Research:New editor support strategies/Teahouse p3

Editor has worked at the Teahouse since 2012, and is currently one of the most active hosts.


What got you started editing Wikipedia?

At some point in 2009 I decided I would start editing. A little bit of background, when I was younger, I was in my late 20s, I was a very active mountaineer. And one of the things that motivated me to be an editor is that I saw shortcomings in some of the articles about California mountaineering in particular, which is an area where I have a certain amount of knowledge. I've done a substantial amount of reading over the years. So that was one of the motivators for me to begin editing. To improve coverage of some of the climbers and some of the climbing history of California. But pretty quickly I took to Wikipedia editing. I really enjoyed it, I got a lot of positive feedback early on, so I kind of branched out and became a generalist. I work on a wide variety of topics these days. That's kind of how I got started.

Over the course of your time on Wikipedia, have you worked to support new editors in other ways on Wikipedia before you started at the Teahouse?

I was a volunteer with the Wikipedia in higher education program as an online classroom ambassador. I did that for a few semesters and in all honesty it was kind of frustration because my experience was that even though I made my services available and sent messages to students in various classes and so forth very rarely would anybody ask for my help. It seemed like I was spinning my wheels so when the Teahouse came along I had the same attitude towards the Teahouse as I did towards being an ambassador, but the Teahouse was very quickly very active and a lot of questions, a lot of inquiries coming in, so I kind of gravitated towards that.

Have you worked at any of the other Q&A forums on Wikipedia?

I'll occasionally ask a question at the Help Desk, or the Reference Desk, or people seem to come to my talkpage maybe because they see me on the Teahouse maybe because they want to approach me directly. And I participate in Edit a Thons a lot. So yeah, I just put myself out there as someone that people can come to if they have questions, problems or concerns. So that's the main thing that I do these days at least.

Is the Teahouse work and edit-a-thon work the majority of your participation in the movement these days, or just a subset of it?

Well I always consider myself a new content creator first. I've written roughly a hundred new articles and expanded several hundred others. I'm working on a new article right now today. And I upload a lot of photos to Commons and add them to Wikipedia articles and so, you know, it's a project to build an encyclopedia so to me encyclopedia articles, writing and illustrating encyclopedia articles come first, but helping other people learn how to do that is equally important, so I consider that an important part of my contribution to the project.

How did you find out about the Teahouse?

I probably heard about it from Sarah. Sarah is a personal friend of mine. [not captured]

You started participating in the Teahouse fairly early on.

I don't think at the very beginning, but probably within a couple of months of when it started.

Could you say a little more about why you started participating in the Teahouse specifically?

Well, when I got involved in the higher education program, I really wanted to help other people. There's some kind of, this is hard to explain, so indulge me: ever since I got involved as a Wikipedia editor, fairly soon after, I became aware of the controversies, interpersonal conflicts, the drama boards, ANI, all that stuff. I was very curious about why person A would come to Wikipedia and try to write one article and maybe have a bad experience, or not, and then disappear. Whereas person B came and maybe had a few bad experiences, maybe didn't, but got involved, wrote an article, wrote a second article, wrote a third, started helping people. So why does one person become a Wikipedian and another person doesn't? I still haven't figured that out, but one of the factors is a friendly, helpful greeting fairly early in the process. I just believe that the project is a very wonderful project and despite its many shortcomings, when I praise it I'm always well aware of the problems we have, but what human venture doesn't have problems? So basically I felt that the best I could contribute above and beyond my personal encyclopedia article writing was to help other newcomers, you know? So I don't know, it's my personality. Or my inclinations, whatever. It's just something that gives me a sense of accomplishment and self-gratification. So I help others, but I am helped by that because I like what I do and I feel that if I've had a positive interaction with somebody, and steered them in a positive direction as it were, then it's a good thing for the project, a good thing for human knowledge, a good thing for the world's greatest encyclopedia.

When you participate in the Teahouse, could you describe for me some of the kinds of things that you do?

