Thursday, July 05, 2007

How Wikipedia treats newbies

A few days ago I received email from one of my faithful readers (one of the many people who reads my blog through the Linuxchix aggregator) seeking advice on dealing with the Wikipedia community. I regret that I could not provide him with advice, but I did get his permission to republish his email. It's safe to say that he reads my blog, so if you have comments for him, feel free to leave them as comments below. Here's the email (slightly edited):
As a linuxchix live reader, I appreciate your wikipedia perspective. I was wondering if you have any advice on how to actually get content to stay on a page without the myriad of people, editors, bots, etc. from removing it within seconds. I could only guess that Einstein would have his theory of relativity page deleted by someone who though it was wrong. So I get the impression that the accuracy of information is not the only criteria for information to survive on a page. Is it simply beating someone at deletion-addition pingpong? Any clues as I am a newbie. How do newbies survive if our attempts are simply wiped out and there is no guidance for us to correct our mistakes and help to get the intended information in a useable form. Deleting it simply demotivates anyone and most folks don't have the energy or time to get any good data past the quick or determined deleters.
I suspect that the problem here is that he's adding unsourced information to an article which has fallen under the sway of a sourcing fetishist. I'm certainly not opposed to the sourcing requirement in principle, but I think there are times when the fetishization of "reliable sources" on Wikipedia gets out of hand and actually interferes with article development. But that's only part of the problem. The problem is that this fellow has to turn to me, an external critic, to have Wikipedia's processes explained to him. Surely whoever he's fighting with over this issue on the project could have taken the time to talk to him and explain sourcing to him and why it's important. That means that it's not enough to revert his edits with an edit summary saying "removing unsourced material" (whether or not that summary links to the policy page). It means contacting the newbie editor directly and politely explaining to him that the material needs to be sourced and giving information on how to do so--preferably also without immediately reverting the edit. Reverting a newbie's edits are a great way to discourage further participation ("Thanks for playing, we don't want your crap, go away" is the message when one is brusquely reverted, after all). Boilerplated welcomes on talk pages don't really help with this, either; people recognize that they're boilerplate and don't read them.

The timing of this email was interesting as I received it about the same time I read Geoff Burling's comments on Wikipedia's entry barrier. Basically, my correspondent has crashed into Wikipedia's entry barrier, and bounced off instead of in. I have been meaning to write a more detailed commentary on both Geoff's points and also Andrew's, but this post is not that commentary. I do note, however, that Wikipedia has become significantly more newbie-hostile in recent months; I've experienced this first-hand editing with freshly-created sockpuppets. The quality of communication between users has declined significantly of late. I blame this in part to the increased use of templated communication instead of actual personal missives; editors seem to be content to use the template that "most closely" matches the intended message, instead of actually sending the intended message. This is convenient for the sender, but often leaves the recipient confused. (Of course, if the sender's real intent is to make the recipient go away, this may actually be desired.) And it does seem that the frequency of "treating new Wikipedian[s] with undeserved contempt for a trivial act" has increased of late.

I don't know the details of my correspondent's conflict. For all I know, he's a virulently biased editor who is trolling me. But I rather doubt it. And even if he is, these are real issues and Wikipedia needs to decide how it's going to deal with them. There's a fine line to be walked here, and Wikipedia risks failure if it strays too far to either side of that line.