My Wikimedia Rant

Note: Please, please continue uploading my comics to WikiMedia Commons, beloved uploaders! Nina’s Adventures is next. I completely endorse and support this work! Thank you! I love you! I post the rant below because, well, it’s on my mind now, and life isn’t perfect.


July 24, 2009
I wrote the rant below yesterday and emailed it to my friend Mike Caprio, who responded:

There’s a really long history of this kind of thing with Wikipedia. I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at the (quite long) essay that Jason Scott wrote 5+ years ago on the subject. When he posted this, it caused a tempest in the teapot, and then that tempest lead to a lot of major news outlets questioning Wikipedia itself – you may not want to tread again over the same paths that he did, or people might not pay close enough attention to what you’re trying to say. To Jason’s credentials: he’s basically a well-spoken techie guy who’s been online forever and has basically gotten himself one way or another into the middle of just about every major phenom that’s crawled up out of the Internet. For bonus points, check out the second article entitled “Swastikipedia”.

So I’m wandering down a well-trod path.

July 23, 2009

I spend most of my time trying to show other artists that it’s “safe” to free their art under CC-SA – that Free Culture is a superior alternative to the world of proprietary culture, with its attendant gatekeepers and commercial censors.

Within 12 hours of making my very first Wikimedia Commons user page, an admin judged it:
“a pretty promotional page with links on & equally appear to promote someone’s commercial work” and deleted it.

So my first experience of Wikimedia feels not like an alternative to the proprietary culture industry I disdain; it feels the same, in the worst way. In the commercial world, an individual with the authority to determine whether others see works submitted is kindly called a “gatekeeper.” The proprietary culture industries are called the “gatekeeper system.” The system fails because a handful of individuals are vested with the authority to make or break works, to decide whether or not they get exposed to a larger audience. These individuals simply aren’t competent to judge everything they are entrusted to filter. Overworked individuals even less so; they don’t feel they can afford the time to do rudimentary research, or learn anything about the subject in question.

If I weren’t 100% committed to Free Culture, I would have read the “out of scope” message and left, not to return. I know Wikimedia is a community which has its own ways of doing things, and I should learn (I tried, by the way – my best efforts led to an almost instant deletion, and I’m a lot more savvy than most artists), it’s all part of the “noob” experience, etc. I complain here because as tight a community as Wikimedia is, it is part of a larger world of Knowledge. I have been told Wikimedia’s goal is sharing educational knowledge freely, with a sense of neutrality and balance. When an admin deletes unfamiliar work, he ensures everyone’s “knowledge” is limited to his own. The boundaries of “knowledge” will consequently remain very small in such a system. If Wikimedia Commons maintains such practices, it is unlikely to gain relevance beyond its own limited circle of users, which will consequently remain small.

This is not a personal critique, any more than the deletion of my user page was personal. I know it was not. I am mostly concerned with the microculture in which this occurred. If another Wikimedian hadn’t been corresponding with me already, no one would have reinstated my user page. No one would have noticed its deletion in the first place. Few artists have a supporter behind the Wiki-wall to help them in such circumstances. No “content creator” should need an insider to correct such problems. Wikimedia shouldn’t be an insider system; we have Hollywood for that.

Finally, my work was under suspicion because it looked “commercial.” The admin suspected I didn’t really have my own permission to upload my works under a CC-SA license. Finding that “Internalization of the Permission Culture” here of all places is disappointing. (“Commercial” shouldn’t be a consideration anyway. Much relevant/educational culture is commercial: movies, books, science, music, software, engineering, etc. Textbooks and academic journals are notoriously commercial. In fact, “non-commercial” licenses are not allowed on Wikimedia Commons. So “commercial” should not be a criterion here.) The admin’s judgement also exemplifies a bias within and outside the Free Culture movement: if it doesn’t look “amateur”, it can’t be Free. Open licenses (particularly CC licenses) are becoming a brand for “amateurs and hippies.” Professional artists may eschew such licenses for the stigma alone. The Free Culture movement should be working to expand popular perceptions of what free can be, and reaching out to accomplished professional creators. What happened here is the opposite.

