User:Xenon54/Don't template the newbies

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(There is another essay on this subject, with the same title. We both make the same points, but I believe the other essay's argument is quite weak.)

I've noticed a number of frightening trends on this website in recent months. The one I am focusing on in this essay is the increasing, exclusive use of template messages to interact with new users.

To better explain my point, I'll use an example that is partially based on a real scenario.

Consider two users, Max Mustermann and Tor Eckman.[1] Max sees an article about his idol, the footballer Otto Normalverbraucher (1920 - 2008), and realizes that it's in bad shape. So Max does some Googling, finds a few newspaper articles, and gets to work writing a long summary of Otto Normalverbraucher's life and career. Max has not read the rules, so he does not know that he must cite the newspapers. But the summary is beautifully written, and Max is proud of his four hours' worth of effort.

No less than forty-five seconds later, Tor comes across the article through recent-changes patrolling. He notices this big, long paragraph that is slightly biased and has no sources. He pulls out Twinkle, mashes Revert, and away the offending text goes. Tor slaps a warning on Max's talkpage telling him that text needs to be verifiable, and goes away, convinced he has done some good for the project.

Meanwhile, Max is incensed, because his text has just been removed. He adds it back, being sure to carefully cite his sources at the end of the paragraph. Tor notices the page again, sees that the text is back, improperly sourced, and still biased. Revert. But this time, Tor gives a warning for vandalism. Max, wondering what he did to deserve this -- vandalism is unconstructive editing, and my edits are constructive, right? -- tries to put in the same text once more. Final warning. Max throws his hands up and asks on the Help Desk: "Why am I being accused of vandalism?" He's told to read the warnings on his talkpage. In a last-ditch attempt, he asks Tor, who tells him to stop vandalizing and read "WP:VAND" and "WP:V". Max has already read those pages, so he gives up and goes away, fuming that he has just wasted hours of effort.

This is a problem that I have increasingly noticed as a regular on the Help Desk, especially with the proliferation of automated tools designed to quickly revert vandalism. Every new user who does not understand the rules, it seems, is now treated as a stupid infidel who must be vanquished at all costs. At the risk of sounding like I'm advocating the protection of new users, I still believe they should be expected to read the rules. The problem, I think, is understanding them. Joining Wikipedia introduces an entire range of new words -- from "NPOV" to "notability" to "vandalism" -- that are mostly unfamiliar or have different connotations than in daily life. Most Wikipedia rules are unfortunately written in terms of this jargon, meaning of course that there is a steep learning curve involved. There are some users who can pick it up right away, but for those who are confused and try to edit anyway, there is no leeway anymore.

So what do I advocate changing? If there is a new user who appears to want to contribute constructively but can't get a handle on one of the rules, someone needs to provide him assistance. Talk to him. Explain in clear terms what needs to happen with the article. I'm sure most users can figure it out if you just slow down and use plain English. If there is time, help him develop the article or tell him how to find sources.

The inspiration for this essay (and the title) came from a deletion discussion I came across some months ago. A new user attempted to write an article, but there was some copyright violation involved and the article was deleted twice. On the third attempt it was up for AfD. The talk page of the user who created the article had six warning templates, and one 24-hour block, but no dialogue at all. The creator was literally scared to death of editing. During the AfD, one of the participants went to the creator's talkpage and wrote him a message: The topic seems notable; where are you getting your information?; the sources you already linked are not good enough, would you like some help? and so on. After that user took the time to explain to the creator what was wrong, the creator was able to fix the article and it was kept (although it's not in such good shape now).

I concede that we have a program designed to help new users -- the Adopt-A-User program. But the fact that I'm still writing this essay indicates that program is not working. Indeed, it appears to me to be more or less a case of the blind leading the blind. Those who volunteer to be adopters seem to be those who think 500 edits in one month (400 of which were with Twinkle) means they're experienced. This is quite dangerous, as these users may be too young (a topic for another essay) or inexperienced to fully understand the rules. I'm all for getting rid of that program or introducing a vetting process for adopters. But I digress.

We as a community have to drop the mentality that new users are inferior. There needs to be a concerted effort to help new users "get started" and understand the rules. Using multiple, scary template messages is not the way to do this; it just scares and confuses the user. Our forums to help new users sometimes help and sometimes just end up confusing them further, as in the example above. I'm not advocating that we cater to ignorance or TL;DR -- if a user hasn't or doesn't want to read the rules, make it clear that they must do so before continuing -- but it seems that too many new users are being "hung out to dry" without ever knowing what they did wrong. If we ultimately want this project to survive, we have to realize that new users are the cornerstone. We have to change the prevailing description of Wikipedia as being a bureaucratic, elitist, closed society. This is a good place to start.

If you have an opinion for or against my point, I would like to hear it on this essay's talkpage.


  1. ^ "der Tor" is the German word for "fool"; avid fans of Seinfeld should recognize this reference to the healer from "The Heart Attack".