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.

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Internet censorship – some thoughts about tactics

1. Facts on the ground

When we think about fighting against Internet censorship we usually think about campaigning, lobbying, explaining our case. This is great stuff to be doing, but in my opinion there is too much focus on explaining things in a way that is abstract and technical.

The term “facts on the ground” comes from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel found that they were unsuccessful in trying to convince the UN to recognize their claim to the Palestinian territories. Since arguing their case wasn’t working out for them, they simply went ahead and created facts on the ground – settlements in the disputed territories.

If you’re just asking for something you’re in a weak tactical position. If on the other hand you create something and then defend it, you’re in a much stronger position. What are our facts on the ground? Every website that is threatened by Internet censorship. A prime example is Wikipedia. Everyone knows it, everyone uses it.

Governments have done a pretty good job of convincing the average person that Internet censorship is about terrorism, copyright, or pornography. We need to tell people that copyright threatens things they use and depend on every day, like Wikipedia.

2. Don’t alienate people

It’s easy to get mad about the fact that most people, especially non-computer-techies, don’t seem to care about Internet censorship. It’s very tempting to think that people who don’t seem to care that much about this issue are stupid and deserving of contempt.

Winning any sort of campaign depends on getting as many people as possible to support your cause. (Or alternately, you can just have lots of wealthy donors and corporate lobbyists to support you, but, well, never mind.) If you act like you think everyone who doesn’t know or care that much about your cause you is stupid, people will notice this, and they’ll be annoyed.

Think about it: in the past year, how much time have you spent campaigning against the cruel treatment of asylum seekers, or campaigning for the police to tackle domestic violence, or against the lack of meaningful limits to carbon dioxide emissions? No one person can fight for evvery cause that’s worth fighting for, and the sad reality is that a lot of people are struggling just to survive, let alone try to make the world better. Walking around with a chip on your shoulder because others aren’t supporting your cause is not only logically floawed, it’s bad tactics.

3. Don’t talk about pornography

The would-be censors want us to talk about porn. They have put a huge amount of effort and money into convincing the public that Internet censorship is about porn, so that whenever the topic of censorship comes up, it will get derailed into an argument about porn.

Some people think porn is a healthy way of exploring sexuality. Some people think porn promotes misogyny and violence. Some people think it’s acceptable for teenagers to watch porn and some don’t. Some people think parents should be there when their kids are online so they know what websites the kids are visiting, and some parents don’t actually have the free time required to do this. These are all interesting and important conversations to have, they just don’t have anything to do with government-ordered censorship at the level of the ISP.

As far as Internet censorship is concerned, it really doesn’t matter what you think about pornography. If you like porn, you probably don’t want the Internet to be censored. If you’re a parent who wants to prevent their kids from viewing porn, you don’t want censorship at the level of the ISP, which is notoriously ineffective, you want to install child-protection software on your computer; it will work better, and you’ll be able to make age-appropriate choices about what is or isn’t censored.