Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eric Goldman on wikipedia and catching dandelions

I was thrilled when Eric Goldman, cyberlaw professor at Santa Clara University and director of the school's High Tech Law Institute, agreed to a Q&A with catching dandelions. I recently wrote about the point Prof. Goldman made at the Silicon Flatirons conference earlier this month on "Why Wikipedia Will Fail." He believes that Wikipedia has to wrestle between being high-quality and open to the public to edit, but it can't be both.

Eric Goldman's research focuses on internet law, intellectual property, marketing, and the legal and social implications of new communication technologies. You can read his blogs here and here and follow him on Twitter.

Q: If Wikipedia should choose between being high-quality and freely editable, which one would you prefer they choose? Why?

High quality. Otherwise, the database becomes useless. In fact, Wikipedia has implicitly chosen higher quality as they slowly "raise the drawbridge" on user editability. See, e.g., their recent "Flagged Revisions" proposal.

Q: You must have heard about the WikiDashboard designed by PARC that allows for more transparency on Wikipedia entries. Do you think that the dashboard will help raise the quality level of Wikipedia entries?

It is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, additional transparency can help identify and fight malicious edits. On the other hand, when Wikipedia editors overreact to companies or individuals editing entries in which they may have an economic interest, increased transparency may paradoxically increase unwarranted reverts.

Q: Why do people still source Wikipedia - like the German press recently did with the name of the new economic affairs minister - knowing full well that it is littered with dandelions?

That's a great question, and I'm not sure if I have the complete answer. One hypothesis is that searchers assume that a high Google ranking means that the site is trustworthy. Another is that people still assume anything in digital format is trustworthy.

Q: I love Wikipedia and know many people who do. Although we don't believe it is high-quality, it is good enough. At the very least, you learn something new. Why can't Wikipedia just be "good enough"?

I think Wikipedia is a terrific resource when used properly. However, I fear that Wikipedia will be overrun by spammers and vandals, at which point it may no longer be good enough.

Q: With so many dandelions in cyberspace, do you think our notion of trust has been reshaped by the web?

When my generation was in school, we were not trained how to assess the credibility and veracity of printed information. For the most part, we assumed that printed information was presumptively credible. I hope that future generations will be trained differently in school and will realize the importance of determining credibility. Personally, I don't see any other viable path for the future. If in fact students are better trained in the future, then our norms about trusting online content will be radically reshaped.

Q: What are your three FAVORITE dandelions?

I had never really thought about this! Some favorites:

Zeran v. America Online. An anonymous AOL user pulled a very nasty prank on Kenneth Zeran by posting fake but highly inflammatory content online with Zeran's home/business phone number. The hostile reaction caused Zeran to be out of business for weeks and to get police surveillance because he got so many death threats.

Listings on dating websites falsely saying that the prank's victim is looking for sex. Carafano v. Metrosplash is an early example, but there have been others.

Google News' republication of a story about United Airlines' bankruptcy with an ambiguous date stamp, which helped cause United Airlines' stock to plummet by 75%, costing investors hundreds of millions of dollars in market cap for a short period of time. For a two-decade old example of a similar problem, see Daniel v. Dow Jones.

Thanks Professor Goldman!

Friday, February 27, 2009


Kuala Lumpur's New Strait Times reported on this 100-foot long snake a few days ago. Even the Scientific American weighed in with a digital photography forensic examination. I am no photoshop expert, but it's not hard to tell that this is one GIGANTIC dandelion. What amazes me is how the media can pick-up on and report this kind of thing without verification. It apparently got a whole bunch of people in Borneo scared out of their wits. Says the London Telegraph, "...on the banks of the river, villagers are convinced of the massive serpent's existence and have even given it a name, Nabau, after an ancient sea serpent which can transform itself into the shapes of different animals." Hmm, maybe it will turn into a big ape next.

Thanks to Boing Boing (one of my fave sites) for revealing the original image yesterday, which obviously shows that the snake is fake.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

yelp needs help

It seems as though dandelions are part of the every day business at Yelp. A San Fran local paper, East Bay Express, recently uncovered some of Yelp's dirty sales tactics, like writing bad reviews of local businesses that declined to advertise on the website. Rascals. Looks like Yelp needs help.

