|This page in a nutshell: Smartphones are a viable tool for easy editing of Wikipedia.|
This essay was written entirely on a smartphone.
Smartphone editing of Wikipedia is widely assumed to be problematic and of little significance to the encyclopedia. The rise of smartphones is seen by some commentators as a challenge to Wikipedia's future. My goal in writing this essay is to refute these claims by describing my own personal successes in editing Wikipedia by smartphone (as a model for others), to outline some best practices as I see them, and to encourage a broader discussion of the opportunities for more widespread smartphone editing, especially asking input from editors with different experiences, approaches and techniques. This essay describes my personal experiences and my own opinions. I am well aware that I am a "sample of one" and I do not claim to have all the answers. My goal, as always, is to improve the encyclopedia. Nothing more and nothing less.
Conventional wisdom says that editing Wikipedia on a smartphone is pretty much impossible
According to Andrew Lih, known as Fuzheado on Wikipedia, associate professor of journalism at American University and a recognized American expert on editing Wikipedia, "it’s simply too hard to manipulate complex code on a tiny screen." Evaluating the challenges to Wikipedia, Lih concludes that "One of the biggest threats it faces is the rise of smartphones as the dominant personal computing device." From the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, notable British journalist Andrew Brown, a member of the editorial board of The Guardian, agrees that editing Wikipedia on a smartphone is highly impractical, observing that "The editing interface for mobile Wikipedia is just about impossible to use." Brown observes that "The rise of smartphones and of tablets means that most visitors to Wikipedia sites are now coming from devices that are difficult to write on."
In a December 2015 discussion thread on the Facebook page "Wikipedia Weekly", administrator Ed Erhart commented to me that "you don't seem to realize that your experience is nearly unique among Wikipedia editors. There are very few people who would have the patience to write an article on a smartphone, zooming in and out the whole time." After I described what I consider to be a fairly simple and straightforward five step process to create a complete book reference using a smartphone, Erhart replied, "I wouldn't dream of going through all of those steps you describe to edit productively on mobile" and "generally speaking no one else is going to jump through those hoops to edit from a phone." Disclosed paid Wikipedia editor William Beutler, of Beutler Ink, commented that "you really must acknowledge that the small form factor makes for a cramped editing experience, both on account of screen size and the mobile keyboard." Lih expressed the opinion that I am an "outlier", later clarifying that he intended to be descriptive rather than insulting.
Another way of looking at it is that there are approximately 840 million people who speak English relatively well as either their first or second language. There are as many as two billion people who speak some English. Among those hundreds of millions or billions, currently only 134,154 are active on the English Wikipedia. Active is defined as making one or more edits per month. the page to update the count. We are all outliers, and we should welcome new outliers, in order to improve the encyclopedia together.
The world smartphone market in 2015
Lih and Brown are certainly correct that smartphones are now the world's dominant computing device. In 2014, 1.2 billion smartphones were sold worldwide. In contrast, the combined population of the United States and the United Kingdom is less than 400 million people, or less than one third the number of smart phones sold last year. 2014 personal computer sales were 308.6 million, only about one quarter of the number of smartphones sold worldwide.
Smartphone sales in 2015 are projected to be 1.4 billion. Third quarter 2015 sales were 353 million phones. Of these phones, 84.7% run the Android operating system, and 13.1% run Apple iOS, with the two dominant operating systems controlling 97.8% of the market. As 2015 ends, there are 2.6 billion modern, up to date smart phones two years old or less in service, all capable of editing Wikipedia. This represents 35% of the world population including infants, children, the poorest and the very elderly. The percentage of literate young adults owning modern sophisticated smartphones worldwide is therefore much higher.
Since 2007, smartphone screen size has nearly doubled as measured on the diagonal, and by 2014, the average was 4.86 inches. Increased screen size makes Wikipedia editing easier and more practical.
Based on my own highly successful experience editing Wikipedia by smartphone, I assert that editing Wikipedia by smartphone is not only possible and practical, but should be encouraged to anyone interested in contributing with a smartphone. If only the tiniest percentage of smartphone users contribute to Wikipedia, that would represent a very significant influx of new editors.
