How the public sees Wikipedians
Over the last couple of years I've seen numerous examples of community members describing their fellow Wikipedians as "obsessive-compulsive", "ultra-pedantic", etc. when talking to journalists. Being a long-term Wikipedian myself, I know that these kinds of descriptions bear some truth. However, I'm also convinced that we're sometimes too focused on the negative aspects of community behavior when talking to the press. And I believe Wikipedia could benefit from us being more mindful about how we describe our community to the public.
I know that we're far beyond the point where journalists are solely enthusiastic about the "encyclopedia that anyone can edit" as a novel concept that no one believes will ever provide any real value to society. And I'm also not suggesting that we sugarcoat things. However, journalists tend to amplify negative descriptions of our community in a way that hurts our ability to recruit new Wikipedians.
Seriously, who would like to join a "rancorous, sexist, elitist" environment ruled by an "entrenched, stubborn elite of old-timers"? It's like saying: "I'd like you to become a member of our soccer club. We are all super tense and we don't get along well with each other."
Here are three simple things that you could do instead:
- Explain why Wikipedians behave the way they do. I believe we can do a better job at explaining why members of our community revert bad edits without necessarily describing them as "ultra-pedantic". Consider talking about how Wikipedians are devoting large amounts of their free time to keeping the information on Wikipedia accurate and free of vandalism. How people are performing this onerous task without ever getting paid or even being acknowledged for their work. We do this because we believe in the idea of providing the world with high-quality information free of charge.
- Tell people about the satisfaction you get out of editing. Correct me if I'm wrong. But I haven't seen many examples of people talking about the joy that comes with creating or substantially improving Wikipedia articles or adding a new image to an article that had no illustration. However, I know countless Wikipedians (myself included) who get a deep satisfaction out of building something online, of tinkering with articles until they meet their own high quality standards. What a great talking point.
- Talk about why you joined Wikipedia in the first place. I don't know why you joined Wikipedia. I can only talk about myself. Back in 2005, I felt like coverage of topics that I cared about was missing. Some stuff on Wikipedia was simply inaccurate. After I started making my first edits, I felt connected to that unique group of people who were funny, smart, and dedicated to the cause of free and open knowledge. Getting their feedback and interacting with them deeply satisfied me. And I'm close friends with some of them since (even far beyond our shared interest in writing articles and uploading photos).
Now, to which extent would talking in a more positive way about Wikipedia and its community make a difference? Honestly, I don't know. What I remember, though, is the effect that an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel had on Wikipedia in late 2004. A large wave of new editors flooded the German Wikipedia. Even up to the point that the existing community at that point wondered whether it would ever be able to onboard the huge amount of new editors appropriately.
Is it likely that a journal article about Wikipedia would have the same effect today? I doubt it. However, and that I know for sure – I wouldn't want to join a "rancorous, sexist, elitist" group of people. That's why I'm committed to trying my best in changing the public perception of a community and a cause I love. Are you?
- Frank Schulenburg is the Executive Director of the Wiki Education Foundation, an independent organization that supports the use of Wikipedia in education in the US and Canada. He has been a Wikipedia editor since 2005. The views expressed in this editorial are his alone and do not reflect any official opinions of this publication or the Wiki Education Foundation.