Civilising Wikipedia

Last month, Wikipedia celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the founding of its English-language website, an online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone.

Today, Wikipedia has more than 55 million articles available in over 300 languages, in addition to the original English. It says that 1.7 billion unique visitors come to its websites every month.

For many people, it’s the first stop on the Internet when you want the answer to “What is…?”, “Who is…?”, “Where is…?”, “When is/was…?”, etc.

‘Edited by anyone’ is one of the great appeals of Wikipedia. It means, literally, anyone can create new content and edit existing content. Wikipedia says that it is edited by more than 280,000 volunteer editors every month around the world.

The reality, though, is that Wikipedia can also be an unfriendly, hostile place for editors.

Over the years many editors, particularly women and members of the LGBTQ community, have complained of abuse and harassment from other editors.

This is a key reason why the Wikimedia Foundation – the American non-profit organisation behind Wikipedia – announced early this month a new Code of Conduct that seeks to address criticism that it has failed to combat harassment and suffers from a lack of diversity.

The new code is a significant step forward to improving the environment on Wikipedia that would give more credibility to Wikipedia’s slogan that it can be ‘edited by anyone.’

It’s worth setting this code into the context of how things currently work at Wikipedia.

Treading a Narrow Path

Behind the open system that defines Wikipedia lies a labyrinthine framework of rules, policies and unwritten customs that must be followed if you want to add or edit content. In front of that is the Wikipedia community comprising the 280K volunteer editors mentioned earlier along with many unregistered editors, subject-matter experts and others who review content and participate in discussions.

For the old or new volunteer editor, the framework can make Wikipedia a daunting place when learning what rules to follow and how to do that – it isn’t an easy journey. There’s also the realisation that anything you create or edit on Wikipedia can be changed or deleted by anyone else.

That’s right: You do not own your own content on Wikipedia.

This situation can lead to edit wars between volunteer editors who disagree over new or edited content, arguing Wikipedia policy on neutral point of view and other rules. It can prompt destructive anti-social behaviour such as editing vandalism by those who deliberately engage in bad-faith activities to demean or disrupt your content that can also damage Wikipedia’s reputation.

Not only that, there is a sense at times that some seasoned editors treat volunteers who don’t yet “get it” about Wikipedia editing as idiots or clueless – hardly illustrative of a friendly and welcoming environment.

But it’s also the case that some new editors simply disregard any rules and just dive it to content and make changes without making any effort to understand the rules and policies and how to build relationships with the community (the PR profession was a major culprit a decade ago; building bridges with the community was a key milestone in closing gaps and building trust).

This is quite a landscape especially for the novice volunteer to venture into!

I’ve been an occasional volunteer editor over the past decade, including spending much of 2020 on a long-term project to update and improve an organisation’s content on Wikipedia. I engaged with a number of other volunteer editors and, while I never encountered hostility or abusive behaviour by other editors (save one, who was a bad-faith vandal), I did positively experience the journey of navigating and understanding the labyrinth of rules and policies.

Wikipedia Code of Conduct

So the universal Code of Conduct announced a few weeks ago, created as a collaboration between Wikimedia and some in the wide volunteer community, is a major step forward on the path to creating a climate of trust and respect without discrimination. It’s a code for today as it also addresses content vandalism, hate speech, and “deliberately introducing biased, false, inaccurate, or inappropriate content” to Wikipedia.

The first step – creating and publishing the code – is done. What about enforcing the code, educating everyone about the code, and holding to account those who abuse it?

That’s step 2, says Wikimedia:

“Wikimedia is already working on that second phase of the Universal Code of Conduct, which will establish how both local and regional Wikipedia projects will enforce the new requirements and any consequences for those who break those rules. But the company is still in the early stages here — that part of the project likely won’t be complete until late 2021.”

One step at a time.

(Image at top via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.