Final Project – A Wikipedia Page for the “Sooty Six”

Empowering citizens with knowledge, tools and strategy is one of my favorite things.  Wikipedia, a “free-access, free content Internet encyclopedia,” where “anyone who can access the site can edit almost any of its articles” seems like something that should be right up my alley. But, from afar, I have been skeptical of the fundamental internet crowd-sourcing concept of Linus’s Law that, “Many eyes make all bugs shallow.”  To test the objectivity of Wikipedia and the ability of many eyes to bring forth the most salient aspects of an entry, I propose to create a new page on the “Sooty Six” power plant cleanup campaign in Connecticut.  We know from Professor Mele that a Wikipedia article must be notable, verifiable and neutral, and I believe I can create an entry that meets these criteria.

Notable and Verifiable: The “Sooty Six” power plant cleanup campaign was a 5-year campaign (1997-2002) supported by a diverse coalition whose membership represented 1/6 of the state’s population, was widely covered by Connecticut’s media outlets for multiple years, and has had lasting statewide and national implications.  It is a topic that is referenced in three existing Wikipedia articles: 1) Montville CT, 2) Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, and 3) Donald E. Williams, Jr.  The issue seems significant since two of the top-ranking politicians in the state list their involvement with cleaning up the Sooty Six in their short Wikipedia pages, although they had decades of political accomplishments to choose from.  Jepsen’s page says, “”Sooty Six” was one of Connecticut’s largest environmental debates.”

Another important aspect, neutrality, will be achieved by paralleling the tone, vernacular and content headings of existing Wikipedia entries that report on campaigns, such as the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68) and the Pacific Gas and Electric litigation discussed in the Erin Brockovich entry.

The contents of the “Sooty Six” entry may include:

  • Background
  • Nomenclature (Filthy Five to Sooty Six)
  • Community organizing (Clean Air Committees in 6 power plant towns + canvassing across the state, Coalition support and stakeholders)
  • Legislative process and citizen education (How to kill a bill, ISO and WeLie, black hat versus white hat, Making democracy work by changing the face of public hearings (sleeping in the car)
  • Key events
    • Chicken Little and the power report
    • Governor’s veto and the sooty socks
    • Radio advertising wars between Coalition and Dept. of Environmental Protection
  • Media Coverage
  • Statewide ramifications (Environmental concerns taken seriously: Nationally precedent-setting legislation: Sooty Six law + Hg products law + Hg power plant law + Climate Change law)
  • National ramifications: 1) Federal mercury regulations, and 2) Senate climate legislation
  • 10-year report
  • External links
  • Images

Wikipedia Approval: I have begun to seek acceptance from Wikipedia. On Nov 2, I posted a question to the talk sections of each of the three pages that referenced the Sooty Six to see if there was any objection to starting a new “Sooty Six” page, but I have not gotten any response.  I was notified that an administrator, DragonflySixtyseven, had patrolled my talk page, so I will engage him/her directly to seek support and advice. I met with a Wikipedia editor and he suggested that I should not use my real name as my username, so I will register a more anonymous username, and then continue my outreach.

The Wikipedia editor also told me that Wikipedia had changed the way new pages are approved, and it is now a more stringent and time-consuming process. Once in the queue it might take about six weeks for approval. During our November 3 meeting, Nicco said as long as I could show that I had engaged the community and could send a copy of the submission that was in the queue, it would be OK if the entry was not officially approved by the Dec 17 final project deadline. If that continues to be the case, then I will move forward with establishing a “Sooty Six” Wikipedia page!

Who Are the Good Guys?

As a white girl growing up in the suburbs of DC, I was raised to think that authority was good. My parents. My teacher. The police. The U.S. government. They enforced the rules that kept things from unraveling. They worked in service of the greater good. Over time, experience has brought nuance and skepticism to that perspective. Similarly, as the internet and social media have grown, the public’s experience has matured and more questions have arisen. Who was right, Edward Snowden or the NSA? How different are the U.S. policies from China’s, really? Who are the good guys, anyway?

Elections: Have Electronic Tools Really Changed the Game?

