Talking with WikiProject Ships
fires a 15-gun broadside
during a target exercise in 1984 near Vieques Island
, Puerto Rico, with spectacular concussion effects on the water surface.
This week, The Signpost visited WikiProject Ships. The project started in March 2003 and is now home to more than 40,000 articles, including 79 featured articles, two featured lists, 53 A-class articles, 228 good articles, and over 800 articles featured at Did You Know. It is no accident that the project supports such a hefty portfolio: ships have wide appeal because they embody stories, often as the dramatic or exotic focal points of military action, exploration, and trade—and stories are the backbone of many a popular Wikipedia article. Although the accounts of millions of individual sailors have largely been lost or are unverifiable, ships are critical to the larger canvas of human history. Nowhere has this been the case more than in the English-speaking world, for which maritime power has been a defining historical factor, drawing on technical and cultural knowledge passed first from the Dutch to the English in the 17th century, and then on to the United States in the 20th century. Indeed, the global spread of English and its current status as the international language probably owe much to the mastery of seafaring by the British and Americans. In this dynamic context, it is not surprising that WikiProject Ships on the English Wikipedia has become one of the most important sites on the Internet for organising and presenting maritime information.
A traditional sailboat off the coast of Mozambique
We interviewed project members Mjroots, Buggie111, Parsecboy, MBK004, The ed17, White Shadows, TomStar81, Haus, Djembayz and Brad101. These editors joined the project in quite different circumstances, all related to their contact with Wikipedia articles on ships or classes of ships in which they had a particular interest or real-life expertise. Mjroots, for example, began editing ship articles after the sinking of the MS Explorer in November 2007, while Buggie111 had come across Operation Majestic Titan in early 2010 and decided to help out. Parsecboy stumbled across a few one-line sub-stubs on German battleships and tried to expand them to decent quality, quickly becoming hooked on improving articles related to the German Imperial Navy, and Haus initially found himself compelled to fix up articles on ships he had worked on, "and to address the dearth of information at Wikipedia on the maritime industry." White Shadows was motivated by "the apparent lack of coverage for very important articles that fall under the coverage of [Wikiproject Ships] such as German submarine U-30 (1936), which sank the first vessel in World War II."
The editors remarked on the consistently high level of discourse at the project talk page. Haus—a second officer in the US Merchant Marine—recalls that in one recent thread, members narrowed down the identity of a ship in a low-resolution submarine periscope image to one of two vessels. Within three days, the US Navy had changed its website to concur with this finding. Often, questions are addressed within an hour, and there are enough administrators in the project to advise on policy issues when they come up. He says the talk page can be a spirited environment: "We've had disagreements, but I can't remember a fight!"
With a massive 40,123 articles in its scope, how does WikiProject Ships keep up? Buggie111 believes that "the various tabs in the navbox for the project, B-class assessments, and an organized review page really help make this move in the way it's supposed to." MBK points out that the members are dedicated to maintaining the quality of the articles and ensuring they don't deteriorate. Patrolling the recent changes for unreferenced additions, vandalism, and advertising, he says, is an important daily task that involves working with an extremely large watchlist. Brad says that running an efficient program of tagging all ship articles with the project banner is one of the keys to organizing the portfolio, and for this task, automated tools and bots such as AlexNewArtBot and AutoWikiBrowser have been invaluable.
In terms of national affiliation, the project's featured articles fall roughly three ways: a third each are UK-, US-, and German-related. Haus says it's not surprising that most project members tend to be from the UK and the US, but a wider membership is sought: "international relations among members have always been warm." Below the GA level, there's a wide coverage of all types of ships, and the project is seeking to expand its coverage of ship types as well as navigation and non-military shipboard operations, topics that often end up on his desk.
The Signpost asked how the project has attained its large number of promoted articles. Parsecboy cited an invaluable partnership with WikiProject Military history through the joint "Operation Majestic Titan"; this, he says, is a key strategy for developing recognized content, enabling small projects to partner with an overlapping project. White Shadows agrees: "The close coordination between the two projects enables us to achieve a large number of FAs, GAs and A-class articles." In fact, the partnership has been behind the promotion of all but three featured articles. TomStar81 mentions another user, Bellhalla, who was responsible for the promotion of articles on about 120 different freighters, U-boats, and other vessels. "This kind of dedication and inspiration is critical in the development of the quality content for any project."
What are the most pressing needs for the project, and how can new contributors help? Mjroots says many ships currently have no article, so we are always looking for new editors to oblige. Another area where they could have a significant impact, he says, is by adding infoboxes to the 2,000-plus articles that lack one." For Ed17, the project needs editors "who will adopt important articles such as Titanic, Lusitania, or Exxon Valdez and rewrite them so they become good or featured; there's more to [WikiProject Ships] than just military ships!". Haus pointed us to a list of important (non-military) articles. Djembayz expressed her surprise at how many articles about clipper ships and sailing merchant ships are yet to be written. Printed books and websites about sailing ships are readily available, she says, and the public-domain materials coming online about the Age of Sail at the Internet Archive / Google Books are suddenly making it possible to pull up many fascinating and unknown stories about the hardships and romance of sail for editors willing to browse by name of ship. Djembayz adds that if anyone reading this has worked in the commercial fishing industry, they will find that the category fishing vessels is waiting for their contributions.
WikiProject Ships has great potential to expand, and new editors are welcome both from within and outside Wikimedia Foundation projects. According to Haus, active ship projects on other Wikipedias are an obvious platform for interwiki collaboration: "The German and French projects are probably the most active. Bulk carrier was a collaboration with the French Wikipedia, that got close to FA status. For several years we had enthusiastic editors who worked on the Scandinavian as well as the English Wikipedias." White Shadows says "there are whole classes of German U-boats just waiting to be cited or copy-edited or even written. For such a large project we need more willing editors. After all, 500 red links on German Type VII submarines are not going to write themselves!"
Get ready to finish up on that summer reading for next week's interview! Until then, feel free to leaf through the archives.