Wikipedia: An Amateur’s Adventure in the World’s Biggest Sandbox

Dr. Joseph Reagle teaches the Online Communities course at Northeastern University. One of the novel features of the class is an assignment to find and recognize a Wikipedia editor and thank them for their contributions.

At the end of the course, students wrote a reflective essay about their time on Wikipedia, and students had some brilliant insights to share. We were particularly impressed by comments from student Anna Glina (User:Ceaseandexist). You can read her full essay and some other thoughtful suggestions on her talk page, but we’ve edited this essay to share below (with her permission).

"NEU Ell Hall" by Jpm32 at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“NEU Ell Hall” by Jpm32 at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia: An Amateur’s Adventure in the World’s Biggest Sandbox
As a 20-something college student, my relationship with Wikipedia has undergone an interesting evolution.

When I was in high school, the site was barred as a legitimate source of information. Entering college in 2011, I used Wikipedia to glean information for essays. The outline structure of many Wikipedia articles were a useful reference to help me develop a logical flow for my own writing.

It was not until I took “Online Communities” that my personal definition of Wikipedia as a resource expanded to include the term “community.” The class assignment — to create our “own” Wikipedia page using Northeastern University’s archives — was an immersive exposure to the back-end of the online encyclopedia. Not only did Wiki articles require their own markup, but every article existed in a complex ecosystem, and was governed by restrictions, rules, policies, bots, and Wikipedians themselves.

On Wikipedia, you, and your article, are never alone.

While the training course for students provided a comprehensive overview for newcomers, it was not enough to alleviate the learning curve. Even at the conclusion of the Wikipedia assignment, and following the creation of my article from scratch, I still feel as if I am ‘training’ on Wikipedia. First, I encountered a bug during the training that derailed the process by several days. Once I was able to complete the course, I felt confident. However, the moment I moved to the ‘sandbox’ space and began crafting my article, I realized that I could not yet put to practice what I thought I had retained.

During the first month, I was constantly referencing the training. I felt frustrated and flustered. Red links peppered my page. My citations were a mess. Sometimes I saw certain options, like the ‘cite’ button; other times, it was nowhere to be found. I would often be lost in a labyrinth of pages and subpages, far removed from my original query. The training for students was simply not enough.

Wikipedia’s citation protocols are unique, and require both learning and unlearning. The specific and challenging goal of properly citing all of my sources contributed to the greatest frustration, and thus, procrastination, that I experienced overall. Several times, I abandoned attempts at more complex structures or citations. The difficulty of becoming accustomed to Wikipedia’s tools, markup, and citation mechanisms had a significant impact on my motivation and commitment to the WP community.

Luckily, User:AmandaRR123 helped me during each step. Not only did she label my user page with the “improper citation” heading, but, following our conversations both on- and offline, she directed me to “be bold” and remove the label once my citations were refined. Amanda’s aid in citing unusual sources archived at Northeastern was the feedback I needed to identify areas of weakness, undo my errors, and repeat the process in a more knowledgeable way.

Following the training for students, I went to the NU Archives and got to work translating the information to my sandbox in accordance to WP’s Five Pillars. I crafted the article The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, sifting through aged papers, documents, legal transcripts, media mentions, and even essays from Elma Lewis herself. The hands-on research portion was the most familiar, and the easiest, part of the entire process.

Processing it through the Wikipedia’s Five Pillars was the brunt of the work. As a writer and student, creating content for Wikipedia required a significant perceptual change of what it meant to present information.

Despite the fact that I was working in a ‘sandbox,’ and my article had yet to be released to the judgement of Wikipedia-at-large, my knowledge of the Five Pillars actually contributed to more paranoia and uncertainty than it quelled. One pillar stated that Wikipedia has a neutral point of view; but the fifth pillar, that Wikipedia doesn’t have “firm rules,” almost seemed contradictory.

I had other concerns while generating content. What if someone deemed my article not ‘Notable’ enough, and my hard work was flagged for removal? What if the carefully generated sentences I wrote from my research were identified as biased or un-neutral? Worse still — what if someone were to make significant changes to my article, or add content that I had not covered?

This concern bled into Pillar 3: that Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute. On Wikipedia, there was no ‘ownership’ of work: while I reference the ELSFA page as “my” article, it is, of course, not mine at all. Being on Wikipedia, it belongs to the public domain. This is a big difference to how ownership has related to my work. In classes, my name is on assignments, and I am directly graded for them. At work, even in group projects, I am directly accountable for and linked to my contributions. The amount of time, effort, and skill required to make a significant and new contribution to Wikipedia is enormous. Detaching this work from the concept of ownership was a perceptual challenge.

Despite the conclusion of the class assignment and a full page of content on The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts page, I do not feel “done” with my article, or my journey on Wikipedia. There is an endless trove of information to discover on “my” topic, and on any given topic on Wikipedia.

More sources exist beyond the ones I incorporated; the information can always be presented better, in stronger alignment with Wikipedia’s Five Pillars; and there are dozens – if not hundreds – of other articles that I can link my page through. Perhaps [this feeling] drives the intrinsic motivation of the thousands of Wikipedians who contribute their time and effort to the cause of a free online encyclopedia.

Throughout my ‘Wiki’ journey, I was encouraged by more than the grade. I wanted to contribute to something long-lasting, and something bigger than myself. So much gratification came, not only from adding sentences of text to “my” article, but linking names, places, and concepts I discovered through my research to those already existing on Wikipedia. I saw my work filling in gaps in the ecosystem of knowledge, and that was the greatest reward of the experience overall.

Interested in teaching with Wikipedia? Visit to learn more.

ImageFile:Charles River Henderson Boathouse.jpgMagicpiano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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