Wikipedia… or, Handing Over “My” Work to the Wisdom of the Crowd

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There are two weeks left of the semester. I took four classes this spring, so the end means lots of proposals and papers and group projects. One of my projects, as I wrote about previously, was to write an entry for Wikipedia. I chose to do “Distributed Leadership” because it didn’t exist yet and it’s a body of research that I wanted to get more familiar with for the work that I hope to do for my PhD. I moved it to main space last Friday. Here is a link:

The technical parts of Wikipedia were not daunting: click here, talk pages here, write drafts in the sandbox, click there, upload pictures to wikimedia commons first, make sure not to violate copyright, keep notes on changes. Easy enough.

The objective of the assignment was straightforward: Read all the research and summarize from a neutral point of view. This is quite different from past assignments, where you are meant to make a statement, be critical in reviewing prior research, and present a well supported argument why your statement makes more sense.

I learned a lot (and am still learning) through this process, so here are Wikipedia’s 10 Simple Rules and my reflections on writing my article:

1. Register an account.

  • Yes, done, easy.

2. Learn the five pillars (it’s an encyclopedia, neutral point of view, free content, treat others with respect and civility, no firm rules)

  • Yes, fine, not writing anything super controversial.

3. Be bold, but not reckless

  • I’ll admit I got a little reckless when I posted the alligator video on the American Crocodile page (I was just so excited!), but I rectified it quickly. (See it here under “Ecology and Behavior” – it’s a video I took while visiting the Everglades with my family in January)
  • I have been bold in going to other pages and linking my Distributed Leadership article. I have even added a few sentences to the Socially Distributed Cognition page linking to the page distributed leadership and mentioning distributed instruction.

4. Know your audience

  • This was hard! I had to translate the eduspeak to everyday words and came up empty. When it finally got there, it was simple, accessible, and somehow clearer. “Distributed Leadership is a conceptual and analytical approach to understanding the interactions that take place in leading and managing an organization.” (This includes some edits by a fellow wikipedian.)
  • We did an activity in class that was helpful for trying to write the first sentence, which is really the hardest out of the whole thing. (Now that I say this, you’ll notice it in all the articles.) This goes back to Aristotle, who did a lot of classification. Basically you want to give the genus (family) of the thing + how it’s different. So if you were doing an entry for Oreos, it would be helpful to say that it was a type of cookie but with creme filling. This gives the genus (cookie) and difference (creme filling).

5. Do not infringe copyright

  • Um, but how do I add the important diagrams from the research that are (in my humble opinion) essential for understanding? So I redrew the diagrams and cited them. I checked that other pages did this, so it seems okay, but I’m still not quite sure…

6. Cite, cite, cite (part of the no original thought or research)

  • Except not in the first few sentences.
  • No opinions allowed. As someone training to have an opinion about research, this one was tough, but once I realized that I was meant to summarize and adequately represent what I was reading, it was actually a little easier.

7. Avoid shameless self-promotion

  • I didn’t do this through wikipedia but I did share it with my family, friends, and professional network through Facebook, Twitter, and here. I like a little recognition for doing cool stuff!
  • What’s funny, though, is that it is no longer “my page.” Last night I was upset about this. How dare people go through and delete sentences I had carefully crafted! This morning, however, I reread the first sentence, no longer “my” first sentence, where a fellow wikipedia had changed some of the wording. As it turns out, it is better than I wrote. In fact, the idea of having other people add and improve my work in a way that is not cheating is kind of liberating and awesome. So I give up my ownership for help and ultimately better work. I’m still proud I contributed, and I’ll always recognize the sentences that are my writing, but I hand it over to the wisdom of the crowd.

8. Share your expertise, but don’t argue from authority

  • No conflicts yet. I did send someone a thank you though. Not sure what that looks like on the other end, but I figured it couldn’t do any harm.

9. Write neutrally and with due weight

  • Writing this article helped me understand the bifurcated body of research on distributed leadership. I think I probably over represented the analytical framework side and wrote much less of the practical or normative side. This definitely taught me about the easy way that written information can be biased, whether it is on wikipedia or in the book that I read. Selecting what to read, what to write, or how to represent it, intentionally or unintentionally, is a part of every level of the process.

10. Ask for help

  • Doing this through a class was helpful for getting started and gave me the first steps for starting. I hope I’ll get more feedback on my article as people read it (will they read it?) so I can continue to improve it.

So, my article is published, and I await feedback from my professor, TA, and colleagues in the class. Maybe a few more edits, but hopefully this project is can be checked off the semester list and I can stop obsessively checking the page history.

P.S. If you haven’t read James Suroweicki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, you should.

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