Well, one thing that I like about the Teahouse in addition to what I've already said is that usually it doesn't take very long to answer a question. It's not like a major project. And, as I've explained to you in some of the emails we've exchanged, I have a very flexible and unusual work schedule. [not captured] Sometimes... I finish my day's work within 2-3 hours, other times... I'm on a job for 6-8 hours. But always I have a lunch break, so I have little blocks of free time. So one thing that I like to do when I have a little block of downtime is I go to Wikipedia, hit WP:THQ, you know the shortcut for the Teahouse, and look for fresh questions. And if there's a fresh question, I mean sometimes they ask about template editing which I have no expertise on and I'll just ignore it. But if it's something where I feel confident that I can be helpful to the person, it takes 5 minutes or less to answer a question and I can fill some free time by responding. So most of my Teahouse response is done on a SmartPhone. And it ties into my general Wikipedia editing. I'm a very heavy SmartPhone editor, and I'm an advocate of smartphone editing. [not captured] So in a certain sense, at a crass level, it's just a way to kill some free time. But it's a way to kill some free time that I find very gratifying, so that's what I do.

I hadn't expected this. You edit primarily on a smartphone. DO you use the mobile website, or one of the apps?

I use the desktop. I don't like the apps, I don't like the mobile site. I just use the desktop site on my SmartPhone. I just consider it to be the full-featured, easy to use site. People say "how can you read that small type?", well I hold the phone very close to my eyes. I don' t have any problems. Well, I won't say 'any' problems, because there are certain things that two 2-4 operations on a smartphone that only take 1 on a desktop, but I in general don't have any trouble with it.

You mentioned a moment ago that if a question is about a topic you don't have expertise in, you might let it slide. What are the questions that you might avoid answering or defer to another editor for?

Stuff that's highly technical. You know, I'm not a programmer, I have no trouble with WikiCode, but I don't know anything about, as I mentioned, template editing or you know the kind of behind-the-scenes technical aspects of, you know, bugs, technical updates, programming. Any of that kind of stuff, I know there are other Teahouse hosts that are much better than I am about that. Although if it's a highly technical question we usually tell people to go to the Village Pump, you know the technical section there. But I know what my strengths are and I know what my weaknesses are, so if I don't feel highly confident of giving a useful answer, I usually avoid answering. Sometimes I wade in over my head and somebody else comes along and straightens things out. But I try to stick to my areas of strength.

What do you consider to be your areas of strength?

Writing encyclopedia articles. Referencing, reliable sources, neutral point of view, you know the core content policies. Pretty conversant with all of those. A lot of people who come to the Teahouse are there to a greater or lesser extent are more determined than others, but a lot of people are there to promote themselves, their business, their favorite ideas, etc. So they kind of have problems with the Neutral Point of View, and yeah so I feel pretty confident in dealing with those types of editors and encouraging them to listen to the input of AfC reviewers. A lot of the questions we get are about the Articles for Creation process. I'm not an AfC reviewer myself, but I kind of observe that process from the outside, and feel kind of confident about giving tips about taking articles through that process. Basically, if I see a link to a draft article, many times the editor doesn't even mention what they're working on they just ask a quote "hypothetical" question but you know it's based on some encounter they've had in the last day or two and I just click on their contribs and find out what in heck they're talking about, and read it. And basically, I do a triage: if I feel like the topic that they're working on is truly a notable topic, then I try to be as helpful as possible, get them on the right track, and get them oriented towards writing a neutral, well-referenced encyclopedia article. On the other hand, if it looks like it's just overtly promotional and the topic they're working in truly isn't a notable topic then I'll try to talk them down and get them to understand that the encyclopedia is not there to promote their little start-up business, or garage band, or whatever it happens to be, you know?

You mentioned two scenarios. One where someone asks a question and it seems as though what they're trying to do is productive. And another scenario where it doesn't seem like the thing they're trying to do is something Wikipedia needs. Can you tell me about the approach you take in one scenario vs the other?

