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Here’s a story of how I tried to remove a fake story marginally related to COVID-19 from Wikipedia, and, at least for now, achieved the opposite and contributed to its dissemination and perpetuation.

On a BBC-produced podcast (in Russian) I heard a story about Lupe Hernández, a nurse who allegedly invented hand sanitizer. The story was born in a 2012 Guardian article, which was subsequently quoted by viral Facebook posts and a bunch of news sites in Spanish and a bunch of other languages, and even mention in an academic nursing book published by Springer. In the last few months hand sanitizer became more popular than ever, and so the story regained popularity.

When contacted for confirmation, the original Guardian story’s author said that “she couldn’t remember the source, and that her notebooks are in storage facility she currently can’t get to”.

The podcast, as well as a thorough LA Times article, conclude that the whole story is probably an urban legend and that the person probably never existed. No one was even sure whether it’s a woman or a man, even though the original story said “she”.

The podcast did mention that there is a very short Wikipedia article. I proposed it for deletion. The result of the deletion discussion was that the article was kept and renamed to “Lupe Hernández hand sanitizer legend”.

Before it was renamed in the English Wikipedia to be an article about a legend, it was also translated to Spanish and French, as an article about “Guadalupe Hernández”, a female nurse who invented hand sanitizer, even though zero sources say that her name was actually “Guadalupe”. Sure, you can assume that “Lupe” is short for “Guadalupe”, as some imaginative writers did, but why do we do it on Wikimedia sites?

I’m still of the firm opinion that the subject should be completely removed from Wikipedia in all languages, as well as from Wikidata, but there’s only so much I can do about this. If any of you know French or Spanish, can you please make sure the articles in your languages are not too awful, or perhaps consider proposing them for deletion?

And if you think I’m badly wrong about it all, please do tell me, too.

The Persistence of Decision Points in the History of Wikipedia

The Persistence of Poverty, which is today’s episode of NPR’s famous “Indicator” podcast, made me think of how small things that happened long ago in the history of Wikipedia and other Wikimedia wiki sites still affect us, for better or worse.

Here are some examples.

Example one: People didn’t want to have full copies of historical documents on the English Wikipedia, because they are not encyclopedic articles. So they created a whole separate wiki for it, called “Primary Sources Wikipedia”: “”. It turned out that this would be the URL for the Wikipedia in the Pashto language, which has the ISO 639 code “ps”, so it was renamed to Wikisource, becoming Wikimedia’s first non-Wikipedia wiki. The movement wasn’t even called “Wikimedia” then—the organization was created later. Later, Wiktionary, Wikibooks, WikiCommons, and other projects joined. And Wikisource and all of these other projects are awesome, but now this also has the side effect of having to have some challenging discussions between the Foundation and the community about how non-Wikipedia wikis should be branded in the long term.

Example two: A French Wikipedia editor who is curious about Ancient Egypt wanted to insert Egyptian hieroglyphics into Wikipedia articles, and he happened to know some PHP, so he wrote the Wikihiero extension, which is installed on all the wikis. Because it’s an extension that adds its own wiki syntax, Visual Editor shows a button to insert Hieroglyphics on every page, including the page about Astronomy on Wikiversity, which doesn’t have much to do with Ancient Egypt. This is not bad—this is mostly very good. What is bad is that the Visual Editor doesn’t have a button to insert infoboxes or “citation needed” tags, even though they are far more common than hieroglyphics, because they are implemented as templates and not as PHP, and Visual Editor handles all templates as one generic type of object. (If you are wondering how can this get fixed, the first necessary step in that direction is described on the page Global templates on

Example three: Some people didn’t like that too many wikis are created in new languages and stay inactive, so they wanted a proper way to prove that people plan to be active editors. So they created the “Incubator” wiki, where people would show they are serious by writing the first bunch of articles. For various technical reasons, using it was more difficult than using a usual Wikipedia, but they probably quietly assumed that everybody who wants to create a Wikipedia in a new language is experienced in editing Wikipedia in English or Italian or some other big language, so almost no one ever bothered to improve it. By now, we know that that assumption was tragically wrong: most people who want to create a Wikipedia in a new language are not experienced in editing in other languages, so they are newest and the least experienced editors, but they get the most complicated user interface. (If you are wondering how can this get fixed, see this page on Phabricator.)

Yes, I’m oversimplifying all of these stories for brevity. And I’m not implying any malice or negligence in any of the cases here. These were good people with good intentions, who made assumptions that were reasonable for the time.

It’s just a shame that the problems they created are proving more difficult to fix as the time goes by.

Yak Shaving, part 2: Wikidata, Busiati col Pesto Trapanese, and Other Slow Food

Some time ago I celebrated a birthday in an Italian restaurant in Haifa, and I saw a pack of pasta of a curious shape on a shelf there. I asked whether they serve it or sell it.

“No”, they told me, “it’s just a display”.

This answer didn’t satisfy me.

I added the pasta’s name, Busiate, to my shopping list.

I searched for it in a bunch of stores. No luck.

