I’ve always used Wikipedia a lot (who doesn’t?) but I’ve never thought about writing my own article. However, I decided to attend a course called Constructing Knowledge in the Digital Age: Wikipedia’s Contribution to the Humanities this semester. Not knowing what this course would actually look like I considered it more innovative than the typical “Shakespeare classes” and I told myself: Try it! First of all I had to realize that I actually knew nothing about the encyclopedia that felt so familiar and furthermore the question if I’ll ever write an article for Wikipedia was answered for me: I will.
When I was looking for a topic for my Wikipedia article I had to realize that finding a topic will be the first obstacle to overcome. It seemed like there was already an article for everything! This was difficult for me but on the other hand it was just amazing because it became clear to me how successful the project Wikipedia already was. Shortly afterwards I watched a movie called Pride which was very new and I wanted to look up one of the actors. When I googled it I saw that the article on Wikipedia about that movie was a text no longer than a few lines. Great! I was really happy that I found a topic which provided a good basis for an interesting article because the movie is based on a true story. Being very enthusiastic I started to make plans for my article but I did not think about all the other people who had also seen the new movie. After only a few days I had to realize that both, the English and the German article, became longer and longer with the result that I had to give up the topic. At first it was really frustrating for me because I liked the movie and I knew that it won’t be easy to find a new topic.
At that time I had to read a book by Frank Norris called McTeague – A Story of San Francisco. Due to the fact that I also had to do a presentation about this book I did some research on it and discovered the German translation of the book called Gier nach Gold. Some minutes later I had found out that there was an English Wikipedia article about the book but not even a short one in German. There was also no current reason for another person to write about the book (I was a little careful because of my experience with the movie), so I knew this would become MY article.
Writing the article
Now that I had found my topic I just had to write the article. However, sitting in front of my laptop I had to realize that this was easier said than done. In class we had discussed Wikipedia Policies and therefore I knew what to avoid but the task of writing an article for this encyclopedia was so different from the tasks of our other classes. Usually we are supposed to develop our own thesis statements but Wikipedia says: no original research! In order to get started with my article I decided to write a summary of the story because I was sure about its necessity and it wasn’t difficult to avoid original research here. I read the book again and made notes for the summary but what would a helpful summary look like? I compared many articles about books, some having detailed summaries, others just some summarizing sentences. This is why I thought about my own expectations: What kind of summary would I like to read? I thought that I would prefer a detailed summary especially if I needed it for my studies because there are lecturers who deal with excerpts of books and a detailed summary would help to place those excerpts in context.
After having finished the summary I added descriptions of the most important figures. Now I felt ready to take up a challenge and write a part that doesn’t relate so closely to the text: I wanted to assign the book to the literary genres of Naturalism and Darwinism. In class I had heard about users of Wikipedia who are really cruel and I didn’t want to give them a reason to complain about or even a reason to delete my article and therefore I tried to work really conscientious, absolutely avoiding original research. I collected elements that are typical for the literary genres and I looked for appropriate references for those elements. Afterwards I applied the elements to the book and looked for references again. At some point I was convinced that this part of the article wouldn’t break the rules anymore – so: done!
Now it was time for a part that I consider one of the most important parts of the whole article: the introduction. I thought that people would read this part first and form an opinion whether the topic is relevant or rather irrelevant. How could I show that the more or less unknown book (only in Germany!) is still important enough to have its own article in the encyclopedia? To find a solution I only had to look at the first page of my German version. It told me that the translation was republished on the occasion of a new theater production. This production felt like a good justification for my article. I wrote the introductory part and added all important productions to the article. Afterwards I considered the article to be finished and – being quite nervous about what would happen – I published it.
I really didn’t know what to expect after I had published the article. Would someone look at it and delete it immediately? Would people write bad comments? Would anyone take notice of the article at all? I didn’t have to wait long – only five minutes (!) after I had published the article someone started to work on it. I was really surprised! People corrected some typos and it felt like they made my article part of the encyclopedia. Someone changed the layout of the ISBN numbers of my references, for instance, someone else put some words in italics, someone linked my article to another article etc. Suddenly I found my article registered in Wikipedia’s Qualitätssicherung (in English they call it WikiProject Cleanup) because of missing categories. I had never heard of those categories before and I wasn’t sure about what to do but within two hours someone added those categories for me – wow! Afterwards I was waiting what would happen because the actual reason for the entry was disposed. This time nothing happened. So two days later I decided to remove the entry myself and see what happens. I expected some users to be mad because I did this myself but again nothing happened. This is pretty much how my article exists now because for more than one month there haven’t been any changes.
I can tell from this experience that I really see Wikipedia in a new light now. I have always used it a lot and I took it more or less for granted that all those articles are just there because I didn’t think about it. The information I got in this class about Digital Humanities and Wikipedia was helpful to look “behind the façade” and to create an awareness of this project. Writing my own article showed me how much commitment is needed to realize a project that is based on voluntary work of so many people. I’m not sure if I’ll ever write a Wikipedia article again but I really admire those people who spend so much of their free time in terms of future-oriented science. This is why I’m grateful that I had the possibility to attend a class that was so different from all those “typical” literature courses and that helped me to broaden my horizon.