Fringe positions and presentation standards

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Fringe positions and presentation standards

Gregory Maxwell
One weakness I've noticed across all the Wikimanias I've attended (in
person or remotely) is that we frequently have talks and panels
presented by inexperienced speakers without particular expertise in
the topics they're presenting. The presenters are not personally
interesting enough (either because of their particular position of
authority or expertise, or general notability/celebrity) that people
would come to hear them share their private opinions on a topic of
general community interest without the expectation of a well-prepared
and well-researched presentation. These talks are often well-attended
because of their subject matter, but they sometimes cover the material
poorly.

Some talks at Wikimania are clearly about personal viewpoints,
personal experience, personally conducted research, etc., and I'm not
writing about these. I'm talking about the many talks on general
issues (of historical or future importance) which cover subject matter
which has already gotten a great amount of community deliberation.
E.g. "Some Measurements of Page sizes" vs "Naming disputes on
Wikipedia".

Many of the general interest talks are good.  But some are not—some
promote fringe views and many others are just incomplete to the point
of being misleading. Experienced Wikimedians recognize which talks
these will be, and either avoid them, or attend and roll their eyes
(if they're in a drama-indulging mood).  But the audience at Wikimania
includes a large number of people who are inexperienced or even from
outside the Wikimedia community.  Some of the less informed audience
includes new foundation staff.

(Foundation staff presentations may sometimes fall into either
group—though more commonly in the second, because their positions are
inherently interesting to hear because of their role, even if the
premises behind them are easily shown to be incorrect.)

One of the important reasons to have general and historical talks is
to help introduce a wider audience to the history and culture of the
projects, and we do them no service to present them contentious or
non-consensus positions on a general interest topic without clearly
identifying and contextualizing them as such.

On some matters expressing the issues clearly, completely, and
neutrally within the time constraints of a talk is a _very_ difficult
task. The people who understand the challenges self-select out of the
pool of interested presenters, leaving only the people who don't
realize that the issue is hard, or that their understanding is
incomplete or incorrect.

In some cases the problematic presentations make errors that a simple
second or third set of eyes would trivially remove.  For example, the
talk today on Jimmy's role in the community included two highly
surprising sexually explicit images simply as part of a slide that
talked about Jimmy's deletion of sexually explicit images. The subject
could have been equally well covered without showing the images in
these cases (that is, the presentation would probably not have met the
normal editorial standards we'd use on en.wp for their use).
Different, less explicit images could have been used, and some warning
for the audience could have been trivially placed... and any of a
great many other people would have made any of these suggestions, or
even better ones. (Not to mention that the discussion missed the core
point of why the Virgin Mary political
satire sexual image had been contentious: it was in a generic "Virgin
Mary" category where it had maximum potential to cause unwanted
surprise.)

In the hallway after a talk on "fair use" in the projects, Geoff
Brigham asked, with some astonishment, something like "there isn't any
movement towards English Wikipedia removing the fair use images... is
there?" And, of course, there isn't—as he recognized and anyone with a
history with the policy would know—but what impression were we giving
to the bulk of the audience without the background and experience of
the foundation's general counsel?

I use these examples because they're the most fresh on my mind, but I
think the issue is largely systemic and not really the fault of the
presenters—they all worked hard and we should appreciate their
efforts.

More often it's just important points which are missed—often solved by
comments from the audience, but time constraints limit how much
improvement can come from the people in the room. The audience is also
guilty of pushing fringe positions, of course (and the inexperienced
part of the audience can't always tell who's in the majority—they just
have the evidence of authority that being a selected speaker confers).
We could use the time more effectively for real questions and
discussion, rather than corrections which could have easily been
worked out in advance.

Looking retrospectively at the talk proposals, I can't fault the
conference organizers—no one steps up and says they're going to offer
an incomplete, misleading, biased, or misguided presentation.  And the
structure of our community doesn't make true authority easy to
recognize.   In some cases we are just left to making judgments based
on whatever we know about the names of the submitters: "Hey, wasn't
that guy banned for his conspiracy theory pushing? We probably
shouldn't take that talk."

I think Wikimania and the Wikimedia movement would be greatly served
by imposing different standards for general presentations as compared
to the standards for subjects which are obviously personal opinions.
We should ask that general and historical interest presentations by
people who aren't clear authorities be made publicly available in
advance of the conference for review, and we should try to foster a
peer review culture. We should prioritize presentations submitted by teams of
people, rather than individuals, and we should encourage presenters to
disclose the limitations of their experience when it wouldn't
otherwise be clear to the audience from the subject matter.

We should have a little more NPOV for things where being presenting
a particular point of view isn't the whole point.

If such a procedure is instituted I will gladly provide my time to
read and offer commentary on presentations for the next Wikimania.

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Re: Fringe positions and presentation standards

Nathan Awrich


On Fri, Jul 13, 2012 at 9:22 PM, Gregory Maxwell <[hidden email]> wrote:

If such a procedure is instituted I will gladly provide my time to
read and offer commentary on presentations for the next Wikimania.


As would I, and I'm sure other people would too. It would be asking a lot to expect the host committee to, among all the other responsibilities, screen presentations carefully for balance, context and accuracy. But that is just the kind of thing Wikimedians do best, and why not be as rigorous in Wikimania quality control as we are in our other public-facing content? 

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