Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
April 26th, 2006


Sacrificing ego

As you might be aware, I’m an avid contributor to various Wikimedia projects, including the English Wikipedia and the Vietnamese Wikipedia, where I’m one of a handful of administrators.

To my amusement, I found out the other day that, as of March, I’m ranked the 889th most prolific contributor to the English-language edition. The thing is, I consider a great majority of my nearly 7,000 edits there to be very minor ones: correcting typos or grammatical errors, adding special “interwiki links” to other language editions, assigning articles to categories, and so on. Plus, I always notice issues with my own edits only as soon as I hit the “Save page” button, so I have to go back and correct things over and over again. Few of my contributions to the English Wikipedia could be considered actual writing, although I am proud of the Adobe Atmosphere article that I pretty much authored on my own, and I think I’ve done a decent job of maintaining the constantly-vandalized article on St. X.

But I feel a bit awkward claiming such a high spot in a project that has a total 1,325,781 users at the time of writing, as many of my edits are just polish – adding a period at the end of a sentence, for instance. Many less “active” editors have, on the other hand, contributed well-written articles on topics much more important than an abandoned piece of software. As I said, I’m an administrator over at the Vietnamese edition, so I naturally contribute quite a lot there. I never really kept count of it, but I’m responsible for having translated many articles from English there. I’ve basically used the Vietnamese Wikipedia has a practicing ground for learning the language, so many of my translations are… pedestrian.

And that’s why I’m going to pay extra close attention to my computer science class this week. I’m taking CS201 to get my Writing in the Major requirement out of the way. Because the class discusses “Computers, Ethics, and Social Responsibility,” we’re going to start talking about Wikipedia.

The professor has made it more or less clear that she’s not a big fan of the site. Regarding the claim that, as general-purpose encyclopedias go, Wikipedia is not responsible for being the authoritative, completely correct reference on every subject, she observes that what she got from reading the site is what the individual authors are interested in, not necessarily what’s important about the subject. And that’s an argument that I especially buy: as I explain on my user page at the English Wikipedia, I basically disagree with founder Jimmy Wales’ description of Wikipedia as “the sum of all human knowledge.” We have, after all, a “List of representations of Seattle in popular culture,” and a “definitive” list of hoaxes on April Fools Day 2006. That doesn’t belong in an encyclopedia, no matter how much Wiki is not paper.

I’d imagine that my professor is going spend this week discussing how Wikipedia fails as a reliable source. But that discussion’s been done to smitherines. What I find more important – and at times disturbing – is how little utility (quality) matters at Wikipedia when the project stands to gain quite a bit of quantity. It is, after all, supposed to be a reference work. But someone apparently thought that it would be cool to keep a separate, “definitive” list of 2006 April Fools jokes. And as an organizer of a relatively tiny edition of Wikipedia, I’ve often felt the temptation to write a bot that’ll generate mountains of “stubs,” in the egotistical interest of inflating our article count. But there’s a lot to be said about maintaining a standard, one that sacrifices a bit of ego for a bit of reputation. It means a lot to a newcomer when they arrive at Wikipedia’s doorstep looking for answers and find a well-written, actually informative piece of writing. How appreciative would you be if you visited an encylopedia article about Comoros that only told you it was a country? Or how about an Albanian-language article on the year 1849 that only told you this particular year had twelve months? (Let’s assume you speak Albanian; this happens a lot on the small- to mid-sized wikis.)

The reason I have qualms about Wikipedia’s mass of trivia and stubs is the same reason I feel a bit guilty about my artificially-inflated edit count: what will the encyclopedia’s readers think of these hardly-useful pages, and how can we expect them to view us as an encyclopedia? Apparently my professor can’t take Wikipedia as a serious reference work, and I know she’s not alone. If we want to build this project that supposedly “democratizes knowledge,” we need to do better.

Oh – and you can help.