Watching the Wikipedians

I spent a few hours yesterday at Bristol University listening to a few members of Wikimedia UK (and Alex making a guest appearance from DC) give some extremely helpful insights into the world of Wikipedia (and some of its related projects.)

While I’ve never been an active editor of Wikipedia I have followed the project closely from the very early days and was familiar with many of the basic concepts. Nonetheless I found this event extremely useful. Since I read about the British Museum Wikipedian-in-residence project last year I have become increasingly interested in seeing how working with Wikipedia could work as a part of a public (digital) engagement plan. It is clear there is some support for this idea at the day job and so this ‘academy’ could not have been better timed.

The importance of maintaining a ‘neutral point of view’ (NPOV) and using/citing verifiable sources was hammered home throughout the day. I’m interested to learn more about the criteria for the ‘trusted’ sources that you are encouraged to use – I did have to stifle a chuckle when newspapers were held up as an example of good fact checking. This little Commoncraft video is a nice intro to the topic and I think I’ll be using it in the future when I talk about Wikipedia.

I do think it is the NPOV, problems with conflicts of interest and the need to avoid ‘weasel words’ that makes many organisations shy away from using Wikipedia too much – it does require a different mind set going in and will be particularly hard for marketing types to cope with I think.

There was alot of talk about the 5 Pillars of Wikipedia – these are the only ‘official’ rules – all other policies (and there seem to be alot of them!) were introduced by the community themselves – the distillation of best practice but they are not set in stone. I do wonder just how successful they are in managing the 4th Pillar;

Wikipedians should interact in a respectful and civil manner.

In my experience the biggest barrier to entry to people participating isn’t the bizarre MediaWiki markup or lack of interest/knowledge but the somewhat terrifying reputation that Wikipedia admins & editors have. I am sure much of this is a perception thing and actually most of the interactions I’ve had on Wikipedia have been civil & editors have been helpful but that image remains and hopefully the kind of outreach work Wikimedia did so well at this event will help change that.

That said the fact that it was admitted that ‘new users attract suspicion‘ and that you need to be patient and build trust shows that that there is some work required if you really want to get involved.

The presentation Rod Ward gave charting the rise of an article from stub to featured article was brilliant. It was great to see just how much work went into each stage and I think if more people were aware of just how tough the Wikipedia peer-review system was then there would be alot less nay-sayers. The focus not only on getting things factually correct and well cited but also on the quality of the copy (and even layout) was really impressive.

The way the British Museum set up a competition to get articles related to items in their catalog was pretty inspiring also and has given me a bit of an idea.

Also Rod spoke a little bit about the ‘Did you know‘ section of the Wikipedia homepage and the process of getting featured there. I didn’t have a clue about that so that was a very useful tip.

I found the day useful and interesting – I’m even going to embark on my first Wikipedia article this week as well as investigate more ways of integrating Wikipedia into my digital strategy. So thanks guys!


  1. Thanks for the write-up, Matt. I agree that Rod’s presentation was great and talked about an aspect of Wikipedia that should be much more widely known.

    My remark “New users attract suspicion” sounds perhaps more intimidating than necessary without the context. The point is that people who are vandalising Wikipedia are likely to do it without a logged-in account, or as a hit-and-run account which only makes a few edits. Hence, when looking over a lot of recent changes, an experienced user will subject those sorts of edits to more scrutiny than, say, edits by an established editor who has done quality work. That doesn’t mean that newcomers are automatically assumed to be up to mischief. Quite the opposite: we assume that people are trying to improve the encyclopedia until they clearly show otherwise.

    The lessons are simple: create a named account, provide references for the changes you make and don’t be discouraged if your first edits attract attention: just explain to people what you’re doing using the article’s Talk page.

    Good luck with whatever article you want to create or improve: I and the other experienced editors who were there on the day are willing to answer questions. I hope the day has prompted you to think of the value of sharing images and media as well. Cheers,

  2. “I did have to stifle a chuckle when newspapers were held up as an example of good fact checking” – This isn’t exactly what was said: Alex said we use sources such as academic books or newspapers that have *at least some* reputation for fact-checking. This wasn’t holding up newspapers as a good example of anything, just that they are more suitable sources for an encyclopedia than, say, a personal blog.

    *Tabloid* sources are frowned upon in WP: we tend to use newspapers of record. Not all sources are treated the same: for a scientific subject we look for peer-reviewed academic journals and academic textbooks from reliable publishers. Newspapers wouldn’t get much of a look-in for such topics, but for current or recent events a newspaper of record is often the best source. This doesn’t endorse the paper as true, but that it’s verifiable: the summary can be checked by other users and it isn’t mere opinion.

  3. well on a personal level I don’t really have much in the way of media to share – it has convinced me to see what exactly we have in the MRC archives and how much of it is shareable (or could be made shareable)

    Like I said in the post I think the difficulties in being a new user is a perception thing more than reality – the more I learn the less I’m worried (and more impressed I am).

  4. I was just being a little sarky really – as one of the last people who actually buys a newspaper everyday I of course agree that many papers are a trustworthy source (though even the ‘papers of record’ have occasional issues)

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