Sick Sad World

Inside the Wikipedia Community

7 June 2017

I’d always viewed Wikipedia as a bit like the pyramids: a mostly unexplained monument of mankind and something that’s just there, drawing in millions of visitors. This status, as a contemporary wonder of the world, is curious at the least.

Wikipedia hosts nearly 5.5 million articles in English and millions of articles in a host of other languages. Its net assets amount to $91 million – all through volunteers and donations. And, apart from founder Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s board of trustees are almost all unknown, odd for the world’s fifth most popular website. Who were these people – the ‘Wikipedians’ – and what motivated them?

As luck would have it, Wikipedia’s parent organisation, the Wikimedia Foundation, was holding elections for its board in May. And what better time to speak to the media than during a campaign! Cynicism aside, I spoke with two candidates who were generous enough to share details about their experiences, efforts and plans for Wikipedia.

I talked with Chris Keating, a London-based thirty-six year old naval history buff, and James Heilamn, a thirty-seven year old physican. Keating states that he will work to ensure the Board is listening, effective and open – an issue he confronted during his time as chair of the UK’s chapter of Wikimedia. Heilamn wants to see greater equality within Wikimedia, as well as ensure Wikipedia’s independence. Like most mission statements, these desires were vague and broad.

Both candidates, however, elaborated on these desires. Heilamn is particularly worried about the impact of ideological or paid editing, whereby individuals alter content on Wikipedia to fit their worldview or their employer’s world-view. Similarly, Keating noted that his time with the UK’s Wikimedia chapter saw a board member include reference to Gibraltar 17 times in a month of Wikipedia’s front page – raising concerns of financial inducement. Just as the rest of the rest of media has been confronted with ‘alternative facts’, so, too, has Wikipedia – something I’ve dabbled in (sorry high-school Wikipedia article).

But, on this issue, Heilamn notes that despite the scorn academics hold for Wikipedia, the site is highly reliable, with a number of bots that monitor for vandalism, ‘new page patrollers’, as well as millions of users. So reliable, in fact, that the Oxford University Press published a medical textbook which copied and pasted sections from Wikipedia. In Heilamn’s view, the criticism from academia is founded by a scepticism of change and perhaps, even some jealousy.

Looking through the rest of the candidates, I did notice a distinct trend – predominately male, mostly white, most from developed countries and all proficient in English – something that is reflected by Wikipedia itself. On this issue, Keating stated that Wikipedia’s articles simply reflect those who create them – “mainly men from wealthier countries”. He noted the work done by individual chapters to bring more women on board – but said that there wasn’t a definitive solution to this issue. Heilamn, however, stated that Wikipedia’s biggest struggle is its coverage of the developing world – due to a lack of primary sources.

During these discussions, I got the distinct feeling that Wikipedia was less of a community and more a collection of individuals – working autonomously and occasionally butting heads. There seemed to be relatively little in the way of actual interaction. Heilamn has noted that in his field, medicine, the core community responsible for the majority of edits was small, with a large number of high quality articles developed primarily by one or few users. Keating, on the other-hand, pointed to the highly collaborative nature of editing, with proposed changes to noteworthy articles being debated and reviewed before implementation – which can be seen in the ‘talk’ section of any page (something which bet most have never looked at, and fewer ever contributed to one of these sections).

Interestingly, Keating later drew a comparison to the encyclopaedias of yore.

“In the old days, you’d get the encyclopaedias off the shelf, and read the article feeling reassured that it had been written by an expert and therefore the article was right. With Wikipedia, all of that authority is missing.”

However, rather than being a fault, Keating implied that this flattened the traditional hierarchies associated with specialist knowledge, and noted that Wikipedia requires critical thinking and that individuals need pay attention to the sources (which is perhaps a tad optimistic).

But, although Keating and Heilamn are now heavyweights of Wikipedia, they started out writing the odd article, making changes here and there – a sense of accessibility pervades – both to the website, and to the board (something which can’t be said about a particular Australian purveyor of knowledge found at most universities).

Both candidates seek to maintain this accessibility, Heilamn noting that the strength of the Wikimedia movement is their many volunteers.

Last election, however, saw only 5,000 Wikipedians vote – a paltry figure compared to Wikipedia’s audience.

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