I guess if I think the topic is worthy of the encyclopedia then I'm going to try to encourage them. It's not black and white, there's a continuum between one extreme and the other. But let's say the topic is indisputably notable. And sometimes I've run across topics that I personally consider with a quick Google search to be indisputably notable but they've been shut down by two or three AfC reviewers. Because of the quality of their referencing, or tone issues. That's a word that AfC reviewers seem to use a lot. "It's not a neutral tone, or an encyclopedic tone". I'll encourage them and I'll state overtly "I think this is notable, I think this article needs to be in the encyclopedia, but these are the issues you need to address". It's like, cut out the references that are directly controlled or related by the topic, and try to find independent sources. I'll really emphasize the importance of sources. I think that for experienced editors, the quality of references, the sources that underlie the references. Or, sources that are out there in the real world that haven't yet been referenced. That's what experienced editors consider to be the 'gold'. The thing that makes an article possible. And I think that a lot of new editors, they don't really understand that. They don't see the importance that we place on independent sources, high quality sources, etc. And so they'll just throw in something from Facebook, something from the subject's own website, etc etc. Their own website can't be used, but I try to explain that the article should be built primarily on summarizing what independent sources say, what high quality sources say, and then you can kind of fill in the non-controversial details by referencing the person's own website, or social media page, or whatever. You know? So I just try to as briefly as possible explain the ethos of highly experienced editors. And what we're looking for, what we want, how an article should be structured, how an article should summarize what the published sources say. Because I see a lot of draft articles, a lot of articles by newcomers, and there's all kinds of content in there and it's completely unreferenced. And you know that the reason why it's unreferenced because it's "original research" in the sense that they're intimately familiar with the topic themselves, so they're doing their best to write up their own personal knowledge in an encyclopedic style. Which is understandable for a new editor, but it's not how we operate. So explaining to people is a big part of what we do at the Teahouse, I think.

You just said "That's not what we do at the Teahouse". That makes me curious about some of your impressions of other hosts at the Teahouse. What are your general impressions about how other hosts learn how to participate in the Teahouse?

Yeah, I would say that that's probably a bit of a weakness. In that there isn't really a way that I'm aware of at least, although I guess you know the talk page of the Teahouse might be this but it's not really that active... in other words there isn't a way for hosts to chit-chat with each other and interact with each other outside of the main Teahouse Question page. Some hosts do a little of that. There's one in particular who asks a lot of questions on the order of "what do other experienced editors think about this?" You know? ANd in a certain sense that's valuable but in another sense it's kind of a diversion from the main purpose of the Teahouse, you know? So I would say that you know some people come to it naturally, others don't. There are a lot of very good hosts. Some, who are very good a lot fo the time. sometimes they get too brusque, and too abrasive and confrontational with problematics newbies. And I've probably been guilty of that myself from time to time, but you know I believe that a really strong part of the ethos is that even if somebody's probably a jackass, that you should greet them, be friendly with them, and explain the policies in a fairly friendly and informative/helpful way. And sometimes I think that a few of the hosts are a little too brusque with the problematic newbies, but you know, everybody has their own style and so I try to lead by example. Whenever a new question comes up and I'm the first person to respond I always say "welcome to the Teahouse". That may seem formulaic and minor, but I just think that gets that interaction off on the right foot. And I try and again, sometimes I'm guilty of being a bit too brusque myself, but I try even when I perceive that I'm dealing with a troll or a jackass, I try to be friendly and helpful. I just think that that's the thing that sets the Teahouse off from other more confrontational spaces on Wikipedia. ANI being the most famous of those. I try to conduct myself differently.

When other hosts aren't acting in the spirit of the Teahouse, either in major ways or in minor was such as for example not welcoming someone in their reply. You say you lead by example, do you make a point of jumping into those threads and giving them feedback there? Do you ever reach out to them directly?

Yes, I try not to be argumentative with other hosts at the Teahouse itself, although occasionally if I disagree I'll say something like "I hate to disagree with my colleague so-and-so, but my interpretation is such-and-such", so I'll offer a counter view if I feel that somebody hasn't really handled the situation right. If I have a more major concern and I think that I really need to express directly, then I'll do it on their own talkpage. And that's usually in the case of inexperienced hosts, you know. I mean, whether or not they've officially signed up as a host, sometimes newer editors who really don't have the expertise to answer questions properly will start answering questions, and screw up the answers. And in those cases--I'm not saying it comes up all that often--but I and I know other experienced hosts will go to that person's talkpage and say "Hey, just lay off answering questions until you understand the policies and guidelines better." And I've done that a number of times. And usually it works, they just stop poking their nose in where it really isn't welcome.

Do you ever point people to the Host Expectations, that page with the five bullet points on it?

Probably less often than I should. Yeah, that's, I'm glad you asked that, I'll keep that in mind.

