“A form of public engagement”: My Wikipedia experience

Emma Chow will graduate from Brown in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies. Last academic year, she was assigned to edit Wikipedia as a class assignment, supported by Wiki Education’s Student Program. She reflected on the experience on Brown’s website; her post is re-published here with permission.

Emma Chow
Emma Chow

For as long as I can remember, I have been told to not use Wikipedia.

I distinctly recall my first lesson about searching the web. In first grade, the school’s librarian taught us about reliable sources.  She projected the website page, “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus” in front of the entire class. After spending time on our own researching the tree octopus, we reassembled as a group and the librarian asked, “Is the Pacific Northwest tree octopus real?” My tiny hand shot up with the rest of my peers in total belief of its existence. To my dismay, this would be the day that I learned that not everything you read online is true… It turned out that I was not the only one fooled by the tree octopus: Wikipedia currently has an article about the internet hoax that is the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. That class concluded, not surprisingly, with the warning to be very wary. The teacher said that anyone can contribute to online databases, including those “not qualified to do so.” The message was clear: the general public is not considered a reliable academic source, or so I thought until I wrote my own Wikipedia entry.

Moving forward fourteen years, I am now in my third year at Brown and enrolled last fall in an American Studies course entitled “American Publics.” The class, taught by Professor Susan Smulyan, examined the public sphere’s historical, cultural, and political dimensions, as well as the challenges of public life in America, all while also discussing the place of Public Humanities within the University. One of the main ​assignments for the course involved writing a Wikipedia page on a local Rhode Island subject. I chose to write on  Mashapaug Pond, the largest freshwater pond in the city of Providence.

Our class worked in partnership with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities (RICH) and their Arts and Culture Research Fellow, Janaya Kizzie, on a project aimed at contributing Wikipedia pages about Rhode Island’s artistic and cultural leaders, and geo-cultural and historical sites. You can read about the RICH’s goals here and here. This project has an impressive range of goals: to enhance Rhode Island’s reputation as a creative destination, to forge a vital bridge between the past and present, connect arts and cultural communities, represent diverse backgrounds, and catalyze education focused on arts and culture – with all of this to be achieved though the medium of Wikipedia. My article on Mashapaug Pond, written with my classmate Grace DeLorme, is one of the 250 new articles that Janaya Kizzie is curating.

Despite my childhood teacher’s warnings, I use Wikipedia constantly. That said, I have never cited it in any of my academic essays out of concern about its questionable reliability and stature in the scholarly world. Yet we know Wikipedia is an obligatory first stop for many as they begin online research. It makes the complex simple; easily accessible, its language and tone facilitate direct, approachable use. Scholarly articles, in contrast, can seem incomprehensible, with their density of language and reliance, for many, on what are unfamiliar terminologies. Yet, and to my surprise, I had difficulty writing at the level of a 5th grade reader, the requirement for authoring a Wikipedia entry.

Throughout my education, I have always been taught to “pick a side” and make an argument when writing a paper. So, when I sat down to write a Wikipedia page on a local pond, I was lost. Every time I read something controversial about the pond, whether it was the mass genocide of the Native Americans, the forced eviction of the West Elmwood community, or the toxic legacy of the Gorham Silver plant, I found myself spiraling into an argumentative mindset. It was challenging to write for the “public:” I had to force myself to exclude the complex discourse that I would have normally have used in my academic writing. By adding to and completing the Mashapaug Pond Wikipedia page, I learned to be clearer, more concise, and thus accessible in my writing.  As a final source of challenge, my classmates and I sometimes found it difficult to find the Wikipedia-required two primary sources for each entry!

Co-authoring this page connected me to the history and the community of Providence. When I decided to move from my hometown of Boulder, Colorado to go to school at Brown, I knew nothing about the city. Shockingly, after two years of living there, my experience of Providence and Rhode Island was grounded solely within the University, barely extending beyond College Hill. I was locked inside the “Brown Bubble,” and it wasn’t until I wrote this Wikipedia entry that I began to know something about the history and community of my new city.

I learned many local lessons, extending to the Narragansett tribe and their interactions with Roger Williams, to the manufacturing sector, exemplified by Gorham Silver, and the history of urban renewal. In addition, thinking about Mashpaug Pond brought me into contact with a local arts organization, first called the Urban Pond Procession and later UPPArts, and their campaign to raise awareness of the pond’s toxicity. It was incredible that I learned so much about an ever-changing community from one particular location.

I especially appreciated having contact with people around Providence as I talked to them about Mashapaug Pond. One unforgettable person I met was Holly Ewald, artist and founder of UPP Arts.  Beyond talking about the site, she shared with me the stories of the annual parade produced by the Mashapaug Pond community.  I also came to know another community member, Mariani Lefas-Tetens, the Assistant Director of School and Teacher Programs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. She discussed her work about the new Gorham Silver exhibit at the Museum and how she met with different community members to find out what they’d like the installation to express.  Researching and writing about a local pond thus enabled me to access a broad range of knowledge about the wider Providence community.

I would definitely describe writing and researching a Wikipedia page as a form of public engagement. This is based not only my own expanded understanding of Providence, but also my deeper thinking about Wikipedia as a public platform. It defines itself as a “multilingual digital encyclopedia generated and preserved as an open collaboration project by a community of volunteer editors.” Indeed, it is THE largest general reference work on the internet. I would go as far to say that Wikipedia is a “public sphere.” Jürgen Habermas, German sociologist and philosopher, gives this definition of such a concept, fittingly written for an encyclopedia:

By “public sphere” we mean first of all a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public… Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely.[1]

Wikipedia is organized with ‘talk’ and ‘edit’ tabs that invite participant-editors to converse and share ideas. Even though this is easier said than done on particular pages (don’t even try to add or change anything on the Beyoncé page), in principle, Wikipedia is open to all. It is completely free. So as long as someone has access to the internet, they can fully participate with this resource. Also, because companies cannot write or hire someone else to write their own Wikipedia page, this eliminates coercion. And, as shown by my experience, it also opens the way for college students to contribute to their new communities. By writing about both local history and contemporary life, a place is given a visibility that makes more public opportunities possible.

Now let me ask you: would you write a Wikipedia page? Cite it in one of your academic papers? Assign it as a class project? Today I encourage you to take a leap of faith and join the digital public sphere that is Wikipedia.

Also feel free to check out my Wikipedia page here!

Other pages from our class can be found below:

RI Computer Museum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhode_Island_Computer_Museum

Zeinab Kante and Kelvin Yang​

RI State Song https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhode_Island’s_It_for_Me and here as well, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_Rhode_Island

Keiko Cooper-Hohn​

Rites and Reason Theatre https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rites_and_Reason_Theatre

Khail Bryant and Mia Gratacos-Atterberry​

Providence Art Club https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Providence_Art_Club

Sophie Brown and Ava McEnroe​

RI Pride https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhode_Island_Pride

Evan Lincoln and Juniper Styles

Shey Rivera https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shey_Rivera_R%C3%ADos

Sara Montoya and Santi Hernandez

Donna Freitas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Freitas

Matthew Marciello


[1] Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964),” translated by Sara Lennox and Frank Lennox, New German Critique (3)1974, 49.


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