More on the BBC and Wikipedia

posted by Steve Bowbrick

Pretty much as soon as I got my Wikipedia blog post up on Friday Roo Reynolds, who looks after social media at BBC Vision (which is what they used to call Television), posted on his own blog some guidance he’s written for Wikipedia wannabes at the BBC. His guidance was originally available on an internal BBC wiki but Roo thinks there’s no harm having it available to the rest of the world on his blog.

We had a chat about this today and discussed turning it into a more formal document and posting it at the BBC’s Future Media Standards & Guidelines web site. Roo might consider that but, since it’s now visible to the world there’s probably no need for the time being.

It might be more interesting – and certainly more useful to other organisations who want to make a positive contribution to the Wikipedia project – to package Roo’s guidance and publish it under a creative commons licence so that it can be used and extended by others. That’s exactly the kind of openness I’m talking about here.

Nick Reynolds, BBC Internet blog editor, also chipped in with some words on this topic written earlier in the year. Nick says “Wikipedia’s values are the BBC’s values”. I agree with him, with some reservations. In particular, Wikipedia’s values are not necessarily those of the BBC because Wikipedia’s values are not necessarily very clear at all. And they’re certainly not locked down and defined in a forest of foundation documents like a Royal Charter and dozens of policies and guidelines.

And, to finish, I think it’s definitely worth linking to the opinions of an interesting Wikipedia dissident, Carl Hewitt, information scientist, who thinks that Wikipedia’s dictatorial structure and deliberate exclusion of all but ‘conventional wisdom’ makes it essentially corrupt. He says that Wikipedia is “an infoCommune and not an encyclopaedia” and wants reform.

Hewitt’s a bit kooky but objections like his are going to keep coming up—and they’re going to get more coherent and better organised—as long as Wikipedia is run essentially by an individual (Jimmy Wales) and his circle of pals. This is exactly why I want the BBC involved: not with an eye to taking it over or changing its direction or even, conversely, as a statement of support for Wales and his eccentric system of governance but as an engaged contributor and an opinionated stakeholder, alongside thousands of others.

Wikipedia has already become the backbone of the semantic web and the number-one resource for learners on the Internet. For the BBC to stand aside from the evolution of the biggest public service knowledge store in history would be a real abdication of its network-era responsibilities. Wikipedia needs the BBC, and not just at arm’s length via the API but up close, in the database, as a contributor and co-builder.


Comments so far.

  1. Posted by Ronnie on Tuesday 13th January

    Wikipedia has already become the backbone of the semantic web

    I fear you have completely misunderstood the concept of the semantic web. Try here -


  2. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Tuesday 13th January

    @ronnie Thanks for the link. I guess I’m trying to express the way people like the BBC are hooking into Wikipedia as an authoritative source – not only of data (re-using Wikipedia content on pages at /music, for instance) but also of structure. The way the BBC’s /topics pages are using Wikipedia as a controlled vocabulary and re-using Wikipedia’s URL structure, for instance.

  3. Posted by Tom Scott on Wednesday 14th January

    You might be interested in this post: http://derivadow.com/2009/01/13/the-web-as-a-cms/ which discusses some of the work the BBC is already engaged in in contributing to wikipedia and musicbrainz i.e. using the web as a CMS.

    What I didn’t make explicit and which Michael picked up on in the comments is the work adding links between musicbrainz and wikipedia for the benefit of bbc.co.uk and the LOD cloud at large.

    It’s still early and there is much more we could/should be doing in this space… thankfully there’s a lot more to come :)

  4. Posted by Seth Finkelstein on Wednesday 14th January

    Please see some of my _Guardian_ articles critiquing the cult of Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s values are NOT the BBC’s values -you’re being fooled by slogans. Or, I don’t think the BBC’s value are that the most tedious and rules-lawyering person who plays backroom politics best gets to define the article content (or if so, that’s a bad thing).

    “Wikipedia isn’t about human potential, whatever Wales says”


  5. Posted by Benjamin Ells on Wednesday 14th January

    Hmm… Semantic Web Wikipedia is not – but I hope Ronnie has cleared that up. Likewise, having experienced some of the internals I’d agree with Seth’s comments – I really hope that the BBC doesn’t have values in common with the reality of Wikipedia. I want my tax money spent in a better pursuit of accuracy.

    Whilst the discussion is interesting, I would advise closer attention to the issue of editorial control. This is just as relevant on the web as it is on traditional media. What is on Roo’s blog is under Roo’s control. If Roo moves on to another employer (and I hope he doesn’t – I appreciate what he is doing at the BBC) and there are pointers to the information on his blog, what then?

    Rather than using public money to prop up Wikipedia, and a drive monoculture of knowledge on the Internet, how about adding to the diversity by linking back to valuable resources created and hosted by the BBC.

