Sunday, September 21, 2008

WP:OFFICE and the Nielsen fiasco

It's been a fair while since I made a post, so maybe it's time I dusted off my keyboard and stepped to it.

Apparently the Wikimedia Foundation was recently contacted by Nielsen Media Research, regarding some information, copyrighted by Nielsen, which was posted on Wikipedia. By my current understanding, Mike Godwin was consulted and the material in question was deleted by foundation staff. As unfortunately sometimes happens with office actions, a small but chaotic tempest has ensued.

In a posting to the administrators' noticeboard, one user pointed out several templates had been deleted, apparently citing a DMCA takedown notice sent to Wikipedia's private OTRS system. Some users suggested such a notice should be forwarded to Chilling Effects; others insisted the message was private. Some users furiously debated whether the material in question was, or even could be, copyrighted. Others seemed lost simply trying to figure out what parts of which material were under debate. One user was reminded of last year's Lava Lamp incident. The story quickly made its way to Slashdot. Given the original lack of clear communication, comments from across the board have been getting increasingly chaotic and heated.

This is one of those cases where Wikipedia's usual "deny everything" approach has hit its limit.

How many times has this happened, before? In an information vacuum, the most sensational stories can gain traction they otherwise never would have. Key posts from Wikimedia staffers Cary Bass and Mike Godwin clarifying important details have been pretty prompt, considering this storm unfortunately happened over the weekend, but I worry they'll be lost in the crowd -- the sort of problem for which Wikipedia has no perfect solution.

Certainly we as a community should respect the office staff's needs, when they believe urgent action is necessary. In some regards, it is our respect for those needs that causes some of these difficulties: when a mass of editors, administrators, and OTRS volunteers enters the fray, either taking action to help or vocally interpreting the actions of others trying to help, it becomes less clear who did what, and who is allowed to do what moving forward. Users trying to resolve this confusion aren't helped along by the fact they will inevitably hold incomplete information, or by the lack of any easy way to distinguish important, clueful communication from mere noise.

This is just an idea, but I think there are a few problems we might avoid if we logged all office actions, preferably at a central location edited only by office staff. First, and most important, it would be eminently clear which actions are performed under the auspices of WP:OFFICE -- any action not specifically listed at the log, wasn't. Secondly, it would allow administrators to more easily enforce office actions, should doing so become necessary. Thirdly, it would allow staffers to -- if they choose to -- make prominent statements regarding office actions in a place where all interested parties will quickly be able to find them.

Such a log might attract troublemakers; I think the added clarity and reduced confusion would be well worth the cost, given the troubles we already face each time this sort of thing blows up. I believe an office log would be better for our own in-house communications, and possibly for our public relations as well.