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The Future of Editing in Web 2.0: Wikipedia and the Role of the Editor (Part 1)

Lara Tellis
by Lara Tellis

As a student in the Professional Communication program at Clemson University and a member of the technical editing SIG in STC, I wanted my master’s thesis to explore the challenges editors face in today’s world of rapidly changing technology. I was particularly interested in Web 2.0 as a vehicle for writers and editors to collaborate. In an article for IEEE Spectrum, Paul McFedries defined Web 2.0 “as a second phase in the development of the World Wide Web in which developers create Web sites that look and act like desktop programs and encourage collaboration and communication between users.” Formerly the domain of an elite circle of programmers, the World Wide Web can now be modified by just about anybody.

The Wikipedia Focus

Among the vast number of Web 2.0 platforms currently available to the general public (WordPress, PBWorks, and Scribd, to name a few), Wikipedia is arguably the most famous. While some applaud its accessibility and the rapidity with which it is updated, others deplore what they see as its lack of standards. If anybody can write or edit articles, how do we know which information can be trusted? The open process by which the Wikipedia editors socially construct the site’s content makes some doubt the encyclopedia’s validity.1 Looking at the discussion page of an article with multiple editors reveals debates about everything from how to avoid libel to the name of the article itself. Nothing is set in stone, so today’s decisions may be overturned tomorrow, and since it is impossible to please everybody, there will always be disgruntled editors who feel that an article is in some way “wrong.”

Choosing Articles

Given the vastness of my source material, I had to narrow my examination to three Wikipedia articles. The articles I chose were diverse both in topic and in quality. The Wikipedia editors have developed a quality scale with various ranks and the criteria an article must meet to obtain a certain rank.

1. Feature Article

According to Wikipedia’s own definition, “featured articles are considered to be the best articles in Wikipedia, as determined by its editors.” Before achieving the coveted feature designation, indicated by a bronze star in its top right corner, an article must undergo a rigorous nomination and review process to ensure that it meets the criteria of accuracy,neutrality, completeness, and style.

For my study, I chose an article that had achieved featured article status back in 2005: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”2

2. Stub Article

On the other end of the quality scale are stub articles. The Wikipedia definition of a stub is: “an article containing only a few sentences of text which is too short to provide encyclopedic coverage of a subject, but not so short as to provide no useful information, and it should be capable of expansion.” Any editor who sees an article meeting stub criteria can attach a stub tag to it. The stub tag indicates that the article is a stub and encourages editors to expand upon it.

The stub I chose to study is “2009 Northwestern Wildcats football team.” At the time of my study (September, 2009), this article was a stub. It had been created from a template and had a table to list information about each football game Northwestern University was scheduled to play in 2009; however, its lack of prose descriptions of the games led to its stub classification.

3. C Class Article

The third article I chose was in the middle of the quality scale, rated C class. This C class ranking is the equivalent of an average grade (an academic “C”). I chose the C class article, “Murder of Annie Le,” not because of its rank, but because it was created in response to a sensational event and expanded rapidly to include new information as it was discovered. In September, 2009, the investigation into the murder of Annie Le, a Yale graduate student who was found strangled to death in the campus lab where she worked, was heavily reported by the news media. This article illustrated one of the main strengths of Wikipedia: the capability to update information soon after it becomes available to the general public. I observed the article’s creation, rapid expansion, and settlement into a more stable rate of growth all within two weeks. Most of the information I discovered about how Wikipedia works was gleaned from my observations about “Murder of Annie Le.”

Insights Relevant to the Role of Editors in the Web 2.0 Environment

For this case study, I analyzed the revisions made to these three articles during the month of September, 2009. Thanks to Wikipedia’s revision history feature, which saves all previous versions of each article and gives users the option of comparing them, I didn’t have to do this study in real time. My coding scheme was a combination of categories developed by Dragga and Gong and Faigley and Witte.3

While the results of the data gleaned from my coding scheme were inconclusive, this process allowed me to make several insights relevant to the role of the editor in the Web 2.0 environment. Look for these results in the next issue of the Corrigo!

{FOOTNOTEAREA()For more information on the theory of social construction, see Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. /}

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