I googled for it and found an Israeli importer of this pasta. But that importer only sell in bulk, in crates of at least 12 items. That’s too much.

And of course, I searched Wikipedia, too. There’s an article about Busiate in the English Wikipedia. There also an article about this pasta in Arabic and in Japanese, but curiously, there’s no article about it in the Wikipedia in the Italian language, nor in the Sicilian language, given that this type of pasta is Sicilian.

So I… did a few things about it.

I Improved the article about Busiate in the English Wikipedia: cleaned up references, cleaned up formatting, and updated the links to references.

I also improved the references and the formatting to the article about Pesto alla trapanese, the sauce with which this pasta is traditionally served.

I also cleaned up the Wikidata items associated with the two articles above: Q48852218 (busiate) and Q3900766 (pesto alla trapanese).

I also translated all the names of the Wikidata properties that are used on these items to Hebrew. I usually do this when I do something with any Wikidata item: I only need to translate these property names once, and after that all the people who use Wikidata in Hebrew will see items in which these properties are used in Hebrew. There are more than 6000 properties, and the number is constantly growing, so it’s difficult to have everything translated, but every little translation makes the experience more completely translated for everyone.

I added references to the Wikidata item about the sauce. Wikidata must have references, too, and not only Wikipedia. I am not enthusiastic about adding random recipe sites that I googled up as references, but luckily, I have The Slow Food Dictionary of Italian Regional Cooking, which I bought in Italy, or more precisely in Esino Lario, where I went for the 2016 Wikimania conference.

Now, a book in Wikidata is not just a book. You need to create an item about the book, and another item about the edition of a book. And since I created those, I create Wikidata items for the dictionary’s original Italian author Paola Gho, for the English translator John Irving, and for the publishing house, Slow Food.

And here’s where it gets really nerdy: I added each of the sauce’s ingredients as values of the “has part” property, and added the dictionary as a reference for each entry. I initially thought that it’s overdone, but you know what?—When we’ll have robot cooks, as in the movie I, Robot, busiati col pesto trapanese will be one of the first things that they will know how to prepare. One of the main points of Wikidata is that it’s supposed to be easy to read for both people and machines.

And since I have a soft spot for regional languages, I also added the sauce’s Sicilian name under the “native label” property: pasta cull’àgghia. The aforementioned Slow Food Dictionary of Italian Regional Cooking actually does justice to the regional part in its title, and gives the names of the different food items in the various regional languages of Italy, so I could use it as a reliable source.

And I translated the Wikipedia article into Hebrew: בוזיאטה.

And I also created the “Sicilian cuisine” category in the Hebrew Wikipedia. A surprisingly large number of articles already existed, filed under “Italian cuisine”: Granita, Arancini, Cannoli, and a few others. Now they are organized under Sicilian cuisine. (I hope that some day Wikipedia categories will be managed more automatically with the help of Wikidata, so that I wouldn’t have to create them by hand.)

Finally, I found the particular issue of the Gazzetta Ufficiale of the Italian Republic, in which busiati col pesto trapanese was declared as a traditional agricultural food product, and I added that issue as a reference to the Wikidata item, as well.

And all of this yak shaving happened before I even tasted the damn thing!

So anyway, I couldn’t find this pasta anywhere, and I couldn’t by it from the importer’s website, but I wanted it really badly, so I called the importer on the phone.

They told me they don’t have any stores in Jerusalem that buy from them, but they suggested checking a butcher shop in Mevaseret Tsiyon, a suburb of Jerusalem. Pasta in a butcher shop… OK.

So I took a bus to Mevaseret, and voila: I found it there!

And I made Busiate, and I made the sauce! It’s delicious and totally worth the effort.

Of course, I could just eat it without editing Wikipedia and Wikidata on the way, but to me that would be boring.

My wife and my son loved it.

These are the busiate with pesto alla trapanese that I made at home. I uploaded this photo to Wikimedia Commons and added it to the English Wikipedia article as an illustration of how Busiate are prepared. I wonder what do Wikipedians from Sicily think of it.

There is a story behind every Wikipedia article, Wikidata item, and Commons image. Millions and millions of stories. I wrote mine—you should write yours!

Happy Africa Day: Keyboards for All African Wikipedia Languages

Happy Africa Day!

To celebrate this, I am happy to make a little announcement: It is now possible to write in all the Wikipedias of all the languages of Africa, with all the special letters that are difficult to find on common keyboards. You can do it on any computer, without buying any new equipment, installing any software, or changing operating system preferences. Please see the full list of languages and instructions.

This release completes a pet project that I began a year ago: to make it easy to write in all the languages of Africa in which there is a Wikipedia or an active Wikipedia Incubator.

Most of these languages are written in the Latin alphabet, but with addition of many special letters such as Ŋ, Ɛ, Ɣ, and Ɔ, or letters with accents such as Ũ or Ẹ̀. These letters are hard to type on common keyboards, and in my meetings with African people who would write in Wikipedia in their language this is very often brought up as a barrier to writing confidently.

