William Beutler on Wikipedia

All I Really Needed to Know I Learned Editing Wikipedia

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on July 12, 2016 at 3:33 pm by William Beutler


Ten years ago today, I created a Wikipedia account for the very first time, and made a few small edits that I probably would not make exactly the same way in 2016. For those who know about my Wikipedia participation over the past decade, you may not be surprised to learn that my initial series of edits was made at the request of my boss. As it happens, my very first edit was in fact to a discussion page, explaining my rationale. In retrospect, this instinct served me well later on, in ways I couldn’t have known at the time.

But anyway, I came back the day after, and a few days after that, and started making edits based on my own interests. At the time these included: Michael Mann, The Crow (1994 film), Mike Bellotti, The Postal Service, Truthiness, and Ratfucking. So: action movies, college football, indie rock, and amusing political jargon. I have more interests today than I did when I started editing in my mid-20s—relatively late, compared to some editors I know—but I’m still interested in all of the above, even if some of the specific topics aren’t quite as relevant. I continued making small edits over the next two years, learning more as I went, until finally building up the confidence to create my very first article, about legendary Portland, Oregon retailer and TV pitchman Tom Peterson.

Looking back on these ten years, my contributions are rather modest compared with many, many other editors whom I’ve come to know. But here is a short recounting, both on-wiki and off: I’ve attended four Wikimania conferences and two WikiConference USAs; appeared as a speaker at four combined; made several thousand edits across primary and secondary accounts; created dozens and improved hundreds of articles; launched a business initially predicated on helping companies and organizations with COI compliance; and helped put the world’s largest PR companies on the record about following Wikipedia’s rules. Oh, and I started this blog, now more than seven years old.

To say that Wikipedia has changed me far more than I have changed it would be an understatement. I owe a great deal of this decade to Wikipedia and everyone there, and this put me in mind of what, specifically, I have learned from it. Dare I say, to finally invoke the title of this piece, all I really needed to know I learned editing Wikipedia.

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The following is an entirely non-comprehensive list of life principles as elucidated by the principles of Wikipedia as I’ve come to understand them. I’d love to hear feedback, whether you agree or disagree, and especially if you can think of any others:

  • Let’s first dispense with the obvious: there are many lifetimes worth of knowledge to be found in the 5.2 million entries on the English Wikipedia. In a very literal and obvious sense, of course it contains everything you need to know, especially if you need to know about footballers.
  • More to the point, Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, and the lessons one can learn from interactions with Wikipedia’s editors, are extremely useful if you’re willing to think about them and apply them to your own life. I can think of several… (WP:POLICYLIST)
  • Finding a balance between giving others benefit of the doubt while also being judicious in whom you trust is one of the most challenging tasks facing everyone, and making the right call can have a profound influence on what we believe and how we act upon these beliefs. (WP:AGF, WP:RELIABLE)
  • Building on the last one: be prepared to investigate your own opinions and beliefs. Just because you think something is true, there’s a decent chance you may be wrong, and the best way to handle any challenges is to soberly consider the evidence and determine if your conclusions hold up. (WP:VERIFY)
  • Sometimes the best way to understand what a thing is is to observe what it is not. By process of exclusion, one can arrive at more a objective assessment about the practical nature of a thing by determining first what it isn’t, than by trying to understand it solely for itself. (WP:NOT)
  • Not all principles should be accorded the same weight, and forming a coherent and defensible hierarchy for which values supersede others is necessary to conduct oneself morally. Rules should in general be followed, but well-intentioned rules can lead to bad outcomes if you don’t pay attention to the totality of their implications. (WP:GUIDES, WP:IGNORE)
  • Respect others’ intellectual contributions as you would their physical property. If you got a good idea from someone, give them fair credit. You’d want the same, and if you don’t there’s a very good chance it will catch up with you, especially on the Internet where everything is searchable. (WP:COPYVIO, WP:IUP)
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t violate others’ space, and don’t cause anyone grief to make a point, even if you have one. It’s possible to disagree reasonably and with appropriate emphasis while upholding your dignity and allowing others’ theirs. Just be cool, OK? (WP:CIVIL, WP:PERSONAL, WP:BADGER)
  • If you want to get along with others and coexist in a world where there are many differences of opinion and belief, it’s important to have a good sense of how others came to those conclusions, be able to assess other opinions neutrally, and know not only when to give them their due but also how far is too far in polite society. (WP:NPOV, WP:UNDUE)
  • You can’t make rules for everything, and some degree of flexibility based on your surroundings will be necessary to thrive in surroundings you cannot control. Not every community will have the same standards, so it’s in your best interest to be alert for these differences and conduct oneself accordingly. (WP:CONSENSUS)
  • Finally, no matter how worthy the principles you decide to live by, it’s simply a fact that not everyone you’ll come across will agree to them, or act the same even if they voice agreement with them. When you’re dealing with human beings who have their own objectives, passions, prejudices and prerogatives, a certain comfortability with uncertainty and disagreement is as necessary as any of the rules preceding this one.

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So, does all this mean Wikipedia is perfect? Heck, no! What I mean is that it’s an excellent place not just to soak up the sum of all human knowledge, but also to learn how to conduct oneself in a society riven with conflict and ambiguity, where might sometimes seems to make right and in the end all one can really be certain about having the power to safeguard is one’s own integrity. Maybe that’s a dim view of the world, but when you consider all the bad things that happen every day, you know, getting into (and out of) an edit war on Wikipedia is a relatively safe and surprisingly practical way to learn some key lessons about life. In another ten years’ time, I’m sure I’ll have learned some more.