Apparently, the bullying has been going on for months. According to several business owners in the local East Bay area, negative reviews of their businesses appeared and positive ones disappeared after they turned down an aggressive sales pitch. The practice is so straight out of the Godfather playbook it's pathetic. Of course Yelp denies any such doings, but the allegations are challenged by nine business owners and a former Yelp employee.

While Yelp says that it doesn't move reviews around, it does employ "scouts" or "ambassadors" to write reviews of local businesses. And this seems to be standard practice. According to the story, "Tens of thousands of newspapers, magazines, and online destinations write reviews of businesses even as their advertising departments are busy soliciting those same businesses for advertising. Ideally there is no causal relationship between the two. Financial considerations shouldn't affect the tone of supposedly independent content."

Right, but Yelp is not a newspaper or a magazine and is positioned on "Real People, Real Reviews." So, although writing reviews may seem right for Yelp, it also contradicts the notion of user-generated content. Plus, according to Yelp, they don't post every review. According to their FAQ page, "Yelp has a system which automatically determines which reviews show for a given business."

I am a Yelp user - actually more like spectator - so it's pretty disappointing to know that there are lots of little dandelions floating around the site. Although the practice of local businesses asking friends to write reviews has been around since Citysearch days, I never thought that this time the culprit would be Yelp itself.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

balancing act

The editor of the newspaper where I work sent me this column by Clark Hoyt, public editor of the NY Times. It came as a surprise because my editor is anti-blogging and when I told him I had started one for class, he just rolled his eyes. (For the record, I am not a journalist and this blog has nothing to do with the unnamed newspaper - it's part of my semester long project as a grad student in strategic communications.) Anyway, I'm glad he sent it because it's a pretty interesting article on how some dandelions are born.

The column discusses how on the web, journalists and editors - even at the NYT - have to struggle to find the right balance between thorough editing and speed. Because of the hyper-competition to get the story out first, stories do get published with mistakes and although the mistakes can be corrected later, it's sometimes too late. That dandelion has already spread throughout cyberspace. This is just part of the advantages and disadvantages of internet reporting, as Hoyt points out:
"They include immediacy but fewer layers of editing; the opportunity to develop a story in real time but demands to “feed the beast” that can prevent deeper reporting; keen competition but wasted time chasing false leads published by less reliable sources; the ability to fix mistakes quickly but no way to prevent them from ricocheting around the world first."
Editing on the web and editing in print is vastly different. But does this mean that the standards for the web have to be different than those for print? Surely the language is different, but should standards for accuracy change just because of the need to be first to break the story? It's the classic story of quality vs. quantity. It certainly doesn't mean that errors haven't been published in print - they have. But there are many more on the web. And, maybe that's just part of the way that media is evolving while it figures out how to stay ahead of the web game.

While I really enjoy how quickly news travels on the internet, I also prefer the real story rather than a mixed cocktail of truths and just half-truths that will only stand to be corrected later. However, I understand that the balancing act is not always perfect and will sometimes pave the way for little dandelions. If only there was a way to catch them before they spring.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

atlantis resurfaced

Is it possible that Google has uncovered Atlantis? Bernie Bamford, a British aeronautical engineer, thought he might have found Atlantis while toying with the new Google Ocean. It's a valid claim - it looks like a buried city and is off the coast of Western Africa, around one of the possible sites where the fabled city is said to have disappeared (there are many). But, Google denied the claim saying that the city-like grid is actually "an artefact of the data collection process... collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor."

Aw, shucks. And I thought this was finally the moment that Plato's mythical city would resurface. Ok not really, but this curious dandelion warranted enough press attention that Google was compelled to release a statement. Some people aren't biting and think they smell a cover up. You think this could actually be a daisy? Nah, but it sure is pretty.

UPDATE: wednesday, february 25, 2009
There must be a lot of Atlantis hopefuls out there because Google released another official statement about the mystery grid. It's the same story except this time they had real oceanographers do the telling. I have to admit that I find the Atlantis theory far sexier than a bunch of soundwaves. But oh well, Atlantis case closed.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

heart of cyber darkness

The Washington Post calls it the "dark heart" of the internet. It's called and it could very well be the birthplace of some of the web's darkest dandelions.

