Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2020-03-01/Opinion

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Wikipedia is another country: Or: how to best bite a newbie.
I wrote this a year ago as a reflective essay. Rereading it a year on, it seemed worth sharing. G

Just over a year ago, I was an inexperienced editor with a few hundred gnomish edits to my account. Although I didn’t realise it, I was about to plunge deep into the rich and varied ecosystem of Wikipedia.

In terms of personal experience I was not daunted. My experience had included hiring and firing people, going through a life changing illness, holding people while they died. I had lain alone on a rain-swept hillside wondering whether hypothermia or the rescue helicopter would arrive first. All of this turned out to be inadequate psychological preparation for being a Wikipedia editor.

I look back and wonder at my luck; there are so many ways to be deterred as a new Wikipedia editor, but somehow my enthusiasm fell upon fertile ground. My gnomish inclinations led me to GOCE, where no matter how inept I was it was almost impossible for me not to improve any tagged article I chose to work on. Being both ignorant and arrogant, the first ten articles I chose to work on included two FAC candidates. Possibly alarmed by this, GOCE assigned a mentor to me; almost endlessly patient and apparently omniscient on things Wikipedian. I cannot think of a better way to pick up an outline of the WP:MoS, Wiki-etiquette and how to communicate than to have a GOCE coordinator as a personal tutor.

This was just as well. As far as I have been able to determine, there is no basic guide to Wikipedia. After a couple of thousand edits, I worked out how to ping and reply correctly to pings. Until last month I didn't know that I could ping several editors simultaneously. I fumbled on, no doubt taking the long way around with many edits. While writing this I'm wondering what I will look back on and shake my head over next year. Ah well.

I then had the inexplicable good fortune to fall in with the Wikipedia Military History Project. I made a high proportion of the standard newbie errors and a couple of novel ones. I demonstrated a lack of awareness of myriad policies, guidelines and essays – not to mention a failure to realise that there was any difference between these three – and a pedantic tendency to take those I was aware of at their word. For example: if someone, at some stage, had assessed an article as meeting B1 then fine, it met B1; no need to waste time looking any further at the referencing. And so on, ad nauseum. This would probably have dropped me in deep trouble at many projects, and so have terminated my interest in Wikipedia. But the MilHist coordinators, bless them all, made huge assumptions of good faith.

Which brings me back to psychological preparedness. I was not accustomed to being the new member of an established group and the slow kid at the back of the class at the same time. Relying on the charity of others to metaphorically tie my shoelaces. It grated. This was entirely my own, fairly reasonable (I think), issue. Nor was I prepared for the casual offhandedness which is fairly common. Recently I suffered a mass revert with the edit summary "Learn some intellectual property law". This bluntness rankled. It was my issue rather than the reverting editor's, but that didn't help reduce the rankle. Since discovering MilHist I have stumbled around in this small corner of Wikipedia, occasionally bumping into helpful tools which I endeavour to clutch close.

The near complete lack of usable guides – IMO – to the basics is heavily compensated by the, usually, enormous willingness of complete strangers to spend time and effort correcting my idiocies, reducing my ignorance and remembering that they too were newbies once. Members of the Military History Project have collegially made the project a comfortable place to work in such a natural, even graceful, way that what they have achieved seems normal.

So here I am, 13 months on (not, note, rounded to "a year"; Wikipedia has taught me the joy of precision), a pillar, as it were, of the Wikipedia community: 16,000 edits, 45 good articles, 35 did you knows, 4 A class articles and even a featured article to my account; more barnstars than one could shake a reasonable-sized ego at; editors of a dozen years’ standing, and better writers than I shall ever be, stating "Gog the Mild recently copyedited it" in their FAC nominations. How come, if I am actually this good, I still don't know how to archive a web reference? Or even understand the instructions as to how to? Or can't get my Wikipedia email to work? Or understand the difference between an WP:RfC, an RfA, an RFD and an AfD? Or have just read the instructions for applying to be a new pages patroller for at least the fifth time without understanding anything after, and including, the second flow chart. Or can't even remember where Wikipedia prefers hyphens as opposed to where it requires them? (I don’t like hyphens, but strangely a gang of brownies follow my articles around, inserting them where necessary.) Trust me, none of these are even a little bit exaggerated for effect. Yet I have little doubt that on reading this several people I have never met, and never will, are going to send me instructions as to how to resolve each of these conundrums. Some of which, if the syllables per word count is low enough, I may even understand.

Editing Wikipedia can sometimes feel like a high octane version of real life, albeit with less risk of physical harm (although arguably more risk of the psychological variety); which in turn reminds me of Spider Robinson’s advice as to how to deal with life: "Just do the next thing". And so I shall, surrounded by a crowd of invisible strangers whose self-imposed task is to prevent me from stumbling, or to support me if I do. It is a strange and frequently frustrating journey, but I have learnt over the past year that I travel in good company.

Gog the Mild's newbie experience challenges many of the stereotypes about newbie experiences on Wikipedia. Perhaps he is atypical. Or perhaps there is no typical experience for newbies. Please let us know about your newbie experience in the comments section below.