Some of these languages have keyboard layouts that are built into modern operating systems, but my experience showed me that to enable them one has to dig deep in the operating system preferences, which is difficult for many people, and even after enabling the right thing in the preferences, some keyboards are still wrong and hard to use. I hope that this will be built into future operating system releases in a more convenient way, just as it is for languages such as French or Russian, but in the mean time I provide this shortcut.

The new software released this week to all Wikimedia sites and to makes it possible to type these special characters without installing any software or pressing any combining keys such as Ctrl or Alt. In most cases you simply need to press the tilde character (~) followed by the letter that is similar to the one you want to type. For example:

  • Ɓ is written using ~B
  • Ɛ is written using ~E
  • Ɔ is written using ~O
    … and so on.

Some of these languages are written in their own unique writing systems. N’Ko and Vai keyboards were made by myself, mostly based on ideas from freely licensed keyboard layouts by Keyman. (A keyboard for the Amharic language, also written with its own script, has had keyboards made by User:Elfalem for a while. I am mentioning it here for completeness.)

This release addresses only laptop and desktop computers. On mobile phones and tablets most of these languages can be typed using apps such as Gboard (also in iPhone), SwiftKey (also on iPhone), or African Keyboard. If you aren’t doing this already, try these apps on your phone, and start exchanging messages with your friends and family in your language, and writing in Wikipedia in your language on your phone! If you are having difficulties doing this, please contact me and I’ll do my best to help.

The technology used to make this is the MediaWiki ULS extension and the jquery.ime package.

I would like to thank all the people who helped:

  • Mahuton Possoupe (Benin), with whom I made the first of these keyboards, for the Fon language, at the Barcelona Hackathon.
  • Kartik Mistry, Santhosh Thottingal (India), Niklas Laxström (Finland), and Petar Petkovich (Serbia), who reviewed the numerous code patches that I made for this project.

This is quite a big release or code. While I made quite a lot of effort to test everything, code may always have bugs: missing languages, wrong or missing letters, mistakes in documentation, and so on. I’ll be happy to hear any feedback and to fix the bugs.

And now it’s all up to you! I hope that these keyboard layouts make it easier for all of you, African Wikimedians, to write in your languages, to write and translate articles, and share more knowledge!

Again, happy Africa day!

The full list of languages for which there is now a keyboard in ULS and jquery.ime:

  • Afrikaans
  • Akan
  • Amharic
  • Bambara
  • Berber
  • Dagbani
  • Dinka
  • Ewe
  • Fula
  • Fon
  • Ga
  • Hausa
  • Igbo
  • Kabiye
  • Kabyle
  • Kikuyu
  • Luganda
  • Lingala
  • Malagasy
  • N’Ko
  • Sango
  • Sotho
  • Northern Sotho
  • Koyraboro Senni Songhay
  • Tigrinya
  • Vai
  • Venda
  • Wolof
  • Yoruba

Beggar Old

A strange little childhood memory about Percy Bysshe Shelley and me.

It was 1990 or so. I lived in Moscow and studied in the fifth or six grade in a special school with deepened learning of English, which means that English is taught from the second grade, almost every day, and by good teachers. In case it isn’t clear, it’s very good.

The English teacher asked everyone to choose an English poem, to learn it by heart and to recite it in class. I didn’t quite know what to choose, and my parents suggested I phone a relative who knew English well. He suggested Summer And Winter by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

It was a bright and cheerful afternoon,
Towards the end of the sunny month of June,
When the north wind congregates in crowds
The floating mountains of the silver clouds
From the horizon—and the stainless sky
Opens beyond them like eternity.
All things rejoiced beneath the sun; the weeds,
The river, and the cornfields, and the reeds;
The willow leaves that glanced in the light breeze,
And the firm foliage of the larger trees.

It was a winter such as when birds die
In the deep forests; and the fishes lie
Stiffened in the translucent ice, which makes
Even the mud and slime of the warm lakes
A wrinkled clod as hard as brick; and when,
Among their children, comfortable men
Gather about great fires, and yet feel cold:
Alas, then, for the homeless beggar old!

If it looks very difficult and bleak for a ten year old elementary schools student, then it’s because it is, indeed, difficult and bleak.

I don’t remember how exactly did he get the poem’s text to me. He lived in another neighborhood of Moscow, quite far away. It was 1990, so he didn’t email it, of course. He didn’t photocopy it, either. I remember that it was handwritten. Maybe he sent it as a letter or maybe my parents met him and he gave it to them after manually copying from a book.

I don’t have the slightest idea why did that relative choose this poem. He spoke to me on the phone and explained all the difficult words, but he didn’t explain what’s special about it. Is it famous? Does he love it dearly for some personal reason? Does it have a relevant social message? Maybe—just maybe—we were supposed to choose something related to seasons or weather?

A day later I showed this to my English teacher and she was shocked by the difficulty and offered something much simpler. I don’t remember what it was, but I followed her advice. I did, however, remembered the last line with “alas”, and “beggar old”.

I’d love to speak to this relative some day and ask him what was he thinking.

Disease of Familiarity, the Flaw of Wikipedia

Originally written as an answer to the question What are some major flaws in Wikipedia? on Quora. Republished here with some changes.