July 24, 2009
After reading Scott’s articles, and reviewing my own, I conclude: Wikimedia IS a Gatekeeper System and an Insider System. The only difference is Wikimedia gatekeepers are software nerds*, whereas proprietary culture industry gatekeepers are “money people” – investors and their trusted servants.

The question is, who do we want guarding the gates of our culture? Investors or nerds? They behave remarkably similarly. Corporate gatekeepers may claim they’re doing their jobs for money, but I suspect they really do it for the sheer thrill of gatekeeping, just as the unpaid Wikimedians do. Gatekeeping must be hella fun.

I still dream of world in which there are no gates to be guarded. That is the dream of Free Culture. Fortunately, Free Culture is bigger than Wikimedia. People will find ways to access and share knowledge outside of that system. I dream.

As long as I’m cooperating with commercial gatekeepers (professional distributors and publishers), I will cooperate with the nerd gatekeepers too. My work flows around the gates, but it can flow through them too. It’s just not as inspiring.

*Nerd is not a pejorative in my lexicon. I was raised nerd by nerds. I love nerds. But I hate gatekeepers.


16 thoughts on “My Wikimedia Rant”

  1. Hello Nina,

    Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from the name Wikimedia. You might have thought that Wikimedia was for all kinds of free media. But in fact what Wikimedia provides with Wikimedia Commons is a repository for “Educational” free media.

    “Examples of files that are not realistically useful for an educational purpose” :

    “Private image collections, e.g. private party photos, photos of yourself and your friends, your collection of holiday snaps and so on.”
    “Self-created artwork without obvious educational use.”

    Quoted from :

    Anyway, to understand your problem and give a more accurate answer it would be good if you could upload the files on your blog or on give a link to the files which were deleted so that we could know what all this is about.

  2. Teofilo: Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from the name Nina Paley. You might have thought that Nina Paley was an idiot. But in fact Nina Paley isn’t what you automatically assumed, given you’ve done not a whit of research on her.


  3. Hey Teofilo: What exactly is “allowable” about the Harry Potter fan art on this page that makes it not “self-created artwork without obvious educational use”?

    And please tell me how Nina is not a notable figure? Her feature length animation won the Crystal for best feature in France, and has toured globally at film festivals all last year.

    “Commons is not a free web host, and we cannot accept collections of original art whose purpose is merely to showcase the talents of the artist (unless the artist is a notable figure in which case we will host them).”

    Maybe you should add a line to your procedures for admins that says “do a quick Google search to see if a person is a notable figure before you delete them.”

  4. This is fun – it’s like Bible scholars fighting each other by quoting chapter and verse!

    Thou shalt not delete a notable figure, sayeth the Wiki Lord!

  5. gah. That really is a pile of crap. 🙁
    There’s very little about their site that would lead one to imagine that only “educational” (and how is this defined exactly?) works are acceptable. As of this moment, the “Welcome” page drops the word briefly next to free media, but not one mention of it in the FAQ or the front page. If it’s that important, why obscure it?

    The other thing I’m not thrilled with is, why the summary deletion? Why not a more robust communication model where the Gatekeeper can at least interview the Submitter to double check assumptions?


    I suppose you could always see about hosting your own GatekeeperFree wiki for this sort of thing, if that’s what you’re looking for.

  6. Lulu

    The number of commercial artists releasing their content under free licenses is so small as to be dwarfed by the number of people uploading content to which they have no rights. Commons gets a *lot* of spam and junk, so the relatively small number of administrators end up sometimes cutting with too wide a swath. It is a deficiency of the volunteer model, but they do the best they can.

    Suggests for improvements are always welcome, since Commons is the media repository that anyone can edit.

