Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Wizard of Wiki

Ever wonder who those people are who leave all those reviews on Amazon? Or who seem to find time to post 25 new YouTube videos a day, or link to story after story on Digg? In a new series of interviews, SMITH unearths some of the people who have made many, many contributions to the Net, each in their own particular way, while remaining mostly under the radar. Where better to begin than the wild, unwieldy, and wonderful world of Wikipedia? Meet Richard Farmbrough, a 45-year-old technology project manager living in Stamford, England—and the man with the most Wiki entries since its launch on January 15, 2001. SMITH contacted him via email.

SMITH: What’s Stamford like?

Richard Farmbrough: Stamford is a pleasant market town in the East of England region, it is generally affluent, and near the city of Peterborough. It has good transport links and an interesting history—see the Wikipedia article of the same name.

SMITH: Why the urge to write and edit so many entries?

Wikipedia is such a good resource, it seems a shame to let gaps remain unfilled, or errors go by uncorrected. This is also in keeping with a community value indicated by the neologism “sofixit”—in other words, on Wikipedia, you are empowered to resolve problems, rather than relying on someone else to do it for you. Of course, some things require collaboration through talk pages and the many wiki-projects that cover everything from specialist subjects to article clean-up and helping new editors find their feet.

SMITH: How did you get involved with Wikipedia?Like most Wikipedians, I started with a minor edit, on a “talk page” (a page where an article is discussed). In my case, I increasingly found that I was, at that time, in a position to add to, correct or create many articles. After some time, I started reading the documents about Wikipedia and how it works, and realized that we were creating good content but with lots of stylistic, spelling, grammatical and other gaffes.
Wikipedia has a Manual of Style, so I read that, and started fixing “violations” wherever I came across them—such as by effectively proofreading, and to some extent, sub-editing. I became frustrated with finding the same errors again and again, and created tools to help find and eliminate them. Round about then, I came across Wikipedia “bots,” or robots, and started using one to fix common errors. That’s under a separate account and is, I believe, the Wikipedia editor with the most edits.

SMITH: What was the first entry you ever wrote or edited?

My first article edit was to Modafinil a keep-awake drug I was investigating at the time. It’s pleasing to see the short article that was there then is now a substantial overview of the drug. The first article I created (you can’t really say you “wrote” an article on Wikipedia, since they are never finished, and have many editors) was Projective frame which is about a mathematical concept that has also been improved substantially–and the same day (I must have been getting into my stride) Ohio House of Representatives with a couple of lines, that are now a reasonable article, Spaghetti House siege substantially as it is now, and Black Liberation Army which again has grown to a reasonable article from my couple of lines.

SMITH: What do your mates think of how much time you spend on Wikipedia?

Actually, I don’t spend all that much time on Wikipedia. I rarely get involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff; although, as an “administrator,” I get asked to help deal with vandals and disruptive behavior. Nor am I involved, at the moment, in anything that takes extensive research. Most of my edits (but by no means all) are minor clean-ups that take a few seconds—that’s the main reason I have so many edits.

SMITH: If somebody were to find out that you had the most entries and wanted to beat your record, what would you do? Would you pull all-nighters to retain your crown?

I would encourage them to make sure that their edits were adding something of value. “Editcountitis” is a well-known affliction in the Wiki community, and to try and reduce it, I would freely state that I consider many editors have made more valuable contributions to the ‘pedia than I have. Of course, it’s “nice” to be at the top of the (human) list—especially as I considered it completely out of the question to be in the top 100 when I first saw it. But really, it’s not that big a deal; I don’t mention it on my user page, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it to my family or friends.

SMITH: Do you have any other obsessions besides Wikipedia?

Well, I am not actually obsessed with Wikipedia, despite appearances! If I am obsessed with anything, it is continuous improvement. I see Wikipedia as an example of this, as well as my own personal and family development. And the charity I’m involved with, which is trying to improve the education system.

SMITH: Do you think Wikipedia is a better source of information than going to the library?

In some ways. The question only makes sense if you state who is looking for what, and which library is involved. For example, if you have a university library available to you, you will get more and better information on most subjects, except, perhaps, popular culture. If you only have a small-town library, you can probably find out as much or more from Wikipedia on many subjects, but it will be “chunked” differently—it might not be easy to learn calculus, certainly not Linux or Anglo-Saxon from Wikipedia (although, there are sister wikis which address these types of needs). The Wikipedia community has a strong belief in maintaining the goal of building an encyclopedia, rather than a how-to resource, a dictionary (though there is also Wiktionary) or “an indiscriminate collection of information.”

SMITH: Tell us a story about yourself that you haven’t told anybody in a long time.

When I was about eight or nine, I was given a Junior Pears Encyclopedia–a single volume of about 600 pages. Not long after that, I decided it would be extremely useful to have a “book of everything,” since there was clearly a lot of ground missed out in this one. My book would probably have to run to several volumes, perhaps five or ten. I started by preparing some re-cycled envelopes where I could collect information, “The Elements” “The Solar System” “Napoleon” and “Nelson” were a few. Realizing I knew very little about Nelson and Napoleon, I made a trip to the largest local library I could get to, took one look at the biography shelves, and realized the futility of my endeavor. Twenty something years later, the Internet in general and Wikipedia in particular have re-awakened that boyhood dream.

SMITH: What’s next for you on Wikipedia?

I’d like to create a mathematical model of the trends, to investigate how we best go about keeping the vitality of the enterprise without compromising content. It seems to me that while Wikipedia may be the embryonic form of something we don’t yet understand, it may also suffer from stultification and rot; when all the “easy” articles have been written and polished, who will keep an eye on minor jazz singers dates of birth.

SMITH: If you could describe your experience as a Wikipedia writer in six words, what would they be?

Cool, frustrating, satisfying, friendly, challenging, educational.

You can find the actual article here: http://smithmag.net/2007/06/21/the-wizard-of-wiki/
Picture found at: http://www.wikipedia.org/

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