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Writing Wikipedia for Seattle

A former Wikipedian explains what drove him to update and correct entries on Seattle's city streets — and why he's since found better ways to use his time.
Wikipedia's page about Seattle streets.

Wikipedia's page about Seattle streets. None

Until recently, it was rare to encounter one's own writing cited online. If you had that pleasure, you were probably a professor, the author of a reference work, a professional historian or journalist ... in short, you were paid for your work and did it exclusively, or nearly so. But as anyone with a passing interest in the Internet can tell you, Wikipedia — where I've been a contributor for over five years — has changed everything.

Not counting my work as an Amazon.com editor, the first time I discovered someone had cited my writing was in April, when a commenter on VintageSeattle.org linked to the article I'd started almost exactly four years before on the Lacey V. Murrow Floating Bridge. Soon after, Seattle's street layout came up in the comments to Crosscut deputy editor Lisa Albers's post "The newcomer name game." Not wanting to cite my own article on the subject, I went looking for information at "Seattle 101" on the city's Web site ... and there it was, linked from the bottom of the page, next to probably their best piece of advice: Buy and carry a street map. (Speaking of maps, the debut of my cartography on the greater Web happened in 2006, when the Washington State Democrats used one of my maps to illustrate their slogan "Let's make Eastern Washington blue!")

I've edited articles ranging from Korean romanization and Shibe Park to Finchley Road tube station and — for the life of me I can't remember why — Natural afro-hair, but by far the majority of the 4,000-plus articles I've worked on, and almost all of the articles I've created, have to do with Seattle, Washington state, or the greater Pacific Northwest. But why? It's not as if my training is in local history: If we went by credentialed expertise à la Wikipedia's predecessor, Nupedia (or Britannica or Encarta, for that matter), I'd only have written about linguistics or — more likely — not be a contributor at all. And why Wikipedia in the first place?

A Seattle native — born on Capitol Hill, raised in Washington Park, matriculated at Montlake — I've been an amateur of the city since I was six, when my father bought me a copy of Sophie Frye Bass's Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle at the MOHAI gift shop. My favorite chapters were, and still are, those on the pioneer town's streets, how they got their names, and how they'd changed through the years. One of my most cherished childhood memories is sitting in the front seat of Dad's car (that wouldn't pass legal muster today) with a dogeared city map in my hand, directing him down various avenues and boulevards through neighborhoods we'd normally have no cause to traverse. (I called it "exploring," and recommend it to all parents with a budding roadgeek in the family.) I read whatever I could find on the area, from Spiedel and Morgan to Dorpat and Sale. But there existed no comprehensive reference along the lines of Weinreb and Hibbert's London Encyclopaedia until the debut of Walt Crowley's HistoryLink.org in 1999.

Now, HistoryLink was more than welcome — Britannica and Encarta had no room for Kirkland, let alone South Park or Georgetown — but as the name implies, the site is a historical encyclopedia. (Speaking of Kirkland, its HistoryLink article was written for launch and only covers the city's development through 1988.) Wikipedia certainly wasn't designed to fill this gap, but it does so admirably. As the Boston Globe notes, it's full of would-be historians. It also doesn't suffer from the constraints of space, publication cycles, small staff size, or need to make a profit that hamper its competitors. When I first stumbled across the site in 2003, brought there by a Google search on the word "wiki" (then emerging as the information-sharing medium of choice at Amazon.com), the basics were there, but I found the articles on Washington's counties somewhat lacking. Written, as they were, by a rather ingeniously programmed "bot" drawing upon census information, they were missing basic details such as county seat and etymology.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Wikepedia and my native Seattle-: As another Capitol Hill (Providence Hospital) Seattle native, I really appreciated this. Also as a somewhat guarded online user of Wikepedia (versus Brittanica), what I read of the workings of same made me even more so. Jerry Gropp Architect AIA.

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 5:06 p.m. Inappropriate

place-based wikis can be more than encyclopedic: Thanks for the article. It's a good perspective from a veteran wiki-phile.

As its name suggests, I imagine Wikipedia's goals parallel those of other encyclopedias -- to provide a wide range of information as accurately and objectively as possible. The medium is at once attractive and suspect for its open and anonymous access.

But what if a wiki broadened its scope and narrowed its focus, drawing primarily from a place-based community for its material? Wikis can be more than repositories for articles. They can be springboards for projects, complementing the positive patterns of the physical community.

Columbia City has a neighborhood wiki. It lets neighbors share information and insights that are relevant to here. With a fairly discrete set of users, it can be more of a challenge to build interest and momentum. But it's also familiar -- there's a good chance that any wiki-collaborators will eventually meet in person.

