Archives for posts with tag: editors

Tonight I went to see historian Timothy Garton Ash talk with his friend Tobias Wolff at Stanford. The occasion was the publication of Timothy’s newest book, a collection of essays and reportage loosely built around the idea that “facts are subversive.”  Timothy’s premise seems to be –roughly, loosely– that people in power are often trying to construct narratives in support of a particular economic, political or culture agenda, and that facts –even very small ones– can sometimes trip that up.

One thing they talked about was about honesty in memoirs — for example, Mary McCarthy’s 1957 autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, in which McCarthy disarmingly confesses that “the temptation to invent has been very strong,” and “there are cases when I am not sure myself whether I am making something up.” And about George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, in which Orwell wrote:

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.” (1)

This brought into focus for me something I’ve long half-recognized — both in my own experiences of reading Wikipedia, and the stories people tell me about how they use it themselves. Article after article after article on Wikipedia is studded with warnings to the reader. “This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party sources.” “This article needs attention from an expert on the subject.” “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand.”  On this page, you can see 24 common warning notices — and there are many, many more.

And I think that’s one of the reasons people trust Wikipedia, and why some feel such fondness for it. Wikipedia contains mistakes and vandalism: it is sometimes wrong. But people know they can trust it not to be aiming to manipulate them — to sell them something, either a product or a position. Wikipedia is just aiming to tell people the truth, and it’s refreshingly honest about its own limitations.

Tobias Wolff said tonight that sometimes such disclaimers are used manipulatively, as corroborating detail to add versimilitude to text that might otherwise be unpersuasive. I think that’s true. But in the case of Wikipedia, which is written by multitudes, disclaimers are added to pages by honest editors who are trying to help. They may not themselves be able to fix an article, but at the very least, they want to help readers know what they’re getting into. I like that.

(1) I looked that up on Google Books when I got home. Yay, Google Books!

Jay Walsh already wrote about these new videos on the Wikimedia Foundation blog, and I want to write about them as well. I really, really love them :-)

One of my main functions is to be a face and voice for Wikipedia — telling our story to all kinds of people, including potential partners, donors, critics, and so forth. And the least-visible part of our story has always been the editors — the people who write the encyclopedia. That’s because most readers don’t actually think much about how Wikipedia gets produced: they tend instead to imagine it as a kind of utility, like their web browser or ISP or hydro-electric service. (Like, “I turn on the faucet and information comes out.”) So from the beginning, I’ve aimed to tell that untold story — to, in effect, take readers backstage.

Why?

Partly it just seems fair: when people are reading something, they deserve to know who wrote it and why. But also, I want people to use Wikipedia, to trust it and support it. And the more they know about our editors, the likelier they are to do that.

Wikipedia’s written by smart people, 99% of whom have no motivation other than a love of knowledge and sharing. They’re not trying to sell anything, or make readers vote a particular way or believe a particular idea, nor are they trying to enrich or benefit themselves. As Jimmy said once long ago, they’re just smart geeks – the kind of people who think writing an encyclopedia is a fun way to spend their free time.

So, up until a few weeks ago, I used to tell the stories of Wikipedians by running a little slideshow of photos that I pulled off Wikimedia Commons, in decks like this one. I’d talk over them, giving the basic info – that the average Wikipedia editor’s male, in his mid-twenties, typically a graduate student, and so forth.

But now, Wikimedia’s Head of Communications Jay Walsh has made four lovely videos in which Wikipedians speak for themselves.

This first is just a kind of teaser / proof of concept — it was strung together in the edit suite to see what it would look like.

“Nice People” is intended to introduce viewers to typical Wikipedians.

“Edit Button” is part of a set of outreach materials the Wikimedia Foundation’s creating, aimed at encouraging readers to try editing.

“Great Feeling” is I think most people’s favourite — definitely, it’s mine :-)

I think these videos are really lovely. Many thanks to Jay for commissioning them, and to Jelly Helm for directing them. Jelly’s talent is shiningly, thrillingly obvious here — I’m really happy that Jelly loves Wikipedia, and that he wanted to help its editors tell their stories :-)

All four videos are on Wikimedia Commons and YouTube. They’re all CC-BY-SA. For the YouTube version, please consider supporting the open web by opting into YouTube’s HTML5 beta. And many thanks to the people who are currently translating the videos for subtitling and closed-captioning. The translated text is linked to from these pages on Commons.