What I Learned from a Night Editing Wikipedia

This Friday evening I stayed in, not feeling well, and spent my night doing more editing of Wikipedia than I’ve ever done before. After reading Danny Sullivan’s frustrated blog post about his recent experience being shot down on Wikipedia, I thought it would be good to share a different experience. I think Wikipedia is super important and I love it, but editing it is not easy to do. Not because of the technical requirements, those are pretty simple, but because of the way the community there can articulate its expectations.

I went with friends on Friday afternoon to the Fubonn Shopping Center, a large Asian mall with a big grocery store. Riding in the car through town to the mall, my precious Geoloqi iPhone app with the Wikipedia layer turned on was sending me push notifications as we passed places with Wikipedia entries. I love this app more than almost anything on earth – yesterday we passed by three heliports, for example, something the 6 year-old and I that were traveling together never would have known otherwise. When we went to a pay-per-use children’s play facility with coffee for grown-ups, I sat and read all about the Willamette Stone, a marker located just down the road that served as the center reference point for the Federal land grant of 1850. That program was the first time women were allowed to own property in the US: they could own half of the hundreds of acres granted to each white married couple or “half-blooded Indian.” I love knowing the good and bad history around the places I find myself.

But Friday afternoon I was at the Fubonn Mall and was surprised to find out that there was no Wikipedia entry for the place! It calls itself the largest Asian mall in Oregon and that certainly seems of encyclopedic significance to me.

Unfortunately, I did not stop and snap a picture of the mall’s giant round front window when I thought about it. I would come to regret that later.

That night I sat in my living room and decided I would create a Wikipedia entry for Fubonn.

It was a lot of fun. I logged in to an account I created years ago but hadn’t used much and I created the new entry. I looked at entries for other businesses and malls around town, clicked the edit button, copied the Wiki code for all the formatting, pasted it into my entry and then changed it to refer to Fubonn. I Googled around, especially in the Google News Archives, and found information to include in the entry. It really enjoyed it. Here it is, a living breathing Wikipedia page about Fubonn.

I saw that other posts had photos of businesses included photos and I wanted to include one of the big front window of Fubonn. There weren’t any I could find in the Creative Commons section of Flickr so I grabbed one from the Fubonn website. Wikipedia seemed to indicate that if a photo was used in an advertisement and I couldn’t reasonably get a photo in another way, then I could use that photo in an entry. Turns out I misread that. My photo got deleted and a long paragraph of confusing explanation was sent my way. The short version: I need to go back to the mall and take my own photo of the front door. Silly, if you ask me – but that’s the rules.

One long-time editor visited my entry, fixed some links, removed a “see also” link to the Fubonn Foursquare page (turns out you’re only allowed to link to other Wikipedia pages in the See Also section – not sure where I could link to what I consider a valuable additional resource off-site) and then placed my entry into the WikiOregon project. That project is dedicated to building out pages about Oregon. The editor classified my entry as of “start” quality (not a stub) and of “low” importance to the project.

I took issue with the low importance designation, especially when I saw some of the other entries that had been classified as of “mid” importance, and so I edited my entry’s Talk page and classified it as of Mid importance to WikiOregon. I am not sure why the page about the 1916 Oregon Ducks football team, which finished in 2nd place, would be more important than the largest Asian mall in the state and the cornerstone of the alleged move of Chinatown from downtown to South East Portland.

There were some parts of the experience that I found confusing and disappointing, but when I woke up in the morning I felt silly for having complained about that the night before on Twitter and Google Plus. This was my first major contribution to the giant sprawling, pseudo-democratic experiment that is Wikipedia. Why am I entitled to just jump in and be praised for everything I do?

New Zealand technologist Nat Torkington said of Sullivan’s experience, “having built a valuable resource, vain nano-Napoleons hide behind hostile UIs.” For what it’s worth, my experience did make me bristle – but I wouldn’t describe what I experienced that way.

The new article rating system says that 9 anonymous people have already rated my article to be of high quality and completeness, that’s cool. And the article history page shows that 4 other people have now made edits to the page. The end result is pretty good so far, I think. I wish my photo was still there, but I think I’m going to try to go back to that mall and take one of my own.

