New Editor Experiences/Conceptual understanding

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Conceptual understanding of Wikipedia is one of the two areas where the New Editor Experiences project has tentatively decided to focus its work.

New and potential editors frequently lack knowledge about some of Wikipedia's core concepts. They may not understand important parts of Wikipedia’s organizational model: that it is written and run by a community of volunteers, that no permission is needed to edit, that its articles are developed through collaborative and iterative change, and so on. They may not understand key policies that guide its content, such as verifiability, neutrality, and notability.

These gaps in understanding can take many forms. They can be basic (like knowing that anyone can edit but thinking that only credentialed experts are encouraged to do so) or advanced (like not realizing that it is acceptable not to cite uncontroversial facts). In some cases, users know there's a concept they don't understand (for example, a user may realize that there are limits on what is included in Wikipedia, but still feel helpless to know what those limits are). In others, users suffer from knowledge gaps they don't even realize exist (for example, worrying that they might create permanent damage by editing because they don't know that all revisions are saved in the history).

Since each user's understanding of Wikipedia (their "Wikipedia literacy", so to speak) has different gaps, there is no single or simple solution for this problem. But each incremental success in increasing understanding will both reduce barriers for new editors and decrease the workload of experienced editors, who must frequently cope with situations created by a new user's misunderstanding.

Research findings[edit]

This focus draws on two specific findings from our research: finding 8 and finding 5.

Finding 8: struggles with policies[edit]

The following is an extract from our research report. For the full description of finding 8, see pages 2224.

Finding 8. New editors’ greatest challenges are not technological but conceptual. They struggle to learn Wikipedia's policies and how to shape content "the Wikipedia way". While new editors did face challenges navigating the technicalities of editing…, they were most thwarted by the structures and policies regulating their contributions to Wikipedia. Most new editors were confused by how to apply and follow Wikipedia's policies, and the rationale behind them…

Only new editors who had a strong motivation to edit Wikipedia in a sustained manner, or who enjoyed the process of editing, made an effort to search for and read through documentation of Wikipedia's policies and rules, and yet still found the policies dense and confusing. Most new editors either became easily frustrated when their edits were reverted, or shied away from creating new content that would require a deeper understanding of how to write for Wikipedia and focused just on correcting pre-existing content.

The most common conceptual challenges that new editors face are:

  • Verifiability and citations…
  • Notability…
  • Writing in "encyclopedic style", with a neutral point of view…
  • Copyright, especially for images…

New editors who successfully overcome these conceptual challenges do so through trial and error…and/or by receiving constructive feedback from other editors.

Finding 5: Wikipedia's unknown model and hidden community[edit]

The following is an extract from our research report. For the full description of finding 5, see page 18.

Finding 5. The complexity and separation of how Wikipedia is made, and the community behind it, make it difficult to convert readers to editors and new editors to experienced editors.

Many new editors were confused about how Wikipedia works, or were not aware that their understanding of the model was incorrect. Some thought that Wikipedia was edited only by experts or a small group, until they noticed the edit function or learned that anyone could edit outside of Wikipedia (e.g., through news articles, friends, or social media). Once they started editing, most new editors did not understand Wikipedia’s policies and the rationale behind them, and were not aware of or had not interacted with other editors.

Some new editors were incentivized to edit Wikipedia because of its collective culture—the fact that “anyone can edit”…For new editors who were first intrigued by the collaborative process behind Wikipedia, many then made efforts to learn more about how Wikipedia works before editing, by attending offline programs or lurking on discussion pages…

New editors have difficulty engaging further with Wikipedia’s collective culture because community functions are hidden to them. Though many new editors were intrigued by the collective process of editing, very few made the leap to participating in community discussions or activities likely because they did not know how or where to do so. Many new editors could not find or use talk pages to communicate with other editors on-wiki...and rarely attended off-wiki gatherings…Participating in on-wiki discussions and off-wiki meetings often helped experienced and retained editors cement their investment in Wikipedia…It’s hard for new editors to receive these same benefits because there’s no clear on-ramp to the Wikipedia community, or they are not even aware that it exists. This separation between new editors and the established community makes it difficult for new editors to become more progressively involved, and for experienced editors to support new editors.

How this focus was chosen[edit]

In a poll on the Korean Wikipedia, findings 8 was by far the highest ranked (with 7 out of 8 editors ranking it first or second) and finding 5 was second highest.  

In a focus group with members of the Czech community, both findings appeared in the group's top 5. Finding 8 was tied for first priority, while finding 5 was fifth.

In a workshop with 15 Wikimedia Foundation staff on this project’s core team, finding 8 was the most supported finding, while finding 5 was fourth. 

Since these two high-priority findings were closely related, they were bundled together as a single focus.

Key comments[edit]

Significant comments that were made during the staff and community discussions include:

Finding 8[edit]

  • Some editors suggested that their communities could try softening some of the policies themselves (in addition to just explaining them better), but most felt that it would not be possible to do so without compromising the quality of the encyclopedia.
  • An increased emphasis on the policies can be counterproductive in some cases, if it makes good contributors doubt whether they comply.
  • One potential challenge is that policies are not always internally consistent or equally applied in all cases.
  • The "Wikipedia way" is not necessarily the same across all projects, so we need to be careful not to build tools that impose a false homogeneity.
  • An increased emphasis on the policies might drive away social changers (new users whose underlying motivation is passion about a social cause), whose underlying goals may be inherently contentious and who may disagree with some of Wikipedia's policies. It may be important to communicate that the rules can be changed and that new editors are allowed to argue their case.
  • Many people suggested that concrete, contextual guidance (for example, detecting when new users add content without references and suggesting that they add some before saving) is a better solution than general explanations of policies, although others were skeptical that automatic detection of issues would be accurate enough to be useful rather than annoying.
  • There are currently no real mechanisms for communities to learn how well readers understand different help and policy pages.

Finding 5[edit]

  • Introducing readers to Wikipedia's process is likely to reduce their trust in the content.[1]
    • However, this could actually be beneficial: this lowering of perceived quality could encourage more people to edit; experienced editors are often the most critical of Wikipedia’s content.
    • This could also be of great interest to educators and librarians interested in teaching information literacy.
  • The community of Namuwiki, a competitor of the Korean Wikipedia, is much more apparent to readers: its home page is almost entirely devoted to community functions (whereas Wikipedia's home page is almost entirely devoted to content), and the informal, opinionated tone of its articles lets the voice of individual contributors be heard.
  • Not all editors want to join the community or to be loudly greeted when they edit. We should make the option to become involved known, but not force it.
  • We don’t want to scare people off by showing them too much information about Wikipedia’s nature at the start—it can be more intimidating than helpful. Gradual introductions are important.
  • This finding related to finding 2, which noted that Wikipedia’s prominence frequently makes potential editors feel unqualified to edit.
  • A similar issue was recently identified in research into the general public’s use of and knowledge about Wikipedia.
  • Simply showing people the technical underpinnings of Wikipedia collaboration (e.g. explaining talk pages) may not convey how it actually works or how to actually join the community.
  • Attempts to address this could conflict with the idea held by some that “Wikipedia is not a social network”.

References[edit]