Talk about walking on the wild side. Started in 2003 by a then 15 year-old who goes by "moot," 4chan is a hub for 5 million "hackers, slackers and potty-mouthed geek" visitors who create 400,000 daily posts on just about anything from "images of... their favorite actors to their favorite bowel movements." Apparently the group Anonymous, (in)famous for staging protests against the Church of Scientology, sprung from 4chan. The kid that hacked into Gov. Sarah Palin's Yahoo account? He's on 4chan. So are the ones that hijacked Google's Hot Trends list, first with a swastika and then this "?l?oo? no? ??n?". Remember the post - "Steve Jobs just died" - that leaked into the blog in January? You guessed it. That's 4chan too.

It's like stepping into the heart of cyber darkness. I imagine that countless other dastardly dandelions plant their roots in 4chan. Proceed with caution if you dare. Word of warning: it is highly NSFW.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

the future of dandelions

What would you trade to have a secure internet, completely dandelion free? Would you trade your anonymity? Freedom to invent a new personality? Being uninhibited? That's the real question behind yesterday's New York Times article, "Do We Need a New Internet?"

Researchers with the Stanford Clean Slate program have been developing a new internet, one that offers "...improved security and the capabilities to support a new generation of not-yet-invented Internet applications, as well as to do some things the current Internet does poorly — such as supporting mobile users." Apparently, the advanced internet will be running on eight campus networks by the end of this summer.

While a more secure internet sounds great in theory, the article raises an interesting point by noting that the barriers to internet evolution lie with the people who use it. While on the one hand our ability to hide our identity is one of the fundamental principles of the internet, that same anonymity causes most of the internet's problems - from stolen identities like pretending you're Tina Fey on Twitter (thanks to indienomics for this dandelion) to more serious crimes like hacking the defense department. Culprits are not easily found and in the latter, the consequences are severe.

But, will a new, transparent internet, one that requires us to prove our identity before entering (like our passport number), make us safer and trust each other more? And will all the dandelions really disappear? Although I don't hide my online identity, I am philosophically attached to our current principle of total freedom without identity checks. Part of my attraction to the internet is the possibility of a walk on the wild side - I would rather have this than a controlled internet that is supposed to keep me safe inside a bubble. And in the new network, I can't imagine that dandelions will go away forever.
UPDATE: sunday, february 22, 2009
Seems that The Observer agrees with catching dandelions about walking on the wild side. The author argues that the openness of the web is what the internet is all about. He wouldn't trade creativity and innovation for security. Frankly, neither would I.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

circular editing

Indeed, it appears that not only high school kids find Wikipedia totally irresistible. A Slashdot reader wrote that the German press recently published this pretty dandelion:

The name of Germany's new minister of economic affairs is Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. Before he was appointed, someone added the name "Wilhelm" to his name in the Wikipedia entry - perhaps just to screw with the public. Besides, with a name that long, who would notice? Well, certainly not the German press who picked up on and published the false entry. When Wikipedia editors asked for proof of the name "Wilhelm," the published articles with the false entry were used as proof.

Sounds like a case of circular editing. And since this is probably very confusing, here's a little illustration I did to show how this worked.

At the Silicon Flatirons Conference last weekend, a cyberlaw professor Eric Goldman who loves Wikipedia talked of its inevitable self-destruction. He says that Wikipedia cannot be both high-quality and open to the public to edit. It has to choose one or the other.

I'm not so sure I agree. I believe that our widespread access to knowledge today presents us with an even greater opportunity to see all sides of a story, to question "facts", to think critically and self-edit. The web has given rise to a collective intelligence and this natural group integrity leads to high-quality work. Call me an idealist, but I do believe in the organic filtering of information.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 12, 2009


John Grisham uses a ghostwriter... on Facebook, that is. When asked on The Today Show about his Facebook page, he admitted that he didn't even know he had one.

It's no shock that John Grisham didn't know and except for this blogger on Ad Age, it's not as if some fans were all that surprised either. I'm sure there are plenty of ghostwriters trolling the pages of Facebook making lots of "friends." But, what's the point of Facebook if you're a complete fake? Someone should tell the folks over at Doubleday that they can't turn dandelions into daisies.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


One of my friends recently sent a chain mail to a group of her closest girlfriends. I never would have read it if it weren't for the following: 1) I trust her, and 2) she never sends these things. And, because of these two reasons I believed what I read (did I just admit that?).

