Dispatches: Interview with Mav
Longtime Wikipedian Mav is one of the English Wikipedia's most prolific writers; according to the List of Wikipedians by featured article nominations (WBFAN), Mav is currently the 11th ranked editor in terms of overall successful nominations of Featured articles (FA), and among the top seven when disregarding inactive editors and FAs that have been defeatured at Former featured articles; according to a 2007 study by the University of Minnesota, Mav was at the time the top contributor in terms of how many times words he added to articles were viewed by Wikipedia users (see also this Signpost story). Mav has also been a major force restoring older FAs to current standards at Featured article review (FAR). In August 2008, David Fuchs interviewed Mav about his contributions to the project for The Signpost, slightly paraphrased for readability.
The Signpost Mav, you've been a Wikipedia editor since 2002; what initially drew you to the project in general, and to featured article creation in particular?
- I recently graduated from university and was already in a nostalgic mood. So I Googled the name of a individual I studied in my Medieval literature class during my last term named Giovanni Boccaccio. One of the items listed on the second or third result page was at an oddly-named website I vaguely remember visiting before called wikipedia.com. The entry was a horrible stub that had obvious errors. I immediately looked for a contact link or feedback page to complain. But then I saw something I couldn't believe; a link that said in bold, edit this page right now! That message couldn't be intended for me; somebody must have accidentally allowed public editing of the website, I thought. But I was also intrigued. So I clicked the link, made my change without a log-in and was astounded that my edit became live right then! I quickly became a wiki addict, spending up to 12 hours a day editing through the summer of 2002. There were fewer than 20,000 articles when I started and very few of those would be considered better than start class today. Sadly, the software we used back then, UseMod, did not save every revision of an article so my first edit, as an IP, has been lost.
- My edits back then were mostly to enforce markup style, naming conventions and to develop article structure best practices. But over time I started to add more and more content. My first big area of focus was with element articles. I spearheaded development of a per-article table of properties at Beryllium but once that was done my focus switched to Titanium when it came to developing layout and coverage standards. Once I was happy with that article, I simply asked the community via the newly developed Brilliant Prose (BP) nomination process if that article was "brilliant" yet. Two people agreed and Titanium became my first BP (later FA).
- I soon became a regular at Featured article candidates (FAC); both by nominating articles and by commenting on other FACs. My intention was to influence our article standards by directly producing good examples and by objecting to articles by others that I saw as bad examples. The major areas of concern I had were making sure articles had good lead sections, were not overly long-winded (I originated the summary style guideline) and making sure articles listed their references. Over time I helped establish those standards as Featured article criteria.
- True – the Yellowstone article was my first FAC proper but, as noted above, Brilliant Prose also had a nomination procedure late in its existence. The BP nomination process was set-up as a simple check to stop people from adding obviously bad articles to the Brilliant Prose list. FAC, when it was first set-up, was little better. There were no explicit criteria other than a suggestion to consult the perfect article page if you were unsure if an article was good enough to be listed. So, the lack of explicit criteria combined with lower standards on comprehensiveness (we felt darn good back then whenever a Wikipedia article was longer than its traditional encyclopedia counterpart), resulted in FAs that were much, much easier to produce than FAs that pass FAC today. For example, I think I spent less than 10 hours bringing this version of Titanium to BP standard and a bit more than 10 hours to bring this version of Yellowstone National Park to FA. It now often takes me 5 times as long to bring two similarly important and extensive topics to FA quality. At one time I thought that spending 4 hours working on a single article was a huge amount of time. Now I spend at least that much time reading sources before I write anything.
The Signpost You've been a tremendous force at FAR, assisting in improving articles which would today have a hard time passing GAN, let alone FAC. What motivates you to improve these relics of an easier FA process?
- Sandy, Marskell and Joelr31 have been tremendous forces at FAR. I simply save articles that were either FACs I nominated or FAs under one of the WikiProjects I'm involved with. My motivation is pride of "ownership" (in a good, wikiway) and the fact that I see FAR as an opportunity for me to bring an article up to current standards. I'm often both dismayed and encouraged at how an article I, and others, thought was an example of the best of Wikipedia several years ago compares to our FAs now. Our standards have increased substantially. For example, one of my first FAs, Geology of Bryce Canyon National Park, would be considered C-class today (possibly a merge candidate). But somebody rightfully nominated it for FAR and I substantially expanded it and added inline citations. It is now a respectable example of a short topic FA. So I guess a related motivation is to keep my set of FA articles serving as examples of what Wikipedia articles should look like. Granted, I normally wait for others to nominate one of my articles to FAR before I upgrade them. But that's just because I'm inherently lazy. :)
The Signpost You spoke earlier of helping mold the FA criteria; why, in your opinion, have FA standards slowly drifted up over time?
- This has more to do with the general maturing of the project than anything else. At first, we concentrated on simply seeding topic areas by creating stubs. We didn't have much coverage of anything, so we weren't too picky. We tolerated, often even embraced the stub and odd incomplete addition, so anything much longer than several paragraphs had a chance of being listed as Brilliant Prose. As time went by, more and more topics got their own articles. It was then inevitable that groups interested in certain areas would increasingly switch from article creation to article expansion and improvement. That was certainly my experience with WikiProject Elements. We have also learned from each other through this time how to best write an encyclopedia article. These ideas are now well-established guidelines. Therefore, what we considered to be the best of the best has naturally become more stringent. For a time I was fearful that this trend would continue indefinitely and our standards would become absurdly strict. This hasn't happened yet and I'm becoming increasingly confident that we will eventually find the right balance.
The Signpost In an interview with the List of Wikipedians by featured article nominations (WBFAN) maintainer Rick Block, Rick spoke about how he was unsure the list had contributed to more FAs, or a motivation for more FAs. Has the list encouraged you in any way?
- Although far from perfect, as Rick admits, WBFAN is really the only easy way to get an idea of who is likely responsible for creating quality content in the project. I'd much prefer a 'List of major authors of Featured Articles', but WBFAN is the best we have right now. It is certainly better than the increasingly useless list by number of edits. I would write FAs with or without WBFAN but it has been a slight motivation to me, if for no other reason than to solidly get back in the top 10 and stay there. :)
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