Friday, February 4, 2011

Wikipedia: Not for the Weak

The first time I made a revision to a Wikipedia article, I took care to ensure that my work was free from error. I previewed the article several times to see how it would look with my changes. Finally, I clicked "save" and admired my contribution. I got up and stretched, feeling great. Maybe 15 minutes later, I checked the site again. My work was gone. Nowhere to be seen. Worse, when I checked the history tab (which I hadn't even noticed before then) to see what had happened, I found a personal message waiting for me: “newby . . . unless one has a record here, keep out.”

So much for “Please Do Not Bite the Newcomers,” a Wikipedian “behavioral guideline" the very existence of which suggests that Wikipedians have a tendency to greet newcomers with less than open arms, and my experience would seem to confirm this tendency. But experience can be deceptive. The first problem is understanding who Wikipedians are. Contributions to Wikipedia seem to approximate a kind of power law, with a small group of contributors doing the bulk of the work. So there is no "average" user in the ordinary sense of the word. Of the smaller group of major contributors, we don't know much. Perhaps it changes members frequently, perhaps not. Some evidence suggests that its members are predominately twenty-something males. No surprise there. Few women participate because this is not a place most women would care to visit. (Apparently this is debatable.) It is an intellectual battleground where the odds of having an unpleasant encounter with an obsessive and pedantic geek are uncomfortably high—this isn't Facebook, and you're not surrounded by friends.

The second problem is that even within this smaller group, it only takes one apple to spoil the barrel. We're more likely to remember the few encounters we have that are notably bad, than the many ones we have that are neutral—for there's no reason to remember a perfectly ordinary experience. And unlike ordinary social settings, where you can choose with whom you converse, there's not much choice in the discussion pages of Wikipedia: you can always leave, but if you choose to stay, you will have little choice but to deal with whoever else enters the fray. If you can't work things out amicably on a talk page, you may end up grinding your way through Wikipedia's formal dispute resolution process. (Who would do that?!) Some people even get into "edit wars" in which they repeatedly undo ("revert") each other's edits. And nothing is too trivial to spark an edit war. (Check out this list of the "lamest edit wars.") 

As for my own unwelcoming experience, I didn't get into a crazy edit war. Instead, I went to the discussion page to defend the worthiness of my revisions. After some heated debate, I did some more research and discovered that a handful of fanatical Wikipedians had been wrangling for control over the style and content of that particular Wikipedia article for—get this—not hours, not days, not months, but years. Years! 

After several days, I reluctantly laid down my sword. 

But I live to fight another day!


  1. The Man,

    Your experience seems to be typical of newcomers (or even not-so-newcomers) in the Wikipedia editing world. In a follow-up to their articles about Wikipedia, The Economist published a couple of letters. Selected excerpts:

    "I have been a contributor since the summer of 2009...and during this time I've seen several members quit the project. Every person I know of who has left provided the same reason, which is that Wikipedia's rules are enforced selectively, especially the rule that members treat each other in a civil manner. One person said he had been accused of being a...'troll', a 'POV warrior', a 'conspirator'..."

    "Sir - I have had my contributions erased, questioned and altered on evening I got out all of my references and inserted as many citations as I could in an effort to stop the was not a joy to do; this is not a recipe for success at Wikipedia."

    -The Economist (1/29-2/4, 2011, Volume 398, Number 8718, page 14).

    This doesn't want to make me throw my hat in the ring and edit several articles that I feel competent in improving.

    I do have one question for you, what highly urbane, extremely specific, and technically challenging article were you trying to modify? I mean the editing clique was entrenched in years of battle...I hope it is something important?

  2. Conroy,

    I apologize for not responding to your question sooner. I'm hesitant to identify the article in question, in part because I don't want those Wikipedian creeps following me to this blog, and in part because posted my comments to Wikipedia under my real name rather than my blogonym (are all our readers aware that we write under blogonyms?). It's not even an important article. In fact, it's considered fringe, though in my opinion it is an interesting historical mystery.

    It is easy, however, to find ongoing disputes regarding important subjects. For example, when I first looked up the recent Egyptian protests on Wikipedia, there was a (minor) dispute going on as to how to characterize the events: were they merely "protests" or was this an "uprising" or something else.

    It looks like something else won the debate, because when I typed in "Egyptian protests" just now I was redirected to "Egyptian Revolution of 2011." Even now, behind the scenes of that article, there appears to be some ongoing discussion about the difference between a "revolt" and a "revolution."

    Pedantic, yes. But I did notice an interesting foreign word in the discussion: "baltagiya" (misspelled, reasonably enough, as "baltagia"). This is apparently the plural of a word meaning "the ax-wielding one" and is used in Egypt to refer to thugs hired to disrupt elections, protests, and other political activities.

    Let's hope the wiki-baltagiya are no more successful than their Egyptian counterparts at discouraging us from throwing our hats in the ring.

  3. The Man,

    I understand your reticence, and no worries we won't give the Wikipedia editing clique a toehold on this blog. We're friendly to commentators and contributors, not rude and dismissive.

    It's funny you mentioned Egypt. I had to write a brief summary on the on-going "revolution" (separate from my writings on this blog) and I was aware that Wikipedia's information would have to be rife with editing changes, differences in perspective, etc. Still, that being the case, I was pleased at the content. Both the specific detail and the general overview of events. In my mind, this validates Wikipedia's core usefulness as a great source of mostly accurate and very up-to-date information on most subjects.

    Any user must be aware that inaccuracies are possible, but at least on Wikipedia mistakes can be corrected and disputes aired in an open forum (at least when a nasty editing elite doesn't take over). Such interaction isn't possible with traditional news sources that often reveal inaccuracies and corrections long after an article has been published, and where entrenched biases can skew the objectivity of a story. No information source can be perfect, but for now, I emphatically stick with Wikipedia.

    Oh, and you're right on the mark no baltagiya will stop us from getting our perspective out there.

  4. Conroy,

    Wikipedia is a tremendous resource. I agree. It's current, accessible, and accurate. It also divides labor in a highly efficient way: one person corrects spelling errors; another adds content. And anyone can start an article on a new subject (so long as it's "notable").

    Thus, anyone can start an article about the baltagiya, even a rudimentary one (called a "stub") supposing he or she knows next to nothing about them, because people who do know about them can show up at any time and improve the article. (This is assuming notability.)