An interview with User:Markellos, prolific editor and administrator on the Greek-language Wikipedia.

On: July 23, 2011
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About Ilektra Pavlaki
Here I am in Amsterdam. Studying in the New Media Master Program and hoping that by the end of this year I will have gained new experiences, new friends, brand new goals. My bachelor was in Communication, Media and Culture in Athens. Then I found myself a 90% dreamy job as a copywriter in a global advertising agency (BBDO). Great boss, big clients, small income :) Fun Theory and Free Hug Campaign magnified my interest in new media. "So, there must be a way to combine passion -advertising- and curiosity-new media-. Let's find out" I said. So... here I am in Amsterdam.

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This is an interview with Markellos Stevis, an administrator of the Greek-language Wikipedia and one of its most prolific editors. Markellos participates actively in the “I participate in Wikipedia” initiative, a campaign that aims at the development and enrichment of the Greek – language Wikipedia. Here, he shares some of his observations about the experiential workshops that were held as part of the campaign and talks about the interactions between “newbies” and experienced editors.

You & Wikipedia

Let’s start with your own participation in Wikipedia. When and how did you discover Wikipedia? What prompted you to contribute as an editor in the first place?

First I discovered the English edition, where I functioned as a reader only. I had not realized that I could interact with the text nor that I could write or correct something. At some point, when searching information on my parents’ hometown, I discovered the Greek-language version. I saw that there was no article about the town in question and that when I accidentally clicked on the red link I could add information. This feature intrigued me and I continued adding information.

In your opinion, what are the reasons that the Greek-language Wikipedia does not have the “unrealistic” growth of other Wikipedias?

The low Internet penetration rate in Greece – at least until recently – is an important reason. Another potential cause is, perhaps, that there was no publicity to make Wikipedia more widely known among the Greeks. The mentality of the Greeks, who are averse to any venture of a volunteering nature, is for sure, another reason. In general, volunteerism in Greece is limited, except for a short period of time during the Olympic Games.

You& Campaign

As part of the campaign for the enrichment of the Greek-language Wikipedia that kicked off in January, a series of experiential workshops were held across Greece. You participated as an initiator in some of them; so what do you think this campaign has to offer and what made you believe in it?

I must admit that in the beginning I was a bit skeptical: Wikipedia is a community of volunteers, which means that each member represents himself/herself and participates to the extent he/she wants to. Therefore, to present someone as if he/she represented the entire community could initially be dangerous. During the workshops however, I discovered the importance of promotional action, as it proved that what we considered obvious (namely that all people know that anyone can edit Wikipedia) was nothing but obvious after all. The percentage of participants that did not know that they can be part of Wikipedia was very large. As a result, the presentations and workshops turned out to be very interesting, as they made Wikipedia a little bit more open.

Typically, it is Internet users who discover Wikipedia. With this campaign, however, Wikipedia is the one that invites the public to discover it via experiential workshops. How different is the experience created by such an organized effort from the experience of an Internet user who discovers Wikipedia all by him/herself?

Well, it’s a bit as if you… arranged a meal on somebody’s plate – you thereby save him time. To understand how things work, to read policies, to read manuals… all these processes take time. As you have probably seen in the workshops, many participants stated that they did not collaborate on Wikipedia due to a lack of free time. Therefore, the workshops brought them practically one step before they start editing.

What is your view on the fact that workshops presuppose the presence of authors and simultaneously the “opening” of the community to a wider public?

It was somewhat odd for me in the beginning. Through the workshops, I came in contact with a lot of editors who I knew only by their nicknames and I did not know what they look like, nor their age or even their sex. Meetings, of course, could have been held outside the workshops. But certainly workshops changed the relations among editors, at least for those who participated in them.

The campaign is supported by the Greek Free / Open Source Software Society (GFOSS), the Greek Research and Technology Network (GRNET) and the Ministry of Education. In other words, by institutions which are “outside” of Wikipedia. What is your own position on this issue, and how, do you think, has the Wikipedia community accepted it?

As I told you before, I was skeptical in the beginning. And there are definitely a lot of community members who still are skeptical. Some have expressed their concerns openly, while others show it by not participating in the workshops. It clearly is a subject that needs attention, because voluntary participation is an essential element of Wikipedia, and if that is lost, its neutrality will be lost, which is one of the cornerstones of Wikipedia.

I think, however, that, at its current extent, the participation of institutions has not impeded the project. I find it very encouraging that the Ministry proclaimed the year 2011 as the Year of the Digital Encyclopedia and that it acknowledges the value of Wikipedia, regardless of political agendas that might exist.

Can you describe which experiences in the workshops left the strongest impression on you and why?

Definitely that most people did not know what exactly Wikipedia is. But also people’s willingness to participate even when they knew they would not receive any material profit or recognition for their contribution.

Existing community & new users

As it has been mentioned in the workshops, the existing Wikipedia community consists of about 45 active users. So we are talking about a small community that produces a great amount of articles. What are the pros and cons of such a small community?

The advantage is that we all more or less know each other.

The disadvantage is that, that way, Wikipedia will never develop. The number of articles will increase, but at a slow rate, and their quality will not be improved at all. Since we are 45 users, it is logical that at some point we will get tired, and there may be more conflicts. In general, it is becoming more and more difficult to come to an agreement, because if 10 of us agree on something and another 10 on something else, how can we achieve a consensus?

Participating in the workshops, I noticed that many members of the community know each other personally. This is something which is not always the case in the English Wikipedia. Is this personal relationship also reflected in the collaboration of the editors within the Greek-language Wikipedia? And if it is, does this have a positive or a negative impact?

Certainly it is more difficult to contradict somebody on Wikipedia when you have met them personally. But I do not think that it has done a lot of damage to the undertaking as a whole.

Can personal contact facilitate collaboration?

Possibly. It depends. If two people who do not know each other disagree, this will hardly change, even if they get to know each other.

Through the workshops, the “newbies” were taught how to write and edit Wikipedia articles, but also learned a lot about Wikipedia’s culture. Was there anything for experienced editors to learn?

What they were definitely taught is how to welcome new users better. When you have participated for many years, you tend to forget how you began, what difficulties you faced, and you easily judge someone making their first attempts too harshly. When you take certain things for granted, you expect everyone else to know them as well or at least to learn them very fast. Therefore, I believe that the workshops reminded us of what it is like to start from zero.

This campaign has the purpose of attracting new users. Whether these remain collaborators, however, depends to a large extent on  their interaction with the more experienced users. Have you noticed any changes since the beginning of the campaign in the behavior of older users towards new users?

Definitely yes. I have seen editors become more flexible, and also editors who have never dealt with welcoming new users develop more sensitivity towards this issue.

Conclusions

If you had the chance to change something in the Greek-language Wikipedia what would that be?

Nothing comes to mind right now. Everything is perfect. (laughter)

If you had the chance to change something in the campaign what would that be?

We need to find a common way of presentation. I know it sounds somewhat utopian because everybody has their own style. Nevertheless, I think that it is important for us to come up with a “frame” in order to provide the same information in all the workshops. This, of course, is difficult because the public is not homogeneous.

The Wikipedia community is not isolated from the rest of society. On the contrary, it reflects it. Therefore, in a period of crisis and “dissensus”, as the one we are experiencing, are there any margins of growth for a community that is supported by voluntary contributions and collaboration?

I believe that since the old days, we have not done things that would not yield profit. And that has not changed with the current crisis. A crisis out of which some good has come: It brings people a little closer. Therefore, I believe that the whole crisis thing could evolve positively for the community. And of course with the unemployment that the crisis brings, we have a lot more time on our hands (laughter) to dedicate to a good cause.

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