Anyway, from your article you seem a little worn out by the role of wiki-monitoring. In the last year, I've been heartened to realize that wikis can take on a role in community organizing that moves beyond articles and encourages users to turn out and step up in the neighborhood.
Scott

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

greetings from WikiProject Oregon!: Nice article, Benjamin. Hello from WikiProject Oregon -- come drop us a note some time, maybe we can persuade you to jump back in! Not all of us are process-driven bureaucrat types, you know…some corners of the 'pedia are really thriving these days.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

Brings back memories: Having played a small part in making Seattle a "featured article" on Wikipedia, it's good to see this take from someone whose work I remember well. I'd say the city has some of Wikipedia's more in-depth coverage for an urban area, helped in part by resources like HistoryLink. We actually just had a meetup last night, too bad I didn't know about this article beforehand, it would have been interesting to discuss how best to define neighborhoods. Part of the challenge is that wikis can be so free-form and flexible, some people aren't comfortable with it and look to import hard-and-fast rules from elsewhere even if they aren't appropriate. But it's amazing to see how firmly established Wikipedia is in our culture now.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

You just don't get it: I get the feeling that if Lukoff thinks the core Wikipedia policy of verifiability is something new, he must have either stopped editing a long time ago, or he was never really that dedicated to begin with.

People often come to Wikipedia with the attitude that it's here to decide the truth on matters via some collective "wisdom of the crowds", but it's probably one of the most fundamental misconceptions about the project. We don't decide the truth. We report what others - published sources in particular - have to say. As a reader looking for info on the city, I'd rather take a pubished source's word on Seattle than the word of one random resident. Wouldn't you?

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 4:07 p.m. Inappropriate

The trouble with Wikipedia: After one too many run-ins with editors who insisted on using the Seattle City Clerk's Neighborhood Map Atlas – not facts on the ground – as the basic taxonomy for articles on Seattle neighborhoods (I'm sorry, but the president of the UW does not live in the CD), I came to realize there were better things to do with the time I spent online.

This is both a strength and weakness of Wikipedia. On the one hand, editors do make an effort to follow a certain protocol, but in the meanwhile they tend to strip the meat of the content from subjects, leaving a dry, skeleton of an article. It brings to mind the blind men feeling the elephant idiom.

Perhaps this is unavoidable, but it's important to keep these failings in mind when using Wikipedia as a reference. For example, the best source I have ever encountered on Seattle's geography and streets is a mildly autistic dispatcher and former cabbie who can hear a Seattle address and visually describe the exact location and building it marks. His knowledge will probably never make it into Wikipedia, nor will the expertise of Vietnamese fishermen who know when and where, down to the month, day, hour and particular pier, shrimp and squid will appear in Puget Sound.

So I can relate to Ben's frustration with the process, which tends to reject a great deal of specific and valuable (not to mention correct) information in favor of "published" sources, which themselves are often slaves to the same convention, perpetuating a closed, circular representation of "truth."

Unfortunately, the imperious attitude of Wikipedia editors shines through in the comment by Wikipedia mandarin Steven Walling, who defends Wikipedia practices by derogatorily referring to individual sources as "one random resident," then rhetorically asking whether you would trust that individual as much as a published source.

Well, Mr. Walling, would you send a man to prison on the basis of a newspaper article if a witness - or "random resident" in your jargon - told an entirely different story? Sadly, I'm afraid you might.

See what the problem is here?
wfprice

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 4:20 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: The trouble with Wikipedia: Your hyperbolic example doesn't apply. I'm talking about the preference for published sources over individual experience for everyday, encyclopedic information. It's not the same principle when applied to "sending a man to prison" as you say. Divining the truth is what courts are for. Not a general encyclopedia, be it Britannica or Wikipedia.

Since you seem to value rich personal experience so highly, I find it more than ironic that you seem to think that criticism of Lukoff's points from a still-active contributor to Wikipedia like myself is so invalid.

Posted Sun, Jun 22, 11:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Replying to readers' comments: Jerry — You're welcome. Incidentally, your description of Providence (now Swedish/Cherry Hill) as being on Capitol Hill is a good example of how, in Seattle, there's really no such thing as an official neighborhood. Most people think of Providence being either in the Central District, Squire Park, or First Hill, but Capitol Hill isn't unheard of. (For what it's worth, the City Clerk's map calls it Minor.)

