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How to Be Wikipedia Wise

Five tips for using and improving the online encyclopedia

By Anna Holtby

March 23, 2021 •

Imagine: it’s 2001. Apple is planning the release of a new technology called the “iPod.” Theatres are showing a film about a lovable ogre named Shrek. The rock band Train is drifting through the airwaves, asking if you made it to the Milky Way.

And the words, “This is the new WikiPedia!” have just appeared online.

That sentence is considered the very first edited entry to a new domain registered on Jan. 13, 2001: This year, Wikipedia turned 20. Since that somewhat trivial first edit, millions of volunteer editors around the world have made more than a billion edits to the site.

It all started with an innovative idea — a free, online encyclopedia created by and for anyone with internet access.

“It’s one of the great examples of human co-operation,” says Erin O’Neil, a University of Alberta graduate student in digital humanities and an experienced Wikipedia editor. She was also the U of A’s first Wikipedian in Residence, a donor-funded position she held through 2020.

While academic circles often dismiss Wikipedia as unreliable, O’Neil points out that it’s one of the few places online that is transparent about its fallacies — and gives the reader a way to make a difference. 

“If you see an inaccuracy, you are personally empowered to go in and change it,” she says.

O’Neil shares five ways to use Wikipedia well — and even bring some good to the worldwide web.

1: Go behind the scenes

If you’re not ready to jump in as an editor, O’Neil encourages people to be “critical media consumers” and dig past the first layer of a Wikipedia page.

That doesn’t require as much technical skill as you’d think. It’s a matter of accessing two parts of the article — the edit history and the talk page. Find the edit history by clicking the “view history” tab at the top right of any Wikipedia page. This shows you a list of edits and the date they were made. Recent edits are a key indicator the information is up-to-date and more accurate.

The “talk” tab is at the top left of the article. This takes you behind the scenes, providing access to editors’ conversations and showing if an editor called certain wording into question — and how the community worked together to address the issue.

Beyond digital skills, O’Neil also encourages Wikipedia users to read with the understanding that there’s a lack of diversity among editors, causing inherent bias on the site. A 2020 survey from the Wikimedia Foundation found 87 per cent of contributors reported as male. The site also fails to represent other groups, such as people of colour or members of the LGBTQ+ community.

2: Become an editor

One of the best ways to improve the site and limit bias is to have a more diverse group of editors, says O’Neil. It’s easy to become a Wikipedian — the site provides a getting-started guide for newcomers, including short tutorials covering everything from editing to the style manual.

O’Neil also recommends resources from Art+Feminism, an international community that teaches anyone to edit Wikipedia with the goal of “closing the information gap about gender, feminism and the arts on the internet.” Art+Feminism’s YouTube videos are short, accessible introductions to the Wikipedia site.

“These are friendly learning materials targeted to a new learner who has an interest in editing for social justice,” says O’Neil.

The U of A also has a Wikipedia “GLAM” page (an acronym for galleries, libraries, archives and museums). This page not only includes tips for new editors but also lays out how U of A Library is planning to update Wikipedia with information from the university’s library and archival collections.

3: Ditch perfectionism

Although it may be intimidating to make your first change to the site, O’Neil shares the Wikipedia community’s motto: “Just make the edit.”

If you see an error, jump in and make a correction. One of the benefits of Wikipedia is that if you made a mistake — whether with citation or style — someone will reverse it.

“You’ll learn. You’ll get to know the systems and start to really enjoy seeing your work reflected on this highly trafficked website,” says O’Neil. “My favourite part of edit-a-thons is seeing a new editor click publish and immediately their words are on the page. It’s kind of thrilling.”

She also recommends editors use their “sandbox” page — an unpublished space to play. The sandbox is attached to your Wikipedia account and allows you to draft content away from live pages and hit publish when you’re happy with it.

Ultimately, O’Neil encourages new editors not to give up, noting that her first edit was quickly reversed. While it wasn’t fun to have a stranger on the internet call out her incorrect citation, she persevered. 

“You can’t take things personally. This is all part of working in a community of thousands of people around the world.”

4: Edit with purpose

O’Neil encourages new editors to find a group working on a project that lines up with their passions. If you’re feeling nostalgic about your alma mater, the U of A has a projects page where you can find a list of edits to be made related to people and initiatives at the university. For example, the page includes a task to expand on the entry for Dorothy Livesay, a Canadian poet whose manuscripts are in the U of A’s Bruce Peel Special Collections Library.

“I didn’t get into editing on my own, which is really an important observation,” says O’Neil. She started with an Art+Feminism edit-a-thon, where she learned to edit pages in a community context with the goal of updating or creating entries for female artists.

Ultimately, O’Neil says editors should feel empowered to address bias on the site — whether that means creating more articles about women or adding information about non-white historical figures.

“Editing Wikipedia feels like a tangible thing you can do to address inequity in the world. And a lot of us, especially in the pandemic, feel so isolated and disempowered,” says O’Neil. “You can edit from your home and focus your work on articles that mean something to you. That way, your edits have an impact on the way the world is reflected through Wikipedia.”

5: Be aware

Here is a security note: When you make a change to a page on the site, Wikipedia records your IP address, whether you are logged into an account or editing anonymously. As with other sites, people who disagree with the choices you make online may use your personal information to contact or harass you. Make sure to research your online security before you start editing Wikipedia.

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