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The Longest Now

How to criticize Wikipedia: Lesson 1, Constructive criticism
Wednesday September 13th 2006, 12:01 am
Filed under: poetic justice

Welcome back to “How to criticize Wikipedia”, a series for bloggers and others hoping to change Wikipedia for the better.  After a brief delay, reporting live from Abuja, here is the first lesson, on constructive criticism.

Criticizing Wikipedia is a serious undertaking, and not one to be picked up lightly. You may have the world’s most incisive criticism of Wikipedia; but if you can’t express yourself in a way that will make any community member listen, being incisive won’t be enough.   Be sure that you

  • read up on past discussions along the same lines,
  • respect and take advantage of the way the Wikipedia community welcomes and responds directly to criticism,
  • place with care any criticisms, first identifying the 2 or 3 best places for them
  • assume good faith of others when wording criticisms.

Reading up: for one thing, most criticisms about Wikipedia and how it has treated your favorite writer, contributor, subject, biography, or ideology have already been stated somewhere, with cross-references and ensuing discussion and refinement, somewhere on Wikipedia itself.  For another, many controversial aspects of Wikipedia have also been the topic of policy debates, even proposed and adopted policy, and community WikiProjects.  Try searching WP for topics related to your criticism before typing out a new manifesto.

Respect:  Most organizations and most websites provide only for closed-circuit feedback and complaints.  Respect the open channels available to you (as well as the zealots and lunatics) for criticisms and discussions, avoid abusing them,  and recognize that those responding to you also spend their time responding to the aforementioned zealots and lunatics, and mistake the seriousness of your criticisms if they are in a hurry.  (They may also have had the same discussion a dozen times before.)  If someone snaps at you, don’t instantly snap back; it takes at least two for a critical debate to degenerate into a flamefest.

Place with care: The fact that you can post your criticism to the personal talk pages of every active community member, and to every discussion portal, does not mean you should do so.  Find one place to make your point clearly and solicit discussion, and no more than two other places where it or related topics are already being discussed, from which to link to your point.  When in doubt, ask on the Village Pump where to put such criticism; the community members likely to respond will know where all the policy and discussion pages are, even if you don’t.

Assume good faith: The contributors to the site are not part of a great conspiracy; do not share any uniform political, religious, or editorial goals; do not hate you; and are not ignoring what you have to say.  They do not all speak with one voice.  A couple of editors, even if they are 2 of the 1000 administrators on en:wp, do not represent the “view” of the entire project, nor any significant subset of it.  Individual editors may be immature, in a bad mood, uninterested in dealing with criticisms of the site.  The body of editors as a whole responds well to gracefully-put criticism, and even encourages and highlights it:

How to criticize Wikipedia: Lesson 1, Constructive criticism …

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