Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why we have a private forum. A response to Rebecca O'Neill

Yesterday, I was brought to the attention of an article titled Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project – A discussion by Rebecca O'Neill from the Dublin Skeptics and host of The Skeprechauns podcast. As part of her study in online curation, a large part of her research in crowd-sourcing on the Internet focused on the Wikimedia project, which brought her attention to GSoW. She expressed concerns about the way GSoW operates (she did so before on her podcast, episode 57 around 1:02:15), mainly because of its private forum where articles are prepared before they are published, which allegedly isn't as transparent as Wikipedia itself.

I'm happy that GSoW receives some feedback/criticism from within the movement that I can address. As team leader of the Dutch language group of GSoW, I have been part of this great project (with about 150 skeptical editors from around the world!) for exactly 13 months. Consequently, I focus on the Dutch Wikipedia, that sometimes has different rules to the English Wikipedia, and we are mostly translating English or other language articles to Dutch, so my experience is less in creating new articles on the English Wikipedia (and providing pictures, for which we have a wonderful photographers team, but I digress), which appears to be the main subject of Rebecca's article, but I will nonetheless try to address it as best as I can.

Rebecca says that '[w]hilst we can all agree that improving and adding well researched content to Wikipedia is a worthwhile endeavour', her 'main unease' is the fact we have a private (or "secret") forum, "which I have no knowledge of the nature of the discussions on the forum as I have not approached the group to become a member." Well, you can always apply to join if you want to help improve Wikipedia, value the scientific method and the evidence it produces, use critical thinking and want to get instructions on how to write about it in an encyclopedic fashion, because we're always looking for new editors; insiders' knowledge would give you greater insight in what we are actually doing than any hypothesising about what we might be doing wrong from the outside. But we can't demand that of you, and we don't give access to people who are simply interested in 'keeping track of what GSoW does', even close friends – we have a fine blog and Facebook group page for that, both of which are public, which should suffice – we only let people join who want to participate actively, so I'll try to explain it with the insiders' knowledge I have.

Rebecca compared our forum to what Wikipedia describes as a "secret cabal" and the problems that may produce. If anyone wants to know (as can be expected of good skeptics, and Rebecca indeed indicated she is aware of it), we've had these kinds of criticism before from outside the skeptic movement by people like Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra (twice indirectly), Craig Weiler, Rome Viharo, Russell Targ (indirectly) and Brian Josephson; it turned out on every occasion that these individuals either didn't know or understand the rules of Wikipedia (some didn't even bother to check), or falsely applied them to GSoW when they did. By the way, all of them accused us of 'distorting' their biographies on Wikipedia (if they had one), but GSoW wasn't involved in the editing of any of those pages (you can check it yourself if you don't believe it simply by viewing the page histories, and falsifying this with our blog updates we do about every major edit we've been working on in the past two months). Nonetheless, our project leader Susan Gerbic (listen to almost any podcast interview or filmed lecture she's done since October 2013, for example the SGU interview and the QED lecture Rebecca referred to, or this QED panel discussion (I wave at the camera at 0:11)) and Tim Farley (Sheldrake/WeilerChopraNot Here), and others of us or not of us (for example, Jerry CoyneSteven NovellaSharon Hill and David Gamble), on or off Wikipedia, have rebutted all these straw man critiques, vindicating any suggestion that we don't take criticism seriously, let alone ignore it altogether. But since the criticism comes from within our movement this time, I'm happy to explain it again to fellow skeptics who may have missed it.

I'll address each possible concern:
1. Disruption of the project. Not at all, we're trying to expand and improve it for all of us and remove misleading information, and proudly so.
2. Promotion of its members to become Wikipedia functionaries. This is something we rarely do, there is no real need. One of our members was already an admin before joining, but she never uses admin powers to guard articles against edits of others; she's mostly concerned with guarding copyright laws on Commons, and also notifies us if we are violating it, offering alternatives. Another member has applied to become a patroller on the Hungarian Wikipedia (because new changes to a page must be patrolled there), so readers can immediately view our recent edits. We value discussion of content and jointly seeking a solution to a disagreement rather than imposing our point of view from positions of power (if you want an example of a Wikipedia that is taken over and controlled by people with a specific point of view that don't allow dissent, just look at the Croatian Wikipedia, where conservative revisionist Catholic nationalists rule). 
3. Canvassing. This means mass voting, for example on the (non)deletion of a page, to influence its outcome. We respect Wikipedia's rules and only editors that were involved in editing a specific page are allowed to cast a vote and explain their reasoning.
4. Meatpuppetry. GSoW is not meatpuppetry per WP:MEAT because we do not solicit other people in order to influence the editorial process or to sway consensus. In fact, Wikipedia even gives a list of examples of things we do which do not constitute meatpuppetry. The great irony of this argument is that our 6 critics from outside the skeptic movement mentioned have all tried to do exactly this, either themselves or recruiting others on their behalf to target a single page and change it in their favour. Tim Farley's 3rd article mentioned above, 'When you’re not here to create an encyclopedia, your Wikipedia statistics show it', describes exactly how they do it and why we don't. I myself write about lots of different subjects (history, geography, music, politics, linguistics, philosophy and culture) that have nothing or little to do with skepticism, as can be seen on my user page and checked in my user contributions list.
5. Conflicts of interest. See point C below.
6. Having an "agenda"The "agenda" argument doesn't hold water either: we have an interest in certain topics to be sure, but we are always trying to find RS to back up our claims. On The Skeprechauns, Rebecca even admitted it's an agenda they agree with, so I don't understand their problem with it.