Scott — Yes, for the time spent, wiki-monitoring simply isn't as rewarding as article creation. But it does indeed take all types. I am thankful for those who do enjoy reverting the work of silly vandals. Thanks for the link to the Columbia City neighborhood wiki. Broadening scope and narrowing focus is a great idea. I'm an inclusionist and would frankly like to see a lot more (practical) informational content in Wikipedia itself; Encarta was actually a reference suite that included, among other things, an almanac; but it is indeed true that a neighborhood-based wiki is far more likely to foster community than a far-flung project like Wikipedia is. (Even at the occasional gatherings of local Wikipedians, often the only thing participants have in common is Wikipedia itself.)

Pete — Of course you're not all that way, and I like the strong community you seem to have built down in Oregon. (I think I will comment on your blog after I post these thoughts.) Part of it was I simply found myself with less free time as the years went by, and found that to contribute to Wikipedia at the level of engagement I'd have liked to would have eaten up too much of it. But also, I think the rulebound simply squawk louder than the more reasonable types such as yourself. It makes me think of Gresham's law, though that's probably going a bit too far.

Michael — Sorry to have missed the meetup. I find this comment of yours interesting: "Wikis can be so free-form and flexible, some people aren't comfortable with it and look to import hard-and-fast rules from elsewhere even if they aren't appropriate." What draws such people to wikis, then? Don't they know what they're getting into? If wikis' freewheeling nature turns them off so much, why don't they simply set up their own blogs?

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 12:12 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: You just don't get it: Steven — Thanks for your comments, but I was extremely dedicated during my three years of heavy activity (2003-2006), and I'm not sure how you draw the conclusion that I think the verifiability policy is something new. I actually don't know its history, but I assume it's one of the oldest policies still standing. And for good reason. An encyclopedia, to be reliable, must only publish that which can be verified from without. However, another Wikipedia policy is Ignore all rules, which states that "If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it." I should also point out that it's not just "one random resident"... it's a number of very well informed residents. And if the published source is wrong? (I wrote of the errors I found in Encarta, and similar problems have popped up in even the best-pedigreed reference works.) Or, worse — in the case of the City Clerk's map — not even intended for the purpose? (It specifically states that it's only a tool for legislative indexing.)

I think Wikipedia is suffering from a strong case instruction creep (see a summary of Seattle Meetup 4 for more, but only if you're really interested) and I'd be very sad to see it go down the same path as so many other large institutions. As I wrote, I still support the cause; I just don't have as much time to devote to it as I used to.

By the way, speaking of "random residents" and "divining the truth" being the role of the courts, it's specifically the role of juries — twelve random residents.

Wfprice — Of course. No one should ever use Wikipedia as their sole reference for anything they want to put their name to. It's a starting point par excellence. When did librarians stop teaching people not to simply rely on encyclopedias for their book reports?

I'd love to hear what your cab dispatcher and Vietnamese fishermen have to say. They may not make into an encyclopedia, but modern-day technology means they — or you, on their behalf — can at least blog about it.

By no means do I think we should overthrow good published sources as the basis for a well-researched, reliable encyclopedia, but we should always remember that publishers' imprimaturs probably don't mean what they used to (if they ever did), and always take into account the nature of our sources, no matter what they are.

Posted Fri, Jun 27, 3:11 p.m. Inappropriate

writing history as it happens: Here's an related article on the race to update wikipedia after Tim Russert's death.
http://tinyurl.com/6dvdja
sadpants

Posted Fri, Jun 27, 3:34 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: writing history as it happens: Thanks for the the link, sadpants. Looks like an article in the Globe and Mail headlined "I killed Tim Russert (on Wikipedia)." I find his his concluding paragraphs interesting — I guess everyone has their own motivations.

The action is in writing history as it happens.... Wikipedia guarantees its readers a large audience. There's no shortage of ways to publish things online, most of which will start with readerships of precisely zero. The Internet gives everybody the power to be ignored. But editing a Wikipedia page that's at the heart of a breaking news story will affect thousands upon thousands of readers.

The thing is, Wikipedia isn't really about history at all. It's actually a creature of the moment. It might be spotty on historical details, but it's the best answer we have to the question, "Where do things stand right now?" ... It's not so much an encyclopedia as a registry of — and I use this word with some trepidation — reality. It's an ever-changing ledger book of where things stand in our universe. And being the one to register momentous news in the ledger of life is like being God's secretary.

This may or may not have been exactly what Jimmy Wales had in mind when he started Wikipedia those years ago. This probably wasn't what that benighted soul had in mind when he prematurely killed Tim Russert on Wikipedia. But the lure of being the one to update the accounts on reality will have people clamouring to yell "first" for as long as they have the option.

Posted Tue, Mar 31, 1:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Microsoft has killed Encarta: http://bit.ly/ripencarta

Many are calling for them to donate their content to the Wikimedia Foundation.

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