Culture Magazine

Wikipedia: Not for the Weak

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
Wikipedia: Not for the WeakThe first time I made a revision to a Wikipedia article, I took care to ensure that my work was free from error. I previewed the article several times to see how it would look with my changes. Finally, I clicked "save" and admired my contribution. I got up and stretched, feeling great. Maybe 15 minutes later, I checked the site again. My work was gone. Nowhere to be seen. Worse, when I checked the history tab (which I hadn't even noticed before then) to see what had happened, I found a personal message waiting for me: “newby . . . unless one has a record here, keep out.”
So much for “Please Do Not Bite the Newcomers,” a Wikipedian “behavioral guideline" the very existence of which suggests that Wikipedians have a tendency to greet newcomers with less than open arms, and my experience would seem to confirm this tendency. But experience can be deceptive. The first problem is understanding who Wikipedians are. Contributions to Wikipedia seem to approximate a kind of power law, with a small group of contributors doing the bulk of the work. So there is no "average" user in the ordinary sense of the word. Of the smaller group of major contributors, we don't know much. Perhaps it changes members frequently, perhaps not. Some evidence suggests that its members are predominately twenty-something males. No surprise there. Few women participate because this is not a place most women would care to visit. (Apparently this is debatable.) It is an intellectual battleground where the odds of having an unpleasant encounter with an obsessive and pedantic geek are uncomfortably high—this isn't Facebook, and you're not surrounded by friends.
The second problem is that even within this smaller group, it only takes one apple to spoil the barrel. We're more likely to remember the few encounters we have that are notably bad, than the many ones we have that are neutral—for there's no reason to remember a perfectly ordinary experience. And unlike ordinary social settings, where you can choose with whom you converse, there's not much choice in the discussion pages of Wikipedia: you can always leave, but if you choose to stay, you will have little choice but to deal with whoever else enters the fray. If you can't work things out amicably on a talk page, you may end up grinding your way through Wikipedia's formal dispute resolution process. (Who would do that?!) Some people even get into "edit wars" in which they repeatedly undo ("revert") each other's edits. And nothing is too trivial to spark an edit war. (Check out this list of the "lamest edit wars.") 
Wikipedia: Not for the WeakAs for my own unwelcoming experience, I didn't get into a crazy edit war. Instead, I went to the discussion page to defend the worthiness of my revisions. After some heated debate, I did some more research and discovered that a handful of fanatical Wikipedians had been wrangling for control over the style and content of that particular Wikipedia article for—get this—not hours, not days, not months, but years. Years! 
After several days, I reluctantly laid down my sword. 
But I live to fight another day!

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