How do you edit Wikipedia?

I intended to start editing Wikipedia for a couple of years before I started actually doing it. I was put off not so much by the wiki code, but by the endless lists of rules, tutorials, style guides, best practice guides, etc. I’m the kind of person who reads the fucking manual, who makes an effort to learn the community’s established ways of doing things first instead of crashing straight in, but with Wikipedia there seems to be an infinite amount of information that you “should” read before getting started.

Eventually I did a reality check: I’m an Internet-savvy hobbyist web developer, I’ve participated in lots of online communities, and if I can’t learn everything I need to get started on Wikipedia in 15 or 20 minutes that’s Wikipedia’s problem, not mine.

Since then I’ve developed a nice comfortable rhythm with it. I’m not one of the core Wikipedians who’ve edited tens of thousands of articles. I never go out of my way to edit Wikipedia. But if I’m reading an article and come across a typo, or a mistake that I know how to fix, I’ll fix it. If I can’t find the information I need on Wikipedia and end up finding it elsewhere, I’ll add the research I’ve already done to Wikipedia, essentially creating the article of article section I was looking for in the first place. It feels good that I’m contributing to a shared project that benefits people around the world, and it also feels good to have a way of contributing that’s a sustainable and efficient use of my time.

Wikipedia is seen as having a particular culture: valuing openness, cooperation and transparency, commited to the idea of “neutrality”, often adversarial and prone to edit wars and aggressive behaviour. I see myself as only partly fitting into this culture. I put the word “neutrality” in scare-quotes because I don’t believe it exists: what English-language Wikipedia calls “A neutral point of view”, I would call “Representing as closely as possible the range of views currently expressed in English-language publications that fit Wikipedia’s definition of ‘reputable'”. To show my problem with the concept of “neutrality” as starkly as possible: if there had been a German-language Wikipedia in the 1930s there would have been an article on “The Jewish Question” which would have contained two points of view: a hardline view that Jews were the cause of all Germany’s problems, and a more moderate view that Jews were mostly harmless as long as they were prevented from having certain jobs and had their rights curtailed in various other ways. The (correct) view that Jews should have equal human rights to everyone else would not even have appeared on the page, because it wasn’t part of mainstream discourse at the time.

To be clear: it is fabulously useful to have a free encyclopedia that does its best to accurately represent the mainstream points of view on every subject. I just don’t think we should call that “neutrality”. To me the word “neutral” is a little too close for comfort to “objective” or even “true”. It seems to me that part of Wikipedian culture is a love of contributing to Wikipedia for its own sake, regardless of the content of the articles, and I don’t relate to this at all. I contribute to articles I care about, even if it’s just a passing interest. Wikipedia’s “Neutral point of view” policy means I sometimes end up writing things I personally know to be wrong, because they are part of the mainstream discourse. I’m happy to do this because I recognize the value of having an online encyclopedia that represents the mainstream views on every topic, and I can always go off and write a blog post when I want to say what I really think. But it irks me that this parroting of mainstream sources (mainly newspapers, if the topic is a current event) is called “neutrality”.

Wikipedia’s reputation for combattiveness and edit wars is part of what put me off for a long time. In order for me to feel like it’s worth putting time into editing Wikipedia, I need there to be a reasonably high chance that the article won’t be immediately deleted or vandalised by some jerk who sees pissing people off as a form of online entertainment. Since I was worried about getting drawn into this sort of nonsense I went in with a strategy: I make sure all my edits fit with Wikipedia’s guidelines to the best of my knowledge, so if someone wants to undo one of my edits I’ll be able to make an argument as to why they shouldn’t. I keep my writing style very clear, direct, and terse. I remove all the ‘I think’s and ‘it seems to me’s that I would normally use. Partly because that’s just a good clear writing style, partly because if you write less there’s less that they can argue with. And partly because the bullies of the world prefer to pick on people they perceive to be weak, regardless of the content, and thus the bullies are more likely to pick on someone who expresses themself timidly and hesitantly. And I have a gender-neutral username, I wish that didn’t help, but it does. This style has been working out well for me. I’ve had a couple of articles deleted entirely, but it’s easy to revert this kind of vandalism. So far when I get an email from Wikipedia saying one of my articles has been edited, it’s more likely to be a helpful addition or fixed typo than vandalism.

I sometimes find myself wondering whether I’m a real Wikipedian or not. Of course it’s a silly question, since despite some people’s sense of ownership over it there is no one way to be a Wikipedian. Wikipedia is a complicated ecosystem that is evolving over time, a sort of massive experiment, with every single contributor participating in that evolution. One thing I’m fairly sure of is that whatever the online encyclopedia looks like in the future, it will be different from the present.


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