Resident Mario is an editor of volcanism and occasional writer for the signpost. In this piece he shares his reflections on becoming a registered user, on editing, and on Wikimedians' obsession with collecting achievements and accolades.
The views expressed are those of the author only. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds. If you have one in mind, please leave a message at the opinion desk.
The original version of this essay was finished just under 2 years ago. A lot of time has passed since its writing, and in adapting it for this publication I have come to the realization that I was terribly naive when I first joined the project. Still, I hope this essay will provide an interesting view to our readers, who might just be dogs.
When you have a change of pace and stop to contemplate what Wikipedia really is, you realize something. It is not just a collection of articles—it is a living, breathing behemoth, with a sampling of all the people of the real world. In a way Wikipedia can be seen as a pseudonym for reality, a golem of much thought and yet of much drama, and of just as much bureaucratics as love for the text. When I first joined Wikipedia, I thought, well, it's simply a collection of bored writers and semi-interested experts biding away their free time. Truly, I could not have been wronger. I was baffled by the immediate extensiveness of the project, the extensive guidelines and categorization, the organization and categorization, the multitude of pages and their subpages. You can't get a true appreciation for what Wikipedia is simply by browsing; whiling away your time reading articles of interest, or searching for a nitpick of information, you never stay far behind the main namespace. You may stray over to the talk page occasionally, click on that little green + mark or bronze star, or even follow the little box down in the references section to a Portal page. But these incidents are rare. For the most part you browse, following links that strike your interest, reading the leads and interesting bits and looking at the pretty pictures. If the article seems interesting, you may even read the whole thing, god forbid.
All this time, the "Log into/create account" button looms small yet proud in the corner of your screen. It is the gateway to a community; after all, what is our motto? Try typing "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" into the search bar. Where does it take you? At Wikipedia we let anyone edit. We truly are a slice of life. Our reasons for trying it are as varied as we are. Some have too much spare time. Some want to improve something, and settle on Wikipedia. Some want to apply their knowledge somewhere useful, or learn how to do something through Wikipedia. Regardless that first step, clicking the button, leads to a whirlwind of new things.
You choose your username, make a password, and log in for the first time. At first, nothing much changes. You still browse your interests; occasionally, you make a small edit or two. Your edits often get reverted quickly; you still don't know how it all works. As you linger around, you start to get drawn into the site, coming across the userpages of the people involved. Very quickly your universe expands once again, with the discovery of the "WikiProject"; and from there you find yourself staring at the seemingly endless pile of processes, standards, ideas, organizations, and guidelines that Wikipedia harbors.
I remember my first week of Wikipedia. I lingered here and there, staring endlessly, vastly bewildered by Wikipedia's new-found depth. Those who press the button wind their way to the center of Wikipedia, and realize that its radius is much larger than they had previously perceived. Our critics consider Wikipedia inaccurate rubbish, but they know not of how meticulously oiled the project is, and how much work goes into constantly expanding it. The vandal-hunters, stub-writers, dyk'ers, article-writers, copyeditors, image buffs, experts, administrators, bureaucrats, and legal buffs all have a place here, and when they work together the machinery powering this massive projects runs uninterrupted. When this spectrum comes together, the fabric works in harmony and Wikipedians churns out information at a rate faster then anything else in the world.
Many people complain, indeed, leave, over the various increasing pressures here; the standards are getting tighter, the work more frustrating, the bureaucracy piled higher and deeper, the wikidrama picking up pace. As the projects expands to beyond the 3-million-article horizon, one cannot help be lost in the sea of contributors. Individual contributions become less and less prominent, and the community starts to follow a herd mentality. Most especially, quality gradients have increased fivefold since Wikipedia's inception; what would have been considered FA in 2004, became GA in 2006, and today would only be considered C class or thereabouts. As if to illustrate the shift in quality, WP:FT used to outline a 30% Featured article gradient; it became 50%, then indeed 75%; and some users are pushing to have the standard raised to a full 100%.
All this does is place more stress on the importance of the community. While individual accomplishments have, and should, be heralded, it is the community that makes and breaks all of the decisions. Wikipedia is built not on one man's ambition but, from the very start, on the collective thinking process of millions of organic organisms, also known as humans. What I am not saying is that the community is perfect. Far from it. It included a swarm of vandals, trolls, and people who come to Wikipedia for, among other things, a free chat service (Wikipedia passes through school webpage filters; chat sites do not).
One thing I dislike is when new members of the community speak out, but are silenced on the basis of their experience. All that does is push them farther to the rim. New editors are the lifeblood of Wikipedia. The lifetime of an average Wikipedia editor is very short, so why uproot them at the very beginning? Although I am not the first person to stress the importance of new editors, Wikideath is still too common among green editors. Wikipedia's recent history has been a competition between openness and quality, and judging by the recent stagnation we should be leaning more to the left on this issue. In the end, we are a community; so don't be a dick, get along, and start writing. You'll be happy you did.
Here at Wikipedia, we're obsessed with certain things. A passing reader would be puzzled at how some editors put big shiny bronze stars at the top of their page saying, "I did this!" We want some of these, some of those, lots of these, maybe one of those, lots of those, but never one of these. Greedy greedy. But that's how content writers work. They want to be recognized for doing this and that and for being generally all-around awesome. Obsession drives the majority of the editing community. Wikipedia was designed well in that it has low-hanging fruit (WP:DYK, WP:ITN), fruit that requires some jumping to get (WP:GA, WP:BARNSTAR), and high-hanging fruits requires building long editing ladders to finish (WP:FA, WP:FL, WP:GT, WP:FP, WP:FS), and the really commemorable stuff that requires quite a few ladders and chutes fruits, to use my allegory, to complete (WP:CROWN, WP:FT).
But the system does have its limitations. If you're writing a DYK, you are tempted to write it only up to the point that it would pass the standards for the process, no further. Nitpicking articles for FL, instead of choosing ones that might be difficult, is a constant there, and the FL director has expressed unhappiness about this fact. But for the most part, we want shiny things, and if you're here to get said shiny objects, you're writing for the right reasons.