Wikipedia has a whole lot of flaws, and its basic meta-flaw is the disease of familiarity.

It does not mean what you think it means. The disease of familiarity is knowing so much about something that you don’t understand what it is like to not understand it.

I recognized this phenomenon in 2011 or so, and called it The Software Localization Paradox. I later realized that it has a lot of other aspects beyond software localization, so I thought a lot about it and struggled for years with giving it a name. I learned about the term “disease of familiarity” from Richard Saul Wurman, best known as the creator of the TED conference (see a note about it at the end of this post). Some other names for this phenomenon are “curse of knowledge” and “mind blindness”. See also Is there a name for “knowing so much about something that you don’t understand what is it like not to know it”?

Unfortunately, none of these terms is very famous, and their meaning is not obvious without some explanation. What’s even worse, the phenomenon is in general hard to explain because of its very nature. But I’ll try to give a few examples.

Wikipedia doesn’t make it easy for people to understand its jargon.

Wikipedia calls itself “The Free encyclopedia”; what does it mean that it’s “free”? I wrote Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia, one of the essays on this topic (there are others), but it’s not official or authoritative, and more importantly, the fact that this essay exists doesn’t mean that everybody who starts writing for Wikipedia reads it and understands the ideology behind it, and its implications. An important implication of this ideology is that according to the ideology of the Free Culture movement, of which Wikipedia is a part, is that some images and pieces of text can be copied from other sites into Wikipedia, and some cannot. The main reason for this is copyright law. People often copy text or images that are not compatible with the policies, and since this is heavily enforced by experienced Wikipedia editors, this causes misunderstandings. Wikipedia’s interface could communicate these policies better, but experienced Wikipedians, who already know them, rarely think about this problem. Disease of familiarity.

Wikipedia calls itself “a wiki”. A lot of people think that it’s just a meaningless catchy brand name, like “Kodak”. Some others think that it refers to the markup language in which the site is written. Yet others think that it’s an acronym that means “what I know is”. None of these interpretations is correct. The actual meaning of “wiki” is “a website that anyone can edit”. The people who are experienced with editing Wikipedia know this, and assume that everybody else does, but the truth is that a lot of new people don’t understand it and are afraid of editing pages that others had written, or freak out when somebody edits what they had written. Disease of familiarity.

The most common, built-in way for communication between the different Wikipedians is the talk page. Only Wikipedia and other sites that use the MediaWiki software use the term “talk page”. Other sites call such a thing “forum”, “comments”, or “discussion”. (To make things more confusing, Wikipedia itself occasionally calls it “discussion”.) Furthermore, talk pages, which started on Wikipedia in 2001, before commenting systems like Disqus, phpBB, Facebook, or Reddit were common, work in a very weird way: you need to manually indent each of your posts, you need to manually sign your name, and you need to use a lot of obscure markup and templates (“what are templates?!”, every new user must wonder). Experienced editors are so accustomed to doing this that they assume that everybody knows this. Disease of familiarity.

A lot of pages in Wikipedia in English and in many other languages have infoboxes. For example, in articles about cities and towns there’s an infobox that shows a photo, the name of the mayor, the population, etc. When you’re writing an article about your town, you’ll want to insert an infobox. Which button do you use to do this? There’s no “Infobox” button, and even if there were, you wouldn’t know that you need to look for it because “Infobox” is a word in Wikipedia’s internal jargon. What you actually have to do is Insert → Template → type “Infobox settlement”, and fill a form. Every step here is non-intuitive, especially the part where you have to type the template’s name. Where are you supposed to know it from? Also, these steps are how it works on the English Wikipedia, and in other languages it works differently. Disease of familiarity.

And this brings us to the next big topic: Language.

You see, when I talk about Wikipedia, I talk about Wikipedia in all languages at once. Otherwise, I talk about the English Wikipedia, the Japanese Wikipedia, the Arabic Wikipedia, and so on. Most people are not like me: when they talk about Wikipedia, they talk about the one in the language in which they read most often. Quite often it’s not their first language; for example, a whole lot of people read the Wikipedia in English even though English is their second language and they don’t even know that there is a Wikipedia in their own language. When these people say “Wikipedia” they actually mean “the English Wikipedia”.

There’s nothing bad in it by itself. It’s usually natural to read in a language that you know best and not to care very much about other languages.

But here’s where it gets complicated: Technically, there are editions of Wikipedia in about 300 languages. This number is pretty meaningless, however: There are about 7,000 languages in the world, so not the whole world is covered, and only in 100 languages or so there is a Wikipedia in which there is actually some continuous writing activity. In the other 200 the activity is only sporadic, or there is no activity at all—somebody just started writing something in that language, and a domain was created, but then the first people who started it lost interest and nobody else came to continue their work.

This is pretty sad because it’s frequently forgotten that a whole lot of people cannot read what they want in Wikipedia because they don’t know a language in which there is an article about what they want to learn. If you are reading this post, you have the privilege of knowing English, and it’s hard for you to imagine how does a person who doesn’t know English feel. Disease of familiarity: You think you can tell everybody “if you want to know something, read about it in Wikipedia”, but you cannot actually tell this to most people because most people don’t know English.

