Baseball in a Wikidojo

A dojo is a great place to prepare to write a wiki page! Photo licensed CC BY 2.0, Flickr user "superwebdeveloper".

A dojo is a great place to prepare to write a wiki page! Photo by Flickr user “superwebdeveloper”, licensed CC BY 2.0.

When we started the monthly Bay Area WikiSalon meetups a few months back, I was eager to try out a newly-invented way for a group to build a wiki page together. The purpose of a Wikidojo, as the event is called, is twofold. Of course, it’s a way to quickly build a page. But much more importantly to me, and to the purpose of the WikiSalon series, is that everybody involved learns something from seeing how other people approach the task. How does an experienced editor add a footnote? Where does a new editor stumble? How do you add a photo? What’s up with categories and talk pages, anyway? Watching somebody at work, and hearing them describe what they’re doing and why, can be tremendously informative and inspiring.

So at our June event, I proposed that we try out a Wikidojo, and write a Wikipedia article together. It was a delightful experience, though as you’ll see below, it didn’t go exactly as I had expected!

Eugene and Ben got the article started.

Eugene and Ben got the article started. If you look closely in the background, you can see the article growing…

Peter and Andrea continue the fun...

…Peter and Andrea continued the fun…

...Wayne, an experienced Wikimedian, showed Mike how to add a photo to the article. Photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, licensed CC BY-SA.

…Wayne, an experienced Wikimedian, showed Mike how to add a photo to the article. Photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, licensed CC BY-SA.

I offered the group a few suggested topics, and was pleased that they preferred my first pick. We wrote about the Ghost Town Royals, a little league baseball team (and league) founded a decade ago in Oakland, with the aim of offering kids an alternative to the street life all too many get drawn into. It’s a topic close to my heart: the league is in my neighborhood, and presents opportunities to kids with big needs. The topic passes Wikipedia’s rigorous notability standard, in that it’s been covered in several news articles; but it’s something most people would have a hard time learning about even if they knew what they were looking for, because much of the news coverage doesn’t easily show up in a web search. (You can see the results of our work at the link above.)

The Wikidojo model was invented by Nikola Kalchev, inspired by  Vassia Atanassova’s 2014 talk about educational approaches with wiki; and it has been conducted in many places around the world. I learned about it from my friend Asaf Bartov, and was immediately drawn to the seductively simple idea: everybody takes a seven minute turn at building a wiki page, as the “pilot.” Every pilot has a “copilot,” who engages them in discussion during their shift. And everybody else gets to listen and absorb what’s going on.

Asaf (and various online writeups and videos) had warned me of the common pitfalls. Above all, I was supposed to be rigid on one point…ensure that the audience keeps quiet! That’s necessary, I was assured, to permit the “magic” to develop between the pilot and the copilot, and to permit each team to approach the task in their own way without too much interference or distraction.

Well, there’s only one thing to say on that point: I failed. After the very first round, I was seduced by an eager participant to mix it up. Our second copilot wanted to act as a facilitator, moving around the room with the microphone, to take suggestions and comments from the audience. To be honest, I didn’t want to do that — I knew this was just the thing Asaf had warned me about. But I’m a sucker for enthusiasm, and our copilot had it in spades. So we gave that a shot. To my eye, it made it more difficult for the pilot, who had a cacophony of ideas coming from multiple sources, making it difficult to chart his own course — which is the main thing Wikidojo is designed to showcase. It was also difficult to get back to the original format, as the audience enthusiasm for voicing suggestions lasted into the later rounds. But, my preferences aside, a show of hands afterward (9 to 7 vote?) indicated it was actually the preferred approach. So, this might be a variant to be explored further. As I see it, there’s so much experimentation built into the activity to begin with, that changing the format midstream is disorienting. I’d advise anyone trying a Wikidojo for the first time to be clear about the rules from the beginning (one way or another), and stick with them throughout the event.

This photo was already stored on Wikimedia Commons, making it accessible for inclusion in an article. Photo by Flickr user "wildernice," licensed CC BY 2.0.

This photo was already stored on Wikimedia Commons, making it accessible for inclusion in an article. Photo by Flickr user “wildernice,” licensed CC BY 2.0.

Another factor that made it tough to stick to the original format was…me. I wasn’t so great at following my own rules! Several times, I jumped in with suggestions for the pilot and copilot. I tried to restrain myself, but in some cases I think it was the right thing to do. For instance, the topic we had chosen has only sparse media coverage, and because I had researched it prior to the event, I knew some approaches to searching that would prove to be time-consuming dead ends. I didn’t think having a team take up most of their seven minutes in a fruitless search would be very satisfying, so I intervened. And at another point, a new wiki editor suggested adding an image to the article. He wasn’t worried about it being perfect for the article, as he was mainly interested in learning the process; the pair seemed poised to run a time-consuming search for an image which, at best, would have yielded a photo under copyright, and complications that couldn’t be resolved in the allotted time. I again jumped in, to suggest adding an unrelated photo of a child playing baseball. I think it was a good suggestion, as it permitted them to successfully post a picture in the time allotted.

Overall, I had a lot of fun, and am looking forward to trying it out again. Before encountering the Wikidojo model, I have often wanted to engage a larger group in improving an article in person, but I didn’t see any effective way to do it. Edit-a-thons tend to follow a less formal structure than Wikidojo; at an edit-a-thon, smaller groups typically form. That’s a great approach too, but can limit cross-pollination of ideas. Wikidojo is much better suited to a shared experience and shared learning.

The informal feedback I heard was positive; participants enjoyed watching each other work, and a number of people learned new wiki skills. There were some good suggestions, as well; I have collected more detailed notes and feedback on this wiki page. The next time I do it, I think I’d choose a less esoteric topic, that’s easier to research, and that the audience already knows to some degree. But even with a few unexpected twists and turns, it was a lot of fun, and it stimulated some great discussion about how different people approach wiki.

Our June event also featured an informative and fun presentation by staff of the San Francisco Public Library and OCLC; watch the video here. And this month, we look forward to a meetup at San Francisco hacker space Noisebridge, in which we’ll focus on the Wikipedia article on basic income.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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