Wikipedia:Editing Wikipedia is like visiting a foreign country

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Editing Wikipedia is like entering a foreign country. It is no one's native country.

As a linguist by profession, I have visited around 30 foreign countries, some repeatedly. I'm sharing with you here my take on how not Wikipedia itself, but editing Wikipedia is like entering a foreign country.

  • There is a "border" you cross, a clear marker of change of status. Once you click "Edit" or "Create" you are in another country, with different rules, customs, and people.
  • As with any foreign country, there are a great many unfamiliar rules (policies): some obvious, others obscure; some clearly beneficial, others debatable or apparently stupid and/or counter-productive. There are also new tools. While there are various overviews and guides for the Wikipedia editor, there are so many rules, tools, and procedures, in such disparate areas, that no one can know them all. A single person, for example, is not likely to be familiar with the equations editor, the use of foreign-language characters, and rules for maps. So no single person can create a complete guide. Perhaps a team could (an encyclopedia about Wikipedia), but none exists, to my knowledge. And the rules frequently change in small and sometimes unexpected ways. Actually, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia about Wikipedia. My point is, that you never learn it all; the more you edit the more you learn how to edit. The Wikipedia editor, above the elementary level, is self-educated. Asking others for help is self-education.
  • Some rules are exactly the opposite of the values in "the real world": "no original research", for example.
  • Getting around is very easy. There's no pressure to do anything; the amount of work is infinite, so don't sweat it, whatever you can do is great. It's a comfortable place. The sky is whatever color you want.
  • Wikipedia is anarchic. No one is elected, there are no committees, no one inherits status, and wealth (money) means nothing, except insofar as it permits leisure time for editing. Competence is important, but traditional credentials don't mean much. Things are decided by consensus. (Intellectual history shows many areas in which the consensus on something has turned out to be wrong. The minority view — the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the reverse, and the Bible does not endorse slavery — was the correct one, but it wasn't the consensus and was rejected by the majority.)
    • No one is in charge. There's no president, no head of the family, no religious leader. Authority is earned through positive behaviors, and can be lost for misbehavior. Lines of authority are not clear and are constantly changing.
    • There are no "likes" and no "favorites". You can subscribe to a topic (an article), but that does not always mean that you like it. No one cares whether you like it. No one cares whether I like it either. In Wikipedia-land facts rule, not emotions. Do editors display emotion? You bet they do, that would be an interesting anthology to put together. But it doesn't help them, it just wastes time. If an edit annoys you, you're the one with the problem, even if the edit was wrong. Just fix it. Displaying annoyance is in my experience counter-productive.
  • The world of Wikipedia is far better organized than "the real world" (and if you can improve its organization, you are encouraged to do so). For example, in Wikipedia-land, there is no such thing as "a Catholic country". (Click on the link and see where it takes you.) There are articles and categories for Catholicism in every country except the smallest, but there is no agreed-upon definition of what a Catholic country is. Organisation has to make sense.
  • There is prejudice in Wikipedia-land, but it keeps its head low. "Negro", as applied to people, is a historical term only, and "oriental" is "Eurocentric", with a "shifting, inaccurate definition", and "may be considered offensive". Slavery was at "the root of...the differences" that caused the American Civil War.
  • You go to a foreign country for a reason, because it has something physical or intellectual not available at home. The country of Wikipedia similarly has many things not easily found in your usual environment: others who share your interest in an obscure topic, for example.
  • You meet people you would never have met otherwise. Your everyday community — your partner, children, friends, co-workers — are usually not there. You're in a different country, abroad.
  • You have to use a different language, with symbols like @, {{ }}, [[ ]], <ref>, <sup>, {{cn}}, even <nowiki>
  • You'll learn many things you never would have learned at home. Things you stumble on.
  • Public venues are clearly defined. You interact on your own user page, talk pages, noticeboards, and pages such as this.
  • Punishments for lawbreakers are different: you can get blocked. However, those who commit innocent mistakes are not punished. Before being blocked there may be warnings.
  • There are sources of information you never knew about and would not have learned about, if you hadn't become a Wikipedia editor.
  • When you go home, you're a different and probably more worldly person. You have knowledge and skills that those who stayed at home and never edited Wikipedia won't have and usually don't realize that they don't have. Even if you try to teach them, and they want to learn, that will never be the same as actually editing, just as watching a video about another country is not the same as visiting it. It's like the effect of years in the military, or in prison: you're a different person when you come out, but the changes in you are so many and each so small that you don't realize you're changing until the experience is over, at which time it's clear to you and usually others.

One way Wikipedia is NOT like a foreign country: just as in "the real world", there are good people, inspiring people, modest and humble people, self-sacrificing people, people who would be delighted to learn whatever you can teach them, or answer any of your questions they can. Then there are bullies, braggarts, bigots, bandits, conspiracy theorists, those for whom evidence is irrelevant, miscellaneous assholes, and evildoers: vandalizers, or those who deliberately create misleading edit summaries, for example. People are still people, good and bad. But in the Wikipedia world, you assume good faith. Not so much the practice in "the real world".