The missed opportunity becomes even more horrific when you realize that the people who would have the most appropriate skills for breaking out of this paradox are the people who are least likely to notice it, and the people who are hurt by it the most are the least capable of fixing it themselves. Think about it:

  • If you know, for example, Russian and English, and you need to read about a topic on which there is an article in the English Wikipedia, but not in Russian, you can read the English Wikipedia, and it’s possible that you won’t even notice that an article in Russian doesn’t exist. Unless you exercise mindfulness about the issue, you won’t empathize with people who don’t know English. To break out of this cycle, one can practice the following:
    • Always look for articles in Russian first.
    • Dedicate some time every week to translating articles. (See How does Wikipedia handle page translation?)
    • When you talk to people in your language, don’t assume that they know English.
  • A person who doesn’t know English is just stuck without an article, and there’s not much to do. It’s possible that you don’t even know that the article you need exists in another language. And maybe you cannot even read the user manual that teaches you how to edit. What can you do?
    • Try to be bold and ask your friends who do know English to translate it for you and publish the translation for the benefit of all the people who speak your language.
    • (Of course, there’s the solution of learning English, but we can’t assume that it works. Evidently, there are billions of people who don’t know English, and they won’t all learn English any time soon.)

(In case it isn’t clear, you can replace “English” and “Russian” in the example above with any other pair of languages.)

It’s particularly painful in countries where English, French, or Portuguese is the dominant language of government and education, even though a lot of the people, often the majority, don’t actually know it. This is true for many countries in Africa, as well as for Philippines, and to a certain extent also in India and Pakistan.

People who know English have a very useful aid for their school studies in the form of Wikipedia. People who don’t know English are left behind: the teachers don’t have Wikipedia to get help with planning the lessons and the students don’t have Wikipedia to get help with homework. The people who know English and study in English-medium schools have these things and don’t even notice how the other people—often their friends!—are left behind. Disease of familiarity.

Finally, most of the people who write in the 70 or so most successful Wikipedias don’t quite realize that the reason the Wikipedia in their language is successful is that before they had a Wikipedia, they had had another printed or digital encyclopedia, possibly more than one; and they had public libraries, and schools, and universities, and all those other things, which allowed them to imagine quite easily how would a free encyclopedia look like. A lot of languages have never had these things, and a Wikipedia would be the first major collection of educational materials in them. This would be pretty awesome, but this develops very slowly. People who write in the successful Wikipedia projects don’t realize that they just had to take the same concepts they already knew well and rebuild them in cyberspace, without having to jump through any conceptual epistemological hoops.

Disease of familiarity.

It’s hard to explain this.

I unfortunately suspect that very few, if any, people will understand this boring, long, and conceptually difficult post. If you disagree, please comment. If you think that you understand what I’m trying to say, but you have a simpler or shorter way to say it, please comment or suggest an edit (and tell your friends). If you have more examples of the disease of familiarity in Wikipedia and elsewhere, please speak up.

Thank you.

(As promised above, a note about Richard Saul Wurman. I heard him introduce the “disease of familiarity” concept in an interview with Debbie Millman on her podcast Design Matters, at about 23 minutes in. That interview was one of this podcast’s weirdest episodes: you can clearly hear that he’s making Millman uncomfortable, and she also mentioned it on Twitter. This, in turn, makes me uncomfortable to discuss something I learned from that interview, but I am just unable to find any better terminology for the phenomenon in question. If you have suggestions, please send them my way.)

Disclaimer: I’m a contractor working with the Wikimedia Foundation, but this post, as well as all my other posts on the topic of Wikimedia, Wikipedia, and related projects, are my own opinions and do not represent the Wikimedia Foundation.

Why Did I Leave Quora, Why It Is Not Such a Big Deal, and Why Do I Nevertheless Hope to Come Back

This post is sad and angry. I don’t mention any names, but some people may read it and identify themselves here. Here’s my request to these people: I hope that this doesn’t hurt you personally. It’s not my intention to hurt anyone personally. All people have to do their jobs; sometimes they are happy about what they do despite some people’s complaints, sometimes they aren’t happy, but do it anyway because they need to pay bills, or because that it’s necessary for some kind of greater good. I totally get it. There’s a certain chance that I’ll meet some of you online or in real life. If this ever happens, I hope you don’t feel embarrassed or intimidated. I’ll be happy to meet you and I promise to be friendly. Thanks for understanding.

I used to be a prolific writer on the question and answer website Quora. I was even named a “Top Writer” four times. Sadly, in 2018 this once-fine website ruined itself.

The problematic signs were there even earlier, but the true catastrophe began with the “Links” feature. This feature adds links to articles on other websites to the Quora feed. Before this feature’s introduction the feed consisted mostly of questions and answers, as one would expect from, you know, a questions and answers website.