  7. It’s actually a deficiency of the copyright system, not the volunteer model.

    My suggestion is that Commons discourage users from enforcing ©ensorship. Stick to the mission of “sharing educational knowledge freely, with a sense of neutrality and balance.” Copyright enforcement isn’t compatible with that mission. Copyright enforcement isn’t compatible with Free Culture, period.

  8. Hello Nina/admin and crew!

    This isn’t about gatekeeping. Yes, Wikimedia Commons as a not-quite-the-kitchen-sink archive has some standards for inclusion/exclusion, and you disagree with some of them. That’s important, and Nina-v-Commons with copyright overtones should have its time to be heard.

    But gatekeeping wasn’t what started the deletion and this post. Nina’s work was clearly notable and interesting and not deleted. Only her userpage was deleted, in error and in a breach of politeness.

    As for nerds, Wikimedia admins come from all over – anyone who cares about the project can eventually become an admin. Many are not nerds by any standard definition 🙂

    This is about hastiness, a lack of politeness, and not assuming good faith. The sort of assumption of bad faith that led Nina to lash out at Teofilo above (uncalled for; he is a friendly long-time wikimedian who made specific suggestions to try to help, not realizing the exact context).

    It is widespread, it requires constant vigilance to avoid, and it is very unwiki. In places you seem to compare to wikimedia, but does not have a community to speak of, so there is little opportunity for comparison. This makes it an excellent dropbox for materials, but not an example of collaboration. If you have an example of a collaborative project that does not have this same issue of regularly assuming bad faith in the process of maintaining balance, I should like to read more about it.

    As to copyright enforcement, finally, please start another thread on the topic – I disagree with your last statement (ignoring copyright issues leads to one sort of sharing-restriction; attending to them, to another), but don’t want to muddy this thread.

  9. Mike, I’m not saying Nina is not notable. I’m saying Nina’s definition of Wikimedia as “an alternative to the proprietary culture industry” is too broad. The definition of Wikimedia is more something like “an alternative to the proprietary culture industry as far as the contents have a more or less educational value”.

    I can’t give an opinion on whether the pictures are suitable for Commons until I can see them. That’s why I strongly suggest to upload the pictures on this blog so that everybody can see them and make his/her own opinion.

    Who is the person signing as “admin” ? If Nina Paley reads this blog, I advise her to hire another admin who might be more friendly with people trying to help.

  10. Sorry Teofilo. The images are on this very blog, next post down:
    I shouldn’t have attacked to you personally. The use of “WE” among Wikimedians confused me; Wikemdians refer to themselves as “we” and “us” (my talk page includes messages like “I’m rather sorry if you as an artist don’t understand that we try to take care for the rights of artists” and “calling copyright ‘censorship’ isn’t going to get far with us“). When an individual claims their opinions and biases represent an entire community, a newcomer like me can get confused and believe them. But you didn’t do that; my snark was directed at a fictitious “THEM,” not you.

    @SJ, Thanks as always for your input. My blog is very “unwiki”, and that’s where we are right now.

  11. Personally here:

    You appear to be notable enough to have a Wikipedia article, so I don’t think you’re not notable enough to have a category on Commons. Just be careful, maybe look at other user pages, and maybe I’ll make a “This user is famous enough to have his or her own gallery on Commons” userbox

  12. IMHO the comparisson of a specific project like wikimedia, focused on educational content (whatever that means) with the “proprietary culture industry” (whatever that means) gatekeepers is a little bit unfair.

    Wikimedia is not the alternative for the proprietary culture industry. The Internet as a whole is. What makes the Internet so powerful is that *anyone* can be a hosting node for culture, which means no gatekeepers at all, worst case scenario one could host and publish their stuff on their own computers, without having to depend on *any* gatekeeper.

    Bottom line: if project A or B refuses your content, just move to a different node. That is the real difference between the hollywood model and the web, wikimedia is not the internet. Although, to be fair, Wikimedia is really good project for the purposes they have set, as so is and other nice people willing to share their resources with others.

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