My background as a Wikipedia editor
I am a 64 year old self-employed construction contractor living in California's Napa Valley. I started editing Wikipedia in June 2009. My name is Jim Heaphy. I have never been a professional computer programmer although I took one COBOL class and one Systems analysis class as a college student in the 1970s, and purchased a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer in 1980. I have owned personal computers ever since.
Back in 2009 when I began editing Wikipedia, I mostly wrote and expanded biographies of California mountaineers and Sierra Club leaders, although I have since branched out to become a generalist editor. 
Although I began editing Wikipedia on a desktop computer, I tried editing by smartphone fairly early and was editing heavily by smartphone by 2011. Gradually, I have done more and more of my editing by smartphone and estimate that at least 95% of my editing in recent years has been by smartphone.
As of December 2015, I have made over 37,000 edits to Wikipedia. I have written 70 new articles and expanded hundreds more. I work to save worthy articles listed at Articles for Deletion and have participated in thousands of deletion debates. I have significantly expanded and referenced over 90 articles nominated for deletion, and none of those articles has been deleted. I have made over 3000 edits to the Teahouse, helping about 1000 new editors. I am among the most active Teahouse hosts. Ongoing research indicates that the friendly Teahouse model is successful in increasing retention of new editors.
I do not use any semi-automated editing tools. All of my edits are manual and I give significant thought to every one. I do not program templates, use tables, use mathematical formulas, or engage in advanced, sophisticated coding. I am conversant with basic Wiki markup. I acknowledge the possibility that users with a different pattern of editing may encounter smartphone problems I am not aware of.
Why I edit by smartphone
- I began editing by smartphone out of curiosity, just to see if it was possible. I discovered that I could actually improve the encyclopedia using my smartphone, which was an exciting discovery for me.
- My work requires that I travel to different places around Northern California most working days, and I do not normally have access to a desktop computer during the day. The nature of my work means that I sometimes have blocks of free time. I started using my smart phone to check my watch list and comment on AfD debates while away from my home office, such as during my lunch breaks.
- When I was editing Wikipedia heavily in the evenings on a desktop computer in my home office, my wife would often be unhappy that I was not with her. I found that smartphone editing enabled me to contribute to Wikipedia while sitting next to my wife Debra as she knits, with Dexter, our Boston Terrier, on the sofa with us, and a fireplace burning on a cold night. This has enhanced my Wikipedia editing hobby in every way.
- Reading recognized experts describe smartphone Wikipedia editing as so impractical as to be pretty much impossible motivates me to contribute productively to the encyclopedia by smartphone even more. Perhaps there is an element of rational contrarianism in my motivations. If someone says, "you can't do that and it is a waste of time to try," then I am motivated to say, "oh, yes I can, and let me prove it to you". Consider the biography of AFL-CIO leader George Meany. I completed a major expansion of this article in 2011, much of it by smartphone. In April, 2015, I decided to attempt to take the article to Good Article status. This took three months of effort, and a large number of edits, all of which I completed by smart phone. I was successful on July 19, 2015.
- Contributing to the encyclopedia gives me great personal satisfaction, and smartphone editing enables me to contribute anywhere, at any time I have a few minutes to spare. During waking hours, my computer is almost always either in my pocket or in my hand.
How I edit by smartphone
My current phone
I have used several different phones over the years. Currently, I use an HTC One (M8) smartphone, Model HTC6525LVW running Android 5.0.1, with a 5" screen. Previously, I have used a Droid Razr and a Droid X.
Mobile site vs. desktop site
I have a long-standing preference for the desktop site for my serious editing, though I do check out the mobile site from time to time. If a Google search inadvertently takes me to the mobile site, I usually scroll to the bottom and switch to the desktop site (another option is to remove the 'm' and a period from the URL in the browser's address bar and press 'enter'). One reviewer commenting back in 2013 observed that "The mobile website is not very easy to navigate, and the app is nothing more than a bad browser for the mobile site." I do acknowledge that the mobile site has improved significantly in the past couple of years, and if any productive editor prefers the mobile site, that is perfectly fine with me. I consider my smart phone to be a miniature computer with almost all the capabilities of a full featured desktop computer, and that is how I use it.
