Last Thursday night about 8 women arrived at Noisebridge to learn how to contribute to Wikipedia. Several things led to this gathering:
- An article in the New York Times back in October drew attention to the lack of women contributors to the Wikipedia knowledge base and that got me thinking.
- Having organized other spontaneous “women get together and learn stuff” events I figured I could take the same approach to Wikipedia contributing, get some women together to create accounts, generate content, learn how to stop vandalism and see what would stick.
- Recent participation in activism around the Occupy Wall Street movement also inspired me to try and reach out to communities I am in who are not as technical, to encourage people to come first with knowledge and interest in topics Wikipedia could benefit from and let the tech come second.
- A month ago Elsa and I were talking casually about all the the above mentioned things and we decided to just go for it and pick a date, throw it up on the Noisebridge (local SF hackerspace) calendar, and see what we could make happen.
We took over a small makeshift classroom space at the back of Noisebridge. It had one lamp as the primary source of light because the fluorescent holders above were missing their tubes. A man was near the back working on a dress for fashion school, several other hackers were up front working on their various projects. Noisebridge was a wonderful place to have this event. It feels like anything is possible in a space like that.
I was happy with the turn out – we had a mix of artists, educators, and tech workers. Also as a bonus one of the attendees, my coworker Boriss, was a seasoned Wikipedia contributor who was able to really detail the ins and outs of the different levels of participation. I can’t stress enough how amazing it was to have her and her knowledge there because there are lots of misconceptions about Wikipedia (I definitely had some) and her first-hand knowledge was inspiring to me.
So the beginning of the meetup went well enough, and as you might expect. We introduced ourselves, talked about why we had come to the event and what we were hoping to get out of it. We started in on learning how to set up an account if one didn’t already exist and we looked at discussion/history/edit and other basic navigations of Wikipedia space. There were a lot of questions about what belongs in Wikipedia, neutral tone, citations. The conversations were lively and I found them quite enjoyable.
Here’s what I didn’t expect: Getting folks interested and excited about Wikipedia becomes REALLY HARD in practice. Unlike learning Python where the participants can hammer out some code on their own computers in minutes and feel accomplished, there is a lot more complexity to Wikipedia. There is a lot of confusion about their UI, their purpose, who can do what and when. Very quickly it seemed that the women who had come to the event feared adding anything new to the knowledge base and they were also incredibly intimidated by the UI of the site. It wasn’t even clear enough how one would create a new article when none existed.
From this event I learned a lot about organizing and about the intentions of future events like this and I did a little braindumping while we were meeting so I could remember to list them later in this very post.
Things that would help newcomers:
- Having a “new to wikipedia” moniker next to their nickname for the first N activities on the site (we have this on our Mozilla bugzilla) so that hopefully older and wiser participants would be extra nice to them
- Find a way to make some of the simpler tasks that help Wikipedia (typos, reverting vandalism, categorizing articles) into a game that a new arrival could play that would start easy and then move more toward the real-life workflow of working on Wikipedia – as a way to warm them to the UI
- Encourage newcomer to write a straight-up article and have a place for these things to be dumped for inpection/linkage/categorization and otherwise Wikipedia-fying the knowledge dump. My partner is an English professor and can certainly write good content for Wikipedia but everything about the site is intimidating. There should be a page where she could copy/paste or upload a document of her article and then let people who know wiki syntax and the other requirements an article needs come along and finish it up
- Make it way easier to find the “adopt a user” program that I hear exists but no one would know to find that from the Wikipedia home page
I will continue to organize these events, perhaps once a month. More reports as they happen.