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Bill curates: Notes from a Wikipedian

June 19, 2020
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Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

I first ran into Sue in Wikipedian mode when I wrote something wrong about Eve Langley, and Sue who had spent a great deal of time and effort on the Eve Langley entry in Wikipedia, pulled me up. Rightly, of course, because she was, and kindly, because she is. I have moved on only one day from May 2009, so when Sue writes “two years ago” she is referring to 2007.

_______________________

My original post

Two years ago I made my first edit in Wikipedia … and got hooked. You see, as a young teenager I decided I wanted to write an encyclopedia. I did start one, but didn’t get very far. Life got in the way as I recollect. As with several of my early dreams, however, life has had a way of seeing them realised, almost without my being aware of it, and so to Wikipedia I came.

Like any communities – and Wikipedia is a community – it has its ups and downs. Within a couple of days I had incurred the wrath of the “copyright” patrol. Some young (I could tell from their user page) French Wikipedian slapped a “speedy deletion” notice  for copyright infringement on a page one hour after I had created it and while I was still working on it. You see, I had “copied”, with some minor changes, a couple of sentences from a website into a new article I had created. The article was about a conference and these sentences essentially said the conference was held biennially and rotated around the states.  There are only so many ways you can say that! As someone who had worked closely with copyright all my career, I didn’t think I’d breached anyone’s creativity in almost-but-not-quite copying those sentences and, anyhow, I was still working on the article. My initial reaction was, I have to admit, a high level of distress. Sitting quietly on my comfy sofa with my laptop on my lap I felt attacked – personally and professionally (in terms of my sense of self). But, I calmed down, decided to react sensibly and got through it: I politely left a message on the tagger’s user page explaining what I was doing and set about enhancing the article. Three hours later the tag was suddenly, and as mysteriously, removed. Phew! I relaxed. But I did learn some things from that experience:

  1. the Wikipedia quality police are out and about 24/7;
  2. the best way to react is calmly so that you don’t enflame the situation; and
  3. there is an “under construction” tag you can put on a new article to tell the police (and other eager editors) to lay off for a while.

All this came back to me as I read David Runciman’s review in the London Review of Books of a book by Andrew Lih called The Wikipedia Revolution. Runciman describes in some detail the way the Wikipedia community works suggesting that it reverses Gresham’s Law which states that “bad money drives out good”. He writes:

One of the remarkable achievements of Wikipedia is to show that on the internet Gresham’s Law can work in reverse: Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad.

And how do they do it? Via the police of course! Because the truth of the matter is that my French Wikipedian was simply doing his best to ensure that the high principles of Wikipedia were being upheld. He wasn’t to know I was an honest newbie still feeling my way.

Anyhow, read the article … Runciman says some interesting things and, along the way, does manage to talk a little about the book he is reviewing.

Subsequent posts on WIkipedia:
2017 Monday musings on Australian literature: Boosting women’s entries on Wikipedia
2011 Wikipedia wants YOU (if you’re a woman)
2009 If you look up Wikipedia…
2009 Why I link to Wikipedia
2009 Using Wikipedia

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Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my motherWell, I wasn’t expecting Bill to choose this one for Bill curates, but I’m so glad he did because Wikipedia was an inspired idea and has become such a significant force on the Internet. I love that Bill went the extra mile and sussed out my subsequent posts to add to the end of my original post.  As for kindness! Bill has shown his own colours in that direction by producing this series for me.

As I became more involved in blogging, my Wikipedia work fell away, though I still regularly update pages when I can, particularly Australian literary awards pages or pages for contemporary Australian authors. However, I did take part in the Boosting women’s entries project in 2017, and created the page for Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Do any of you dabble in Wikipedia editing or article creation? We’d love to hear your experiences.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2020 15:19

    Ha ha, you know my answer to this. Ages ago, I spent hours constructing WP pages of notable Australian authors e.g. Susan Johnson and prizes e.g. the Vic Premier’s, only to have them promptly deleted because an arrogant American Wikipedia Policer didn’t think they were notable enough.
    (I guess The Rest of the World just isn’t notable, to certain types of Americans.)
    Someone else, probably Sue, has replaced both those pages and they are there now, but at the time the whole WP was very US-centric and it was a battle I was unlikely to win on my own. I was working, I had better things to invest my time in. (I made a kid-friendly Wiki for my students to use for research instead, so I was able to put what I’d learned to good use).
    Wikipedia is big enough not to care, but this episode is an example of why it is very important to treat volunteers with care and respect. Volunteers come with variable skills and energy levels, and they are easily offended or hurt because they are giving of themselves, most often when they are already busy, and their only reward is appreciation for what they’ve done. When I ran a professional organisation of volunteers, even when people got things wrong, I would look for what had gone right, and focussed on that, and provided support to fix what had gone wrong. Every member of my team knew they were wanted and valued, whatever they were doing.
    Looking back on it, I suspect that the head honchos at WP were all computer geeks with the legendary lack of social skills that go with that, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But it was all new to us back then…

  2. June 20, 2020 00:06

    I have one Wikipedia entry to my (partial) credit – Never Never, but it all seems too hard. I see there are errors and omissions in the Miles Franklin entry, but any changes I make will only be overwritten. Yes, I use Wikipedia all the time, but I nearly always cross check.

    • June 21, 2020 16:29

      I think it’s wise to cross-check Bill – but your edits won’t necessarily be over-written. Few of mine are – if you cite them. And they have pretty easy to use citation templates you just click on to enter your reference source’s data.

  3. June 21, 2020 17:17

    I’ve dabbled with Wikipedia editing but found it an exhausting experience. I was trying to update factual info about the company I worked for but even though I sourced every statement the changes kept getting rejected as “promotional” – really bizarre that the CEO’s name even fell into that category. Reading the tab which charts page changes and comments is fascinating, the editors really delve into the smallest detail.

    • June 21, 2020 17:54

      Yes, Karen, they really don’t like people writing about their own company or creation. There’s a fine line, though, isn’t there, between fact and promotion. I think with CEOs it would depend. If you just gave the current CEO without a sense of the history of CEOs, I can see that they might see that as promotion. What would you put in an encyclopaedia is the question that needs to be asked, versus, say, a directory. That said, I think the “info box” for a company can include current information like that, but again it probably depends on the significance of the country and the person. There are very fine lines here, and I’m definitely not an expert at drawing them. I just understand some broad principles.

      The really important thing about companies, to my mind anyhow, is their history. When were they established, by whom and/or why, and how have they developed/what changes have been made? (I’m always cross when this sort of information is not on websites.)

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