The Mysterious World of Wikipedia

From almost its first published article, Wikipedia has been derided as an unreliable, almost laughable source of information. And why not? When the whole world is the editor, how can you have confidence in the veracity of its content?

Personally, as a writer and researcher, I’ve always found Wikipedia to be a valuable, user-friendly source. The key to using it effectively, though, is not to take what’s written in the article text at face value. Every significant fact in a Wikipedia article should be (but often isn’t) supported by a citation or reference of some kind. Without this safeguard in place, “fact” can very quickly become opinion (or worse, falsehood).

For me, Wikipedia is less a source and more a portal to references that often shed significantly more light on the subject. To use Wikipedia correctly as an information source, you need to take this extra step.

For firms with a Wikipedia page, there is some benefit in that these pages tend to appear high in search listings. But the roster of architecture and engineering firms with a Wikipedia page, compared with those lacking one, is as arbitrary as it is confusing. Fairness and logic, at least as it currently stands, are absent from the process.

My life as a Wikipedia editor

I have long been intrigued by the idea of editing content on Wikipedia. Actively participating, with the ability to fix mistakes and add depth to online articles, is an appealing opportunity. So, partly driven by the notable absence of an article on a company that I thought deserved one, I joined Wikipedia as an editor in the summer of 2016.

The subject engineering firm is entitled to a Wikipedia page as much or more than dozens of others I’ve found in the online encyclopedia. It is a mid-sized, independent firm that has been in business for over a century and has worked on many of the most notable and recognizable buildings in the world. Like a lot of engineering firms, they’ve never been big on self-promotion, so they’re far from a household name outside of their niche markets.

Soon I hurtled into the world of Wikipedia like I never expected. I’ve learned a lot, some of which I share here.

Publishing standards are far more stringent than they used to be. In crafting my first article, I relied as a guide on other articles published about similar firms. This was a mistake because the standards for publication have risen substantially in recent years. The other pages I consulted list awards, key individuals and milestones, so I did as well. Many sites also included clearly promotional content such as logos, flowery marketing language and detailed stories of professional success, which I did not. (I wonder how one would even get a company’s logo if it weren’t provided with permission directly by the company itself, which I assume is taboo. This kind of hypocrisy is rampant on the site.) If you find an article in Wikipedia that clearly promotes the company in the same way its website does – often using exactly the same cut-and-paste language – check its history page. You’re almost sure to find that it was originally published five or more years ago.

Wiki administrators guard fiercely against conflicts of interest and the default is apparently NOT to give the benefit of the doubt. My level of caution in trying to avoid marketing-like content wasn’t nearly enough. I wrote my article in a draft site and, after several weeks of occasional writing, researching, editing and referencing, felt it was ready to go live. I published it by following the online wizard and felt pretty good about it. It didn’t last three hours. One administrator made a few changes and kicked it back to draft status. This was fine because, as I know now, it really wasn’t ready for prime time. Several administrators also leaped to the conclusion that I had a conflict of interest and had somehow misled them about my intentions. This even though I clearly reported my interest in and involvement with the industry. Otherwise, how could I write with any confidence or authority about the subject? This is the most maddening part of my experience.

Less is often more. Strangely, my biggest mistake was being too thorough. I ended up with 70 references, two long tables (for projects and awards) and lengthy descriptions about the company’s achievements. I did this because I had seen it elsewhere, and also because I thought it would add credibility to the page. I had dozens of references to other Wikipedia pages, along with the independently sourced citations that supported my facts. Yet, to some editors, this “excess detail” was a red flag that they interpreted as being promotional. What I intended as verification, they saw as advertising.

They call them “articles,” but “entries” would be more accurate. At least as defined today. Wikipedia has many advisory pages that try to guide new editors through the process. However, much of it is confusing and until you leap in, you’re likely to trip up. One thing that stuck with me, though, is the admonition that Wikipedia is not journalism, but an encyclopedia. So, instead of “article,” they should say “encyclopedia entry.” It’s a subtle difference because neither should include the author’s or editors’ opinions. The distinction, as I see it, is that a journalistic article can connect the dots to reach a conclusion or summation, while an encyclopedia entry is just the facts.