The articles and the websites shown as “Links” in the feed are selected automatically by Quora’s software. How does this software work is a mystery. There appears to be some intention to show things that are related to the topics that the user follows, but it also suggests unrelated topics. Sometimes they are labelled “Topic you might like”. Sometimes they aren’t labelled at all:

There’s no way to select a website to follow and see links from. There is a way to mute websites, but other sites will be shown instead.

There’s also no way to remove all the Links from the feed completely. By popular demand from Quora users, a volunteer made a browser extension called “Qure” that does it, but it only works on the web and not on the Quora mobile app.

The Link items in the feed look almost exactly like questions, which is severely distracting, and feels out of place. Quora staff people who work on this feature know it—”the links feel out of place” is a direct quote from a staff person. They know that many users dislike them, but they choose to show them anyway. “We’ll show links less to people who don’t like them” is also a direct quote from a staff person.

Let this sink in: They know that some people don’t like the links, and they show them to these people anyway. My logic—I won’t even bother calling it “ethics”—tells me that when you know that a person doesn’t like a thing, you don’t show that thing to that person at all unless you have a particularly good reason and you can explain it.

Another problematic feature that Quora introduced in 2018 is “Share”. This sounds like a sensible thing to have on any modern website, but on Quora it has a somewhat different meaning. “Sharing” on Quora means putting an item in your followers’ feed with a comment.

This is similar to retweeting with a comment on Twitter. It works fairly well on Twitter, but Quora is not Twitter. In Twitter everything is limited to 280 characters—the tweets and the comments on retweets. On Quora answers can and should be longer, but the comments are short, and this feels imbalanced.

What’s worse, even though Quora says that the comments on shared items “provide additional insight“, they are actually rather pointless. In fact, many of them are not even really written by people, but filled semi-automatically: “This is interesting“, “This is informative”, “Great summary”, “I recommend reading this“, etc. Those that are actually written by humans are not much better, for example: “H.R. has been a wonderful teacher and excellent writer. Since joining Quora last year I’ve latched on to his brilliance – he’s earned his place firmly”. This says nothing substantial that couldn’t be expressed by simply upvoting the writer’s answer.

Both links and answers can be shared. I’ve just explained why sharing answers is pointless. Sharing links is a weird thing: On one hand, seeing a link that was shared by a Quora user makes relatively more sense than seeing a link that was added to the feed by faceless software for some reason I don’t know. In practice, however, it doesn’t make the link any more sensible or useful. Shared links feel totally relevant on Facebook and Twitter, but Quora is neither Facebook nor Twitter. It’s a site for questions and answers, or at least it used to be one.

And then there are the items that are questions or answers, but that are shown to me on my feed for mysterious reasons: They are categorized under a topic I don’t follow, they are written by users that I don’t follow, and they weren’t even upvoted or shared by users that I do follow. They are just totally, completely unrelated to me.

Occasionally they are labelled as “Topic you might like” or “Author you might like”, but sometimes they don’t even carry this label.

It’s difficult to discuss this feature because unlike “Share” and “Links” it doesn’t even have a name. It’s just… random stuff that I didn’t ask to see, and that appears in my feed. In this blog post I’ll call it Nonsense. It’s not a nice name, but that’s what it is. (I really want to know this feature’s real name. It surely has one. If you are on Quora staff, please tell me what it is. I won’t reveal your identity.)

I would possibly understand showing this Nonsense to new users: Quora may want to suggest you stuff to follow to get you hooked. But I’ve had the account for seven years, I follow lots of people and topics, I visit the site several times a day, and I know very well what I want.

What’s worse, Nonsense items are shown to me while many items written by people I do follow are not. I followed people on Quora because their personality or knowledge genuinely interested me. To me, “Follow” means that I’m interested in seeing stuff written by these people. But Quora decided to disregard my specific request, and to show me Nonsense instead.

There’s no way to run away from Link items, from Share items, and from Nonsense items. Quora has a Mute feature, but for the most part it does more harm than good:

  • When you mute a Link item it mutes a particular link source, for example New York Times or Breitbart (yes, both are available), but when you mute one source, other sources are shown instead and there appears to be no end to it.
  • When you see an answer on a topic you don’t follow, you can mute that topic, but this (probably) means that if an answer is written in this topic by a user that you do follow, you won’t see it. This is often not what one wants. For example, “Entertainment” is a topic on which answers are often shown to me, even though I don’t follow it. I don’t want to see this random answers, but if a user I follow posts an answer in a question for which this is one of the topics, I’d be OK with seeing it.
  • When you see an “Author you might like”, and you don’t actually like that author, you can mute them. As above, this is not necessarily what I want: If that author happens to write an answer on a topic I follow, I’ll be OK with seeing it. I just don’t want to see that author’s answers when they are completely unrelated to me, but this is a feature, and there’s no way to get rid of it.

When I first saw the Links in February 2018, I was immediately appalled: What is this thing that is neither a question nor an answer?! When I saw that I cannot remove them from my feed, I pretty much immediately decided to stop using the site. It was clear to me that something is badly wrong.

