Web magazine launches with “Wikipedia relay race”

Today Vox Publica launched, a new Norwegian web magazine with democracy and freedom of speech as its main topics. It’s the result of intensive work over the last couple of months by a small group of people, including me, at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at The University of Bergen.

I’m very happy that we could launch the magazine with a new initiative we’ve called “Wikipedia-stafetten” – the Wikipedia relay race, where the participants are scientists/academics. It works like this: Vox Publica’s editor professor Jostein Gripsrud started the race by writing an encyclopedia article about “offentlighet” – the public sphere. The article was published in Vox Publica, where it will remain in that form. Simultaneously we published the identical text as the article about “Offentlighet” in the Norwegian (bokmål) version of Wikipedia. And then Gripsrud challenged another academic, Erling Dokk Holm, to write the next article in the race. Hopefully the “competition” will go on for a very long time. As Nature wrote last year, “Researchers should read Wikipedia cautiously and amend it enthusiastically.” (quoted here earlier). We see the initiative as a practical way of supporting and enhancing one of the tools of democracy and free speech.

The Wikipedia community’s treatment of the article is very interesting to observe: The original version lasted five minutes on Wikipedia before the first edit. And the community has done an excellent job so far in adding links, list of contents and other editing. All the relay articles will also be presented on a special portal page.

The most significant story

Columbia Journalism Review have interviewed 47 journalists with Iraq war/occupation experience and present the result as “oral history” – with audio, photo galleries etc. From the editors’ note:

These people are covering the most significant story of our time and doing it under circumstances that nearly defy belief. They have lived and studied “the situation” closely, some of them for four years or more. This is their story.

Google vs. flesh-and-blood news editors


The Norwegian version of Google News finally went online today, so far with no media lawyers threatening lawsuits. (UPDATE: The Norwegian Media Businesses’ Association sent a letter to Google the same day, complaining about the use of news photo thumbnails). A quick comparison of the Google algorithm’s news judgment with the priorities of the major Norwegian news websites, reveals something of interest: In the last 30 minutes Google News consistently (see screenshot) had today’s major political news story – the finance minister’s criticism of salary levels of managers in state-owned companies – on the no. 1 spot (in changing versions from different news sources). None of the four dominating news sites VG, Dagbladet, Nettavisen and Aftenposten agreed. They all pushed different stories. Certainly they thought that their readers would know that piece of news already, and that they needed circulation of stories on the front page. That’s fine, but it highlights a problem with the way hectic news sites function today. They often give readers a hard time finding out what really are the important news stories at a given moment. If Google News shows itself to be more “stable” in its news judgment than the news sites itself, that might be attractive for a lot of readers. Maybe we don’t need the “Google News made by people” that I called for last year?

I want that photograph

In a wonderful Atlantic article (sub.req.) about the architecture photographer Julius Shulman, Virginia Postrel writes:

An architectural photograph can conjure three possible desires: “I want that photograph,” “I want that building,” or “I want that life.” Shulman’ls best work evokes all three. At a time when the public thought of modernism as a cold, impersonal style suited only for office buildings, he made its houses look seductively human. His photos do not merely record modern architecture, California style; they sell it.

By looking at the photos displayed in the online Shulman exhibition, I for one understood exactly what she means!

The article also contains an interesting discussion of how modern architecture has taken different forms in the very different physical and mental environments of California and New York.

Wikipedia search engine dominance revisited

Recently many have noted that Wikipedia articles show up on the first page of hits in the big search engines (samples: Nicholas Carr, myself.)

g. (a.k.a. Jure Cuhalev, according to Wikipedia Signpost), checked the tendency more thoroughly by reviewing 1.000 randomly selected Wikipedia article names as search queries in Google, Yahoo and MSN. And found that Wikipedia appeared in the top 10 of 81 percent of searches using Google. In Yahoo 77 percent and 38 percent for MSN.

Criticism of the methodology used has been uttered, along the lines that choosing Wikipedia article names would skew the results. Using real search queries would have been better, the argument goes. Just as a five minute follow-up on this I tried to do just that – testing real search queries from the Norwegian search site Kvasir. They publish a toplist, a list of the most popular queries hourly and for a 24-hour period. I took those from between 14.00 and 15.00 (CET) today, and checked them in Google (using the .no-domain version). Results:

1. finn.no (no Wikipedia hit)

2. sjokolade (number 1,2,6)

3. telefonkatalogen (-)

4. finn (8)

5. diamant (-)

6. google (-)

7. elkjøp (2)

8. kjersti (8,9)

9. vg (8)

10. magerøya (1,10)

So in six out of ten of these queries, Wikipedia results were in the top ten. The queries are maybe a typical mix of company names, geography, shopping items etc. As has often been pointed out, many people search for a very well known site in a search engine instead of typing the URL in the browser (see Google(!), Finn.no and VG here).

Anyway, this little informal test seems to strengthen the argument put forward by Nature in an editorial last year – scientists should help improve Wikipedia, exactly because it’s such a highly used knowledge resource:

Select a topic close to your work and look it up on Wikipedia. If the entry contains errors or important omissions, dive in and help fix them. It need not take too long. And imagine the pay-off: you could be one of the people who helped turn an apparently stupid idea into a free, high-quality global resource.

Tougher times for milbloggers

Since the US Department of Defense issued a website alert in August about screening information before publication, several blogging soldiers and other military personnel (milbloggers) have shut down their blogs, Wired News reported a few days ago. Security concerns are growing, but:

…it also signals a growing culture clash between military traditions of censorship and the expectations of young soldiers weaned on open digital culture, according to current and former military personnel.

While doing research a few months ago – in preparation for being interviewed in a video presentation about blogging and other media topics for Norwegian soldiers – I was surprised at the open US policy. You would think that the military would be the most closed institution of all, the very last one to let its “employees” develop their own public voice. One reason to allow milblogs was that they often were very sympathetic to the military in general and to the US project in Iraq, I learned. Also they could bring perspectives that were missing in the media.

On my wishlist has been Norwegian milblogs from our troops in Afghanistan. I haven’t detected any so far, though there are some official-looking “diaries”. Better than nothing, but not with the essential personal touch of a blogger.

Although the Norwegian media coverage of Afghanistan is increasing, I think that the importance and graveness of that mission and the perception of it in the general public are separated by a big divide. Milblogs could help narrow that.


The Google founders’ purchase of a Boeing 767, the so-called Google One, must have had devastating effects on company morale. How else to interpret the bizarrely threatening tone emanating from the Google Blog “advising” you not to use “to google” as a verb? They have taken off now, those Googlers. “Our lawyers say”! Yes, but we’re not interested.