Hire a Wikipedia Editor, seriously.

Improving Wikipedia can be an arduous task. Don’t spend months confused, let someone else do it.

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The encyclopedia can be a strange beast at times. Some individuals and corporations try to tame it, only to realize the objectives they set out to achieve are seemingly impossible.

These impossible tasks often lead to specialist Wikipedia editors getting involved at some stage in the process, and for many it is something they should have done from the outset. But what if you have no budget, a pushy boss breathing down your neck asking for results, and quickly? When going it alone on Wikipedia, here are four observations that can help you navigate the difficult world of Wikipedia editing.

Wikipedia hates PR - and here’s why.

Some new Wikipedia editors hold a utopian view of how the encyclopedia works. They expect to be welcomed with open arms by the community and everything to be straightforward. After a few hours editing, reality sets in. The newbie Wikipedia editor is getting treated with caution and in some cases hostility. They can’t understand why…it’s like they committed a cardinal sin, but no one is explaining why they are on the receiving end of this hostile treatment. Why is it so difficult to improve Wikipedia? Especially if its a page you have a connection with.

In defense of the community, this prejudice against new editors is sometimes warranted. Wikipedia’s relationship with PR professionals became instantly frostier one night in October 2013 when it made public a handful of PR firms had been gaming the system. It got that bad, some factions of the Wikipedia community wanted to completely freeze out the public relations industry. The problem began when there was a surge in PR agencies offering Wikipedia writing services between 2010 and 2012. At the time, Wikipedia’s rules on hiring Wikipedia editors were vague and some agencies took full advantage of the grey areas in Wikipedia’s guidelines. The Wikipedia community went from welcoming editors for hire with open arms, to removing paid content without reason and banning editors in the process.

A handful of agencies went even further by deliberately ignoring Wikipedia’s notability rules and uploaded hundreds if not thousands of non-notable pages. The agencies used underhand tactics to mask the notability of individuals and corporations, or rig the initial checks so non-notable pages were accepted onto Wikipedia. Some agencies had operated on borrowed time for years with their unethical practices and subsequently were punished heavily. The scandal uncovered many of the dirty tricks used by PR professionals to “fix” Wikipedia content for their clients. Thousands of companies and individuals sadly had content deleted without ever understanding why. While the uncovering of these issues should have rectified the paid editing rules on Wikipedia – it didn’t. It created a ripple effect in the community that is still visible today, as there are many differing opinions on how much PR involvement should be allowed on the encyclopedia. Some editors called for an outright ban on paid editing, while other editors were extremely simpathetic to those attempting to improve the encyclopedia.

Today, the them and us attitude still exists on Wikipedia and outsiders often recieve a frosty reception. While the community claims to welcome new editors, they frequently fail to follow the bite the newcomer guidelines and often ban suspicious new accounts the first time they step out of line. I would never try to stop an editor from editing Wikipedia, but it is important to understand if you go it alone that this strained relationship can often lead to irrational behaviour and lots of head scratching. The remnants of the PR disagreements over the years means newcomers can sometimes end up dealing with an editor with an anti-PR agenda, who will make life difficult no matter how many hoops you jump through.

Unexplainable content removal policies

Head scratcher number two - why is the page I created up for deletion? Maybe you’re late to the party, and instead of a deletion notice you see a blank page, with a reason for the page’s deletion. You followed the rules, even communicated with other editors. Now, some editor you’ve never interacted with has weighed in and started making all sorts of confrontational comments about the content you created.

After a well over a decade of editing Wikipedia, I still find the deletion rules hard to understand in some scenarios. Days of work can be undone in minutes, often with vague reasons given for the removal. Wikipedia’s policy of blow it up and start over has to be on your Wikipedia newbie reading list, because it demonstrates what can happen when things turn sour. To explain the logic for the community’s content removal policies, some in the community believe removing promotional content without warning improves the encyclopedia, even if it shortens or removes an entire page. This becomes quite difficult to stomach for those who have spent days crafting content they believed was heading in the right direction.

