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.
Crosscut archive image.

Wikipedia's page about Seattle streets.

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.

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.

Before Amazon, I spent nearly three years as a permatemp at Encarta, where something as simple as changing a comma to a semicolon — let alone correcting or adding such statements of fact — required an entire bug cycle and the talents of at least a text prepper and a proofreader, and perhaps a copyeditor and subject editor as well. Many of these bugs would be postponed to the next year's edition for sheer lack of time. Imagine, then, how liberating Wikipedia's instant-publishing model was for me! I started off with Asotin County (seat at Asotin, name from a Nez Perce word meaning "eel creek") and didn't look back ... for a few years. By 2006 I and the other members of WikiProject Seattle had brought "Seattle" to "featured article" status, and I'd laid the groundwork for a series of articles on the city's many neighborhoods. In a sense, the easy work was done. Now came the task of keeping the whole thing under control.

And it was then that many of us began to drop off. A variety of factors contributed to this, but chief among them was that what started out as a "radically open," libertarian project grounded in founder Jimbo Wales's Hayekian/Randian roots had begun to turn into a process-bound bureaucracy whose watchword was "verifiability, not truth" and in which the letter of the law routinely trumped the spirit. 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.

In addition, back in 2003, it was still possible for me to keep a daily eye on changes to the articles in my watchlist. These days it'd probably be a full-time job — one which I'd certainly take if it were paid! But as things are, I'm content these days to fix the odd typo or factual error, add historical photos here and there, create the occasional "stub" article (generally a few sentences long, intended as a placeholder for someone with a lot more time to spare)... and spend the majority of my time on Wikipedia doing what I love best, which is reading and learning. I still believe in the cause: as Saul Hansell blogs on NYTimes.com, "[so] much value is created when the power to create is spread widely. And though it's in a sense admirable, I'm skeptical of Britannica's efforts to marry Wikipedia's model to their own; Encarta try the same thing in 2005, and Encarta Feedback seems to have died a quiet death since. I don't see Wikipedia suffering the same fate as long as its pharisaic tendencies are reversed — or at least moderated — by new contributors who are willing to assert that two plus two equals four, even if "official" sources say otherwise. If that's a description of you, please, dive in; perhaps in the not too distant future you'll find your own words being cited when you go looking for information.


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