But by far, Rebecca's main concern is that we have a "secret" forum. Rebecca argues that '[a]s a community our actions should be open for all to see, so that they are above reproach.' First of all, nowadays we prefer to call a "private" forum, which Susan explains as follows: 'Since QED I have been trying to use the phrase “private forum” instead of “secret forum”. Obviously it is not a secret, as we are discussing it here. It is a private forum. We built it and use it for training, bonding and organization.'

What the advantages of a private forum are:
A. Anonimity! Wikipedia is constructed so that anyone editing it can remain anonymous if they so choose by using nicknames instead of our real ones. The reason for this is that some of us don't want to be bothered outside of Wikipedia with what we write. An example could be that one wants to write about atheism while still being in the closet inside a very religious community, and have chosen not to come out yet for strategic purposes (anyone who follows atheist podcasts like The Thinking Atheist can relate to this). GSoW members can indicate to Susan that they do not wish to be named, so that their real-life identities won't be exposed when she posts a blog update or talks about GSoW during an interview or lecture. Some of us have decided to use our real name on Wikipedia (Susan is Sgerbic), or use a nickname but either mention their real name on our user page (Tim Farley is Krelnik, which btw is also his Twitter and YouTube name), or only outside of Wikipedia (I am Nederlandse Leeuw, but I don't say so on my user page and prefer to keep it that way for the foreseeable future; I do sometimes say directly or indirecly what my name is on the Internet (as Rebecca acknowledged, my Facebook profile states that I work for GSoW) or in real life conversations), others prefer not to reveal their identity to anyone publicly online, and it's very important that they have that option.
B. Privacy in personal matters. Closely related to anonimity. We can discuss our personal stories and experiences with certain subjects (either in the work threads or in the Tea Room) that we cannot share if we want to remain anonymous. The forum (and the Facebook groups) provides a space for private information that is not fit for WP talk pages where anyone can read them. Susan has stated many times that she would feel bad about publicly arguing in all honesty 'Person X or Y is not notable enough (yet) for his or her own Wikipedia page', especially when it's a close skeptical friend (which can be unintentionally taken as a lack of affection or even an insult), or when it's one of the people we regard as our opponents, who can then claim 'censorship!' and 'conspiracy!' when they read it on our forum. We don't want nor need that kind of drama.
I myself have previously given this fictional example: one of our editors comments inside our forum "Oh man this guy is a total fraud! When I still believed in him, it cost me so much money. I'm gonna write criticism about him on WP to warn others, who will help me?!" You're just not going to write something so personal openly on a talk page, or you'll be made fun of or accused of partiality (not having an NPOV or Neutral Point of View), while here on the forum you'll probably receive sympathy and motivate someone else to actually help you write a scathing piece. For this you need to trust the people you are talking to not to leak any data.
In some cases we do inform our scientific/skeptical spokespeople that we will write, are currently writing or have just written (or rewritten) their biographies on Wikipedia, depending on the situation; they may give us additional references, a voice introduction (new!), but most of all photos to use on the page. It is a common misconception that we can take images from anywhere. Only the person who owns it can upload it because of the strict copyright policy that Wikimedia Commons has. 
C. Preparing an article without interference. Rebecca argues that a secret cabal 'could spawn problems around conflict of interest (COI), especially if the initial conversations about the creation, editing or deletion of articles are not done out in the open'. But it remains unclear why these 'initial conversations' should be public; non-members would still not have a say in reaching that consensus if they may view but not comment. It's kind of true that we create our 'own consensus' on the forum when assessing the sources we want to use in a draft article (Are they relevant? Are they reliable? Are they internally consistent? How should we write about them while avoiding plagiarism (either by summarising, paraphrasing or directly quoting)? etc. or when translating carefully checking what the foreign words actually mean or how they were probably intended by the author of a source), but I don't see anything wrong with that. We publish an article when it is ready, if possible with one or more photos (here again our connections to skeptical spokespeople are important and some prefer them to be anonymous), which occasionally takes time. Sometimes a draft is written on the forum, but most of the time we use our user subpages (in this video – that Ryan Harding and I captioned in English and Dutch – Tim Farley eloquently explains at TAM 2012 why this is preferable).
As an example, just look at my draft of the Comité Para (one of, if not the oldest skeptical organisation in the world): User:Nederlandse_Leeuw/Comité_Para
In my own words, the forum makes it possible to deliver well-referenced, grammar-checked and imagine-loaded qualitative pages instead of unfinished stubs and edit conflicts and edit wars with non-skeptics along the way to good articles. It's much easier to translate eachother's articles etc. to different languages within our group, too. 
But here is the important part: once an article is published, criticism by and discussion with others on Wikipedia itself is welcomed. People can always challenge our text by challenging the accuracy of the sources we have provided and submitting better ones that correct them. Preferably they do this on that article's talk page with a justification why they think their refs are better than the current ones, but if it's just a minor edit, a simple reason in the Edit summary will do. The 'consensus' we reached on the forum is not infallible and we never claimed it was. We are skeptics and self-criticism is one of our core values. But we just think, arguing from our and others' experiences, that preparing it on or via the forum works better than doing it "live" on Wikipedia for the reasons I've stated.
D. Training to prevent "biting" (a.k.a. "throwing yourself to the wolves"). Rebecca explains correctly that '[b]iting is when a more experienced editor will be seen to “smack down” a more junior editor', but argues '[GSoW gives] the distinct impression that they are providing a support structure that is missing from Wikipedia and without it there is no way for editors to learn the ropes which is patently untrue,' which is unfortunately a straw man. There are indeed support structures (she mentioned the Teahouse – not to be confused with our Tea Room), though they can be hard to find, you need someone that has the patience to explain everything to you, you can get lost in their help files etc. and they don't necessarily provide information on how to find and use reliable sources. (When I joined the Dutch Wikipedia in 2008, there was no such thing – and as far as I'm aware there still isn't – but I was lucky to have a patient user explain the basics of referencing to me, and other kind users have helped me along the way and I taught myself a lot by imitating and experimenting). All of this happens in our training threads, where new editors are given tasks on how to do basic editing (by the Welcome Team, sometimes assisted by specific team leaders) and make sure their edits won't be removed right away. Sometimes an editor is so excited to go on to the real work or already has enough experience with editing Wikipedia, that they'll skip or drop out of the training; that's their choice, because GSoW is voluntary. Training is one of the support structures we provide, and if one doesn't need it, fine. Consequences could be that they end up actually not understanding how Wikipedia works, having their articles deleted for bad editing or get drawn into vicious edit wars and lots of name calling on the talk pages, ending in their decision to quit Wikipedia out of utter frustration. We've seen it happen before with members who didn't want to train and play by the rules of Wikipedia. Their efforts are wasted and they've done a disservice to contributing to a reliable online encyclopedia that serves as millions of people's first point of reference.
E. Better than WikiProjects / Motivating eachother. One of the alternatives Rebecca gave is collaboration within a WikiProject, like the WikiProject Skepticism. First of all I'd like to say that what they're doing is fine as far as I'm aware, but it's not my cup of tea (besides that fact that no such WikiProject exists on the Dutch WP, although I could initiate it of course). I've been involved with several WikiProjects, and very often there are individuals listing the topics of their personal interests, saying this or that needs an article, but they don't want to do it themselves or not by themselves. There is little effort to look for common ground with other editors and actually go write stuff. You end up with large indices of red links that almost nobody is interested in and that will scare newbies away with the feeling 'We'll never get this done!' This is different from when you actually can meet people who tell a bit about themselves and why they have a personal interest in a topic without appearing to be biased right off the bat about it or revealing their identity.

