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Opinion

Wikipedia is another country

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By Gog the Mild
I wrote this a year ago as a reflective essay. Rereading it a year on, it seemed worth sharing. G

Just over a year ago, I was an inexperienced editor with a few hundred gnomish edits to my account. Although I didn’t realise it, I was about to plunge deep into the rich and varied ecosystem of Wikipedia.

In terms of personal experience I was not daunted. My experience had included hiring and firing people, going through a life changing illness, holding people while they died. I had lain alone on a rain-swept hillside wondering whether hypothermia or the rescue helicopter would arrive first. All of this turned out to be inadequate psychological preparation for being a Wikipedia editor.

I look back and wonder at my luck; there are so many ways to be deterred as a new Wikipedia editor, but somehow my enthusiasm fell upon fertile ground. My gnomish inclinations led me to GOCE, where no matter how inept I was it was almost impossible for me not to improve any tagged article I chose to work on. Being both ignorant and arrogant, the first ten articles I chose to work on included two FAC candidates. Possibly alarmed by this, GOCE assigned a mentor to me; almost endlessly patient and apparently omniscient on things Wikipedian. I cannot think of a better way to pick up an outline of the WP:MoS, Wiki-etiquette and how to communicate than to have a GOCE coordinator as a personal tutor.

This was just as well. As far as I have been able to determine, there is no basic guide to Wikipedia. After a couple of thousand edits, I worked out how to ping and reply correctly to pings. Until last month I didn't know that I could ping several editors simultaneously. I fumbled on, no doubt taking the long way around with many edits. While writing this I'm wondering what I will look back on and shake my head over next year. Ah well.

I then had the inexplicable good fortune to fall in with the Wikipedia Military History Project. I made a high proportion of the standard newbie errors and a couple of novel ones. I demonstrated a lack of awareness of myriad policies, guidelines and essays – not to mention a failure to realise that there was any difference between these three – and a pedantic tendency to take those I was aware of at their word. For example: if someone, at some stage, had assessed an article as meeting B1 then fine, it met B1; no need to waste time looking any further at the referencing. And so on, ad nauseum. This would probably have dropped me in deep trouble at many projects, and so have terminated my interest in Wikipedia. But the MilHist coordinators, bless them all, made huge assumptions of good faith.

Which brings me back to psychological preparedness. I was not accustomed to being the new member of an established group and the slow kid at the back of the class at the same time. Relying on the charity of others to metaphorically tie my shoelaces. It grated. This was entirely my own, fairly reasonable (I think), issue. Nor was I prepared for the casual offhandedness which is fairly common. Recently I suffered a mass revert with the edit summary "Learn some intellectual property law". This bluntness rankled. It was my issue rather than the reverting editor's, but that didn't help reduce the rankle. Since discovering MilHist I have stumbled around in this small corner of Wikipedia, occasionally bumping into helpful tools which I endeavour to clutch close.

The near complete lack of usable guides – IMO – to the basics is heavily compensated by the, usually, enormous willingness of complete strangers to spend time and effort correcting my idiocies, reducing my ignorance and remembering that they too were newbies once. Members of the Military History Project have collegially made the project a comfortable place to work in such a natural, even graceful, way that what they have achieved seems normal.

So here I am, 13 months on (not, note, rounded to "a year"; Wikipedia has taught me the joy of precision), a pillar, as it were, of the Wikipedia community: 16,000 edits, 45 good articles, 35 did you knows, 4 A class articles and even a featured article to my account; more barnstars than one could shake a reasonable-sized ego at; editors of a dozen years’ standing, and better writers than I shall ever be, stating "Gog the Mild recently copyedited it" in their FAC nominations. How come, if I am actually this good, I still don't know how to archive a web reference? Or even understand the instructions as to how to? Or can't get my Wikipedia email to work? Or understand the difference between an WP:RfC, an RfA, an RFD and an AfD? Or have just read the instructions for applying to be a new pages patroller for at least the fifth time without understanding anything after, and including, the second flow chart. Or can't even remember where Wikipedia prefers hyphens as opposed to where it requires them? (I don’t like hyphens, but strangely a gang of brownies follow my articles around, inserting them where necessary.) Trust me, none of these are even a little bit exaggerated for effect. Yet I have little doubt that on reading this several people I have never met, and never will, are going to send me instructions as to how to resolve each of these conundrums. Some of which, if the syllables per word count is low enough, I may even understand.

Editing Wikipedia can sometimes feel like a high octane version of real life, albeit with less risk of physical harm (although arguably more risk of the psychological variety); which in turn reminds me of Spider Robinson’s advice as to how to deal with life: "Just do the next thing". And so I shall, surrounded by a crowd of invisible strangers whose self-imposed task is to prevent me from stumbling, or to support me if I do. It is a strange and frequently frustrating journey, but I have learnt over the past year that I travel in good company.

