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Wikipedia:Contributing to complicated discussions

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Sooner or later, every Wikipedian will come across a discussion to which they do not feel qualified to contribute. This might be because the discussion is technical, or requires subject expertise, or requires contextual knowledge of past discussions. When you come across such a discussion, you have several options:

  1. Do research or ask for explanation until you do feel qualified to contribute.
  2. Stay silent.
  3. Contribute only to the part of the discussion for which you do feel qualified.
  4. Offer your thoughts anyways, using your limited understanding as best you can.

This essay explores these options.

Option 1: Educate yourself[edit]

This option works well when a complicated discussion doesn't take that much effort to understand, such as when there exist high-quality help pages (or enthusiastic helpers) for the topic.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. The main potential downside of this option is that it may not be the most productive use of your time.

Generally, there is absolutely no shame in asking for help understanding the issue, especially when others may be confused as well. Editors who do understand the discussion can often point you to an explanation page that you might have struggled to find yourself, and if you're confused because the explanation materials are inadequate, you can pay it forward by improving them once others have helped you understand. The big exception here is asking when you are already aware of good explanatory materials but just don't want to read them and would rather get a personalized explanation—that is not a reasonable ask of other editors' time.

This option is also desirable in situations where an uninvolved, likely more objective outsider is needed to help achieve neutrality on an issue. In those situations, someone needs to step up and figure out the issue, even if it's complicated, or the discussion will be dominated by vested parties and perhaps reach an undesirable local consensus.

Option 2: Stay silent[edit]

This is an underrated option! Discussion sprawl is a major problem on Wikipedia, and by staying silent, you help to keep the discussion concise and readable for the editors who are qualified to contribute. You don't always need to be the loudest voice in the room—sometimes, it's better to check your ego and recognize that others' voices are more important than your own.

Option 3: Contribute, but acknowledge your ignorance[edit]

Contributing to only the part of the discussion you feel qualified to comment on is also often a good idea. There is no shame in acknowledging your ignorance, and it can help discussion closers give your input appropriate weight. When editors forget to do this, it can cause problems. For instance, let's say an editor proposes a highly technical, problematic solution to a legitimate problem. If a bunch of editors who don't understand the proposed solution !vote in support because they recognize the problem, the proposal may be approved, whereas if they had acknowledged their ignorance, the closer could have relied on the fewer opposes from editors who saw the problem.

This option works well in situations where a discussion has received very limited participation and additional voices are needed to move it forward.

Option 4: Contribute with your limited understanding[edit]

Don't be the loudest voice in the room when you don't understand the discussion.

This is the option you want to avoid. When too many editors behave this way, it clutters discussions and crowds out the perspectives of those more qualified. Worse, editors who contribute to all discussions regardless of their level of understanding end up commenting more places and more quickly than others, magnifying their negative impact. Editors who behave this way are often from privileged demographic groups (e.g. men), which can contribute to Wikipedia's systemic bias.

If you tend to gravitate toward this option (as many of us do—after all, we all chose to start editing a website 99% of users only ever read), pause for a moment before you join a discussion to check yourself and confirm you have something valuable to offer. Also, if you think you're qualified to contribute to every discussion on Wikipedia, remember that most people overestimate their own abilities.

See also[edit]