Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2008-11-10/Book review

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The Wikipedia Signpost

Book review: How Wikipedia Works

By Ral315, 10 November 2008

Book Review
How Wikipedia Works
By Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews
and Ben Yates
507 pages, No Starch Press

In March, the Signpost reviewed John Broughton's Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, the first book to guide readers through the basics of editing Wikipedia. This week, we review How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be A Part of It (ISBN 9781593271763).

How Wikipedia Works, written by Wikipedia veterans Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates, is released under the GNU Free Documentation License. Chapter 12 ("Community and Communication") is currently available in PDF format at the publisher's website.

The book is divided into four parts: "Content", "Editing", "Community", and "Other Projects". Part I covers various aspects of content, including inclusion policies and guidelines in-depth, searching Wikipedia, and understanding and evaluating an article. Among the highlights of this section is an interesting timeline of how Wikipedia came to be, covering the history of the modern encyclopedia, the free software movement, and Ward's Wiki, and how these and other factors led to the creation of Wikipedia, and to its success. Also notable is an acronym, apparently coined by the writers, to help readers evaluate the quality of an article:

There are five general areas to evaluate for every article.

D: Discussion

Check the talk page of the article for any controversy regarding the article.

R: Rating

Is there a formal rating of the article, or a cleanup notice? WikiProject ratings are on talk pages, not in the article itself.

E: Edit history

The history of an article will tell you how and by whom it has been put together.

W: Writing and format

How does the page read? How does it look?

S: Sources

Are claims in the article well supported by solid references?
— How Wikipedia Works, page 120

Part II deals with the process of editing Wikipedia, and its description of wiki syntax, cleanup, WikiProjects, disambiguation, images, and the like was very thorough, and would be useful to any beginners, or even users with some experience editing articles. However, I found the two chapters that do not deal primarily with syntax most impressive. Chapter 6 covers writing and research, and its explanations of good Wikipedia research, reliable sources, and correct referencing are much easier for the casual editor to understand than the respective policies. Chapter 10, meanwhile, is a short but fascinating look at "The Life Cycle of an Article" (using the example article Gingerbread cottage architecture). It covers the basics of deletion processes, renaming, tagging, merging, categorizing, bot editing, and other article-related processes, in a straight-forward manner. The chapter also offers the real example of Mzoli's Meats, created by Jimbo Wales in September 2007 and subsequently the subject of a passionate AfD debate.

Part III covers different aspects of the community, including preferences, user and talk pages, watchlists, consensus, the specifics of policies and guidelines, and dispute resolution. Humorously, one chapter here devotes nearly a page to the "Boxen War", highlighting the 2005-2006 debates over the place of userboxes within the community. Most notable in this section is a list of policies and guidelines, grouped by type, along with short summaries of each policy or guideline. Even for experienced users, this list could prove to be useful.

In Part IV, the authors discuss other projects, devoting one chapter to the many languages of Wikipedia, and interwiki links (including a mention of the infamous Klingon Wikipedia). Another chapter deals with the other Wikimedia projects, focusing primarily on Wikimedia Commons. The final chapter of the book explains the Wikimedia Foundation, including its role within the community, chapters, and elections to the Board of Trustees, and also briefly covers MediaWiki and the Meta-Wiki. I was glad to see that the authors pointed out in this chapter not only that Wikipedia is facilitated by a non-profit organization, but also why Wikipedia has no advertisements, something that few readers know or understand.

The book is supplemented by various appendices. Appendix A explains the guidelines for reusing Wikipedia content. Appendix B is a very useful discussion on the use of Wikipedia in a classroom setting. The remaining appendices cover various jargon used in edit summaries, a glossary of commonly used terms and acronyms, credits for the various Wikipedia screenshots included in the book, and a copy of the GFDL.

In general, I was impressed by the book's simple, user-friendly layout; particularly interesting to me was the choice to devote the first four chapters to understanding Wikipedia, before showing the reader how to edit an article. Also impressive was the detail given to various topics that I wouldn't have thought to cover within such a book. A brief section on POV forks and NPOV highlights Wikinfo, the fork created by Fred Bauder that emphasizes different points of view. A section on real-life naming disputes, meanwhile, uses the case study of Gdańsk, the subject of a contentious vote as to when the city should be referred to by its Polish name Gdańsk, and when it should be referred to by the German name Danzig.

So, is this book worth buying? As with Broughton's book before it, How Wikipedia Works is not aimed at those users who already know much about how Wikipedia works, although even the most experienced users might find some of the book's more unique features useful. However, I think new users, and those interested in learning more about Wikipedia, will find this book to be a great guide to understanding Wikipedia, and the community behind it.

Note: The full text of the book can be found at

Also this week:

2008 fundraiser — ArbCom elections — Book review — Search engine — Board resolutions — News and notes — Dispatches — Features and admins — Technology report — Arbitration report

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