This week, I was interviewed along with several other WikiProject Oregon members for the Wikipedia Signpost, a newsletter for the Wikipedia editing community. Reporter Cryptic C62 asked some thoughtful questions, and gave us a great opportunity to talk about our work and why we think it’s important. We were asked about our outreach efforts outside Wikipedia, our collaboration in person and on this blog, and about possible policy changes like flagged revisions and tightening the reins on anonymous editing.

Read on for the full interview. (Please note, unlike most content on this blog, this interview is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.)

Interview from the Wikipedia Signpost

Here at the WikiProject Report, we generally conduct interviews with one interviewer and one interviewee. In this week’s issue, we bring to a special group discussion with five active members of WikiProject Oregon. For those readers who live outside the United States, Oregon is a US state in the Pacific Northwest region. Although the state has a population density of only 35.6 people per square mile, the project has more than 50 active members and 15 featured articles. Here to discuss the project are PeteforsythAboutmoviesEncMstrSteven Walling, and Esprqii.

1. While many projects have weekly or monthly collaborations on singular articles, most of WikiProject Oregon’s collaborations feature two or more articles. This process has generated at least 29 DYKs and 4 GAs. Why do you use a double collaboration system, and why does it work so well?

EncMstr: I’m not sure how two was chosen, but it works very well. Usually they are complementary—for example a biography and a piece of legislation—so if one article or task is somehow unappealing then the other is likely to be more interesting. (See here for previous collaborations of the week (COTW).) If the number of active members continues to increase, perhaps the right number would be three at once. I doubt the COTW is responsible for the majority of DYKs and GAs—it’s more often something that comes up on the project talk page that strikes a chord with several people. The best examples of this are Johnson Creek (Willamette River) and Cannabis in Oregon.
Esprqii: I think taking a rational approach to the collaborations has been a key part of it. For example, before the weekly collaborations started, we spent a long time rating every single article in the project both in terms of importance and in terms of quality. That left a matrix that showed, for example, which articles were of top importance but were still only stubs. Those were the first articles we collaborated on, and today, if you look at the matrix, there are no articles in that category.
In addition to the rational process, we maintain a wish list of future projects, which inevitably include pet projects of various members of the project. You can’t very well ignore it when your pet has the spotlight! Aboutmovies, who manages the whole collaboration process, has been very crafty about mixing up the rational and the irrational to make it fun, get a lot of people involved, and get a lot of good work done.
Aboutmovies: I chose two to begin with, as EncMstr indicates, to allow for maximum participation. Not everyone will be interested in a certain topic, unless you are really broad in choosing the topic. But the broader the topic, usually the less participation (or at least you have difficulty tracking the participation). Choosing two doubles your chances of enticing participation. Then when choosing each time, I also try to make them diverse to further spread the net. I also try to make them geographically disperse where possible, and also try to rotate between areas within the state and general topics, such as transportation or culture or education, etc. so that on a long-term basis (theoretically) more people will stay involved in the collaboration and hopefully the project as well.
As to working well and the GAs/DYKs, I do think the COTW does help. In legal terms I think the COTW is the proximate cause, but not necessarily the but for cause. In that the articles that were created during a COTW would likely eventually be created by the same editor, just not at that time. With those that came via an expansion, I do think those articles likely would not have become DYKs at all except for the COTW process. With the GAs, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Register-Guard I don’t see making GA but for the COTW. It had about 30 edits over 3 years until the COTW, and then about 26 during the COTW which led to the GA nom and status. Others, like the Portland Trail Blazers, I think would eventually make it to GA without the COTW, though the COTW likely spurs this along. Johnson Creek and the Cannabis articles that EncMstr mention were not COTWs to my knowledge, they were collaborations within the project outside of the COTW process. Both are great examples of the collaborative spirit within the project in general, and here I would agree with EncMstr that the GA status (FA for Johnson) has to do with the topic being of interest to those who got involved based on the project’s main talk page. Which not surprisingly, cannabis was a big “hit” in Oregon. Thank you, thank you very much, I’ll be in Vegas all week at the Mirage.

2. There are those Wikipedians who believe that putting a massive amount of effort into a single article is a waste of time considering how many undeveloped, unreferenced, and nonexistent articles we have. The Oregon COTW occasionally features more widespread cleanups, such as Featured Article updates, article creation drives, and disambiguation patrols. Are these broad collaborations designed to cater to those Wikipedians, or was there some other inspiration to break away from the norm?

