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“The idea that a lot of people have of Wikipedia,” Jimmy Wales told blogger Aaron Swartz this past year, “is that it’s some emergent phenomenon—the wisdom of mobs, swarm intelligence, that sort of thing—thousands and thousands of individual users each adding a little bit of content, and out of this emerges a coherent body of work.”
Instead, Wales contended, Wikipedia was actually written by “a community ... a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers.” Initially, he figured about 80 percent of the work was done by 20 percent of users. But he crunched the numbers and discovered something even more striking: Nearly 75 percent of edits were done by just 2 percent of users.
Swartz, however, launched a study of his own, which found a marked difference between edit-intensive users, who contribute small fixes to existing entries and those who actually wrote the bulk of articles. “Almost every time I saw a substantive edit,” he writes, “I found the user who had contributed it was not an active user of the site. They generally had made less than 50 edits (typically around 10), usually on related pages. Most never even bothered to create an account.”
In other words: It’s generally the core crew of several thousand dedicated Wikipedians who combine to keep the site refined and readable, correcting mistakes and counteracting vandalism. But it’s usually regular folks with special expertise (the self-proclaimed Dylanologist, the amateur horticulturalist, the military buff), writing one or two or five articles apiece, who’ve contributed the bulk of the content. Both groups are equally important to Wikipedia’s success.
Broad and narrow
You don’t need to be an administrator like Sawczynec to contribute to Wikipedia nor do you have to be a diehard like S.J. Klein, 29, who works for the One Laptop per Child program. (Klein’s username “Sj” should not be confused with “Essjay,” a high-profile Wikipedia admin who was found earlier this year to have concocted an elaborate online identity as a tenured religion professor.)
“On the English Wikipedia, I’ve probably contributed to a few thousand articles,” says Klein, of Cambridge, Mass. “I have about 15,000 edits across different spaces. I’ve made almost that many contributions to the metaWiki, which is the organizational wiki, and maybe five or six thousand edits across all the other projects, like WikiBooks and Wiktionary.” Lately, Klein has been spending as many as 100 hours a week at his day job. But when he had more free time, he says he “used to spend 20 to 30 hours a week editing Wikipedia.”
Klein sees nothing extraordinary about his commitment. “There are hundreds of dedicated editors who do this every week,” he says. “Of course, there are also hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts who spend 20-plus hours a week playing World of Warcraft, building models or hanging out in chat rooms. Wikipedia just provides a way to work on widely read material in collaboration with others. This is the natural human desire to share what we know.”
There are many low-profile ways to contribute. There’s the ever-necessary role of the humble WikiGnome, a user who scurries about quietly behind the scenes, fixing typos, correcting poor grammar and repairing broken links. Or, you could fight the righteous battle, claiming membership in Wikipedia’s Counter-Vandalism Unit. But, if you’re up for something more, there’s always the yeoman’s work of penning new articles from scratch.
Just do it well. No doubt, you’ve sometimes stumbled upon what are called “stubs” in the Wiki wilderness—prosaic, bare-bones, not especially helpful summaries. Stubs suck. If one is to undertake authorship, one should strive for quality. Source well. Write clearly. Consult with the Wikipedia Manual of Style, an exhaustive compendium of grammatical guidelines.
If your article is of a high enough quality, it might get designated a “good” article—“no obvious problems, gaps, excessive information.” Example: The entry on the International Space Station, which is 7,000 words long and cites 37 sources.)
It might even get the rarer “feature” designation—“Definitive. Outstanding ... a great source for encyclopedic information”—of which there are just 1,752. (See the piece on Tourette’s Syndrome, a crisp and information-packed 5,200 words, with eight book-length sources and 84 online references.)
If you choose to write for Wikipedia, the old adage holds true: Write what you know.
“Keep thinking about your world,” says Wikipedian Dereck Blackburn, 27. “What is it in your world that you know more about than anyone else does?” And, while the site has become so exhaustive that it’s getting ever harder to find topics that haven’t already been covered, Blackburn says one can always telescope in. “Wikipedia has grown to the point now that it’s OK to write about Walden Pond. And it’s OK to write about the road that goes by Walden. And it’s OK to write about a particular intersection of that road. The smallest, minute thing can be a Wikipedia entry.”
Which raises a question: Does the site’s exhaustiveness risk diluting what’s really important? Sure, as was noted in an article this past year, the site’s millionth article was about a Glaswegian train station. Such a mundane locale would certainly never have merited mention in the august Encyclopedia Britannica. But consider that, in the 24 hours after the stub was created, “the entry was edited more than 400 times, by dozens of people.” People do care about this stuff.
Yes, there’s always the risk the Joe Sixpack will log on to write an article about himself. But, as soon as it’s noticed, it will be deleted. There are notability criteria for determining who’s deserving of an entry. (If you’re an author, for instance, “your book must have sold at least 5,000 copies,” says Klein.)