Lessons from a Wikipedia Volunteer

In order to explore volunteerism in content creation online in the MENA region, I contacted an active Wikipedia editor Elie Plus, who studied at Lebanese University and currently works in Lebanon. Elie Plus creates and edits Wikipedia Articles in English, and started "WikiProject Lebanon." He first registered on Wikipedia English six years ago, contributing to articles in English related to Lebanese history, archeology and culture. "It was just for fun, then I began to feel the gratification of writing a "good" then a "featured" article before studies and work caught up with me," he said, in an interview via email. "Now I keep an eye over some pages, and I still edit sporadically."

He explained that he is the only one taking care of WikiProject Lebanon's missions currently, as there are no memebers. "You see no one can guarantee commitment to anything on the web, and the enthusiasm of new users eventually fades," he said. "All my reach out attempts have had less than mediocre results."

I asked him why he creates content and edits in English not Arabic. He said there are three reasons. First, he joined Wikipedia because he had a surge of patriotism: "I felt like I needed to communicate the rich culture of Lebanon and English Wikipedia was the obvious place to do that," he said.

Secondly, he said that when he first got his cross-wiki account activated, he took a look at Wikipedia Arabic out of curiosity. "I hated and still hate the layout. It confuses me!" he complained. Solutions to layout issues can be as simple as changing font styles and sizes- or not.

Recommendation #1: It would serve merit to survey Wikipedia Arabic editors, or those who edit in English but live in the MENA region, about how to improve both simple and complex issues in design, translation and the editing process, and learn more about the perceived barriers to entry.

He added that some of the words did not make sense to him (For example, he said: "what about the awful awful wikimarkup, تصنيف?? I'd never guessed [what that was supposed to mean]"). This brings up the issue of the importance of the localization of Wikipedia Arabic.

Thirdly, Elie Plus explained that his own Internet usage did not inspire him to create content in Arabic: "If I were to consult the Internet I would never consult an Arabic site because, simply put, we lack the culture of objective / free writing (with a few exceptions of course)." This brings in an important issue related to sourcing. The availability of appropriate Wikipedia references in Arabic, particularly online, is scarce. The question then becomes, where will editors in Arabic source from? What kind of access must they have to various reference material, libraries, universities, cultural centers, etc? It is notable that in the Wikipedia Arabic featured article on November 09, 2011, وادي الملوك (The Valley of the Kings), (feature articles are considered the "ideal" Wikipedia articles) only 1 out of 105 sources referenced is in Arabic. The other 104 referenced sources are in English or French. This is an important consideration and aspect to analyze further.

Recommendation #2: Understand the availability of references in the Arabic language. What are the alternatives? References in other languages, translation or visual referencing are some examples to study.



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This research was done by Michelle Chahine, a second-year SIPA student in the Masters in International Affairs program, specializing in International Media, Advocacy and Communication. Email her at mc3387@columbia.edu.

This is a page under Tapping into Existing Volunteer Networks a sub-topic of Wikimedia in the Arab World.
See also: