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Wikipedia: The Missing Manual by John Broughton

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Introduction

Wikipedia formally began in January 2001, as a project to produce a free content encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute. Seven years later, Wikipedia pages seem to turn up near the top of almost every Google search. Wikipedia has become the first place millions of people go to get a quick fact or to launch extensive research.

Editions of Wikipedia exist in more than 200 languages, with a combined total of more than ten million articles. All the editions use the same underlying software, MediaWiki. All are owned and supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that also operates a number of other online collaborative projects, including Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource, Wikispecies, Wikinews, and Wikiversity.

Each language edition of Wikipedia operates separately, almost entirely through the efforts of tens of thousands of unpaid volunteers. The Foundation has less than twenty employees, including a couple of programmers. It buys hardware, designs and implements the core software, and pays for the network bandwidth that makes Wikipedia and its sister projects possible, but it doesn’t have the resources to do any of the writing for those projects. All the writing and editing are done by people who get no money for their efforts, although plenty of intrinsic satisfaction.

Wikipedia has never lacked skeptics. Why expect quality articles if everyone—the university professor and the 12-year-old middle school student—has equal editing rights? Won’t cultists and fringe theorists and partisans take control of controversial articles? Won’t vandalism become rampant, driving away good editors? How can tens of thousands of people work together when there is no hierarchy to provide direction and resolve disputes?

These questions point out the inevitable disadvantages of the “anyone can edit” approach to creating an online encyclopedia. Wikipedia will always be a work in progress, not a finished product. What the skeptics overlook, however, is that letting anyone edit has proved to be an incredible strength. In a world where a billion or so people have access to the Internet, millions of people have contributed to Wikipedia, and their numbers are increasing every day.

As a result, the vast majority of the millions of articles in all the different Wikipedias are of at least reasonable quality although many are quite short. The Wikipedia.org domain is among the most visited on the Internet, because there’s no free alternative for most of the information in Wikipedia. The critics’ predictions that Wikipedia’s limitations will cripple it have not come true.

What makes Wikipedia so successful? Here are some of the reasons it works:

  • An overwhelming percentage of the edits to Wikipedia are done in good faith—that is, by people trying to improve articles, not vandalize them. When vandalism occurs, it tends to remain very briefly, because there are so many constructive editors around to fix it.

  • Wikipedia has a large number of rules about its process that encourage collaboration and build consensus around what information goes into articles. When people follow these rules, quality articles are the result.

  • An overwhelming percentage of editors do follow the rules, and when others point out their mistakes, they’re willing to self-correct. Those editors who do find Wikipedia rules to be problematical typically leave on their own.

  • Finally, there are a few editors with special authority to enforce the rules. This authority is granted by the community of users, through agreed-upon processes. So far, the enforcers have been adequate for the job, helped by increasing automation of many routine administrative tasks.

As Wikipedia grows and the number of editors, edits per day, and total articles increases, its focus has changed, and will continue to change. Wikipedia already has articles about the most important topics, so the focus is shifting away from quantity and towards quality—improving articles rather than creating new ones. As the definition for success shifts, Wikipedia’s processes will adjust as well. The consensus approach has proven flexible enough, so far, to deal with problems as they arise. Emphasizing quality—in ways that affect most editors’ everyday editing—will be one of Wikipedia’s biggest challenges.

About This Book

This book is about the English edition of Wikipedia—the oldest, largest, and most complicated edition of Wikipedia, but not (since March 2001) the only edition. In other words, this book is about the en.wikipedia.org domain, not the entire Wikipedia.org domain. For simplicity, when you see the term “Wikipedia,” it refers to the English edition of Wikipedia. Just remember that other language versions exist.

Why do you need a book about editing Wikipedia? Wikipedia certainly doesn’t lack for pages that document policies, technical matters, instructions, and agreed-on processes. Wikipedia depends on volunteer editors to write and update virtually all the documentation for Wikipedia and its underlying software, and plenty of editors enjoy doing this valuable work. If printed out, Wikipedia’s online reference pages would make a multivolume set of books that might be titled Everything you might possibly want to tell million of volunteers from around the world about how to write an encyclopedia, together, including how to organize and govern themselves, and how to change the software that underlies the encyclopedia, avoid legal pitfalls, and enjoy themselves.

