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)