Gog the Mild's newbie experience challenges many of the stereotypes about newbie experiences on Wikipedia. Perhaps he is atypical. Or perhaps there is no typical experience for newbies. Please let us know about your newbie experience in the comments section below.
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Yup. Protip: try putting "WP:" before the abbreviation and punching that into either the search box or your browser's address bar (replacing the title of the current page). Most of the commonly-used abbreviations have redirects. Example: WP:RFD. Doing a search through a search engine often works too, if you prefix it with "wikipedia", like "wikipedia rfd". --47.146.63.87 (talk) 06:05, 5 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Personally I would recommend fiddling around with stubs tagged with "Copy edit needed". They are listed at GoCE, you can pick topics that appeal and/or about which you know something, and it is almost impossible to make the article worse, and you get practice at putting new prose into existing articles. And every so often someone will point out a new policy or bit of the MoS you were unaware of. Gog the Mild (talk) 21:47, 5 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@47.146.63.87: - the follow editors function actually was a community wishlist item in the past, but rejected out of harassment concerns. A big "help me" button that was like the "help me" template would probably overwhelm our ability to answer them. However, a big button that directed to the teahouse would be very worthwhile, I feel. A search field for help questions would also be a good option - wikipedians like tagging stuff, so indexing wouldn't be an issue. Nosebagbear (talk) 12:26, 6 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Right, a follow thing would have to be restricted to approved users. And yeah, you need to put some filtering between people requesting help and people volunteering. Obviously it's impossible to guarantee a live volunteer can always be available immediately. I was kind of envisioning something that lets you look up help resources, and if the person still needs help, they can submit a request into a ticket system. We already have OTRS, which seems to function adequately, but most people don't know about it. I wonder how difficult it would be to integrate with OTRS. Allowing answered questions to be posted publicly would also be good, so then those are available to others seeking help. What would be really nice would be having screen sharing between helpers and helpees, but that would probably be a big technical undertaking and also comes with privacy issues. --47.146.63.87 (talk) 06:36, 7 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Reading the decline, I suspect they wouldn't be happy even if the userright was at admin level, and it wouldn't be of much use if set at some functionary point. Quite a few people find OTRS, but I'm sure plenty don't. I don't know how many more active OTRS agents we could get (there's only a couple of dozen active agents on the en-wiki queue, and lots of inactive), but we could probably get some. One issue I've found is that practical editing help is much easier to give on-wiki, through Teahouse etc, rather than by email (even with references to on-wiki content), due to not writing in markup. Answers would need to be scrubbed - OTRS operates under confidentiality for all our tickets. Nosebagbear (talk) 11:55, 7 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
The idea is if someone has a question like "How do I get these two templates to look like this on Foo", and they need human help, the helper can then save what they told the helpee to some page that will then show up in help results. That way people don't waste time answering the same question. Things can be cleaned up for any privacy issues; worst-case scenario, helpers just have to write a page from scratch. Places like the help desk of course have archives, but most people seeking help tend not to look through them, partly because they're not "surfaced" prominently. Yeah, we'd like everyone to be perfect and go digging thoroughly for an answer to their question before asking, but of course people aren't. If you "encourage" people to go through the help query search thing to get a human, and it searches through archives automatically, it ameliorates that. Wikipedia in general could probably benefit from some experienced user interface design people spending time using the site and suggesting improvements. --47.146.63.87 (talk) 04:54, 8 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Regarding the "help me" button. At least on the skin I use for desktop WP interaction, there is a prominent Help link on the left hand navigation menu. It takes one to Help:Contents with pretty decent instructions for first-timers on both reading and editing. That said, however, the mobile view has no such equivalent link that I can find. ☆ Bri (talk) 20:47, 7 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Right, while on the default skin it's one of the dozens of teeny text links in the sidebar that most people's brains just block out. --47.146.63.87 (talk) 04:54, 8 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
  • @Sdkb: Wikipedia's elements are maintained and developed to varying degrees. You may recall that for awhile The Signpost wasn't published due to lack of volunteer labor. Wikipedia would benefit from having many more good faith and competent people than it has now. Specifically with regards to working on documentation, technical writing is a somewhat specialized skill, and not everyone can do it well or wants to take the time to do it well. On related points, you might want to look at the NavWiki project which is slowly but surely proceeding on my volunteer time, and WMF's Growth Team. ↠Pine () 04:53, 9 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@47.146.63.87:, I assume you didn't mean to post this here. Nosebagbear (talk) 09:59, 5 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Nosebagbear: From the article: "Yet I have little doubt that on reading this several people I have never met, and never will, are going to send me instructions as to how to resolve each of these conundrums." Gog the Mild (talk) 11:18, 5 March 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]





       

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