I’ve been working on political campaigns on and off since I was old enough to walk around our dining room table and collate campaign literature. Round and round the table, then around the block to drop off the colorful flyers. Paper, TV, radio, phone and walking – these were the tools.  Email, YouTube, big data, twitter, and flickr are new tools, but have they fundamentally changed the game?

Inclusion of the Evolving Position of Externalities

Wikipedia has worked to create policies and guidelines to “further our goal of creating a free, reliable encyclopedia.”  While many of the entries seem to meet that goal providing high quality and extensive information about a variety of topics, the entry on “Externality,” needs additional improvement to more fully describe the topic.

For over 20 years I’ve worked as an activist and advocate to clean up pollution sources to protect public health and the environment. The concept of pollution as an externality has been core to conversations in realms of legislation, regulation as well as incentive programs. Given that background, I found that the Wikipedia Externality page had good basic information, but the greatest omission was that overall it seemed incomplete and not up-to-date with current considerations.

In order to be more comprehensive and neutral, I believe that the description should go beyond solely the classical economic description of pollution externalities to also include the growing support for a New Economy and possible changes in the system that could describe pollution costs as included in the economic calculation, e.g.: moving pollution from external to being more integrated. One interesting approach is a proposal to update the US national GDP to add new indicators that would, “paint a fuller picture of how the country is faring.”  Vermont and Maryland have already adopted the Genuine Progress Indicator. In this, “Environmental indicators include the cost of water pollution, air pollution, climate change, wetlands depletion, forest cover change, and non-renewable energy resources.”  This balanced perspective of including internalizing externalities should especially be added to the Lead, Possible Solutions section and External Links. An additional section below the Supply and Demand Diagram section should be considered to point out that in recent years this traditional economic view has been increasingly questioned with growing support for the behavioral economists point of view.

Along the same lines, the sources could be improved. A significant number of the sources are from the 1990’s or earlier, and do not support an up-to-date view on the evolving topic, which has gained interest since the financial challenges of the 2007-2009 recession raised more questions about classical economic assumptions. Additional sources such as those linked above should be consulted, as well as publications on the New Economy Coalition site.  Additional sources should be researched to ensure quality, published, recent sources are cited.

The formatting follows the Wikipedia Manual of Style, but I believe the flow of the content and the readability could be improved. Even the Lead does not explain the topic clearly enough so that a first time reader can understand the important take-aways.

Additional images showing the result of externalities could help describe the topic.  For instance, a child using an asthma inhaler to show the health impacts related to the negative impact air pollution.  A photo of a bee pollinating a crop could be placed in the positive externalities section.

Clearly, the Externality page could use some improvement. While I am new to engaging as a contributor to Wikipedia, I am excited about my new account and User page, and look forward to improving the information in topic areas where I have something useful to add.

Democracy Demands Net Neutrality and Changes in the Filter Bubble

I think most Americans would say that democracy is good. It was thought that the internet with its ability to access much more material by many more people would support broader access to information, and therefore support democracy.  A founding father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote that, “Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” Are we currently going down a path that may promote a less informed citizenry rather than a more informed citizenry?

In a March 2011 TED talk, Eli Pariser spoke about a filter bubble effect, which is limiting the information we receive through an “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.” Why? The purpose seems to be to personalize our web experience. There is a LOT of information out there, so the algorithm is working to pull out the information it thinks will be most interesting to the user based on our past internet behavior. On Facebook, this may mean prioritizing the feeds of friends you have clicked on most. On Google this may mean skewing your search results for Egypt towards politics or towards tourism. This seems convenient, so what’s the problem?

Pariser points out that if our searches on Google, Washington Post, Huffington Post and other sites are filtered, this creates an artificial bubble in which one may think you have objective and well-rounded information, but you don’t. Outside of the internet, my sister-in-law chooses to listen to Rush Limbaugh as her “news” source. Although I don’t agree with listening to a conservative editorialist for one’s only source of news, she is aware of the choice she is making and that it is one-sided. On the other hand, if my concern over this practice finally sinks in and she went on-line seeking broader information, the results to her search on “environmental laws” would be filtered by her past searches and interests and would therefore be more likely to bring up commentary in opposition. Although she is trying to become more informed, the limited results of her search could re-enforce her biases creating a filter bubble.