Once I got over the sting of confusing reprimands, my imagination started whirring. I imagined taking my 9 year-old niece back to Fubonn with my friend who’s a professional food photographer. I imagined setting up an interview with the mall’s owner and taking a bunch of high-quality photos to put into the public domain. Wouldn’t that be a great experience for a 9 year old to get to take part in? To collaborate in creating a part of the public record like that?

I think I would like to do something like that with my niece, but I want to think of the best place to do it for. Maybe we could find one place near her home that has an entry we could expand on with some Google searches, then maybe another place that doesn’t have an entry. We could take some photos, take a trip to the library to do some research, and create one ourselves.

I think that would be an incredibly empowering experience for a young person old enough to appreciate it. It was even for me, and I write on the web daily, to accolades from around the world.

There’s something magical about filling out a public resource about a place in the real world. The Geoloqi Wikipedia layer, as well as looking at Wikipedia entries through Google Earth, have created an expectation in my mind that every single place I go should have a Wikipedia entry available about it. I would really like that to be the case.

If Wikipedia can figure out how to welcome more and more new editors onto the site, and I don’t think coddling us is necessary, perhaps that will become reality in the future. It’s an incredibly complicated community management situation though. Danny Sullivan’s experience having his entry about an important woman in technology get deleted is super frustrating and an example of how things can go wrong.

But there’s a whole lot about that’s right about Wikipedia, too. The difference between many Wikipedia entries and old encyclopedia entries on the same topics is so substantial that it deserves to be sung about from mountain tops. (The world before Wikipedia – an honestly horrible vision)

I thought I’d write up these thoughts in hopes it could help some other people jump into the messy world of Wikipedia, too. The world will be a better place for it.

Related: Why I Love the Internet So Much (about editing OpenStreetMap)

  • Thanks for writing this up Marshall. I have to say I haven’t spent a lot of time editing on Wikipedia since a couple of frustrating experiences too. I still love it though and you’re right, Geoloqi is an awesome app to find rally great stuff thanks to Wikipedia!

  • I once edited on Wikipedia, but got tired of the BS and drama surrounding anytHing but the most trivial of changes.

  • “having built a valuable resource, vain nano-Napoleons hide behind hostile UIs.”

    The problem with that as a criticism of Wikipedia is, it has been ever thus in the encyclopedia field. Or so I gather from the many memoirs that have been written about Britannica during the Mortimer Adler years, for instance. This is the main thing critics seem completely unwilling to concede — that they’re holding Wikipedia to a standard of behavior that mostly exists only in their nostalgic memories.

    Anyway… now I’m just indulging in Brin-like “Dogma of Otherness” behavior.

    Glad you’re on board.


  • Having worked in and around the Wikipedians for years I can only sigh and add my voice to the chorus of frustrated contributors. The red tape and politics at Wikipedia makes the beltway look like a place where things get done. Ask Larry Sanger what he thinks of the wikiway and you will find that even one of the founders has had his share of wikiality to deal with.

  • Nice post.

    I can refer to a 2006 attempt at adding an article for “Crowdfunding” which I had just coined and wanted to define it on Wikipedia. Man, that was hell. Myself and an interested friend battled it out for a while but eventually, the article was deleted and I cloned it on pbworks.com (formerly pbwiki.com).
    Eventually, other people got the article back on Wikipedia and as for where we are today with the term “Crowdfunding”, well it is being used everywhere and even in Congress (The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act – http://www.npr.org/2011/11/27/142821690/the-deregulation-bill-thats-drawing-crowds?sc=tw).

    It’s not that Wikipedia editors were wrong back in 06 with my article necessarily but regardless, it stifled the addition of a quality entry with good references and a clear explanation. I could have been alright if the article was just flagged indefinitely but when it was deleted, I was fed up and realized that the experience was not something for me to get into. It takes a certain type to have the patience and diligence to work in that environment. That was my take-away. Simply, not for me. But I appreciate that Wikipedia exists and use it often on the consumption side.

  • Anonymous

    welcome! The second picture is one that I took when trying to fill articles that needed images in Oregon 🙂

    Feel free to drop by WikiProject Oregon, we’ll try to make you feel welcome.

  • I love Fubonn! Thanks for the great Wiki article 🙂

  • If you could write a post about your experience, I would love to read it Aaron…

  • John, your bio says you’re a social media marketer. Or at least that you teach it. If you were trying to edit on behalf of a client there’s a good reason why you’d be rejected.

    In any case, if you wanted to write up your Wikipedia experience like Marshall did, I’d be very interested in reading it.