    It is great to get involved in trying to correct inaccuracies in Wikipedia (and good luck with that), but using BBC time (and money) to populate it does not sound like a good idea, to me at least.

  6. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Friday 16th January

    The fascinating thing about Wikipedia is that it’s become so important even with such patently screwy governance. But we shouldn’t really be surprised: the net has many screwy systems of governance to choose from. From ICANN’s peculiar planetary democracy to the IETF’s ‘running code and rough consensus’ to the various feudal systems and monarchies that govern the big open source projects and the host of corporate and national monopolies that control big chunks of the infrastructure: the whole thing looks more like Mediaeval Europe than an enlightened post-industrial community of mind. The net’s barely been out of the universities for fifteen years and it’s inevitable that its systems of governance are a bit… er… immature.

    And as to whether the BBC should involved with as frankly eccentric and unaccountable a project as Wikipedia, I think the answer’s easy. Of course it should. Wikipedia – like it or not – is the number one source of learning and information content on the web (at least the English-speaking web and at least in terms of raw traffic). Like I said, it’s become the backbone of the semantic web (not in any technical way, of course, as several people have pointed out) and a failure to build systems that click together with Wikipedia would just be a kind of petulance.

    The critical thing is for the BBC and others is to be engaged with Wikipedia, both at the content level and – to the extent that this is appropriate – in efforts to reform the way it’s run. I think the obvious fragility of Wikipedia’s governance is the main reason to get involved. It’s not about mounting a coup or even about publicly rubbishing the current system but it’s about being present as the thing evolves and as the strains in the Jimbo-centric model become more apparent. If, as seems inevitable, Wikipedia is ultimately reformed, moved to a new ownership model, opened up to control by stakeholders or whatever, the BBC should be present in all layers of the stack to make sure it doesn’t go pear-shaped and die, taking a gazillion web links with it and gutting the semantic web as it does so.

  7. Posted by Roo Reynolds on Saturday 17th January

    Steve said

    It might be more interesting … to package Roo’s guidance and publish it under a creative commons licence so that it can be used and extended by others

    As it happens, posts on my blog are already licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

    Benjamin Ells said:

    What is on Roo’s blog is under Roo’s control. If Roo moves on to another employer … and there are pointers to the information on his blog, what then?

    No matter what happens to me, I don’t see what that post would change or go anywhere. You’re right to be nervous though. That’s why it’s not only on my blog, it’s also on an internal wiki where anyone in the BBC can continue to build on it whatever happens. Of course, if there’s ever a more obvious place to put those sorts of notes externally (I expect the FM&T standards & guidelines site isn’t it, but I might be wrong) then I’m up for that too.

  8. Posted by Seth Finkelstein on Sunday 18th January

    I don’t say you shouldn’t “build systems that click together with Wikipedia”, if by that you mean avoiding gratuitous API incompatibility and similar. I do say, most strongly, that you should not pour money into an organization so as to prop up its deliberate lack of quality assurance, and trade-offs it makes to favor those with time to waste over those with expert knowledge. Which said organization will then in effect use to turn around and trumpet how such poor design choices are correct, because it can get suckers like YOU to devote public money to clean up the messes it creates simply because it’s prominent.

    Basically, you should get something back for a bail-out, rather than validating the strategy of risky operating.

    There are surely more worthy uses of resources in these tough times than looking at a current market leader and jumping on its bandwagon.

    “Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa’s workshop”


    For all Jimmy Wales’s self-promotion regarding his supposed ability to
    build good communities, it’s apparent his skill is instead in knowing
    how to sell a dysfunctional community effectively. One subtext of the
    Wikipedia hype is that businesses can harvest an eager pool of free
    labour, disposable volunteers who will donate effort for the sheer joy
    of it. The fantasy is somewhat akin to Santa’s workshop, where little
    elves work happily away for wages of a glass of milk and a cookie.
    Whereas the reality is closer to an exploitative cult running on
    sweatshop labour.

  9. Posted by Tom Scott on Monday 26th January

    Just a minor point on the “wikipedia ain’t the semantic web’ thing.

    It’s worth remembering that DBpedia extracts structured information from Wikipedia and publishes it as Linked Data on the Web (as RDF). Most folk would agree that DBpedia is very much the backbone/ nucleus of the Web of Data. So in a sense wikipedia (or at least a version of it) is part of the semantic web.

  10. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Wednesday 4th February

    So, Seth, what should we (all of us, not just the BBC) do about Wikipedia’s shortcomings? Should we absent ourselves and perhaps even start to build a parallel entity that’s better governed and designed? or should we roll up our sleevs and engage with the Jimbo-tron to improve it? Is Wikipedia an eccentrically-governed public good or an irredeemably broken private monopoly? I certainly favour the former interpretation and will continue to advocate engagement and a mature effort to positively influence Wikipedia’s future form.

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