How to improve Wikipedia citations with Hypothesis direct links

Wikipedia aims to be verifiable. Every statement of fact should be supported by a reliable source that the reader can check. Citations in Wikipedia typically refer to online documents accessible at URLs. But with the advent of standard web annotation we can do better. We can add citations to Wikipedia that refer precisely to statements that support Wikipedia articles.

According to Wikipedia’s policy on citing sources:

Wikipedia’s Verifiability policy requires inline citations for any material challenged or likely to be challenged, and for all quotations, anywhere in article space.

Last night, reading, I noticed this unsourced quote:

Sonoma County has four “historic wildfire corridors,” including the Hanly Fire area.

I searched for the source of that quotation, found it in a Press Democrat story, annotated the quote, and captured a Hypothesis direct link to the annotation. In this screenshot, I’ve clicked the annotation’s share icon, and then clicked the clipboard icon to copy the direct link to the clipboard. The direct link encapsulates the URL of the story, plus the information needed to locate the quotation within the story.

Given such a direct link, it’s straightforward to use it in a Wikipedia citation. Back in the Wikipedia page I clicked the Edit link, switched to the visual editor, set my cursor at the end of the unsourced quote, and clicked the visual editor’s Cite button to invoke this panel:

There I selected the news template, and filled in the form in the usual way, providing the title of the news story, its date, its author, the name of the publication, and the date on which I accessed the story. There was just one crucial difference. Instead of using the Press Democrat URL, I used the Hypothesis direct link.

And voilĂ ! There’s my citation, number 69, nestled among all the others.

Citation, as we’ve known it, begs to be reinvented in the era of standard web annotation. When I point you to a document in support of a claim, I’m often thinking of a particular statement in that document. But the burden is on you to find that statement in the document to which my citation links. And when you do, you may not be certain you’ve found the statement implied by my link. When I use a direct link, I relieve you of that burden and uncertainty. You land in the cited document at the right place, with the supporting statement highlighted. And if it’s helpful we can discuss the supporting statement in that context.

I can envision all sorts of ways to turbocharge Wikipedia’s workflow with annotation-powered tools. But no extra tooling is required to use Hypothesis and Wikipedia in the way I’ve shown here. If you find an unsourced quote in Wikipedia, just annotate it in its source context, capture the direct link, and use it in the regular citation workflow. For a reader who clicks through Wikipedia citations to check original sources, this method yields a nice improvement over the status quo.

Understanding Wikipedia notability

Some fellow residents of my town have recently noticed, and pointed out to me, that I’m listed in Wikipedia as a notable inhabitant of Keene, NH. They’re more impressed than they should be. All forms of notability are subject to bias, but Internet notability is subject to a different kind of bias than most people realize.

For example, friends and family used to be impressed by the fact that I was the top result in Google for my first name — and then second to Jon Stewart for a long while, until I had to reboot my InfoWorld archive. Why? Just because I’ve projected a large surface area of searchable documents whose titles include the trigram jon.

An example of a far more notable person than me is Glenn Fine, who was in my grade in junior high school and is now Inspector General for the Department of Justice. You won’t find him anywhere near the top of a search for his first name because Inspectors General don’t (yet) project a large surface area of documents onto the web.

To place my newfound Wikipedia notability into a similar context, I wanted to show people how these lists of notable inhabitants are made. I figured the person who made the change is somebody who knows of my work, because I’ve written about it so much online, and who is inclined to edit Wikipedia, which correlates with an interest in my work.

I wanted to illustrate exactly who, when, and how, so I went to Wikipedia with the confident expectation that it would be easy to answer those questions.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t. I guess I haven’t really tried searching revision histories in Wikipedia before, but in this case and a few others I’ve tried lately, it seems quite difficult to pinpoint the author of a change.

For example, on Twitter I asked:

Wikipedia: “The term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined by Darcy DiNucci in 1999.” Added when, by whom? WikiBlame seems an ineffective way to find out.

@bazzargh replied: Robert Gehl.

Thanks. By the way, how’d you do that?

switch to 500 view in history, then rough bisection from oldest. Couple of minutes; used this a lot to find long-lived vandalism.

if older, I progressively back off 2..4..8… pages through this. In this case though, there was a clueful log message!

That’s pretty much what I’ve found myself doing when trying to track down changes, so I was glad to know it wasn’t just me. But this highlights an important point about transparency: It’s all relative.

One of the reasons we think of government as opaque is that while records may be notionally public, it takes time, effort, and skill to visit city hall, dig through them, and find what you’re looking for.

I have always regarded Wikipedia as an extreme counter-example. And that’s true. It is radically transparent. You can ultimately find out exactly how any statement in any article came to be. You may not be able to correlate the author’s pseudonym to a real-world identity, but you can evaluate that author’s corpus and reputation within the context of Wikipedia.

And yet, the ability to do this spelunking requires more time, effort, and skill than most people possess. Although I’m reluctant to deflate my status as a notable inhabitant of Keene, I wish it were easier for people who read that to also find out what it does — and doesn’t — mean.