I do not intend to imply that "my way is the right way". Instead, I want to legitimize and encourage productive editing of the encyclopedia using any and all available hardware tools, including smartphones. And any available software tools, whether the mobile or desktop sites, or various apps, if they work for active, productive editors.
Incorrect information about smartphone editing of Wikipedia is commonplace. In a book published in 2014 by a university press, Ana Deumert wrote, "Since 2013, it has been possible to edit Wikipedia using a mobile phone," failing to note that editors including me started contributing that way several years earlier. A more accurate statement would be that it belatedly became possible to edit Wikipedia using its mobile site in 2013.
Creating references and new article content - an example
- If I am doing research for an article using Google Books, for example, and I find a good solid source with several consecutive relevant pages I can read, I simply copy the URL at the top of the Google Books page. I then go to Wikipedia and start or open a sandbox subpage, paste the URL into that sandbox page, and save it.
- Then, I copy a preformatted book reference template, paste it into the sandbox page, and cut and paste the URL into the right spot in the template, and save it.
- Clicking the raw URL takes me back to the relevant Google Books page, where I copy the title, author, publisher, publication date and ISBN from the "About this book" section, and I remember the page numbers.
- I then hit the back arrow once or twice, which takes me back to my sandbox page. I paste all that information, and plug the various items into the corresponding fields, and save it. I now have a perfectly formatted reference.
- I write some text summarizing what the source says, and may return to the source to copy and paste a quotation, if that is appropriate. Then, I save and proofread my work in progress.
- When I am satisfied with my work, I copy the wikicode. Then, I go to the actual article, paste the code into the proper place, copyediting so the new content fits in properly, save, and again proofread my work.
This is pretty much the way that I have created references and new encyclopedia content for 6-1/2 years, whether editing on a desktop computer or a smartphone. There may well be more efficient methods that more computer savvy and faster editors than I can use. I tend to move slowly and thoughtfully, and these methods work just fine for me.
People are curious about exactly how I edit as if there was something unusual about people reading and writing on smartphones. There isn't. Billions of people use smartphones regularly, and they read and write using smartphones on Facebook, Twitter and similar sites constantly. Perhaps encyclopedia writing is a bit more complex than interacting on social media, but I see them as very similar. I am quite active on Facebook and frequently engage in lengthy, detailed conversations there. People read news on smartphones and share stories on social media constantly. As I see it, this is all just a couple of simple steps away from creating references and adding content to the encyclopedia. It is just a matter of your frame of mind.
I am right handed. I hold the phone in my left hand, propped on my left thumb horizontally in landscape mode, and type solely with my right forefinger. I take advantage of the prediction function of my phone's keyboard. The phone typically suggests longer words I am typing before I am halfway done. The phone also knows my common phrases, such as "Welcome to the Teahouse". I type the first three letters "Wel" and the phone suggests "Welcome". When I click that, it suggests "to", then "the", then "Teahouse" in sequence. The entire phrase takes just seven keystrokes. Similarly with "neutral point of view" and all common Wikipedia jargon. My phone knows it all. I actively add new words to my dictionary frequently as I work.
Most of the skills I use when I edit by smartphone are identical to those needed for editing with a desktop or laptop computer. Understanding Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, online research techniques, writing clearly and neutrally, and civil interaction and collaboration with other editors - they are all the same. The shared goal is improving the encyclopedia.
Here is a partial list of articles I have written or significantly improved by smartphone in 2015. My goal, always, is to improve the encyclopedia.
- George Meany (Good Article)
- Carolein Smit
- Bataclan (theatre)
- 2015 Waco shootout
- Adele Stimmel Chase
- National Kitchen & Bath Association
- Irvin Jim
- George Hindori
- Edward MacDowell Medal
- Nels J. Smith
- Public Storage
- Donald MacDonald (stained glass)
- South Summit (Everest)
- Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (organization)
- The Terror (1920 film)
- Joe's Special
- If you edit using a smartphone, even occasionally, then please add your username to Category:Wikipedians who edit by smartphone.
