Emilee Helm is a student at the University of Washington. This term, she learned how to create and expand articles on Wikipedia as an assignment in Nathan TeBlunthuis’ Interpersonal Media – Online Communities course. Here, she reflects on what she got out of the experience.
When I began working with Wikipedia, I could not have imagined I would be so satisfied with my experience. Considering the website has been in existence nearly my whole life, I have known about Wikipedia for as long as I can remember, utilizing it often. However, the thought of contributing to the site never crossed my mind until this quarter. It was an experience that seemed beyond me—the interface looks old, and something as simple as having to know basic code felt frightening. It was intimidating and felt risky; I did not want to mess it up, or worse, have my ideas rejected by the tight-knit community. With all the tools and assistance provided, I was able to gain confidence and develop a final product that I am undoubtedly proud of.
Part of Wikipedia’s charm is the ability to write about nearly any topic imaginable. I chose to explore topics in online gaming, creating an article for a popular Twitch.tv streamer. Online gaming and its community are dear to me, and to be able to write about a figure in that realm was really exciting. By finding this intrinsic motivator, my urge to develop a polished article became much stronger than I ever thought it could.
The Wiki Education tutorials and trainings were pivotal to my success, working to bridge the gap between the confusing Wikipedia interface and the creative process of writing an article. This training provided the opportunity to practice contributing without the fear of ruining an article. These low-risk exercises encouraged me to keep going and allowed me to build confidence in using the system. However, not everyone has the privilege of a university course to provide additional structure to the trainings. As Wikipedia continues to push for more editors, they may benefit from a program like Wiki Education for new users: A place with a clean, easy-to-use interface that allows users to learn community expectations, test their skills and immerse themselves into the community at whatever pace they see fit.
In my classroom, we spent a lot of time deciphering the many motivations that help retain members of a community and the idea of intrinsic motivation was a factor present in nearly all of them. As I continued to work, I began to embody these intrinsic philosophies. The task at hand became less about the required course work and more about a topic and community that I cared about. We additionally discussed “fun” as being one of the biggest motivators to drive participation in online communities. Perhaps Wikipedia could capitalize on “fun” by helping new users get acquainted with articles, people and community projects that align with their interests from the start. This could be done through a simple survey upon registration, for example. The intrinsic motivations of potential editors are challenged by the user-experience. I think a process such as this would instill a sense of purpose in users from the beginning.
While Wikipedia has its own communities nested within the broader website, many of these groups are inactive. I believe participation would benefit from a more user-friendly interface. By removing the need for HTML to utilize talk pages and respond to ideas and issues, new users may feel better equipped to participate in a conversations and ask questions. I enjoyed using the Wiki Education Dashboard because it was pleasing to look at and easy to follow; it is hard to say the same about Wikipedia.
Throughout this experience, I learned the importance of notability, sourcing, and producing quality content. Wikipedia is much more than a place where anyone can write anything they want on an article. Rather, Wikipedia is a space for knowledge to be shared and refined. My perceptions shifted as I was challenged by my instructor and the Wikipedia Expert supporting my course to establish notability more clearly in my article. It takes more than popularity to establish noteworthiness — there has to be evidence of impact by the individual. Wikipedia’s standards aim to meet the criteria of an encyclopedic text, providing reputable information for its visitors.
After my experience, I plan to contribute to places to which I feel drawn to, to make simple edits in passing, and to provide feedback if I feel compelled. This new understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of each article has completely altered my perspective of what Wikipedia’s mission is. Furthermore, I have been equipped with the proper tools to help. My hope for Wikipedia is that they continue to make improvements that facilitate participation through a user-friendly experience.
Interested in incorporating a Wikipedia writing assignment into your own course? Visit teach.wikiedu.org for all you need to know to get started.