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What can you find where everyone looks for everything, pt. 2

1 October 2022
Liron Dorfman
Wikipedia home screen

I have been serving as an editor at Hebrew Wikipedia since 2008. My job includes giving lectures and tutorials on writing for Wikipedia. I occasionally lecture teens, starting my talk by asking, "what is Wikipedia?". The answers I get vary, but none of them includes the term "an encyclopedia."


Junior high school students are unfamiliar with the term "encyclopedia." They might have heard of one, but it is rare to find a teen who has flipped through its volumes' pages or can even say they have seen one on a library shelf. This has led their perception of Wikipedia to differ significantly from that of its founders and how it is perceived by most of its editors.


However, during my tenure, I have learned that adults view this project, subtitled "the free encyclopedia," in a manner that differs somewhat from the intention of those toiling to maintain it. For most people, Wikipedia is a free database that allows you to find the answers to nearly any question and information on subjects ranging from academic research to trivia and anecdotes, stored on "pages" (not "entries") containing details regarding sports and entertainment celebrities. This expectation of finding it all there is the cause for much confusion when occasionally they cannot find the desired information on Wikipedia. Here at Wikimedia Israel, we are asked several times a year why the editors have decided that the editors have decided not to allow someone to "publish a page" containing information on the inquirer themselves or one of their loved ones.

Wikipedian autonomy


It is common knowledge that when more than one person is involved in a single creation, sooner or later, a disagreement between them will arise and require settling to maintain their collaboration. In my previous article, which appeared in the previous issue of this webzine, we discussed what makes writers for Wikipedia "editors," i.e., those that decide what will you be able to find in the place everyone looks through. Quite expectedly, the editors at Wikipedia are very opinionated people. This naturally led to disagreements in no time.


Wikipedia was launched in January of 2001, and already during its initial stages, it was decided that besides some general policies and guidelines, the editors of each Wikipedia would receive autonomy, i.e., the right to choose how decisions will be made. Furthermore, each Wikipedia may decide, as part of the agreements it sets for itself, what mechanisms it will use for selecting the content that will appear in the said language (in other words, what won't appear in it) and how will it be written (for example, will UK English or American English be used and what will be its rules regarding transliteration. This autonomy also includes subjects related to graphic content that is permitted or forbidden to be displayed by each Wikipedia.


Each Wikipedia operates independently, besides some software interface issues operated by the initiative itself. The autonomy regarding content selection has led to some entries being accepted as displayable by particular languages. In contrast, the editors of Wikipedia in other languages will choose not to display such an entry. Similarly, content development is managed specifically for each language and is not directly affected by other languages. Thus, the breadth of the information featured in some entries, if printed, could fill a booklet, while in different languages, they contain a few short sentences.

Why guidelines are great


Over the years, we at Hebrew Wikipedia have formulated a set of guidelines for subjects that might be deemed as "of encyclopedic importance." For example, the rules our "parliament" have made define which legal figures or soccer players are worth an entry, and the same goes for books, movies, and politicians. Furthermore, we decided when Hebrew Wikipedia would include information regarding a fallen IDF soldier.


Although we always state there might be some exceptions, these guidelines assist us in reducing complaints against us regarding so-called discrimination, any bias of the editorial community towards any political party or agenda, or a preference to address issues related to a particular lifestyle. Furthermore, the rules we have decided on have reduced the number of disputes among us and allowed us to keep the freest and largest encyclopedia ever written, both in terms of its breadth and its depth, a reliable source of information without dualities which ensure the quality of its final product.


We advocate total transparency. Our discussions are available for any interested reader. We always document everything in writing to enable anyone to appeal against our editors' decisions, despite the community's choice to grant them special privileges.  Above all, we are always glad to answer any questions.


Remember, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia written by the masses, for the masses. The data it contains isn't meant for professionals only. It is written for the general public and is phrased in the most straightforward and clearest language possible. Thus, the door to contributing to its expansion is always open for everybody. Anyone can find subjects in which they are proficient, be it in their profession or area of interest. Therefore, we will gladly assist any of you to join us in contributing to the development of human knowledge.


For more on Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, click here.


Wikimedia Israel is a nonprofit organization representing the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization responsible for regularly maintaining Wikipedia and other free content initiatives.


The software that operates Wikipedia in all languages is called MediaWiki. Wikimedia Foundation workers distribute updated versions of this content management system in all languages. However, some local developments are relevant only to one or several languages.


Liron Dorfman serves in various positions at the Hebrew Wikipedia and Wikimedia Israel, inc. and currently works at ROM Knowledgeware.

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