Even thought I deleted my Facebook account in 2015, I created a new one some time after the links were introduced, just so that I could join the private Quora Top Writers Feedback group. For several months I tried talking to the Quora staff people in that group and understand: Why do the links even exist? Why are they so random and useless? Why are pointless items shown to me? I got almost zero substantial replies.

I intentionally came back to sincerely using Quora, thinking that the algorithms will learn my behavior, and show me more relevant links, or no links at all. This didn’t work, of course, and Quora became even worse when the awful Share and Nonsense features were added, so in June 2018 I stopped posting there almost completely.

After some more time, the Facebook group’s moderator didn’t like my questions about these unfortunate features, and removed me from the group, too. The explanation was that they were repetitive, which is understandable; what is less understandable is that instead of removing me from the group they could try answering the questions. They didn’t. They did suggest sending my complaints to a particular email address for Top Writers. I did it, and I received no reply.

So that’s it, I guess.

A legitimate question arises: Could I use Quora without the feed? Not really, because the best thing about Quora was that before the disastrous 2018 changes it showed me answers that interest me and questions that need answers on topics about which I know something. Without this, the site is not that useful. It moved to being oriented much more towards readers who are prone to click on clickbait and to writers who are local Quora “stars”. I don’t belong to either group.

(Before I go into the last conclusions, I should mention one unrelated and very positive thing that Quora did in 2018: Expansion of its internationalization efforts. For years, Quora used to be explicitly English-only. Later, Quora introduced sites in several new languages, among them Spanish, German, Hindi, Portuguese, Indonesian, and French. It also added an answer translation feature, which, while not yet implemented perfectly, is a step in a very good direction. I hope that it gets developed further and doesn’t get killed.)

I have a bit of a price to pay for publishing this blog post. I probably won’t be a top writer again (this came with pretty nice swag). I might be banned; not that it matters, because I plan to deactivate the account anyway. I may run into Quora staff people at professional conferences, and things may get awkward (see the top of this answer—I do hope to meet you, and I hope that it won’t get too awkward).

But at the same time… it’s not actually a big deal. Even though before 2018 Quora was a really nice place to ask my questions and to answer questions for which people need an answer, it is nowhere near being a truly essential site like Wikipedia. Stopping to read and write there every day allowed me to focus better on family and work, and also to revive some old neglected projects, such as translating Wikipedia articles or proofreading Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar at Wikisource.

All that said, yeah, I’d probably be happy to come back. The web does need a good question and answer site, with relevant topics, with pleasant design, and with good moderation. Quora used to be such a site. It is no longer such a site, with or without me. It can easily go back to being one. However, this will only happen when it becomes possible to remove Links, Shared items, and Nonsense from the feed.

A couple of last conclusions:

  1. On a website that has the characteristics of being a social network or a writers community, users need to be empowered somehow. It’s not easy, and it has costs, but when it’s done right, it’s worth it. Wikipedia empowers its users ridiculously: on no other site can the users edit the site’s CSS and JavaScript (not all users, but a lot of them). Reddit is not as transparent as Wikipedia, but it’s quite empowering as well: subreddit moderators can pressure the site’s management. The results of this pressure may be unpleasant and controversial, but it’s nevertheless good to have balances. Quora users are not empowered at all. It gives the company a lot of control, but is it actually good?
  2. Some people enjoy random weird algorithmically-selected stuff, and some people don’t. I hate the Links, and the Nonsense items, and a lot of other users hate them, but some people are fine with them. And that’s OK. That’s what preferences are for.

Amir Aharoni’s Little Take on the Lodestar Affair

In case you haven’t heard, an op-ed called I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration was published in the New York Times on September 5. It was allegedly written by an anonymous senior person in the White House, and it made a whole lot of noise in the news.

People immediately started guessing who this is. One of the popular guesses is that it’s vice president Mike Pence, because the article uses the word “lodestar”, which is relatively rare, but unusually common in Pence’s past speeches.

And here’s my tiny, tiny conspiracy theory about it: “lodestar” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the day on August 28. Being a dictionary lover, I listen to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day podcast every day using Podcast Addict, a simple RSS-based podcast player. I didn’t hear this episode. If you try to download this episode using Podcast Addict, you’ll see that the title is “lodestar”, but in fact it’s the episode for “rubric“, the previous day’s episode.

It’s kind of weird, but maybe it’s a total coincidence. Maybe the person who wrote the op-ed just follows the word of the day not through the podcast, but elsewhere on the web. And maybe it has nothing to do with Merriam-Webster, and they are just an educated person who knows words like “lodestar”.

But hey, feel free to spread the rumor that Merriam-Webster is trying to subvert the government, or make up whatever other nonsense you want.

There’s Nothing Particularly Good About Long Wikipedia Articles. Let’s Make Them Shorter

Wikipedia used to have a warning about articles of a certain size. If I recall correctly, it was 64KB. As far as I understand, the reason for this was more engineering-oriented than user-experience-oriented: Loading a larger page was slower, because networks were slower, or at least so some people thought.

