Future Tense

To Celebrate Wikipedia’s 20th Birthday, Try Editing It

A Wikipedia globe with a birthday party hat and someone holding a birthday cake.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by RuthBlack/iStock/Getty Images Plus and pialhovik/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.

At a Monday press conference commemorating Wikipedia’s 20th birthday, Jimmy Wales joked, “We were never as bad as they thought we were, and we’re not as good as they think we are.” Then again, the recent spike in praise for Wikipedia is enough to make any internet encyclopedia editor blush. The Economist is celebrating the occasion with three articles arguing that the site is the rare early internet project that exceeded expectations, characterizing it as “the dream that worked.” In recent years, journalists have also described Wikipedia as the “last best place on the internet,” a “ray of light,” “the internet’s good grown-up,” and the “good cop” in the fight against internet misinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories. As Katherine Maher, CEO and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation observed at the press conference, perhaps Wikipedia’s core values are back in fashion.

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Ordinary netizens regularly express admiration for Wikipedia’s nonprofit mission: to provide the sum of all notable human knowledge to everyone in the world. The English language version of Wikipedia now has more than 6.2 million articles where readers can gather information about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to Harry Styles’ dating life. Many people—and I count myself within this group—are in awe of Wikipedia’s volunteers, who have dedicated so much time to the project, contributing 1 billion edits to build out the encyclopedia and protect it from inaccuracies.

Each month the Wikipedia service is accessed by 1.5 billion unique devices from around the world. During that same period, a small minority of those users—some 280,000 editors—take the time to contribute to Wikipedia. According to Kevin Li, one of Wikipedia’s volunteer administrators and a junior at Stanford, the website’s biggest challenge is a declining supply of edit hours to continue the time-consuming work of maintaining an encyclopedia with such a massive readership. Essentially, Wikipedia needs more volunteers to help keep the archive up to date.

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As a writer on this particular beat, I very often hear from readers how much they love Wikipedia. But when I ask those same people whether they have ever actually tried editing a Wikipedia article, I’m more likely to hear crickets chirping. Presumably the sound is emanating from the free audio that’s posted on the insect’s Wikipedia page …

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What’s keeping the vast majority of readers who spend time consuming Wikipedia information from volunteering their time to help produce it? One theory is that editing Wikipedia is just too hard. Yet, from a technical perspective, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Every Wikipedia page has an easy-to-find “Edit” link at the top. Visitors can add content to a page using a visual editor that does not require learning any code, with easy formatting options that are similar to Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Uploading a photo to Wikimedia Commons, like this cute snap I took of a Papillon puppy, is not that much more difficult than adding it to Facebook or Instagram. Unlike social networks, the user doesn’t need to give a name or other personal data to Wikipedia in order to edit. You can register under a pseudonym, or if you don’t want a username, your internet protocol address is sufficient.

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True, there is a steep learning curve to become well-versed in Wikipedia’s canon of policies, which can be quite granular about the definition of a notable topic and which sources are considered reliable. At the same time, there’s no requirement to be a policy expert to get started on Wikipedia. The gist is rather intuitive: curate information published by reliable sources; add reference links for good measure to prove you’re not making that information up (or as Wikipedians say, no original research).

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It could be that people don’t edit Wikipedia because they think it’s boring. Fair enough, there are a lot of aspects that are mundane, things like repairing broken links, fixing typos, or adding categories. (Sidebar: Bless the WikiGnomes who actually enjoy these repetitive tasks!)

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But it’s not all routine maintenance work. Take the recent debate over the nomenclature that Wikipedia should use to describe last week’s frightening events. Should that destruction and violence be described as President Donald Trump’s supporters “storming” the United States Capitol, an “insurrection,” or a “coup attempt”?  Is it “terrorism”? “The long-standing consensus is that article titles on events, such as this, should reflect how reliable sources have described the event,” said Chet Long, one of Wikipedia’s long-term volunteer administrators, who edits under the username Coffee. The issue here was that reliable sources have covered the event using all of that nomenclature. At publication time, the Wikipedia article is named “2021 storming of the United States Capitol” based on the consensus of editors that the majority of media sources have also characterized it as a “storming.” Of course, reasonable minds can disagree on that decision, which developed after spirited, reasoned debate. One thing is clear: That’s not a boring issue. The language that the world’s most popular internet encyclopedia uses to describe the events of Jan. 6, 2021, will affect how that day will be perceived by the public in both the short and long term.

