A weird thing happened to me on Wikipedia the other day: I was thanked.
I wasn’t expecting. Far from it. I ressurected my Wikipedia account a couple months ago, with the idea I’d walk the talk and start fixing inclusivity problems on Wikipedia: everything from women tech pioneers with underdeveloped articles, to black Americans in STEM with no articles, to foreign literatures with little to no coverage.
My goal has been to make a small but meaningful edit each week in this regard. Not to dive into the expensive never-ending arguments of Wikipedia, but to do the relatively uncontroversial stuff that doesn’t get done mostly because no one puts in the time to do it. Stuff like making sure that people like Liza Loop and Thomas Talley have pages about them, and that Adele Goldberg gets credit for her work on the Dynabook.
Most underrepresentation on Wikipedia is not the result of people blocking edits, but of no one doing the work. I don’t recommend people wandering into the GamerGate article, or getting into the debate about whether Hedy Lamarr’s work on frequency-hopping can really be seen as a predecessor to Wi-fi. But, on the other hand, the main reason the Karen Spärck Jones page is underdeveloped is because no one has expanded it substantially since her death. The reason that the Kathleen Booth page has no photo is no one has gone through the laborious process of finding an openly licensed photo.
That lack of effort in these areas is why when you google Kathleen Booth (born 1922) you are greeted with this incongruous Google supplied Twitter photo that is actually the CEO of a small marketing firm. If Wikipedia had a photo in there, Google would pull it. But they don’t so they guess and this is the result:
The simple solution to this is to cut out some time you spend decompressing on Twitter an replace it with doing some of the boring yet restful work of improving articles.
But I digress — I was talking about thanking. Normally when you do this sort of thing you either get negative feedback “This source does not support this claim!” or silence. And usually it’s silence.
Today, something different happened. I got thanked, via an experimental feature Wikipedia is trying out:
Here this person thanked me for finding an Adele Goldberg photo. They then went to my Liza Loop article and disagreed with a claim of mine, saying the source cited didn’t support the strong claim. Without the thank, it would be easy to think of this person as some opponent, out to undo my work. The thank changes things. Consequently, when I review their edit on the Liza Loop article, and it’s persuasive enough, I thank them back. I *want* more people working on these articles — people making sane edits and revision is a *good* thing, because over time it will improve the quality.
Wikipedia gets a lot of flack for its bias, exclusivity, and toxic bureaucratic culture. And rightly so — the site is clearly working through an awkward phase in its history. It’s succeeded in becoming a much higher quality publication in the past ten years than anyone would have dreamed possible. But in the process it has also becoming a somewhat less inviting place.
Features like thanking (introduced a couple years ago, but becoming more widely used), show that they are still trying to get the right mix of hospitality and precision, and that they are correctly seeing the potential of the interface to help them change the culture. The Visual Editor is another such effort.
I’ve often said that the amazing beauty and the potential ugliness of the future of the web is there to see in Wikipedia. It’s the canary in the coal mine, the Punxsutawney Phil of our networked ambitions. We have to make it work, because if we can’t we’re in for a lot more years of winter. It’s good to see the efforts going on there. And it’s good to be back!