Students and the Culture of Wikipedia

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From visitor to citizen: introducing students to the culture of Wikipedia

In Reinventing Discovery: The Rise of Networked Science, physicist Michael Nielsen writes, “Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. It’s a virtual city, a city whose main export to the world is its encyclopedia articles, but with an internal life of its own.” My presentation focuses on helping students get the most out of their work on Wikipedia by acquainting them with the culture of this virtual city and its internal life. Just as we prepare students for a study-abroad experience, so we must prepare students for a Wikipedia culture that is diverse and thriving, typically welcoming, often challenging, and sometimes confusing or apparently inconsistent. Introducing students to the culture of Wikipedia has at least three main stages. I will discuss them in the order in which I typically discuss them with students, but of course in practice the stages overlap and will often need to be revisited as students continue their work.

The first stage of helping students understand the culture of Wikipedia almost always involves identifying their misconceptions. Although nearly all students will have consulted Wikipedia during their school years, some quite frequently, most of those students will have been warned by their teachers that Wikipedia is anonymous, unreliable, and must never be used in school. Starting with Jon Udell’s classic “Heavy Metal Umlaut Band Screencast,” we discuss the way Wikipedia is structured as a platform, and how its policies and technical infrastructure are designed to empower responsible and inclusive agency on the part of all its editors. While acknowledging and reinforcing the point that no encyclopedia should be used as a primary or secondary research source, we move beyond simplistic proscriptions and examine the ways in which the rich bibliographical resources on the best articles conspicuously encourage Wikipedia users to move from the article itself to reliable and engaging secondary sources that can be used for academic research. Looking at Talk pages and Edit histories is a key element in this phase, as a close reading of the ethos and culture of engagement among Wikipedians helps students see Wikipedia as a process and a community, indeed a kind of polis. Students often find this stage liberatory. They no longer feel furtive or irresponsible for consulting Wikipedia. They begin to feel this city and its culture are worth knowing better, and worth being part of.

The second stage turns the abstraction of “Wikipedia editors” into a more specific encounter with Wikipedians themselves. Who are these editors? How do they convey their identities, their interests, and their work by means of their user pages? Self-representation on the Internet is a key question for students who struggle to understand the difference between the personal and the private. Seeing varied approaches to self-representation among Wikipedians along with a range of interactions (from cordial to skeptical, or possibly even combative) helps students consider their online lives more deeply and equip themselves with a greater range of effective approaches to participatory culture generally and Wikipedia culture specifically. This phase closes on a poignant note as we journey to the Deceased Wikipedian pages and meditate on the work these Wikipedians contributed—as well as the way their presence has been recognized, celebrated, and now eulogized by this unique online community.

The third stage of this cultural journey comes when students’ work begins to appear in Wikipedia. Now they are building this culture themselves, from the inside. As they move from their sandboxes to the main article space, students experience the culture of Wikipedia firsthand as their fellow editors welcome, assess, revise, and challenge their contributions. Now those templated descriptions of projects that include the article, ratings of the article and its importance, notices of citations needed, and other flags begin to feel newly urgent because of the students’ personal investment in their work. At this point, the teacher can help students better understand the need for thorough engagement with other Wikipedians, especially in their interaction on talk and user pages and their explanations of edits. As with the earlier stages, but perhaps even more so at this point, students will benefit from discussing their experience with their classmates, and sharing those experiences online in the form of blog posts or other social media. (I will share examples from my students as part of my presentation.) Most importantly, students begin to learn what a culture of peer review and collaborative editing at its best can offer as an exercise of individual agency within the context of shared experience and shared ideals. Ideally, at this stage students can see how the culture of Wikipedia shares many ideals and struggles with academic culture as well as the culture of democratic participation in civic life. In both cases, distributed expertise and layers of responsibility and accountability usefully co-exist with accessible, authentic opportunities for intellectual and personal development. Although my presentation will emphasize what Wikipedia stands for and its accomplishments, it will not neglecting Wikipedia’s real and ongoing struggle to be reliable, to be welcoming, to be inclusive, and to broaden and deepen its coverage of underrepresented voices and topics. These struggles are also part of the culture of Wikipedia. These struggles signify the work that is yet to be done—and the opportunities for students to quickly become essential contributors themselves. Student blog posts to be shared and discussed: "Heavy Metal Umlaut Band Screencast":

Presentation slides (CC-BY-SA):