“There’s enough editors for this, aren’t there?”
Wikipedia is a knowledge database maintained by its users, normal people like you and me. Not just researchers and scientists contribute to the never-ending catalogue of wisdom, everyone can, but not everyone does.
I’ll be the first to admit I stumbled into editing on Wikipedia by accident. What made me start doing it was a course at the University of Stuttgart, the course which this whole blog is structured by. I originally did not consider this course for myself, but due to another course being cancelled, I found myself attending nonetheless. It was a spontaneous decision, but not one I regret.
When reading and researching on Wikipedia, one seldom stops to wonder how all the information contained in one article is accumulated. It’s something we take for granted, but the editors on Wikipedia surely don’t. Information can not simply be added with a few taps on the keyboard, even though it seems like that at first. Enter the information, save the entry, and you’re done, right?
I’m afraid that’s not quite how it goes.
“But I know this, I learned this in school!”
In order to add information to Wikipedia, the information must come from somewhere. Now, you can’t simply say ‘I read this in a book somewhere’. That’s not enough. An entry in Wikipedia has to be credited and a source for the content of the article must be given, too. So if you want to add to an article about someone you know or even about yourself, you need to find a newspaper article, credible news website, book, interview, or anything like that, in order to prove your point. This is the first challenge one faces when making such an edit or creating a whole new article: finding appropriate sources.
Next up is putting the knowledge one has painstakingly collected into a suitable form for Wikipedia. It may not house any personal opinions, any original research, and of course it has to be grammatically correct. Simply writing down what you know and hoping others understand is not enough. These criterias are among the core principles on Wikipedia, which are one of the first things new editors need to learn.
So when you’ve added your information to the article, in correct format, with the sources you view as necessary, all is going to be well, you think. Sadly, that’s not always how it goes. Any new article has to be approved by more experienced editors, and an article you considered perfect when you first wrote it might be changed beyond recognition by other editors. Alternatively, it might not meet the site’s standards, or it might not even be relevant enough to be on Wikipedia. One article undergoes a huge amount of trying and testing before it is finalized, and even then, people will still edit it. An article on Wikipedia is never truly finished.
So why would one go through the trouble of doing all that, people ask themselves, and leave the computer to do something else. But people edit on Wikipedia, write and review those articles, in order to collect knowledge, and make it accessible for others. Often, there are still holes in the knowledge database, and if those holes are simply left open, someone someday will look for that information, and find it missing. I decided to do something against that, to fill at least a small gap in the database of Wikipedia, by creating an article on a book called ‘The Five people You Meet in Heaven’ by Mitch Albom. There is an English article on the book, but Wikipedia was lacking a German one, and so I decided to create that.
“I can just use the book as my source, right?”
The first hurdle I faced was gathering the sources. As I mentioned above, finding proper sources is challenging, especially since for once, one can not use Wikipedia to check for them. I could also not make my article a direct translation of the English one – not only would it be lazy beyond belief, but also shoddy research. Thankfully, Mitch Albom’s Website and the book itself count as sources for this particular book. For the movie, I had to fall back on the IMDb, the Internet Movie Database. Both of these websites are in English, which I at first thought would be a problem, but it turned out not to be, one thing I am still very glad about.
Writing the article itself was challenging. Between English and German, English is the language I am more accustomed to when it comes to writing articles, and my first draft of the article had quite a few mistakes. Not only did it have to follow Wikipedia guidelines when it came to spacing, format and wording, it also had to appeal to the other editors. I had to look through more than one other Wikipedia Articles on books of a similar renown and also those with a much higher one, but in the end I was able to figure out how to work with Wikipedia and its editing tool.
Wikipedia uses html, a standard markup language, to format their texts, and quite a few elements of the articles only work with specific formatting. The Info Boxes many articles sport are such a thing, as is the ‘Notes’ feature on the bottom of most Wikipedia pages. Finding the appropriate code blocks for these features was a bit of a hassle, but I did find them – they are also available on Wikipedia, both for standard text formatting and bigger structures. Wikipedia also offers an Editing Tutorial Article as well as the so-called “Sandbox”, where new editors can try out their newfound knowledge. The site gives its users all the tools they need in order to create new articles and improve old ones, but to someone who has never worked with html or other kinds of text editors with similar structures, it can be a little daunting.
Once my article was finished, I posted it, making a backup copy of the content on my computer as I fully expected to see the article taken down very soon afterwards. This was my first article after all, and I was not at all sure about the quality of it. To my surprise, nothing like that happened, and a while passed before something did happen. But the article was not deleted – instead I received a ‘Thank you’ from another editor. Wikipedia has, as I discovered at that point, a feature which allows you to send a little thank-you-message to someone for editing or, in my case, creating an article.
“What, I need to interact with people if I want to edit Wikipedia?”
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting of the community on Wikipedia, but receiving a ‘Thank you’ first of all things was a bit of a surprise. Of course more edits were made over time; other editors re-phrased my sentences and paragraphs, added information where they felt it was lacking and subtracted some where they felt it was too much. More than once, someone only made a small edit fixing typos, and in general, it was very fun to see the little article I had started grow more expansive and better with every edit.
But of course not all edits are going to be edits one agrees with, and at one point, that happened to me, and what I had come to view as ‘my article’. Now this is not the right point of view – it’s everyone’s article. But when someone edited a part of it in order to say something very similar, but still different in its content, I was unhappy about it because in my eyes, he had changed it to something incorrect.
Usually, I would simply have written the other editor a PM and asked about it, but I wasn’t sure. Looking at their profile, I could see they were a fairly experienced editor, and it made me wonder: Maybe I had put incorrect information in my article? I had been absolutely sure about this fact, but could an experienced editor really change something from right to wrong? It actually compelled me to re-read the book again. I was saved the trouble of editing it back myself though – another user did it before I got the chance to, in fact before I even found out my version was the correct one after all. With his edit, he left the comment “Reverted changes done by previous user. Partially unnecessary and partially wrong.”
This incident showed me something I should have known all along: Editing on Wikipedia is everyone’s job. And sometimes, people will edit things they think are wrong, but are actually right. Editors on Wikipedia are not perfect, and it is not expected from new editors as well.
In the end, editing on Wikipedia was a lot of fun. Seeing an article develop and grow with the knowledge of other people is entertaining, and one does get a sense of accomplishment when an article one created is finally approved by an administrator. I have heard other people saying that it can be arduous, too, and I won’t deny that.
Difficulties can arise, with the article and with other editors, but more experienced editors often coach newer, younger ones when asked to. I think Wikipedia is a community much like any other, with support and hindrance alike, and if you have time on your hands, why not use it to contribute? It might help someone out one day.