Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

February 8, 2013 at 3:14pm

SOUTH SOUND SIDEKICK: Changing the world through Wikipedia

ADAM FLETCHER: The Wikipedian (en:User:Freechild) seen here at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of Ragesoss/Wikipedia

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South Sound Sidekick series offers advice from experts living in the, well, South Sound. It posts every Friday. Today, Wikipedia expert and Olympia resident Adam Fletcher has advice and tips on how to do good work on Wikipedia.

Adam Fletcher writes,

It's a quiet night in the middle of winter when you surf Wikipedia on your favorite subject. Lately you've been obsessed. Reading the regular "blah, blah, blah" you'd expect in an encyclopedia, suddenly your eyes come across something you know is wrong, and you want to fix it.

Stumbling through the clunky interface of the world's largest online collaboration, you manage to edit one of the website's 4,000,000 English language articles. With renewed vigor, you start reading again when you notice there isn't a link to someone you know is really, really important for your subject. Using the poor search engine on the site, you figure out there's nothing for this person. Suddenly, you decide that you will write the article that Wikipedia is missing. Wikipedia wants you to.

This was my story nearly 10 years ago. Since then, I have created more than 500 articles on "the free encyclopedia," volunteering thousands of hours of my life to improve this virtual database of human knowledge. I was a younger hell raiser then, bent on sharing what I'd learned through my career as a consultant for government agencies and nonprofits. Looking specifically at youth engagement, I found a gaping hole in the fields of youth development and education, and began writing rampantly.

However, despite trying to write articles that sounded like they knew it all, I immediately got smacked down. Beautifully grandiose pieces that I knew should've won the Pulitzer were deleted, and on the back channels of Wikipedia other editors said mean things about me.

Determined, it wasn't long before I learned the form. I started reading good articles about topics I wasn't interested in just to figure out what to do, and studied my detractors' comments for insights I might need. Most importantly, I learned how to find sources to support the new topics I was introducing to Wikipedia.

I grew comfortable with the site. After a while, I began writing about anything that interested me. In the waning hours between being a fulltime dad and running my own business, I studied and wrote about the histories of New Mexico, Washington, New York and Alberta; I plumbed the depths of the micro-history of North Omaha, Neb., the neighborhood that I grew up in; and I contributed to other topics I cared most about then.

Since then, I have gained a reputation for writing about topics that are controversial, apparently inconsequential, or otherwise chagrined by other editors, and because of that I keep going. It feels good to stand up for the underdog, online and in the real world. This is how I change the world, sometimes.

What I have learned about Wikipedia is this:

Don't volunteer on Wikipedia for the recognition. On its surface, a large part about Wikipedia is the anonymity. Because of that, there isn't a lot of recognition for hard work. While editors can give each other badges and access, there's no explicit volunteer recognition program, awards or ceremonies. Don't expect anyone to wave your flag for spending days on in at the website.

Editing feels like dog-eat-dog sometimes. Because of the anonymity and the nature of the Internet, editing can get cutthroat sometimes. Editors aren't generally warm and fuzzy, or particularly supportive toward newbies and topics they don't know about. I even experienced many to be suspicious. Stay strong and committed and your work will make it through.

Wikipedia successfully raises the general public's knowledge about topics. After working in my field for more than two decades, the topics we address are more known than ever before. That's in no small part the fault of Wikipedia, and I'm confident that my contributions have helped.

I had to lose some of my ego to be a successful editor. Hidden in the harsh editing climate of Wikipedia is a desire to build a substantial contribution to the world's knowledge. Grammar, style, citations, and reputation are invaluable for that, and I may not be the absolute hottest writer to ever contribute to the project. I have learned to accept feedback and even criticism so I can write better.

Learn to work the system. Wikipedia wants to be spectacular, and in so doing has its doors wide open. Learning to work the system - including the guidelines, editing environment, and processes - can allow you to influence the world, if you work it right.

There's more than a million ways to start. Ready to do it? The biggest advice I can share is to start anywhere and go anywhere. There are a million entry points for contributing to Wikipedia, including editing existing content, creating articles, adding citations, checking verifiability, working with topic-based projects and many other ways. The most important thing is to simply start.

As my story shows, anyone can add to Wikipedia. I really think that if you want to change the world, the website is a great place to go to do some good work. There are so many opportunities there, and your contributions can have a real impact on other people, no matter how small or insignificant they might feel.

Instead of spending more time reviewing the site, I would suggest that you stop reading this and start editing. Look me up on the site if you want, and happy editing!

Learn more about Adam's editing and contact him on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Freechild

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