It’s always interesting to talk to people who don’t really know anything about Wikipedia and mention that I am a frequent contributor to Wikipedia. People tend to give me a look that they usually reserve for Masons or members of the Trilateral Commission, and then they ask/comment: “Isn’t that always inaccurate?” That one I can pretty much shoot down thanks to other posters on this blog, but the next one is a bit tougher: “Why do you edit Wikipedia?”
I usually stammer off something about how I like delving into history and information, but I decided to really think about it: how did I start editing Wikipedia? To find out, I had to dig deep into my edit history. This is a bit like digging into my junior high journal (no, I didn’t really have one, and besides, I burned it), but here goes.
I actually remember my first edit pretty well. (You never forget your first time…) One of my neighbors at the time was future NBA player Kevin Love. In the summer of 2006, he was still in high school and had just announced he would be playing college basketball at UCLA. One afternoon, I checked out his Wikipedia article and immediately spotted an irritating (to me) grammatical error.
I probably checked the page several times waiting for someone to fix it before it dawned on me that I was supposed to fix it myself. So, at 3:38 on August 7, 2006, I signed up for a Wikipedia account; and then after what I remember as being 10 minutes of excruciating worry that I was surely doing it all wrong, made my first edit.
I expected someone to object, but no one seemed to mind. And it only took me another six weeks to be brave enough make another edit, this time to aging NFL star Morten Andersen. (I had seen his first NFL game back in 1982 and now he was the oldest player in the NFL, so I felt some kinship to him.) Since he was on the verge of breaking the NFL scoring record, it led me to edit a variety of other related articles. I think I was hooked at this point.
From sports, it was an easy leap into another passion of mine, politics. With an election coming up, in the fall of 2006, I started looking into Oregon-related politics articles. I was surprised to note that so many Oregon politicians didn’t have Wikipedia entries, so in October, in my next big step of development, I created my first article from scratch, for former Congressman Jim Bunn. He never even sent me a card. Oh well.
After the Bunn article, I started getting more involved with Wikipedia. Why were there so many uncompleted articles about Oregon Congresspeople? (or as we call ’em in the WP:ORE community, ODGs: “Old Dead Guys/Gals”) And this is really where it clicked for me: this was a contribution I could make. On the day before election day 2006, I joined WikiProject Oregon and began systematically running down the missing ODGs. I also took a fancy to creating articles for members of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame (and sometimes both at the same time).
Along the way, I read stories of incredible perserverance and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, uncovered strange sex scandals, learned about mysterious drownings and defenestrations, and basically was amazed to discover that I had never heard about this stuff before, and moreover, it seemed that no one else had either.
So…why do I edit Wikipedia? To me, it’s not the epic articles about Barack Obama or the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens; those are great, but there is so much easily accessible information elsewhere about those topicsthat Wikipedia will only ever scratch the surface.
Wikipedia is exciting because it can go deeper than that. Former Oregon governor Tom McCall would never rate an article in Encyclopedia Britannica, and is unlikely to even get a mention in any study of environmental cleanup, but his impact is clear. Wikipedia can fill this gap. The strange case of the Oregon Congressional election between Andrew Thayer and George Shiel is unknown to virtually everyone, but is a fascinating story of political intrigue.
As newspapers disappear and more and more of our information becomes online and ephemeral, it will become lost; and moreover, easily changed and “corrected.” Pete Forsyth told me the story of an online article that was challenged and then corrected without comment; how much more of our news will be lost in this way? The correction is part of the story!
With the ability to explore article history, unlike your junior high journal, information cannot be lost. Wikipedia can be a place to store information that should not be lost to the world. I hope more people take up the challenge.