Getting my wiki on

Recently I’ve been attending the Wellington Wikipedia Meetup and absolutely loving it. Although I’ve had a user account for over a year now (created with the best intentions), I’ve only just plucked up the courage to make any edits.

As it happens, any apprehensions (see below) I had about editing were unfounded. All I needed was a push.

Even so, the things that stopped me getting started likely hamper lots of budding contributors. Things like:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • All the things I’m interested in have amazing pages already.
  • If I don’t do everything perfectly, my edits will be reverted.
  • There’s a page I want to edit, but it needs way more work than I’m willing to do on my own.
  • Will anything I do really matter?

Had I realized that there are almost always simple, meaningful changes you can make to any page, I would have got stuck in much earlier than I did.

Off you go

What struck me when talking with people at the meetup was just how unceremonious they were about the process of getting started. My first few conversations were along the lines of:

  1. Here’s how you do X.
  2. Here’s how you do Y.
  3. Here’s Z, a tool to help you do both.
  4. Start editing!

No pretensions, no mollycoddling, no insistence I wade through pages of documentation before cracking in. The only way I was ever going to learn anything was by doing it, so I may as well get started now. Whatever stuff-ups I made along the way would be edited out by someone else anyway. This friendly, she’ll be right approach was just what I needed.

I still needed to start somewhere, of course.

Low-hanging fruit

References. Wikipedia is full of them (yay), but their corresponding links can be fragile (not so yay). Fortunately, this makes them a great entry point for new contributors.

In my case, I started with a page I was interested in, NZ English, and began combing the citations. Within a few minutes I’d already begun to see areas for improvement (broken/missing links, citations needed) and started making small changes here and there. Soon, I was applying the same techniques to other pages and beginning to feel as if I was getting the hang of things.

As I discovered, it’s very easy to spot possible improvements to a page’s references by asking oneself a small set of questions:

  • Is this sentence/paragraph backed up with one or more credible sources? Are there any citation needed tags hanging about the place?
  • If a person/topic/concept mentioned in the article has a Wikipedia entry, is there an internal link to it?
  • Do all of the items in the reference section have working external links to relevant content? Are there any dead links flagged?
  • Are there any external references which require an updated link to an archived version of the page?

I’m yet to find a page where those questions didn’t turn up several potential edits.

While fixing these things isn’t especially hard, having actively maintained references makes a huge difference to any article. On top of that, it’s oddly satisfying to rack up a series of citation fixes. And really, I’ve been quite happy to focus on edits like these as I build my confidence.

Onward and upward

Now that I’ve dipped my toes in the water, I’m excited about going deeper. It would be great to start making a dent in the many linguistics stubs and writing some content of my own. Whatever I work on next though, I know just the group of people who’d be happy to hear about it.

Keen to learn more?

If this post has piqued your interest in the weird and wonderful world of Wikipedia, there’s a couple of things I’d recommend you do.

Find a local meetup! Bring your laptop and say hello. If everything seems too technical/hard/intimidating, just be a fly on the wall. It’s still worth going. I guarantee you will meet some spectacularly interesting people there.

Also, the prolific Gretchen McCulloch has a superb set of slides (PDF version available here introducing Wikipedia editing to linguists. Various, well-curated links can be found throughout. Check it out.