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Writing a Wikipedia Featured Article: part 1

Robert Weedon | Internet | Tuesday 28th September 2010

Wikipedia has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Britannica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that his apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper, and secondly it has the words "the free encyclopedia anyone can edit" inscribed in large friendly letters on its main page.
As we all know, Wikipedia is the living embodiment of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - like Douglas Adams' creation, it's written by the man (usually) on the street and like The Guide contains a large number of articles about subjects people are interested in, and fewer about more boring, but perhaps more important topics (although it's much better than it used to be).

I'm as guilty of this as much as the next man, and most of the articles I've written for Wikipedia (slightly naughtily under two different accounts) tend to be on subjects I'm interested in - classical music, films, television programmes, radio and, um...cathedrals. So, no science, languages, maths or computers for me.

Anyway, despite having developed several articles to the "Good Article" standard in the past, I decided to finally try for the big one, which is the "Featured Article". As Wikipedia tells us, there are (as of 28th September 2010) 3,048 featured articles of a total of 3,427,806 on the encyclopedia.

There are a number of reasons for this 1:1120 ratio. Mainly, I suspect it's because lots of Wikipedia articles are about locations in the world - just look at the index of a road map of the United Kingdom to see how many places there are, and imagine that in a country the size of America, Russia...or indeed every nation on the planet.

Indeed, a bit like the Hitch Hiker's Guide, there are so many towns and villages in the world, a large percentage of these places have entries that really are as derisory as "mostly harmless". On Wikipedia they're known as "stubs". I'm not sure why - to me, that always sounds like something that happens to a toe.

Then also think about how many species, books, people, and just general things there are, and it blows your mind. In fact, it's almost quite surprising that there are only three and a half million articles. There would probably be many more if it wasn't for some editors' penchance for nominating even worthwhile pages for deletion.

Anyway, the other reason for this disparity is probably that even getting a page to the GA (Good Article) standard (of which 9,841 are currently listed) is a bit of a slog. They have to be well-referenced, complete, reasonably well-written, all the images have to be correctly licenced and the page has to be "stable". The last one means that it isn't subject to vandalism or so-called "edit warring", something that occurs nowhere else but a wiki.

The article I decided to get to Featured Article standard was Sherlock Holmes Baffled, about a very short mutoscope reel from 1900 which (almost by accident) is the first Sherlock Holmes film, and thus technically the first detective film. It's those two facts alone that piqued my interest, and I thought it might be a good candidate for expanding beyond a two-line summary.

My other reasoning was that it was going to be 110 in April of 2010 and there was still a bit of a buzz about Holmes from the then-recent Guy Ritchie film and the forthcoming BBC adaptation Sherlock.

After hunting around for some extra information to include, I soon found myself getting quite enthused by it, and decided to nominate it for inclusion on the Wikipedia main page as a "Do You Know" entry. These are either brand new articles or older articles that have been expanded to be at least five times as long as they were. It therefore went up on 10 February 10, 2010. My experience of these is that being the top placing with a photograph helps and it duly gained 3,200 hits.

Following this, I lost interest, and it was only in July, with a bit of tweaking that I decided to nominate it for the GA standard, which it passed. At this point, I got a bit more ambitious, and decided to have a go at FA standard.

Although I've written several articles that are better than this one, I thought this would be good choice due to its length. To fulfil "Criteria 1B - comprehensive: it neglects no major facts or details and places the subject in context", finding lots to say about a 30 second film is less of a challenge than an article about, say, World War I or the Earth.

Sherlock Holmes is baffled why somebody should waste so much time on a 30 second film.

I'd always been nervous about nominating one of my articles before, as Featured Article candidacies are pretty cruel - if you want every word you've written criticised by anonymous, self-appointed grammar hawks, then it's a good place to go. Otherwise, I tend to stay away. Anyway, to try and avoid that, I put it up for Peer Review first, which is slightly less mean spirited, and usually throws up some good points for improvement.

This done, I submitted it to Featured Article Candidates in August. Immediately, it was pointed out that almost all of the online references were not considered reliable enough, because they were written by (presumably) Sherlock Holmes fans. So, these all had to be removed and replaced with entries from books, (which of course aren't written by Sherlock Holmes fans, but by "experts").

I don't own any books about Sherlock Holmes except the actual stories, and not having easy access to a university library either meant that all of my references were thus derived from searching Google Books for relevant snippets. I never properly read any of the references I was using except to back up information in the article, so I have no idea of how reliable they are as a whole. At least one I used definitely got the film format wrong, making me wonder how correct the rest of its information was.

Because published books are still widely considered more reliable than online sources, I could have even put a reference in there to a book that claimed Holmes was a real person. In fact, that's what happened, because publications by Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, such as the Baker Street Journal often write their studies of him with the contrivance that he did exist, known as "playing the game".

Anyway, I don't think any of the original complainants checked the book references either, because it's much easier to read an online source and criticise it than bother to find an obscure book in a library (as many of them probably only exist in copyright depositaries). After all, as we've seen, the internet is quite a lazy place.

The whole process dragged out for nearly a month, with very few of the people making criticisms coming back afterwards to support the article even after I'd made changes. For example, one editor suggested that because it's public domain, it would be good to include a video of it. Wikipedia, just to be annoying doesn't accept mpegs, so I had to find a way of converting it into their weird .ogg video format. After making the effort to do that, he never came back to support it anyway.

Another thing that the process threw up was that even though anyone can edit a page, Wikipedia editors will still waste time writing out all the spelling or grammatical mistakes they've found, rather than just changing it themselves.

In my opinion, it's ultimately in everyone's interest for Wikipedia to have as many excellent articles as possible, and the beauty of the wiki format is that anyone can make a change. I wonder whether many editors have forgotten that - the clue ought to be in their title.

One or two editors, though were very helpful, particularly in formatting references, etc, and seemed genuinely interested in improving it, which is of course what the idea of a collaborative project is all about.

Anyway, it passed on 31st August. In the next instalment, I will discuss that happened when it went on the front page a fortnight later.



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