The lessons that “teaching” taught me: Following the campaign for the development of the Greek-language Wikipedia, Part II

On: May 19, 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.


To see Part I, click here:

The coordinating team of the campaign for the development of the Greek-language Wikipedia -wisely- thought that the “I participate in Wikipedia” initiative should be presented in two phases: one to be run in libraries, where people looking for knowledge already gather and the other to run in schools and universities, where students, being “heavy readers” of Wikipedia, can be encouraged to become contributors.

So, I guess it kind of took them by surprise when I, still being in Amsterdam and before getting involved with the community, scheduled two workshops addressed to school students. I even had the “nerve” to post an announcement to the Agora (the village pump of the Greek Wikipedia), asking the more experienced users to help me with the presentation. The community not only didn’t mind that I –unwillingly- messed up their plans, but embraced my initiative with enthusiasm, providing me with educative leaflets, material for workshop trainers and useful advice.

And the truth is that one needs all the support that can get when is called to present an online encyclopedia in front of the so – called Net Gen or Generation Y. I wouldn’t dare to count myself a member of this Generation. I grew up with the TV. They grew up with the Internet. I search in Google. They are Googling. I am learning the language of technology. For them, it’s their native.

For these reasons, this going back to school turned out to be quite instructive for me. Even if the sample was not big enough (64 students in total, 34 from the second class of lyceum and 30 from the third class of high school), it could provide some useful hints on how the Greek Net Generation is thinking of Wikipedia and consequently on what should the Greek Wikipedia team expect in the second phase of the campaign.

So, here are the valuable lessons I was taught while “teaching”:

Looking for the writers of Wikipedia.

My first question, “Do you use Wikipedia?”, was greeted with bored affirmative head-nods (and some giggles).  The second question, “What about the Greek-language Wikipedia?”, had the same luck. The third question however was left without a reply for more than 3 minutes. What an unexpected triumph! I had managed to shake their faith in their digital omniscience just by asking: “So, who writes Wikipedia”? Some students decided not to hand over the arms and here are the answers they gave me: “Academics?”, “People with expertise?”, “Writers and journalists?”. To be short, out of the 64 students, only 6 gave the right answer: that Wikipedia is written by anyone who wants to write it.

Caution! Editing can get you blind.

So, how can it be explained that digitally literate people, who use Wikipedia in a daily basis, have never been intrigued to click on that “edit” button? Pretty soon, I found out that most of the students had never noticed there was an “edit” button. Talking with one of the bureaucrats of the Greek-language Wikipedia, he told me that this “sort of blindness” is one of the main issues that Wikipedia is facing in all languages and showed me the video below, where Wikipedia volunteers present the “edit” button.

Appetite for destruction.

To convince the students that they themselves are included in this “anyone can edit” concept, I encouraged them to “be bold” and to start editing an article of their choice. At once, new questions popped up: “Can I delete the whole article?”, “Can I delete this user?”, “Can I add all the bad words I know?”. I stayed calm and grabbed the opportunity to talk about the vigilant community that protects the quality and the consistency of Wikipedia, reverting unjustifiable changes or malicious edits.

However, I must confess that I got puzzled by the fact that their instinctive reaction was to “delete” (used here as synonym to destroy) and not to “add” or “change” something. This tendency to misbehave reminded me of the story of the White Bicycles program that Clay Shirky mentions in his book “Here comes Everybody”. This program was launched in Amsterdam in 1960’s by the Dutch anarchist group Provo and Shirky describes its design as follows:

“Provos distributed the bicycles, unlocked and painted white, around the city. You could pick up a bicycle wherever you found it, ride it to your destination and leave it there for the next person…”

Within one month all bikes had been stolen or damaged and the program failed miserably, illustrating that when there is the opportunity to act without restrictions, there will always be people that will attempt to wreck everything. What worried me most is that the Greek-language Wikipedia, contrary to the English version, is still vulnerable to the users’ malicious instincts, since in our small Wikipedia community there are not enough eyeballs to monitor the content.

But… there is a bright side.

When I shared these thoughts with the coordinator of the campaign, he suggested that I looked on the bright side of the story. To destroy is so much easier than to construct. Viewed through a positive prism though, destruction is a form of experimentation with something new and under the right guidance it can be transformed into production.

Greek-language Wikipedia’s community is working hard to recruit new enthusiasts on its production-line of knowledge. The participants are few and the obstacles are plenty. But, as long as there is a vision no one can tell what is going to happen.

I have to take off for my next workshop. I will keep you posted :-)

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