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Is Wikipedia about being a member of a club, or is it about building an encyclopedia?

It’s good that some people (and I consider myself part of this group) get hooked on editing Wikipedia. We stay around for years, we become part of the community, we go to meetups, and most of all, we do an amazing amount of work to make Wikipedia better. Let’s get this out of the way first – Wikipedia can’t exist without those dedicated people.

Is this the only way of being a part of Wikipedia? My answer is no. I truly believe that there are also other ways of helping Wikipedia to get better.

Back in 2005, when I started to think about ways how to improve Wikipedia, I was asking myself: how can we encourage a larger number of knowledgeable people to edit articles? People who stick around, who become Wikipedians, people like me and all the others who spend endless hours on research and writing.

Over the years, we tried many different things to make this vision come true. We held workshops, organized Wikipedia Academies, gave presentations and offered prizes for outstanding articles. We reached out to academics as well as to senior citizens. Most of these things didn’t work as well as we initially thought.

When we started reaching out to university students last year, we tried something different. It was explicitly not our goal to turn all those students into Wikipedians. We knew they would edit Wikipedia as part of their class and only a couple of them would stay. Because being a long-term member of the community requires a specific kind of mindset – and honestly: not everybody has that mindset. Some people just enjoy editing Wikipedia for a short time of their life and then carry on with other activities.

What we are attempting in our Global Education Program instead, is to institutionalize the use of Wikipedia in the classroom. Our goal is to explain to as many teachers as possible what the benefits of using Wikipedia of a teaching tool are. Students are much more motivated when they write for a global audience, instead of just writing for their professor. Some of the students participating in our program over the last year were so proud of their work that they sent links to the articles they improved to their grandparents. Amazing! When have you heard of students who sent their term papers to their grandparents? And not only are those students more motivated, they also improve their media literacy skills, they learn how to use a wiki, and they improve their research, writing, and critical thinking skills.

As we carry on with the Global Education Program, every semester a new cohort of students will learn how to edit. They will upload pictures, improve articles, and learn how to use talk pages. Some of them will come back later and apply those skills. They will help us to take another step on the way to make Wikipedia better. Most of them will never become members of the community. I believe that’s ok. Because Wikipedia is not only about being a member of the club – it’s about building the biggest and best encyclopedia ever.

Frank (club member)

2 Responses to “Is Wikipedia about being a member of a club, or is it about building an encyclopedia?”

  1. Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey says:

    But every one of “those who edit Wikipedia for a short time and move on” will be reported as a lost editor driven away by the Establishment, in the next “Wikipedia is wasting away” alarmist news article denouncing us for being meanies, or elitists, or Aspergies, or whatever the latest accusation is!

  2. Leigh Thelmadatter says:

    This got linked in Google Plus and Ill say what I said there… Are the two mutually exclusive? As you noted in the beginning, the most dedicated editors are those become “part of the club”. Even the idea of institutionalizing the use of Wikipedia as a teaching tool is to ask professors to be part of that club, whether or not their students opt to become members for other than finishing the requirements for their class.

    So even those who edit Wikipedia for a short time and move on benefit from the existence of a social structure to connect to as they learn to contribute.