?

8. One of the participants in the recent discussion on a Commons sexual policy noted that as Commons more fully fulfills its mission to be an archive of all freely-usable visual images, the question of relevant educational scope becomes increasingly difficult to apply or at least begins to change? Do you agree? Is this a problem?

9. Should the number of current images in any category be a factor in the decision whether to keep or delete any recently-uploaded image?

10. Images on Commons are presented, by and large, without context, often with just a brief descriptor. Should a note on context and reason for inclusion be part of a regime around controversial images (as it is, for example, on the image of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons depicting images of Muhammad, to explain deviation from normal licensing regime) ? Robertmharris 05:01, 22 July 2010 (UTC)Reply[reply]