In the end, it's quite possible that even if we opened up our forum to be viewed by the public, somebody is going to claim we're not showing everything and still have other boards or threads 'that they don't want you to know about' in constructing yet another crazy conspiracy theory. In response to earlier criticism, Susan jokingly replied 'As far as having too much influence on WP and that we might do something bad in the future.  Well I broke my crystal ball, so we will just have to wait and see what the future has in store for us.' Really, we are open to discuss specific cases in which we may have done something wrong, especially on the talk pages where specific discussions belong, but will remind our critics of their burden of proof.
I'm glad that Rebecca has expressed she is 'not advocating for the GSoW to stop what they are doing', and hope to have sufficiently 'reflect[ed] on how and why [we] are doing it' here, being as open and honest as I could be. We're always discussing how to improve the way we work to get the best result we can get. So far we have received a lot of support and praise, and in addressing genuine and well-meant criticism, and perhaps changing our procedures as a consequence of good suggestions, I hope we can inform the outside world about what we're doing and why. Yes, we have a private forum, and we're fine with that.


  1. Brad Lavin's response http://www.levin.me.uk/?p=1833

  2. A better answer to that accusation was given by Captain Picard. Suspicion, paranoia, war on its own citizen, denying basic liberties and how everybody can be your enemy.

    Season 4. episode 21: The drumhead.