It has all the makings of a crappy YouTube skit: “What if the internet was, like, in reality and like, what if Wikipedia articles were people that you could talk to!?” Too wacky to handle, we know. But, like, what if Wikipedia articles were people that you could talk to?
This weekend, we got the chance to find out exactly that as the nice people who bring us “teh internets” got out from in front of their computers to grill, socialize, and then get right back in front their computers, but, y'know — outdoors — as part of The Great American Wiknic at L.A.'s Pan Pacific Park.
As of Friday evening, it didn't seem like L.A.'s Wiknic (one of many planned nationwide) was going to come together so well — there were only two or three confirmations on the group's Wikipedia project page, and even fewer volunteers for food and sundries. But, by the time we arrived on Saturday afternoon, the most social Wikipedians had a full-fledged cookout going. More than mere hot dogs and hamburgers, there were salmon dishes, potato salads and, of course, a fully-functioning mobile hotspot.
Event organizer and veteran Wikipedia administrator, Howard Cheng was impressed with the turnout: “We couldn't even get something like this together for the 10th Anniversary last year. This is great.” Cheng has been involved with the site since 2005 and displays an impressive array of digital accolades on his user page, including the fact that he has made over 50,000 contributions to the site. That's how many contributions a day? Someone get us a wikicalculator.
Like all of the folks we talked to, Cheng makes all of his contributions, edits, and administrative tasks free of charge, purely as a labor of love. “We're all volunteers and we all do this in our spare time.” Which makes Cheng's number even more impressive — especially given that he's employed full-time as a programmer.
As we were live chatting with some of the other folks you couldn't have scripted a more perfect arrival of the live troll (the term for someone who posts incendiary and sometimes off-topic messages in online communities) who heralded his interruption with a scattershot speech about some paranoid conspiracy whatnot regarding the American school system. He busted his way into the group and just let loose. In person, as often happens online, one of the attendees took the flame bait and engaged his ramblings while everyone else moved on to a different, um, thread — a few feet away. Even the administrator let this “flame war” peter itself out.
So why get out of the basement and under the full-weight of the sun's rays? Computer consultant and occasional contributor Edwin Smith, explained his attendance: “You get to interact with people who have more than room temperature IQ's.” Indeed. While none of the contributors we talked to would admit to being an expert in anything particular, these information hobbyists do seem to be of a certain ilk of broad-spectrum nerdery. They have their niches but they'll start any article about anything that isn't there and that they feel like putting together.
We learned from attending Wikipedia Regional Ambassador, Max Klein, that the average Wikipedia contributor is about what you'd expect: white, male, etc etc. — y'know that demographic. With that majority, the articles tend to be clustered around certain topics that are important to that group and not as universal as they should be. The future of Wikipedia, Klein informed us, is in getting more students and full classrooms involved to further diversify the site's offerings.
One of the few female Wikipedian attendees — who wished to remain anonymous, so we'll call her Ruth Marx — informed us that the site is so free-form that it may intimidate people who are only accustomed to easier-to-use websites like Facebook. “I think that everyone should try editing Wikipedia at least once,” she says. “Most people don't think they have anything to contribute, or the barriers to entry are too intimidating. They should start small, like say they're an expert in Mister Frosty. Well, start something on Mister Frosty. Everyone's an expert in something.”
Most of the Wikipedians we met wanted to remain somewhat anonymous because, as Ruth said, “There are Germans out there.” Well, one German in particular who still can't see the universal importance of some of Ruth's entertainment-centered contributions: her employer. Even the electrician contributor we talked to who made all of his contributions in his free time and writes mostly about psychology, feared feared his employer might not understand his hobby and wished to talk to us incognito.
So, kind of like you're average Wikipedia article, Friday night's cookout stub turned into full-on cookout, with proper…uh, references and page cites? Anonymous or not and expert or not, we're impressed that a group of strangers came together, off the internet, to defy some super-nerd stereotypes. Maybe, by the next one, someone will have written a proper article on Mister Frosty?