Where deletion and removal policies become frustrating is they are hardly ever applied consistently. Wikipedia recognizes this issue that the encyclopedia is made up of deletionists and inclusionists and as a Wikipedia editor, its sensible to work out who you are working with/against on a particular page. An inclusionist might improve your content on your behalf or at worst, tag the page with an improvement notice. Both of which are helpful and constructive in my opinion. Deletionists on the other hand operate with little remorse and explaining how long you worked on the content will do nothing for your case.

The same paragraph viewed by two editors with different ways of operating will see two very different outcomes. This isn’t to say that you should be wary of deletionists, they can in some scenarios be very helpful, especially if you have a disgruntled ex-employee taking out their anger on the company Wikipedia page.

Feedback is not newcomer friendly

Whatever you are attempting to achieve on Wikipedia, feedback will be given on the content you posted. This won’t come in the form of a school report card and can be communicated in a number of different ways. The problems arise when an editor disagrees with what you have posted. Wikipedia has a useful revert button on history pages, which at the click of a button allows an editor to undo an edit. However, the undo button is frequently used with little or no feedback.

Entire paragraphs disappear and the creator doesn’t really know why. If feedback is given, it is often in Wiki-shorthand, which is referred to as a shortcut. This hyperlink will direct you to a page giving reasons why the content could have been removed. To demonstrate this, a common shortcut people will see in their brief feedback is WP:PROMO. This essentially means the content is too promotional. The link will direct you to a fairly condescending list of dos and donts and then you have to decifer which point is relevant to you in most cases. Trust me, this is not a fun game. To make matters worse each section has multiple shortcuts. In the case of the promotional section, five rules have 21 shortcuts. You would be right in thinking logical people would create a shortcut for each rule and make things easier? Regardless of the section you are directed to, or the bullet point you feel is the stumbling block, at best you will have 4 or 5 vague sentences to tell you what you are doing wrong. Those sentences will then have hyperlinks to much longer pages. You will be doing a lot of reading and by the end of it, your understanding might not have progressed from where you were an hour ago.

The best way I can describe it, is like Googling your symptoms of a headache and a sore throat. Some results terrify you, others make you think the problem is nothing and can be quickly resolved. The best thing to do for any newcomer and it might sound a little obvious, but ask for more in-depth feedback from the editor. Do not presume you know what the editor means, even a professional Wikipedia editor can get it wrong from time to time.

Too many cooks in the kitchen

Imagine for a second you are about to eat at a world-renowned restaurant. It will operate like clockwork, there will be staff everywhere but everyone will understand two things. Firstly who the boss is and secondly what each of their roles are. Now imagine that same restaurant, but every chef and staff member does their own thing and there is no boss. You would get two very different experiences. The first would be a thing of beauty, the second would likely leave you feeling underwhelmed.

When Wikipedia was first becoming “a thing”, its co-founder Jimmy Wales appeared on TED, discussing the then revolutionary encyclopedia. He referred to Wikipedia as “a very unusual and chaotic thing.” This is true of many new ventures, the only issue is that Wikipedia never really solved this problem.

Apart from user rights and administrators having seniority over others, there is no editorial hierarchy that you would see at a major publication like the New York Times for example. The result at times can be chaos. Pages and rules are created and left to rot because agreements cannot be reached. When dealing with pages of mid or high importance on Wikipedia, say a major corporation or an A-list celebrity, the too many cooks problem becomes frustratingly obvious. While you might have a perfectly logical suggestion, if a handful of editors decide they don’t like your idea, it will never get off the ground. The rules on Wikipedia have also fallen victim to this problem, as rule changes rarely get consensus, so they tend to be a mish-mash of ideas.

To demonstrate how ridiculous this can be, Ignore all rules is one of the core principles of Wikipedia. If you believe you are improving the encyclopedia and a rule is preventing you from doing so, then ignore it. This stance might work well in a perfect world, but in reality it’s wide open for misuse and incorrect application.

No one ever asked Wikipedia to be perfect; it would be impossible due to its size. But it is a long way from perfection, and any newbie Wikipedia editor needs to be aware of that.

Founder of Wizards of Wiki, a Wikipedia consultancy agency. A Wikipedia consultant since 2011, he has been interviewed by The Financial Times & Entrepreneur.