Wikipedia no longer has this warning. It’s not unusual to have a page of 250KB or more. I don’t participate in discussions about performance, but the discussions that I do see are about the time that it takes to parse the templates server-side, to load JavaScript modules, and to render the CSS; they are not so much about the kilobyte size of the pages themselves.

I suspect, however, that there is a problem with page length. Not one of performance engineering, but of user experience. Do people actually read whole encyclopedic articles in Wikipedia? In case you haven’t guessed it already, my hypothesis is that most people don’t.

This is my hypothesis because of the famous debunking of a designer myth: people usually don’t read texts.

It should be clarified right away that the notion that people don’t read whole Wikipedia article is not, by itself, a problem. It may be a bit sad for people who invest hours (or years!) in writing the brilliant prose of each excellent article, but the point of Wikipedia is not supposed to be getting millions of people to read very long articles. Rather, it’s making information that they need accessible, and making it as easy as possible for everybody to edit this information.

Do long articles make finding information easy? Probably not. Experienced Wikipedia editors are familiar with article structure, with tricks like Find in Page, and so on, but a lot of readers are not.

So here’s my call: Let’s bring back article length warning in some form. The importance of a topic doesn’t necessarily justify having a very long article about it. The purpose is not to have a long page, but to make information easy to find. If splitting an article to several pages makes the information easier to find, then the readers will of course be happy, and the editors who invest their effort in writing a lot about a topic should be happy, too, because their writing is more likely to be actually read.

Wikimedia Strategy Phase 1: What Does It Mean for Me and (Maybe) for Language Diversity in Wikipedia

The Wikimedia Foundation is leading a process to write a strategy for the Wikimedia movement. This process takes over a year. A few months ago, the conclusion of Phase 1 of this process was published: The strategic direction.

Some central concepts in this document are “knowledge as a service” and “knowledge equity”. Some people said that it’s too vague and high-level, and that it can be interpreted in a lot of ways. This is true, especially in a movement that is as culturally and linguistically diverse as Wikimedia. Perhaps this is intentional, so that people will be able to interpret this in any way that feels right for them.

Recently I was filling a registration form for Wikimedia Conference 2018. This form was very long, and it asked what do the concepts that appear in the strategic direction document mean to me. My answers were longish, and since there’s nothing secret about them, and they may (or may not) interest some people, I copied them from the form to this blog post. I edited them slightly for publishing here so that the context will be clearer, but the essence is the same as what I submitted.

Knowledge as a service

The knowledge that Wikimedia projects already contain is available through all common channels of communication: in addition to being available on the website, it must be findable on all search engines in all languages and countries, browsable on devices of all operating systems whether open or not, browsable as much as possible through social networks and chat applications, embeddable in other apps, etc.

It must be easy for all people, whether they are knowledgeable about computers or not, to contribute their knowledge to Wikimedia sites, and humanity in general should know that Wikimedia sites is the place where they contribute their knowledge and not only learn it.

Knowledge equity

What it means to me is:

  • That all people, of all ages and all kinds of identities, of all countries, who speak all languages, must be able to read and write in their language.
  • That we will fight whenever it’s reasonable against censorship and against all kinds of chilling effects that deter potential contributors or threaten their well-being.
  • That we remain independent of commercial and political entities by strictly refusing to carry political and commercial advertising and to accept unreasonable limited grants.
  • That all the software that is useful for reading and writing on our sites must be easily usable in all languages, whether it’s core software, extensions, templates, or gadgets.
  • That we don’t depend on any non-Free or otherwise unethical software, even if it appears to make consuming and contributing knowledge easier.
  • That we set a goal of having good coverage for core content in all languages and actively pursue it and not leave it only to the community’s “invisible hand”.
  • That we set a goal that the most popular Wikimedia projects in each country are in that country’s most spoken languages and not in a foreign language.

What kind of conditions do you need to realize these activities?

Describe what you think would be good conditions for you to move forward in this direction. Think of conditions in the broadest sense; e.g., capacity, skills, partnerships, clarification, structures and processes, room for development or experimentation, financial resources, people, access to other means of support etc.

We need to partner with academic institutions that work on topics that are not currently covered by our projects because of systemic bias.

We need to partner more with organizations that have expertise in developing minorized and under-resourced languages, working on the ground in the countries where these languages are spoken.

We need easy access to data about the social and political situations in poorer countries, and if such data doesn’t exist at all, we need to lead research that creates such data ourselves.

We need a new attitude to developing software for our sites: we need to understand what do our communities actually do on the sites with gadgets and templates rather than just developing new extensions that may be shiny, but are hard to integrate into the sites, each of which is heavily customized.

What I wrote in that form is a good description of my current attitude to what the priorities of Wikimedia movement should be, at least in terms of ideology and values. You can clearly see my interests: remembering that language support is important and that most people don’t speak English; remembering that we are not supposed to be an American non-profit organization, but an international movement that happens to have an office in the U.S.; remembering that we are also a part of the Free Software movement; remembering that good software engineering are important, even if engineering alone can’t solve all the problems.

For people who have doubts: This post represents my own opinions, and doesn’t express the opinion of the Wikimedia Foundation or any of its employees or managers.