If I'm ever held up at an ATM machine and my assailant demands money, said the chain mail, all I have to do is insert my card and enter my pin number backwards. My new safety pin will send shockwaves through the system and alert the police who will save me in true hollywood fashion. Pretty smooth, right?

Yesterday at the ATM I played pretend hold-up (with myself, that is) to see how quickly I could think of my pin number backwards. I kept messing up the number. There's no way this can be real, I thought, so I sent an email to my trusted banker at HSBC.

"Myself I have never heard of it, so I had to verify with all of co-workers, and back office. Nobody knows anything about it, and my back office confirmed that they are not aware of such a security measure. Hope this helps." (Real email from my banker.)

A brief search on Google reveals that the secret safety pin is pure legend. But, I wonder how many of my girlfriends will even bother to do a quick search (zero). The thing is, when you get an email from a trusted friend who rarely sends chain mails you don't think twice about what it says, unless it's obviously fake. You just believe. And that can be the problem with the web.

I'm not trying to defend myself or my friend, but there is actually some truth to this safety pin. Apparently, an entrepreneur named Zingher created the patent for the reverse pin and tried to sell the idea to banks, but they never caught on. And why not? Well, as a friend told me, imagine that your safety pin was exactly the same backwards...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

all the world's a sage

Wikipedia is part of the reason why the web is so wonderful. Because anyone can contribute to the encyclopedia, everyone consumes each other's knowledge. Wikipedia has empowered us more than ever before. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, "all the world's a sage."

But, are all the articles accurate? I'm sure some high school kids would love if they were. Certainly many articles are well sourced, but you can't say all the facts are straight. According to wikipedia, there are a total of 9,725 good and featured articles and lists out of a total 2,734,727 articles. Good articles are "good quality but which are not yet, or are unlikely to reach, featured article quality." (Case in point: the good articles page cites 2,734,727 articles in wikipedia while the featured articles page cites 2,733,942.) That means the chances of running into a dandelion are- well, you're probably better at math than I.

However, this is about to change. Technology Review writes that some super smart scientists over at Palo Alto Research Center have created the WikiDashboard that will apparently give more transparency to each article page. The dashboard shows all edits on an article, who's edited, when it was last edited, and even the cat fights between editors. Basically, it means that it should be easier for us readers to catch the suspect dandelions and tell which ones are daisies. I don't know if the dashboard is live yet, but it's about time. After all, it won't just be high school kids breathing a sigh of relief.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

what are dandelions?

The web is wonderful for the free flow of information and ideas. But let's face it, there exists mischiefs, mistakes and misinformation too. How do we know what's true and what is just a dandelion?

Dandelions are pretty enough to be real flowers, but they're not. They're weeds. We don't think twice about blowing on them and when we do, they multiply and spread like wild. That is, until we catch them by the root.

I'm not interested in tracking rumors. And this blog is not a crusade for the truth. I'm just looking for some of the prettiest dandelions.

Friday, February 6, 2009

what do you mean it's not wheel?

This is a bit of old news, but it's perfect.

My 13 year old nephew loves anything mac (who doesn't). But bliss was when he heard about the new "macbook wheel." Apparently it debuted at the mac world conference (?) and he even had the video to prove it.

Ok, that was pretty funny. My nephew is young and innocent and has no idea what the onion is about (it's a parody, i.e. not real). But, I wondered who else might know about this fake mac wheel and be excited. Surely the 19 minute battery and 45 minute email would be dead giveaways, so I probably wouldn't have much luck. But, news flies at super speed on the internet - especially when it comes to a new mac. And I wondered how many people had already called mac to reserve the mac wheel.

I called my brother today to find out. Did you hear about the new mac with the big wheel? He read about it, he said. Couldn't wait until it came out and was already saving his money. "Wheely?" I hate to be the spoiler, but better save your money for something else.

He was kind of disappointed. Not one to back down, he did make a good point - even if it's not out now it could actually happen - and he's right. But it's not wheel, at least not yet. Right now, it's just a little dandelion...