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Writing a Wikipedia Featured Article: part 2

Robert Weedon | Internet | Wednesday 29th September 2010

As we read in the previous article, princess Sherlock Holmes Baffled has battled through the thickets of Wikipedialand, encountering both helpful and grumpy editors along the way, and endured endless challenges to emerge at the other end of the cyclorama as a beautiful Featured Article, which as the blurb tells us:
"...are considered to be the best articles in Wikipedia, as determined by Wikipedia's editors. Before being listed here, articles are reviewed...for accuracy, neutrality, completeness, and style according to our featured article criteria."
One of the main attractions of writing a Featured Article is that it can be "Today's Featured Article". This means that it is given the most prominent spot on the front page of the English Wikipedia for a whole day, and is linked there for the next three days into the bargain. On an average day, the main page of Wikipedia gets roughly 5-6 million hits, with a noticeable dip on Sundays.

Therefore, in theory, your article has the potential to be seen by that many people, although in reality most people are just there in passing, perhaps stopping by briefly to replace your article's contents with "bum" before scurrying off to look at something else, usually Michael Jackson.

Anyway, having your article seen by this many people would seem a pleasing enough reward for all the hard work that has gone into writing and researching your article, and everyone viewing it can bask in the glory of one of the best articles Wikipedia has to offer.

Wrong.

This being the internet, and this being "the free encyclopedia anyone can edit" means that exposing it to the front page is basically like painting it on a Brixton underpass wall linking the National Graffiti convention to the headquarters of the International Society of Pedants.

Of course, submitting it to Today's Featured Article (TFA) was entirely my own choice, and being featured on it so soon after being promoted (20 days) is quite unusual. Some articles have languished un-TFA'd for years - for example The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (radio series) was promoted in August 2006, but as of 2010 has yet to appear. Perhaps it was felt to be too self-referential?

I've been following the TFA nomination page quite a bit recently, and it's a surprisingly thorough process - each FA is awarded or deducted points under several different criteria, so, for example it's given points if it has a relevant date, but deducted points if a similar article was featured recently. This keeps the endless video game and Family Guy episode FAs at bay, and gives a chance to articles about Mahler symphonies, Anglo Saxon books or urinary defects.

There's also quite a lot of thought given to suitability. For example, an article about the Moors Murders was recently featured, and I had to admire some of the thought that went into ensuring it wasn't likely to cause offense on the main page. Although it probably did.

My favourite TFAs are the ones that have a date relevance, for example a few weeks ago I pulled off a little coup by successfully nominating Last of the Summer Wine for August 29, the date of broadcast for the last-ever episode, when I knew it would be in the news and people might look it up, at least in Britain. Americans probably thought it was a transmission from another planet.

As I had missed April, Sherlock Holmes Baffled didn't really have any date relevance, but was accepted anyway because I'd made the effort to write the main page blurb myself - unless people are nominating them for a particular date, this tends to be left to Raul, the chap in charge of organising Today's Featured Article, and one of the few Wikipedia editors who actually works for the Wikimedia Foundation. So that was scheduled and put in the queue a few days before.

Then came the big day - 21st September 2010, a day that will pass into folklore as the day Sherlock Holmes was baffled in front of the whole Anglophone world. Well, 6.1 million of them, of whom 56,000 were sufficiently intrigued to click onto the article during the space of the day.

I think it also helped my chances that it was about a fairly intriguing subject - everyone likes Sherlock Holmes, and even if they haven't read any of Conan Doyle's books, they will at least be aware of him through films, TV programmes and that horrible phrase "popular culture".

In the space of its 30 seconds, it's quite a fun little film, really; somehow redolent of a more innocent era. In my head, I have a nice image of a tweedy, pipe-smoking Edwardian gentleman chuckling as he watches it on a machine at the end of a pier. Plus, the title is quite eye catching - Sherlock Holmes baffled? Never! Which is, of course, what our "what-the-butler-saw" film-makers were banking on when they called it that.

Look upon my hit count ye mighty, and despair.

