With two Public Policy Initiative classes completed, Georgetown University’s Patrick Friedel is one of the most experienced student participants in the Wikimedia Foundation’s education program – and Patrick’s experiences have taught him a lot about how Wikipedia works, especially on articles that receive thousands of visitors.
Patrick, a master’s student in Arab Studies, began his Wikipedia editing career in the fall of 2010 in Professor Rochelle Davis’s class, “Introduction to the Study of the Arab World.” Having lived and studied in Cairo, Egypt, for two years, Patrick was surprised to discover that the article on the National Democratic Party of Egypt was only a start class article.
He started making significant changes to the National Democratic Party of Egypt (NDP) article in late October 2010, and had finished the changes required for his class by mid-November.
“The previous NDP article provided precious little historical data on the party as well as no context for the environment in which the party operated. Both, in my opinion, were crucial to fully understanding the NDP,” Patrick says. “In writing the article, I learned a great deal about the leadership, government, and corruption in modern Egypt, and how single-party politics had been so successful at stifling democratic reforms.”
Patrick’s article was receiving an average of about 100 views a day, although that spiked when it was featured on Wikipedia’s main page in the “Did you know?” section. But then things in the Arab world started to change. People in Tunisia hit the streets in December, and Egypt began its own revolution on January 25. As people around the world started searching for information on President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling political party, they landed on the article Patrick had, two months earlier, taken from a little more than a stub to a fully developed article. On the “Day of Anger” on January 28, when the National Democratic Party Headquarters in Cairo burned, his article received more than 5,000 views.
“As the revolution continued over the weeks, thousands continued to visit the article each day,” Patrick says. “I truly felt like I had contributed something meaningful — a resource for understanding the roots of the revolution. Additionally, the article was well cited, therefore assisting interested readers in researching the subject more thoroughly.”
As more and more people visited the page, Patrick’s article began to receive edits from other Wikipedians. Many editors made suggestions on the talk page, and some wanted to remove sections in the article. Patrick sought out help from Online Ambassador mentors, who helped him navigate the attention from many voices.
“One detractor was insistent that I remove the contextual information I had included in the article. He contended that the ‘Electoral System in Egypt’ was erroneous to the scope of the article. Of course, I disagreed. I argued that it was impossible to understand the motives and operations of the NDP without understanding the dynamics of the political system. For example, the only way to comprehend how the NDP won supermajorities in parliament for decades is to know that competing parties are tightly regulated, censored, and often banned,” Patrick explains. “But I did not have to worry, because like all things on Wikipedia, things worked themselves out. Other editors stepped in, including an Online Ambassador, on my behalf, and reiterated the value of the section.”
As Patrick continued to make edits to his article long after the end of his class, keeping it up to date as events unfolded in Egypt, he also started working on another article for a course he was enrolled in for the spring term, Professor Adel Iskander’s “Arab Media” class.
Patrick created the article on Dream TV, a satellite network that hosts a television show called “10:00 p.m.” which would also play a role in the Egypt revolution: Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and internet democracy activist, was interviewed on the show immediately after his detention by Egyptian authorities. The emotional interview prompted hundreds of thousands of Cairenes to again flood Midan Tahrir in downtown Cairo. Two days later, Mubarak resigned.
“Compared to other assignments, our participation in the Wikimedia Public Policy Initiative felt especially significant,” Patrick says. “Not only were we learning how to contribute effectively to the Wikipedia community, skills which I believe are transferable outside the classroom, but our articles were being presented to a community outside our immediate academic circle. Typically, we write for ourselves and our professors. Writing for Wikipedia means that anyone can consume our research, which is exhilarating. One of my peers likened it to being peer-reviewed by thousands of people.”
Although Patrick was initially skeptical of the value of a Wikipedia assignment, he’s now a firm believer in integrating Wikipedia into university curricula. Although he doesn’t seek out articles to make broad changes to beyond the ones in his class, he has been making minor edits to correct errors or add missing facts to articles he reads.
“It is odd. My peers and I knew that Wikipedia was a collaborative encyclopedia — anyone can edit articles. However, it was not until we took a class with a Wikipedia component that we began making edits ourselves. This is not only a skill, but it offers a new outlook on Wikipedia — one that places Wikipedia into a space where we are all much more comfortable building it,” Patrick says. “The courses with Wikipedia components are really game changers. Aside from the Wikipedia content produced by the students for the class, the Wikimedia Public Policy Initiative introduced us to the idea that we can and should contribute to Wikipedia articles.”
Communications Associate, Public Policy Initiative