I have given myself a challenge that I’m enjoying right now – immersing myself more deeply in the Wikipedia community. The culture that has developed around the people who add to and edit Wikipedia bears some resemblance to the culture that we see with users of services like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack, but it’s much more complex. I aim with this article to convey a sense of the richness an online community can develop, and the frustration that an outsider can feel, much like a physical community. Maybe I’ll convince you to be a Wikipedia editor too.
First I’ll mention another online community that encourages its members to make contributions that everyone can benefit from. I made an attempt to become a productive contributor on Stack Overflow, a web site for asking and answering questions about computer programming.
Stack Overflow uses a reputation system, where various contributions you make will increase your reputation score. Additional features becomes available when your reputation grows. I thought that building a good reputation on Stack Overflow could be something I could add to my resume. I answered a few questions, and was able to especially build reputation when I answered questions that no one else had answered. But I had trouble finding questions that hadn’t already been thoroughly answered within minutes of being posted. And I was chastised a few times for not strictly following the rules when I posted answers, which was disheartening when I had put effort into answering the question. I understood that a community should have rules, but I lost interest before I really learned enough of the rules to be productive on the platform. I went back to only reading the content on the site, which, like many programmers, I do often.
I created my Wikipedia account way back in 2003. According to the contribution log, which shows almost every detail from the beginning, this must have been because I wanted to add a new article about load testing. I had made some edits to other pages without an account, but I needed to have an account to create a new article. That article is still there today, and I’m happy to see that after hundreds of edits, some of my original phrasing is still there.
Wikipedia newbies would be wise to hold off on creating new articles, however. I have added a total of seven articles. Of those, two have been converted to redirects to other articles with a broader scope, and one was deleted. I created an article about Brian Marick in 2007. Amazingly, it lasted until 2016 before someone claimed that he was not notable and eventually got it deleted. Recently, someone created an article about Janet Gregory, and within 24 hours, someone started a proposal to delete it. It was deleted 8 days later. For many topics, perhaps especially for articles about people, it’s quite difficult to prove that they meet Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. It must be sad when someone sees that they’ve been declared non-notable. I will probably not be adding new articles any time soon.
My long tenure on Wikipedia has caused others to assume that I’m well-versed in the rules of the road, but with my off-and-on interest in contributing, I’m just beginning to absorb the elaborate set of rules and conventions that editors are subjected to. In response to an edit I made to the article on Jerry Weinberg that was not up to snuff, one editor told me “Surely you know by now that ‘he told me so himself’ is not considered to be adequate sourcing for anything here…” Unlike a traditional encyclopedia with articles written by trusted experts, everything on Wikipedia is expected to be backed up by published independent sources.
I find it rewarding to make edits that improve the content on Wikipedia. Doing the research to justify the edits helps me to build my knowledge. I can refer to the article later when I want to refresh my knowledge of a subject, and so can anyone else. But the benefits are greatly reduced if the changes aren’t accepted by the community. In the case of my edits on the Jerry Weinberg article, I swallowed my ego and asked how I could change my approach. This led to a healthy discussion, and I was successful when I used a different approach. It’s often not easy to engage in this sort of discussion when I’m still smarting from having someone erase my work.
I recently decided to get more involved with Wikipedia because of efforts by Noah Sussman and Alan Page. Noah put a lot of effort into improving the Wikipedia article on software testing. Then Walter Görlitz, another volunteer Wikipedia editor, removed a big edit that Noah made to the article, an action that Wikipedia calls a “revert.” A heated discussion ensued, and little progress was made on overhauling the article like Noah wanted to. Alan issued a call for help to figure out how to effectively improve the article (A call to action: let’s fix the Wikipedia page on software testing), and I and several others joined a discussion on a chat group outside of Wikipedia to strategize.
I decided to take an agile approach; make small changes and watch to see how the broader Wikipedia community responds. A few of us have also branched out and looked at the many other articles related to software testing and found that as a group, they aren’t very well coordinated or well written. We’ve made numerous small changes to these articles now with a great deal of success, though we haven’t made substantial progress on the original goal of completely revamping the software testing article. I’m starting to make somewhat larger edits now and I hope others do too.
Instead of wondering how Walter would react to my edits, I decided to engage with him directly, so I invited him to open a dialogue. I’ve seen that he puts a great deal of effort into improving and reverting vandalism on a large number of Wikipedia articles. Walter tells me that the small edits I’ve made successfully has improved my reputation with him, and he is now less likely to revert the changes I make. Unlike Stack Overflow where reputation is tracked in one place, on Wikipedia your reputation is earned individually with each editor.
I’ve found that the best way to get consensus on Wikipedia is to use the “talk page” feature on the site itself, so everyone who is following the changes on the page have an opportunity to respond. In fact, the Wikipedia community prefers for discussions like this to take place on Wikipedia, otherwise some editors may get suspicious that one person is trying to recruit a cabal of “meatpuppets” to artificially amplify their influence. Our chat group is very loosely coordinated, and the edits we make are all an individual decision, so I’m not worried that we’ll raise this suspicion, especially now that we’re using the talk pages more.
The response to an edit can vary significantly based on who is watching for changes on the article. Many areas don’t happen to have anyone watching closely, so whether the edit is useful or not, it may stay around for years. If someone feels strongly about maintaining the quality of a particular article, you’ll be held to a higher level of scrutiny. I’ve also found that newly added information may be held to a higher standard than what is already in an article. Once I added some information to an article without including a citation to back it up, and the information was removed, despite the fact that most of the information already in the article was also not referenced. It was just easier for the editor who did it to revert a recent edit than to address the broader problem. You can avoid this if you scrutinize your own contributions very carefully.
If you’re afraid you’ll have difficulty getting edits on Wikipedia to stick, take this to heart, from the instructions to “Be Bold” with your edits:
Think about it this way: if you don’t find one of your edits being reverted now and then, perhaps you’re not being bold enough.
Now if you’ll excuse me, that load testing article has become a bit of a mess.
My thanks to Simon Morley and Walter Görlitz for helping me improve this article.