Pete Forsyth: We do these sorts of broad projects, as well as updates to specific articles, both within and outside the context of COTW. I don’t think any of us would buy into the notion that any improvement to the encyclopedia is a waste of time; we all come with our personal aspirations for expanded content, but also with a desire to make sure we’re generally moving toward comprehensive coverage of what’s important about Oregon. We have some great examples of massive improvement to specific areas: Mtsmallwood has done some really neat articles about the importance of steamships to the state’s economic and cultural development, Finetooth has produced several FAs about Oregon rivers and streams, and Emk4ever added some excellent coverage of older political figures related to his university studies. Meanwhile, Tedder has taken it upon himself to bring all high school articles up to a basic level of quality, and the work we’ve done on the state legislature has earned our work the praise “easily the state legislature best covered here on Wikipedia.”
Also, we keep our eyes open for “diamonds in the rough” from inexperienced Wikipedia editors. When new people make contributions, they’re often unfamiliar with our vast collection of policies, the Manual of Style, and the culture of the community. We do our best to make everyone feel welcome, and help them make their best possible contribution. And on the (hopefully rare) occasions where we come up short, we are not shy about stepping in and telling each other to cool off or take a breather. That’s one of the most gratifying things to me, personally — developing respectful and productive working relationships, and helping one another become both better editors and better community members and leaders.
Overall, I’d say we take an organic and inclusive approach to content development, rather than trying to make and execute a specific plan for comprehensive coverage. We try to support one another in developing the content we’re passionate about, and each of us, in our own way, also tries to make sure we’re branching out into new areas some of the time. There are certainly wide topic areas that are not yet covered well, but in general, I think we’re making solid progress in the right direction.
Aboutmovies: For a lot of them (I’m speaking about the COTW only), it is simply variety again. Wider net=more fish, in theory. With some others, I’m actually trying to educate/expose some of the newer editors to items they may not have encountered or known about. I know when I first started I had no idea about the “what links here” feature, nor what it was useful for, so the dab patrol COTW was more about exposing the newer users to this feature. It also furthered a useful purpose of helping readers find the correct article, while it was also something anyone could easily do and do with minimal time input. Similar with the twice-yearly photo drives. Helps increase image coverage, but also let people know about the reqphoto feature and the associated categories.
EncMstr: I have encountered Wikipedians who think creating stub articles is a waste of time (“useless” stubs for years), as well as those who think there are significantly diminished returns polishing a GA to an FA. Clearly both types of editing have value, and most editors agree that developing an article up to class B is near the sweet spot of effectiveness. But, thank goodness we’re not all the same: an army of automatons cranking out rote sentences to fulfill our destiny of “completing” Wikipedia! There are no two similar personalities among WikiProject Oregon. It stands to reason that the COTW must vary in subject, scope, frequency, skills, topic, etc. or we’d be bored, and probably abandon the project and vanish.

3. With monthly meetups, an active blog, and correspondence with other Oregon-related organizations, WikiProject Oregon is unusual in the amount of activity it has off-wiki. How did this off-wiki activity come about? Do you think this multi-faceted project model would benefit other WikiProjects as well?