  • Marshall, thank you so much for writing this post. It’s been passed on to the staff at the Foundation, and will make very useful reading from a user experience perspective.

    Anyway, that long, confusing message you got about fair use images? It’s the kind of template notification that myself and a colleague at the Foundation are currently bucket testing to improve. It seems that we should add the fair use notifications to our list… More here: http://blog.wikimedia.org/?p=7815

  • Hey Marshall: as a Wikipedian, I’m interested to read your experience.

    One question: for a few weeks now, there’s been an Android app available to help people send images to Wikimedia Commons.

    The code is here:

    and it’s in the android marketplace here:

    Should this be something the Foundation and/or independent developers make available for iOS and other mobile platforms?

  • Tom, that sounds great. I would have loved to have used that on my iPhone!

  • Thanks Steven!

  • Anonymous
  • Richard Morris

    Yep copyright of images is a big frustration, but it needs to be there to ensure the project does not get sued, it is also essential for the reusability of wikipedia. An important aspect of wikipedia is that anyone can reuse the content following the Creative Commons Atribution-Sharealike License. Its this license which allows Geoloqi to reuse the wikipedia data. This license imposes additional restrictions on the images which need to be shareable as well. Illegal reuse of images is rife throughout the internet and wikipedia is one of places which does follow the law.

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  • Kevin

    Submitting new entries to Wikipedia is one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever been apart of. The politics of it, the running into users that have this extremely pious attitude, and just the overall unwelcoming feel to a new person left a bitter taste in my mouth. I’ll occasionally make some edits to existing things that I see issues with but I won’t waste my time or effort submitting anything new.

  • mohamed saad
  • i love this. i think this is spot on to a mindset that would have us all creating more things that matter to us.. sharing that.. and then enjoying the world we live in all the more. being able to take more in.. because we’re sharing our cognitive surplus in usable ways..

  • Nicholas Quixote

    Wikipedia should be as easy to edit as Word, and the community certainly shouldn’t favor people that know code or are better with gadgets (vs academics and scholars who aren’t). I’ve never understood why Wikipedia is like it is except a tacit form of control, which is ironic and hypocritical considering their supposed values of free information.

    When I interviewed someone once, I took her entry along as a crib sheet. I always prefaced it by saying “Wikipedia says…” Which each time was soon followed by “Well Wikipedia’s wrong…”


    P.S. I realize I’m in the belly of the beast here. Perhaps I’m wrong (and frankly, I’d like to be as Wikipedia is always crowding the top of my Google results). After all, I see that Mr. Jobs decided to include it as a reference that appears inside of my dictionary.

  • sarah


  • Bernard ben Tremblay

    Structuration: http://www.istheory.yorku.ca/structurationtheory.htm

    The nature of something like WikiPedia is at least conditioned and probably determined by the folk who make it … the folk who do it. So the question for me becomes: who find the experience of contributing/participating so positive that they continue?

    The way things get done conditions/determines who does the doing. And who does the doing conditions/determines how things get done. It’s a feed-back/feed-forward sorta thing.

    I happen to dig wiki … have had an account on Ward Cunningham’s http://c2.com/cgi/wiki for at least a decade. But I never made the mistake of thinking that wiki was a solution for mass participation. By its nature, I mean the way wiki works, the vast majority of folk would be excluded.
    With WikiPedia there’s that … the technical stuff … but also the social stuff. And a big slab of that is the stuff that makes us “bristle”. The confusing explanations of quasi-official decisions, the petty criticism, the inevitable politics. I don’t mean this as a put down of the project. But, rather, as a cautionary note: the nature of the thing has the effect of restricting membership. Not officially, no. But in effect.

    This is a specific case of something I’ve focused on for years. A more general case, and perhaps far more important: why forums suck so bad. The technical barriers are lower, but the social friction … oh my, don’t we all have war stories?

    So I applied the theory of structuration to this big picture with one aim: to find some way of hooking people into the real social dimension of the cyber-world in a way that would reduce the friction. Better: by making the “friction” an actual part of the project.

    “There’s something magical about filling out a public resource about a place in the real world. ” Spot on!
    Even though social engagement so often makes us bristle, we come back to it. (Social isolation? Increasingly. But that’s another set of symptoms.) There’s something about contributing to a social project that’s … well, I’ll call it what you called it: magical.