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Others say that Wikipedia’s culture is too much of a turn-off for some would-be contributors. Editors tend to be very blunt when they delete one another’s edits, such as the user who once read me the riot act after I accidentally but temporarily broke the formatting of an article’s infobox. The much scarier issue is harassment, when users are doxed, hounded, or expressly targeted, often on the basis of their race, sex, or gender. In 2021, the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation intends to finalize a Universal Code of Conduct aimed at providing a baseline of acceptable behavior across all of Wikipedia’s language editions. Alexandria Lockett, an assistant professor of English at Spelman College, argues in her contribution to the new book Wikipedia @ 20 that many people do not edit Wikipedia because they simply do not feel they have the authority to do so. That’s because programming and gaming are considered male-dominated cultures where women and minorities are not welcome. “To transform both student and faculty resistance to Wikipedia editing,” Lockett wrote, “they would need the space and opportunity to recognize the importance of editing with purpose” (bolding in the original).

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Rebecca O’Neill, a 35-year-old Irish woman, is a case study in editing Wikipedia with a sense of purpose. A project coordinator for Wikimedia Community Ireland with a Ph.D. in digital media, O’Neill decided that she would write one Wikipedia article each day throughout 2020, a resolution she kept by creating 366 new pages last year. (Remember, it was a leap year!) When she first set the goal, she and her husband had recently bought a house that required renovating and needed to save up money. Prior to the pandemic, she was considering inexpensive hobbies to take on. O’Neill recalled thinking that Wikipedia was “a cheap thing to do that will keep me busy. It will keep me out of the pub and keep me from buying take-away pizzas and crafting supplies.” She tends to edit in quiet because it helps her focus, though some editors might be more energized by playlists like this one on Spotify compiled by Ariel Wilson Cetrone with music by “Notable Women Without Wikipedia Articles.”

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O’Neill recommends that people write about topics that are not yet represented on Wikipedia and that they find personally interesting, which for her is all things Ireland. Her list of articles includes Irish women who were not previously included, like the zoologist Jane Stephens and Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, a woman who was active in the country’s independence movement. More recently, she’s trying to improve the Wikipedia articles for places on the Irish Monopoly board, which includes spots like Merrion Street and Shrewsbury Road.

When I asked O’Neill why more people didn’t spend their time contributing to Wikipedia, she observed that not everyone has the same “encyclopedic urge.” “I am a gamer, and I’m definitely a completionist. If there’s something there that needs to be done, then I’ll go do it,” O’Neill said. But even if somebody is not in a position to contribute their cognitive surplus to Wikipedia for an entire year, she recommended the flexible approach that she called “active reading.” If you’re reading something on a reliable source outside of Wikipedia, you can pull up the Wikipedia page to see whether or not that info is being reflected on the site. If it isn’t, consider adding it. Or if you’re in a location that does not yet have a photo on Wikipedia, consider taking one and uploading it to the digital commons.

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As do-good activities go, it seems to me that occasional Wikipedia editing is not nearly as difficult as, say, composting food waste in an apartment. And I often think back on something that a young Wikipedia editor once told me about his encyclopedic hobby. I had asked him why he spent a lot of time on the internet encyclopedia but was not at all involved with Facebook, Instagram, or other commercial platforms. “There’s no utility,” he said quickly. “It’s not productive.” At the time, I thought his assessment of social media was rather harsh, but I’ve begun to think that he was largely right. If the choices are between volunteering a few minutes’ time to make Wikipedia better or else passively consuming more social media, the active option is superior.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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