Case in point, I just Googled “environmental laws bad for jobs” in order to link to an example of what she might get, but instead all that came up on my search were stories rebutting that argument, which is my bias. If her biases are reinforced in search results, and my biases are reinforced in search results, this creates an ever-widening political gap that promotes stalemate on pressing issues, not to mention an increasingly unpleasant Thanksgiving dinner. I agree with Pariser that at a minimum internet users should be informed that the filtering is happening, and preferably that users would be able to choose whether and when that application is employed. To my mind, if everyone got balanced information about climate instability rather than polarizing information, it would be easier to move forward with a necessary solution.

Another core threat to equal access and an informed democracy is the question of whether the internet will remain equally accessible to all, i.e.: net neutrality, or whether fast lanes will be accessible to those who pay, while others have slower access. A Harvard Kennedy School podcast with Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association discussed this topic. The Federal Communications Commission is currently reviewing testimony on this topic, which will be one of the most critical to democracy in this fairly new and evolving field. Unequal access to information on the web could widen the divide between those in power and those not.

The internet provides wonderful opportunities in many ways, but if we want to have a functioning democracy that can address the current world’s pressing problems, the internet must be accessible and present varying points of view.

Opportunities and Cautions with Web 2.0 Organizing

For generations we have functioned in hierarchies, from feudal systems in old England to bosses/managers in present day.   The texture of these hierarchies has softened over time, and now the internet is exponentially accelerating the ability of people to organize themselves outside of hierarchies. In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explores the tectonic shift made possible by the organizing tools in Web 2.0.

Social tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogging and others have dramatically reduced the cost and time previously associated with organizing groups. Without the expense of traditional institutions and managers to organize groups, self-organizing has become feasible. Shirky says, “… these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort, …. and as we would expect, when desire is high and costs have collapsed, the number of such groups is skyrocketing, and the kinds of effects they are having on the world are spreading” [p 21]. The multiplier effect of the “former audience” who has now become a participant by sharing information with their friends and so on has increased the speed that information spreads. Applications have made it easy to form and find new interest groups with tools such as “tagging” in Flickr that can aggregate items (in this case photos) from various sources into a single, retrievable category, such as “puppy” or “cute.” Hyperlinks in blogs also offer ways to connect conversations. In What is Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly describes hyperlinking as a way to “harness collective intelligence” and continue to amplify user participation [p 6].

While the opportunities of Web 2.0 tools offer the potential for great positive impacts and to act as an equalizer, I am prone to be cautious. When I see the way in which an outcry of seeming injustice can become a groundswell of public opinion in a certain direction potentially without a basis in fact I become concerned. Mass Amateurization of the news provides room for broader documentation of coups and natural disasters [Shirky p 36], but is also provides the opportunity to create a lynch mob without the basis of evidence. Social media can bring some people together, but can also create a new schism between others. Those who are uncomfortable with technology can quickly feel left out of the clique when people take shortcuts in normal conversation such as referring to FB (rather than Facebook), or insisting on a google group for communication without considering that some don’t know how to join and need help to be included. In addition, the volume of stimulus experienced by engaging in social media is not manageable for some with special needs or different ways of working well.   It’s realistic and respectful to understand that not “everybody” is part of this new way of communicating and creating social connections. While there are many upsides to the self-assembly and reduced hierarchy that Web 2.0 allows, there are also downsides.

This moment in time with it’s positive and negative impacts on social networking was probably not envisioned, however, over 50 years ago when, “In 1958 the United States government set up a special unit, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (arpa), to help jump-start new efforts in science and technology. This was the agency that would nurture the Internet” [2008 Vanity Fair article, “How the Web Was Won”]. Once again US ingenuity was initially pushed by competitiveness and fear of another country, this time the Soviet Union, to create something that has become life-changing and fundamental to our daily lives. Incredible innovation has evolved our society from feudalism to industrialism to new ways of self-organizing. I can’t wait to see what comes next!