Pete Forsyth: Without question, these efforts have been very beneficial. We’ve reached out to local organizations that have nothing to do with wikis, and also immersed ourselves in the broader wiki culture. These efforts have helped us locally, for instance working with the Oregon Encyclopedia to establish synergy in our work; and they have helped us establish better conditions for Wikipedia editing, like winning an important decision at the state legislature to ensures state law is not entangled in unnecessary copyright protections.
Some efforts have evolved on their own, others have been more carefully planned out. Our group blog, which we’ve used to support most of our outreach efforts, was an idea Steven Walling and I cooked up as we were driving back from RecentChangesCamp, a wiki conference we attended in 2008. Ourmonthly WikiWednesday meetups evolved through our individual connections with other wiki-based communities and local luminaries like Ward Cunningham, the guy who invented wikis to begin with.
I look at it like this: in order to serve an audience, it’s essential to be engaged with that audience, explain your work to them, and seek their feedback. And in order to continually do better work, it’s important to interact with and learn from others who are doing similar kinds of work. With both kinds of outreach, occasionally you inspire somebody enough that they want to contribute to the project themselves — which is the best payoff of all.
EncMstr: Pete is modestly sidestepping credit for his inspirational role in organizing the blog and advertising the monthly meeting. However, I doubt such a multi-faceted model can easily benefit other WikiProjects—even if Pete worked for them: Our extra-wiki enthusiasm is a manifestation of Oregon attitudes, and that’s a lot harder to replicate than simply throwing wiki parties or whatever. My desire to affect the world for the better is reinforced significantly by the huge readership our articles enjoy. WP:ORE had 6,121 articles in the project in June 2008. In May 2008, those articles were viewed a total of 7,843,643 times. (The summary is at Wikipedia:WikiProject Oregon/Readership/All—the most read were D. B. CooperRiver Phoenix, and Nike, Inc.) Though not in the top 50, Mount Hood attracts 500 to 700 readers per day.
Aboutmovies: I have not been involved with off-Wiki meetings and projects, other than meeting Pete and Katr in person at events where I was able to get some pictures. That said, I have contemplated figuring out a way to reach out to local historical societies. The local county/city level ones are usually small, but very knowledgeable about their local histories. What’s more, and I hate to stereotype, but the most are mainly volunteer organizations and the volunteers are usually retired folks. These people (again to generalize) often have free time on their hands/like to tell stories/have access to many sources and in these respects are perfect recruits for WikiProjects that involve history/biographies and the like. But, I have two obstacles to overcome from Wikipedia standpoint (there is also the personal problem of time).
First, since we are all volunteers, I find it difficult to represent Wikipedia. I know if someone came up to me at said “I edit for Wikipedia, want to help us and give us lots of free pictures?” I know my first reaction would be something regarding do you work for them? Then if I find out they are just volunteers with no authority to act on behalf of Wikipedia/The Foundation, I’m going to be a little hesitant to work with them. Sort of like when I get emails about some dead person in Nigeria who happened to have the same name as me and now their lawyer needs help getting their funds out of some other foreign country, and I get a cut! One solution I’ve thought about is that possibly the Foundation in some way could create unpaid volunteer coordinator positions around the country for these types of recruitments. The Foundation could provide an email account and/or business cards for these people to go out and recruit groups (historical societies/think tanks/professional societies) with a more professional/official looking process. Maybe even higher at The Foundation (if one does not already exist) a coordinator that would work with these recruiters, including mailing out more official correspondence using letterhead (for legal reasons I would hesitate on giving unpaid people letterhead as this can be used to for making binding contracts). Then once groups are recruited, WikiProjects could jump in and work with the groups, allowing the recruiter to move on to new conquests. Just an idea.
Secondly, the abilities/qualifications of these people may not be what we are looking for. The problem with most amateur historians is they are not usually trained in historiography. There is enough mis-information out there in history that we don’t need more. Its bad enough when you come across the old professional stuff that is littered with errors, propaganda, boosterism, and myths repeated as facts. We don’t need more of that. Now, some of these people are retired academics or used to work in fields related to history and have adequate training, but my interactions with some groups didn’t give me that feeling. Additionally, many older folks (my parents included) are not as savvy with computers and the internet. I consider myself a pretty good computer person, but it took awhile to get used to how Wikipedia worked just from a user interface/technical standpoint.
Some obstacles to overcome, but potential for a good return on investment. Though I guess this is a bit tangential to the question.
Steven Walling: Much of this energy for real-world activities has sprung out of our attendance at other wiki and technology-related events, such asRecentChangesCamp, which helped bring us together to create the blog. Personally, I think public outreach is one of the most important things we do. Getting out in our communities, both locally and online, shows the human face of Wikipedia and makes us seem less monolithic. The more people understand about just how Wikipedia works, the more who are willing to engage with us and help build the encyclopedia, rather than just be passive consumers. But the simple fact is that majority of our readers will never edit, and that’s okay. If we can invite a few more volunteers and educate a large audience along the way, then that’s a success in my eyes.

4. Pete said that “in order to serve an audience, it’s essential to be engaged with that audience”. The ability of a project to engage its audience is somewhat diminished when its audience is not as geographically confined as yours. In terms of incorporating external social media into the project structure, what have you learned that can apply to any WikiProject?

