Freshly Baked Science
Why You Should Become a Wikipedia Editor
by John Lubbock from Wikimedia UK
8th August 2019
Nearly all of you will have used Wikipedia at least once in your life. With 1.4 billion users every month, it makes it the 5th most popular website on the internet. You will most likely use the English Wikipedia, or maybe one of the other 300 versions of the site, including Welsh, Jamaican Patois, Latin or Dutch Low Saxon.
Most people in the UK have a general understanding of what Wikipedia is and does, but coming up for its 19th birthday, it's had time to become rather big and complex. All the content on the site is made by volunteer editors, but there are charities (like Wikimedia UK) who are responsible for promoting the site, supporting the editors and working with large institutions to encourage them to share their content. Unlike big companies like Google, Amazon and Apple, Wikipedia has no advertising on it, so we have a fraction of the money that those companies do.
On the English Wikipedia, there are strict guidelines for how editors should create content, and what they can create content about. The main guideline is that ‘Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia’, not a political rally, advertising platform, or business listing. Subjects should be ‘notable’, or important enough for inclusion, and editors decide what is notable, based on how much media coverage there is of the subject. But, of course, the media is not neutral in its coverage. There’s lots more media coverage of WWE wrestlers, Pokémon characters or K-Pop bands than about female scientists, but that doesn’t mean that those scientists are less important. Throughout history, women have generally been written about less than men, and so it is often harder to make Wikipedia pages about them. In fact, only 18% of biographies on the English Wikipedia are about women.
People who volunteer their time to improve Wikipedia also tend to be male. In the past, men had more access to time, money, education and the internet than women did (in most of the world they still do). They also tended to value their own knowledge more. Only around 50% of the people on our planet have access to the internet, and in poorer countries, men tend to have more access than women do. People write about the things they know about, so if the majority of Wikipedia editors are men from Western countries, there will be less content about Sub-Saharan Africa, women from South-East Asia, Kenyan oral history, or indigenous Brazilian tribes.
Understanding how to edit Wikipedia is a vital skill for any student today. When you edit Wikipedia, you become active in the creation of knowledge, rather than just a passive recipient of it. You’ll learn more about a subject by researching and writing about it on Wikipedia than just by reading a book about it. Not only that, but your contributions could be read by millions of people, helping them learn about it too. Wikipedia is not a source, but a summary of other sources, which is why you should not use a Wikipedia page as a direct reference in an essay - not because Wikipedia is a ‘bad source’, but because all the information on a Wikipedia page comes from somewhere else in the first place.
By learning how to edit Wikipedia you’ll learn to think critically, to research, analyse and judge sources, to understand how copyright works and maybe even some basic coding, if you want to understand how the software behind Wikipedia works. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but just think about how incredible it is that in less than 20 years, millions of volunteers have created the biggest encyclopaedia ever written, which is freely accessible by anyone with an internet connection, all without being bombarded with advertising.
The goal of most big internet sites is to make money, by keeping you on the site via notifications, content and the desire to get more likes and followers. The more time you spend there, the more advertising money they get. Wikipedia’s vision is “a world in which every human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” Wikipedia is not trying to make you stay there to make more money. It only wants to give you the best, most accurate facts about any subject. Not the ‘truth’, just the facts. You get to decide what the facts mean.
There’s a famous Indian story about ‘the blind men and the elephant’. In the story, a group of blind men who have never encountered an elephant before meet one, and try to describe what the elephant is like. Each man touches a different part of the elephant, and describes it based on their particular experience, like a tree, or a hose, or a big ear, or a tail. None of the men has a monopoly on the truth, but by piecing together all of their experiences, you could begin to describe the totality of the elephant. This is like what Wikipedia tries to do. Nobody has an exclusive monopoly on the truth, and things seem different depending on how we look at them. By getting many different people to collaborate on writing Wikipedia articles, we can get closer to the truth of the elephant all together than we could individually.
But we still have a very long way to go. Many people still have no internet access, and Wikipedia editors are currently not a diverse group of people. We need more people to become Wikipedia editors and help improve the content, to make it better and more accurate. Our charity, Wikimedia UK, runs lots of Wikipedia events across the UK which anybody can attend, and you are welcome to reach out to us on social media if you want to know more about our work. If you are interested in becoming a Wikipedia editor, why not click on the ‘Create account’ button at the top of any Wikipedia page, and join our journey to providing the best possible content?