Becoming an editor and doing light editing is simple; publishing a new page is not. If you can edit in Microsoft Word, you can be a Wikipedia editor. Operate in the source code or choose a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) function. But the options for publishing a new page are multiple and, at least initially, confusing. While I don’t think anyone has ever reviewed an edit I’ve made on an existing page, the first full article I tried to publish was stomped on by multiple admins within a few hours.

On some levels, Wikipedia has developed into a subculture with its own language and protocols. Wikipedia administrators communicate using myriad codes, acronyms, abbreviations and other jargon and tools. I constantly find myself having to look up a reference that I don’t recognize or understand. I often travel two or three reference pages in and still don’t understand some aspect of what’s being said. I assume this special language was developed to simplify things for editors and admins, but instead it effectively excludes the uninitiated in the same way that lawyers and politicians do with their insider talk. With this obstacle in place, it becomes impossible for newcomers to fully grasp the long-established, often shadowy set of policies and procedures that have developed over time in the Wikipedia community.

Contributing to Wikipedia has its rewards and excitement, but may not be worth it. Ultimately, Wikipedia is a fascinating, impressive and valuable resource for all of us. For years, I’ve seen – and wished I could correct – errors and out-of-date references on Wikipedia pages. Now I am perpetually logged in, so anytime I see something that should be changed, I can and do change it. For this reason, I’m glad I chose to sign up. However, it seems that the effort to prevent against conflicts of interest and blatant promotion – real or perceived – has pushed beyond the point of reasonableness to where it could easily become a detriment to the recruitment of new authors, editors and administrators. Wikipedia’s mission is to create a community project, but some currently in positions of power seem determined to limit the size of that community. Personally, where I was once excited to contribute as much and in as many ways as I can, I’m now frustrated with the process and wary of wasting more of my own time than I already have.

So how do you publish a Wikipedia page? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. It takes only a brief review of what is and isn’t covered by Wikipedia to see that there is no clear standard of what is worthy of publication. It is as much (or more) about when you published as it is what you publish – and, in some cases, who is doing the publishing. It is a supremely subjective process with elements of luck, timing and knowledge of the process as the primary determinants. A company may deserve an article as much or more than a peer that already has one, but this is no guarantee that it will pass muster with the Wikipedia watchdogs – especially if they sense even the remotest possibility of self-interest.

If you still want to place your article among the 5-plus million already available on English Wikipedia, here are some options:

Request a new page: Wikipedia offers the opportunity to include your proposed topic in a list of articles requesting to be written. The theory is that someone looking to contribute will pick up the idea and run with it. The truth is, there are thousands of articles on this list and absolutely no guarantee (and possibly little likelihood) that someone will randomly choose to fulfill your request. It seems that some of these pages have wallowed in the request pile for years. If you choose, you can access it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requested_articles

Hire a freelancer to write it: You can find websites advertising freelancers who can write and publish a Wikipedia page for you. Rates vary widely – a quick look found a range from $25-$100 per hour. Based on my experience, I can only surmise that these people either have a way of surreptitiously disguising the fact that they’re being paid to contribute to Wikipedia, or they somehow know how to fly under the radar. I hate to think it’s anything more insidious than that.

Become an editor and figure it out for yourself. Based on my experience, I imagine this takes a lot of time and practice. The experience of trying to publish a page left me with more questions than answers. Maybe you’ll do better. The one thing I know for sure is that there is a lot more that I don’t know.

I’m not sure my first article will ever see the light of day and, if it doesn’t, that will be a shame. A deserving firm won’t have a Wikipedia page and I will have wasted a lot of time I really don’t have to waste. That said, this firm has operated successfully and independently for more than a century without a Wikipedia page. They probably couldn’t care less whether they have or don’t have one. And I’ve lived all but six months of my life without being a Wikipedia editor, so I suppose I could survive without it as well.

P.S. – I did publish a second article, shorter, but similarly structured and written. It is about a former employer who was acquired and is no longer a separate going concern. An admin made some minor edits, but otherwise, no problem at all. Go figure.

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