- I hope that this essay will help motivate the public intellectuals and opinion leaders who explain Wikipedia editing to the general public to acknowledge that editing by smartphone is practical for those who are interested, even if it is not every editor's cup of tea.
- I recommend that outreach to new editors include positive information about smartphone editing. The focus of help page discussion of smartphone editing should take into account the capabilities of the contemporary generation of Android, iOS (Apple), and BlackBerry devices that dominate the market. Endlessly detailed discussion about fringe or obsolete operating systems, or commercial apps used by very few people, or the limitations of five year old phones, benefits no one. In general, these devices have a two year life cycle. Language belittling the potential of smartphone editing should be eliminated.
- I encourage the Wikimedia Foundation to study the needs and contributions of all smartphone editors, not just those who edit on the mobile site. In my experience, many productive mobile device editors prefer the desktop site, for a variety of reasons. Those editors deserve support and recognition.
- "Best practices", and productivity hints and tips should be documented for Android, Apple iOS, and BlackBerry devices, for the mobile and the desktop site, for editing in wikicode and with the Visual Editor. How does the administrator's toolkit work with smartphones? I do not know but want to learn. I look forward to hearing to any administrators who have made a sincere effort.
- Volunteers who assist new editors at the Help Desk and the Teahouse should be familiarized with the possibilities of smartphone editing, so that they can better assist new editors who want to contribute to the encyclopedia that way. Those who lead edit-a-thons should also incorporate this information into their events.
- My perspective focuses on the English Wikipedia, since that is where I am active. My hunch, though, is that smartphone editing will be increasingly important on other language Wikipedias, where many millions of speakers have purchased a smartphone in recent years, but have never owned a traditional personal computer.
- Wikimedia mobile engineering – The Wikimedia Foundation employs 15 people dedicated to mobile access
- Help:Mobile access – A help page that, in my opinion, devotes excessive attention to outdated and obscure methods of accessing Wikipedia on obsolete devices, instead of focusing on the needs of the billions of people who own modern smartphones running Android and iOS.
- List of Wikipedia mobile applications – apps for Android, iOS, and BlackBerry
- Souping up your Smartphone editing of Wikipedia – (tip is easily editable by any Wikipedian to add smartphone editing efficiency pointers)
- Wikipedia Zero – An initiative to provide free mobile access to Wikipedia in developing countries
- Wikipedia:Editing on mobile devices – An essay that paints a pessimistic view of smartphone editing, such as "the tiny glass screen is hard to type on, and the ease of editing Wikipedia varies, being impossible on some"
- Lih, Andrew (June 20, 2015). "Can Wikipedia Survive?". New York Times. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
- Brown, Andrew (June 25, 2015). "Wikipedia editors are a dying breed. The reason? Mobile". The Guardian. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
- Crystal, David (March 2008). "Two thousand million?". English Today. doi:10.1017/S0266078408000023.
- Brett Molina and Marco della Cava (March 3, 2015). "Apple beats Samsung in Q4 smartphone sales". USA Today.
- "PC Leaders Continue Growth And Share Gains As Market Remains Slow, According to IDC". Yahoo! Finance. International Data Corporation. January 12, 2015. Retrieved December 9, 2015.
- Wood, Viveca; van der Meulen, Rob (November 18, 2015). "Gartner Says Emerging Markets Drove Worldwide Smartphone Sales to 15.5 Percent Growth in Third Quarter of 2015". Gartner. Retrieved December 6, 2015.
- H., Victor (January 31, 2014). "Did you know that smartphone screens nearly doubled in size since 2007?". phoneArena.com. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
- Huffman, Jennifer, American Canyon man moonlights as Wikipedia editor; Increasing Knowledge, One Article at a Time, Napa Valley Register, March 2, 2014
- Raskin-Zrihen, Rachel, American Canyon man researches, edits Wikipedia, Vallejo Times Herald, July 7, 2014
- Morgan, Jomnathan (December 3, 2015). "Research: Teahouse long term new editor retention". meta.wikimedia.org. Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
- Iyer, Ramkumar (July 27, 2013). "Wikipedia now lets you edit articles from your mobile phone". Tech2.com. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
- Deumert, Ana (2014). Sociolinguistics and Mobile Communication. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748655779.