Contributing to Wikipedia: a painstaking task on an too open platform

On: October 2, 2010
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About Lennard Torbijn


Ever since Wikipedia has been embraced by millions, the online and collaboratively created encyclopedia has been heralded as the manifestation of Web 2.0’s possibilities. Often, Wikipedia has been ascribed characteristics that belong to online media that are approachable to any individual. However, the question here is: does every potential contributor know how Wikipedia works? Is Wikipedia that approachable? The answer to this is a result of my own experience with contributing to Wikipedia.

Although the three main article edit functions, the edit page, the talk page, and the history page, are not too hard to work with, it is imaginable that the messy and disorganized appearance of the HTML-based edit functions are not that accessible, or understandable if you will, to any random 50-year old. Behind the uniform Wikipedia article hides an open structure that facilitates the making of an article, but needs a good understanding before one engages in contributing.

Before I stared the article on the Dutch language Wikipedia about the album 4 Way Street by musical legends Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, I needed to create a user profile. The first thing I bumped into was that the username I had in mind was already in use. Although that often happens when one creates a user profile anywhere else, it remained the first thing that kept me from contributing right away. It was only when I made myself less anonymous by creating a user profile, I was off to the unknown island of contributing.

How does one now create something that was not there before? How do I start a page out of nowhere? I looked for a contribution form of some kind that I could fill in. But it was not there. In other words, where is the “start an article” button? I assumed that Wikipedia, famous for its openness, would have a button of that kind. It turns out, that Wikipedia is so open that one only needs to type in a link to a Wikipedia article that does not exist and one can start that page right away. For instance, type in and one can start that article. It is that simple.

So, I could now start an article. Then I found myself staring at an empty white box. What is one supposed to do there? I typed in what I had already come up with about the album I wanted to write about. I clicked ‘save page’ and immediately my contribution was published. But it looked so ugly. How do I create an article that looks like a Wikipedia article? That’s where the inaccessibility of Wikipedia begins. One needs to master the Wikipedia HTML-like language in order to successfully create an article. Since I wanted to create something, but I did not have the skills to do so. So I started copying other Wikipedia articles’ code to get an idea of what is behind a Wikipedia article. I replaced the other article’s content with mine and voila, the Wikipedia article on 4 Way Street was a fact. That is, of course, the beauty of the practice.

Within a minute after publishing, my article was edited by another individual user and thereby collaborating on the online encyclopedia was happening instantly. The article was not mine anymore, but belonged to the great database of knowledge that is Wikipedia. A day later a few bots had come across the article and corrected some minor details. The article now still exists and continues to attract individual users.

The above all seems in praise of Wikipedia. However, I have some remarks to make. It was a painstaking effort to write the article itself and to make the code work. It took a lot of time, and every time one bracket was in the wrong place the article turned out to look messy. Also, I was confronted with an openness I could not understand. Like I said, where is the “start an article” button? There is non. Building an article, be it an article on a random topic or your own user profile, requires some technical skills that are not that easy to learn. Wikipedia therefore is too open, one might state. One can virtually start anything on Wikipedia. Feeling the confrontation with an open platform myself, I started wondering: “Do we want to be guided, do we want to be given tools that both enable and restrict us from doing anything?”

We are confronted with a transparency we are not used to. The basic question remains: Do we want an open platform like Wikipedia where we are both busy with the content as well as with the code itself? Or do we want a platform that is designed so that one only needs to fill in the content and where everything else is already prescribed by the platform itself?


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