Knowing that such a number of people have seen something you're written is quite exciting for somebody who is usually quite pleased to get page hits into double figures. After all, I suspect few professional book articles, especially in academic journals are read by as many as that, or by as wider demographic. Something like my undergraduate dissertation was probably only read by three people, one of whom was me.

To top it all, by coincidence I also managed to get another article I'd written about the lost Norman cathedral at Old Sarum on the 'Do You Know' section on the same day. I don't know if that's a record, but seeing two articles I'd written on the main page at the same time was quite satisfying.

Behold the man who is baffled.

Having said that, you tend not to feel like you're getting that recognition throughout the day, as people who did enjoy reading it are not encouraged to say so on the talk page by the big sign saying it's only for "improvements to the article", which alas instead means opening the shitroom door.

So, on the article's talk page that day, there were discussions about: And finally The last one was from a viewer who had unfortunately come across the article after it had just been vandalised, just one of the many helpful contributions made by those 56,000 viewers throughout the course of the day.

I really like the fact anyone can edit Wikipedia, and even if things like this are the consequence, you could argue it's all part of the fun. There is a theory that Wikipedia is simply the biggest online role-playing game of all time, and I think there's a certain truth in that.

It's the openness of the format that I like- if a person spots a mistake, or can add something useful to an article, I think it's great they can change it instantly. That's why I don't like the proposed "Flagged Revisions", which are just a pain to use and go against the principal of the thing. In fact, if those are ever made standard across the project, that'll probably be when I give up.

Having said all that, I can't help thinking that for somebody wanting to make mischief, putting a big sign on an article like this:

Vandalise ye not, mere mortal.

...is a bit like telling Adam not to eat that big shiny apple, or Pandora not to look inside that box. OR ELSE.

I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by the quality of the vandalism. I was hoping for some amusing and witty additions that might go unspotted for a few minutes before being reverted, but the only one I saw that made me chuckle was:
"According to Christopher Redmond's ''Sherlock Holmes Handbook'', the film was shot on April 26, 1900, then they all had an orgy."
Mostly, people aren't able to come up with anything even as sophisticated as that on the spot, so they just add "hello" or "aKGghaporhgpaofrgp24toaj" or something. Looking at their IP addresses, most of them seemed to be registered to American educational institutions, so they were essentially bored schoolchildren. At some point, the level of vandalism became so frequent, it had to be semi-protected, meaning only editors registered for more than ten days could edit it.

Having said that, I prefer even pathetic vandalism to what I think of as "sniggly" comments; after all, at least those bored schoolchildren may have at least taken in a bit of the article while messing it about. In my head, because the film includes guns, theft and a hoodie it's very relevant to 21st century youth culture.[citation needed]

"Sniggly" edits are the ones that annoy me - it's a word I invented as a cross between snidey and niggly. These are the editors that declare themselves to have made "thorough copyedits" or those that leave pompous know-it-all comments in the edit summary. If you've improved a previously rubbish article, that's fine. If you've just changed a spelling to the US style or undone a number of the improvements that have been suggested at the Featured Article nominations, you're just being an idiot.

It isn't all negative, though. One editor was kind enough to drop me a nice note saying that I was officially an "Awesome Wikipedian", and gave me a Barnstar for being the "star of the day", which although knowingly cheesy, is a rather nice little Wikipedia reward thing, derived from an old American tradition of decorating barns with metal stars during the hours of darkness. Apparently. That made me feel a bit more appreciated.

Indeed, to get a much more positive spin on viewers' opinions, I hopped over to Twitter, where I was quite pleased to see several people had enjoyed reading about it:

Twitter

Also, YouTube, where the film is available to view attracted quite a few pleasing comments, some commenting about the film in a manner that suggested they had discovered something they had enjoyed; at least 2000 people watched one of the postings of it on YouTube, which implies that the article was interesting enough for them to make a special trip across to see it.

YouTube

Indeed, it was reading those comments that ultimately left me with a warm feeling inside, knowing that at least a few people had learnt about something they didn't know before, and could mention later in conversation to their friends about a weird piece of early cinema they'd seen. I guess that's what it's all about.[citation needed]

RW



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