What’s missing, however, is structured guidance for people who want to learn the “core curriculum,” the information you absolutely need to avoid running afoul of the rules, and a structured process for learning all about editing, including all the tips and tools that can make editing easier. Wikipedia doesn’t offer anything that charts the path from novice to expert, with step by step illustrations for every topic along the way.

For example, there are dozens of pages in Wikipedia that describe the three different processes for getting an article deleted. There are no designated pages for novices and experienced editors, and there’s no editorial board responsible for maintaining consistency and deciding how much duplication is appropriate. Newcomers to Wikipedia often find the large collection of massively hyperlinked online reference pages intimidating. With so many entry points, it’s hard to know where to start.

This book provides a clear path to all the essentials, with numerous additions to choose among. Tens of thousands of Wikipedians have gotten off to rough starts, yet persevered, going on to become solid contributors. This book helps you learn from those mistakes without having to personally live through them.

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual is designed to accommodate editors at every level of experience. If you’re just starting out, that’s fine: The early chapters will make your editing experience more productive as well as enjoyable. Nor do you have to be a computer whiz. The really great editors are good at one or more of several things, including research, editing and writing, organizing, and working with other editors; technical matters are simply one realm of specializing as a Wikipedia editor.

If you’ve already done quite a bit of editing of Wikipedia, and learned—by trial and error as well as reading documentation—what to do and not to do, even the earlier chapters are likely to offer you useful tips and tricks. In the later chapters, you’ll learn about things you’ve never run across before, simply because you’ve never had time to read through all the Wikipedia documentation. Check out the table of contents to spot unfamiliar aspects of Wikipedia, so you can turn immediately to the parts of the book most likely to help you work better and faster.

About the Outline

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual is divided into five parts, each containing several chapters.

  • Part 1, Editing, Creating, and Maintaining Articles, covers the basics. These chapters explain the right way to edit, why you want to be a registered editor, how to become one, and everything you need to know about figuring out, tracking, and reversing changes to articles when appropriate. It also discusses all the things to do when creating a new article.

  • Part 2, Collaborating with Other Editors, discusses the rules of engagement, how normal conversations occur, the standard Wikipedia processes for disagreements over content, and dealing with incivility and personal attacks. This section also covers what Wikipedia calls WikiProjects—groups of editors working on articles of common interest, plus the wide range of activities that go into expanding and maintaining a huge encyclopedia: answering questions, tutoring and mentoring, joint reviews of articles, and more.

  • Part 3, Formatting and Illustrating Articles, introduces you to some parts of articles that aren’t text or links: the table of contents, lists and tables, and images and other media. Much of this can be confusing when you first encounter it, but each topic has a logic that makes it easy to understand once you’ve worked with it for a bit. (And you always have this book as a reference!)

  • Part 4, Building a Stronger Encyclopedia, looks at the larger picture. It shows you that an article isn’t locked in stone—you can rename it, split it up, merge it with other articles, or even ask for it to be deleted. Naming and merging are ways of getting readers to the information that they want. Another way, covered in this part, is Wikipedia’s system of categories, one of several ways to find and navigate between articles.

  • Part 5, Customizing Wikipedia, discusses every option that you have to customize Wikipedia to suit yourself, using choices you find when you click My Preferences. You’ll also learn how to implement JavaScript user scripts (which you’ll see mentioned in the “Power Users’ Clinic” boxes in this book).

  • Part 6, Appendixes, provides you with resources to make the most of Wikipedia, as a reader, editor, and member of the Wikipedia community. Appendix A is an explanation of every link and tab for standard Wikipedia pages (in both reading and editing mode). Appendix B, Reader’s Guide to Wikipedia, provides some insider tips for those who simply want to read Wikipedia, and want to know what’s available besides Wikipedia’s search feature and following links in articles. Appendix C, Learning More, provides good starting points to get you as an editor to exactly the reference page you’re looking for, lists the places in Wikipedia where you can get personalized help, and shows you where you can find out about Wikipedia as a community.

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