Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reflecting on VT

I recently got a note from somebody researching the history of Wikipedia's article on the Virginia Tech massacre. In part:
You were among the top 5% of contributors (either editing or on the talk pages) for that article, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to answer a few questions by email.
Hadn't been aware of that, at the time. I do remember putting in quite a few reverts, though. User:Geraldckane's questions and my responses follow:

1) What is your Wikipedia screen name? Note: optional, if you reply by email I will not be able to connect your email to your screen name.

I am a volunteer administrator, username Luna Santin.

2) On average, how many hours per week do you spend editing articles on Wikipedia?

That's hard for me to say. I tend to alternate between studying, coding (I'm a computer science major), work around the house, and general web surfing. Javascript tells me I've been making about 50-60 edits per day, this last month, but many of those are single-click reverts.

3) Why do you contribute your time and energy to developing Wikipedia articles?

Used appropriately, I think Wikipedia is an excellent resource for the world community. Helping out gives me a chance to do something I enjoy, and while it is productive, it also gives me significant opportunities to apply abstract lessons in building community, working collaboratively, and other, more technical issues related to web-based projects in general.

4) What types of articles to which do you typically contribute?

I tend to focus on internal affairs -- catching and dealing with abusive editors, including vandals, trolls, and sockpuppets, resolving or calming down disputes when possible, and the like. I also moderate one Wikipedia mailing list, and several IRC channels. When I do contribute to articles, I tend to focus on either local affairs in my area, or on subjects I've recently covered in school or otherwise have easy access to -- took a history class, this Summer, and the textbook proved valuable.

I also try to spend some time copyediting, cleaning up new articles, welcoming new users, and helping people who have questions.

5) Why did you choose to become involved in the Wikipedia article on the Virginia Tech Massacre?

Whenever we have news events this major, especially something like this that'll really get the emotions going, there quickly forms a veritable flood of people, and Wikipedia needs a quick response to that. Some people work to build up an article, other people work to clean it up. I guess I tend to be in the latter group.

It really is amazing to me how quickly these things can happen. As one example, several Wikipedia administrators and "recent changes patrollers" were aware of Steve Irwin's unfortunate death even before it hit the news tickers on BBC's and CNN's websites. We have to be quick.

6) What was your primary role in the process of creating the article on the Virginia Tech Massacre (e.g. copy editing, fighting vandalism, contributing news, managing a particular section, etc?)

Definitely cleaning up after vandals and other misguided people. Some people are angry and don't understand that they aren't helping anything, other people really are just looking to cause trouble. Primarily, I protected the article from these disruptive influences so that it could be allowed to grow more appropriately.

7) How was your experience with this article similar to or different than other Wikipedia articles to which you have contributed?

It wasn't all that different from other prominent articles -- Wikipedia features one article per day on its front page, for example -- except that the number of people involved made a lot of things happen *very* quickly.

8) What were some of the most challenging issues facing the successful development of this particular article on the Virginia Tech massacre?

Several people were, I think understandably, feeling very angry, and some of them felt a need to express that anger in the article. Not the best choice, but I don't know if I can blame them. We also had a number of people adding unverified (or conflicting) information, but that's more easily sorted out among the experienced users -- we were fortunate to have so many veterans watching over things.

Internally, I recall some lengthy debates over whether to include Cho as one of the "casualties" of the shooting, or whether to use the Westernized Given name-Surname or Eastern Surname-Given name constructions. There were also some arguments over what exactly to call the article -- "Virginia Tech shooting" or "massacre," for example? I believe we eventually decided to go with whatever the media predominantly used to refer to the incident.

Beyond that, a sudden and massive influx of new users, many of whom were actually quite helpful, brings in a lot of people who aren't too familiar with wiki syntax, policies, and practices, but it's also an excellent opportunity for us to *teach* them these things. I'd like to think we managed pretty well, given the circumstances.

9) What do you think were some of the primary reasons that this article was successful (i.e. cited in the press, rated as a “good article” by Wikipedia standards.)

Wikipedia's ability to respond to changes in real time, and to amalgate content from diverse sources and viewpoints. By having more eyes on the article, we'll hopefully get a more complete picture of what happened more quickly. The trick is avoiding confusion, and figuring out at what point being open to modification is helpful or hurtful.

Administrators can "protect" pages from editing, locking out all new users or all non-admin users, but the majority of admins involved with the article agreed that doing so (except for short periods when absolutely necessary) was the way to go. By carefully managing the situation, we were able to maximize the benefits of the wiki system, while hopefully mitigating its vulnerabilities.

Any time you have a dedicated core of people diligently checking every change to a page, the situation is intensely unique.

10) Is there anything else I should know about the Wikipedia article on the VT massacre?

Hm, tricky one. I can't immediately think of anything I haven't already said. While I did feel, and still do feel, that the incident itself was incredibly unfortunate, it was of some help to see the outpouring of heartfelt sympathy for the victims and students of Virginia Tech, and to see that most people are truly good at heart.

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