Pete Forsyth: In my time as an editor, I’ve come to believe that we do our best work when we view Wikipedia as one thread in the rich fabric of our society. I think there’s a tendency — and I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone — to sometimes think of our work here as being separate from the rest of the world. But at the core, we base our work in writing an encyclopedia in high quality secondary sources; and engagement with the world that produces that source material is vital to producing the best and most useful content.
Certainly, there are opportunities with a geographically-based topic in that it’s easier to meet with people in person. But that’s just one small aspect of what we do. Engaging with non-Wikipedians with similar interests can be done online, by telephone, etc. And there may be excellent opportunities for in-person engagement, too, if you’re creative about it. If you’re part of a WikiProject on computer programming, you might find opportunities to let your local tech community know that they have a Wikipedian in their midst; or you might find that 2 or 3 other programmer Wikipedians in your area want to get together once in a while to discuss your collective work.
I don’t think there’s any one winning formula for how to best engage with other Wikipedians or with your community. But if you try to find ways, I’m sure you will succeed, and it will inform the work you do on Wikipedia.
Steven Walling: Being organized around a single state doesn’t mean we’re all always have it easy coordinating real-world events. Many of the most dedicated members of the project are distributed throughout the state, and have a hard time traveling to Portland for our events. But we still use distributed organization, just like Wikipedia as a whole. Currently, distributed networking tools our most valuable assets as a group. Since that’s the case, I don’t think it’s outlandish to say that say, the military history project could do more off-site organizing. You just need to go where your community is, either virtually or in physical space.
Esprqii: I would just echo that despite the fact we are all in one state–it’s a big state. Yes, many of us are in the Portland area, and have the benefit of access to Portland’s rich wiki community (hey, what other WikiWednesday group can boast the frequent appearance of wiki inventor Ward Cunningham?). But some of our most prolific contributors are fully engaged in the project without being physically present. Actually, I’d say the biggest social media piece we use is the project talk page. It’s a rare day that goes by without some member of the project pointing out an article that needs attention, the discovery of a new resource, or simply the reemergence of a pesky vandal. It seems pretty basic, but the life of a wikiproject really begins to thrive on those talk pages. Until you can get everyone talking there, not much else is going to happen.

5. Finally, to what extent do you think flagged revisions would benefit WikiProject Oregon?

Steven Walling: I do not think WikiProject Oregon is really the target of flagged revisions, in terms of where the need is most dire. The most direct benefit of all our organizing both here and offline is that we have good cohesion as a group, and do very well handling any situations that might arise. In other words, we don’t really need a sweeping technical solution, since we’ve solved most of our problems to date with social innovation. I think most people see flagged revisions as something to solve site-wide problems with biographies of living people and such, and not as something aimed to benefit finite WikiProjects such as our own.
Pete Forsyth: I agree with Steven. The topic of flagged revision saddens me a bit, because I feel that Wikipedians on the whole (and particularly in Oregon) are continually getting better at handling undesirable edits, and the hopeful armchair anthropologist in me wants to see where that goes. I believe that in Oregon, we do a very good (though not perfect) job of monitoring content, and taking care of issues in humane, non-dramatic fashion. This keeps issues away from the noticeboards, and minimizes their demand on administrators and Foundation staff. I hope we continue to grow in our ability to handle conflict in a non-bureaucratic, non-technical manner, so it saddens me that we must consider technical solutions like flagged revisions.
None of that should be taken to mean that I oppose considering technical changes like flagged revisions. While we’re conducting our little encyclopedia experiment, real people and situations are impacted by our edits and by our policies; people’s biographies are vandalized, and worse. So doing nothing is not an acceptable option.
There are two approaches I’d favor over flagged revisions:
  1. My friend Danny Wool of Wikia has done research and built a strong case that wiki communities generally benefit from disabling anonymous editing. The significant point, I believe, is that requiring account creation makes it much easier to interact with, welcome, and guide new contributors.
  2. I believe we need to do a better job encouraging (but of course not requiring) new editors to use their real names, and to describe their goals and possible conflicts of interest on their user pages. I believe this recent edit, which removed the text “You should strongly consider choosing a username that is not connected to you” from the initial signup screen, will have a strong positive impact on the quality of new contributors’ experience with Wikipedia.
A basic tenet of the Wikipedia philosophy is that on the whole, the desire to do good outweighs the desire to vandalize. Therefore, I generally favor policy changes that promote individual transparency and accountability, rather than technical measures that create different levels of ability to contribute to the project. So, I generally prefer the approaches mentioned above, and would rather not see flagged revisions; but there’s plenty of room for discussion on this important point.
EncMstr: I’ve been an administrator for about a year and a half, but soon after acquiring the mop, I desperately felt that registration should be required to edit as it seemed that such a great proportion of vandalism came from IP editors. I’ve since come to realize that—on balance—helpful anonymous editors contribute more much than IP vandals, particular since about 95% of vandalism is removed with a click or two. Within the scope of WikiProject Oregon, vandals have much less of a chance. Besides each active member having an (apparently) extensive watchlist, we have a group watchlist which shows all changes to pages in our scope. Vandalism is quickly reversed and persistent vandals are quickly recognized and blocked. Flagged revisions are much better suited for lightly watched pages.

Thanks for a very enjoyable interview!