charms of Wikipedia,” by Nicholson Baker. Five years later, the article remains relevant, useful, and fun. Excerpts:
What Is Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It’s fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it’s free, and it’s fast. In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, “Diogenes of Sinope,” or “turnip,” or “Crazy Eddie,” or “Bagoas,” or “quadratic formula,” or “Bristol Beaufighter,” or “squeegee,” or “Sanford B. Dole,” and you’ll have knowledge you didn’t have before. It’s like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.
More people use Wikipedia than Amazon or eBay—in fact it’s up there in the top-ten Alexa rankings with those moneyed funhouses MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. Why? Because it has 2.2 million articles, and because it’s very often the first hit in a Google search, and because it just feels good to find something there—even, or especially, when the article you find is maybe a little clumsily written. Any inelegance, or typo, or relic of vandalism reminds you that this gigantic encyclopedia isn’t a commercial product. There are no banners for E*Trade or Classmates.com, no side sprinklings of AdSense.
Making Edits That Endure
When, last year, some computer scientists at the University of Minnesota studied millions of Wikipedia edits, they found that most of the good ones—those whose words persisted intact through many later viewings—were made by a tiny percentage of contributors. . . . Relatively few users know how to frame their contribution in a form that lasts.
So how do you become one of Wikipedia’s upper crust—one of the several thousand whose words will live on for a little while, before later verbal fumarolings erode what you wrote? It’s not easy. You have to have a cool head, so that you don’t get drawn into soul-destroying disputes, and you need some practical writing ability, and a quick eye, and a knack for synthesis. And you need lots of free time—time to master the odd conventions and the unfamiliar vocabulary (words like “smerge,” “POV warrior,” “forum shopping,” “hatnote,” “meat puppet,” “fancruft,” and “transclusion”), and time to read through guidelines and policy pages and essays and the endless records of old skirmishes—and time to have been gently but firmly, or perhaps rather sharply, reminded by other editors how you should behave. There’s a long apprenticeship of trial and error.
Nowadays there are rules and policy banners at every turn—there are strongly urged warnings and required tasks and normal procedures and notability guidelines and complex criteria for various decisions.