I'm curious about that because I imagine you were a part of developing those. We developed those all together at the beginning.

I think those were in place by the time I became an active editor. And I don't know if I've revewed them lately but my recollection is that there is one area there that I have a tiny bit of a problem with, which is that you're supposed to put a template on the talkpage of the person who posts, say that you've answered. And I use pings instead, and that's because I edit on my smartphone, so it's kind of cumbersome for me to template their talkpage. And I believe that when the Teahouse started, the ping process wasn't fully developed, it kind of came along better. So I would consider pinging to be equivalent to a talkpage template.

It's being used a lot less now because of the ping. The notification system wasn't around when we started the Teahouse. But we should update that. The whole idea was just to let people know that thy got a message.

I have noticed on a number of occasions that a lot of new users don't even know that they have a talkpage, and don't even know about what the orange bar at the top of the pages really mean, you know? So they're just kind of clueless about how we communicate with each other. One would assume that if somebody posts a question and doesn't even know about their talkpage and what the pings mean, then at least they would come back to the Teahouse and look at their own question a few hours later and see whether anybody responded.

You would assume that, yes. Whether or not people actually do it.

Yeah, not in 100% of cases.

Have you seen hosts for instance not welcome somebody, or potentially cite a lot of different obscure policies without explanation in their responses, and intervened to provide a welcome, or provide different citations or more context around the citations?

Yeah, I guess that happens sometimes. And it falls under the area of what I mentioned earlier about some of the hosts being a bit brusque. I'd say that most of the hosts will not use just, they won't just say WP:NPOV, at least they'll pipe to "Neutral Point of View" or something like that. So I don't see just the acronyms being used extensively in host posts. Trying to think... you know, it's like human beings are imperfect, so I can look at pretty much any answer, go back look at my own answers from a month ago, and say to myself "I probably could have done a little bit better there". You know? I would say that most of the active hosts, I'd say the biggest shortcoming of other active hosts that I'm aware of is a failure to greet. Some do, I'd say it's probably if I had to guess something like 20% of hosts include a greeting, but the majority just launch right into the answer, you know? And you know maybe think that that's businesslike and efficient, I don't know. So I suppose that if the overall tone and tenor of the answer is helpful, that probably the lack of a greeting isn't a fatal thing. But I try to model by example, and I try to greet people. But I would say in general, speaking of active hosts, meaning people who have answered dozens or hundreds of questions, that the majority of answers are pretty accurate and pretty helpful, and so I feel pretty good.

You created a host profile for yourself. A lot of hosts do that. But a lot of hosts don't create a profile. Even some of the most active hosts. What do think the significance of having a profile that describes something about yourself is? For new editors? For other hosts?

Well, you're probably better positioned than I am, because you know [nc] and I don't really, all that well. I don't know how often somebody who comes to the Teahouse really looks at the profile of the hosts. I was asked to do it, so I did it. But I don't know how often people actually look at my profile. I assume they look at my userpage more. And my userpage actually is much more detailed, more in-depth, and gives people more information about who I am and what I do. So you, know it's useful, it's good, and maybe people look at it because the Teahouse page displays the most active hosts, shuffles through the most active hosts' little icons and displays them at the top of the page and somebody can click on that, and learn a little bit more about us. Which I think is nice. I like the graphic design of the Teahouse. I know there's a lot of controversy about how we post at the top of the page. I don't really care really strongly about that particular issue. But I like the way the Teahouse looks graphically, and I feel that it's kind of a friendly, inviting look, and I like the fact that the little icons or photos of the various hosts display at the top of the page, so I think that that aspect of it is good. If somebody doesn't want to set up a host profile and formally register as a host, but they're there answering questions accurately and in a friendly fashion, I don't care one way or another. Everybody can do their own thing.

If it were possible and desirable, would you want people who answer questions to have to meet some criteria, or have to register and abide by the norms?

A formal user right, like autoconfirmed or whatever [nc] again, I don't have strong feelings one way or the other on that. I guess that I feel that sometimes people come out of the blue and I don't even recognize their name, and all of the sudden they're there at the Teahouse and giving very informative answers. And some of those people go and stick with the Teahouse, and maybe they split for 6 months and then pop their head back in. So I don't know, I guess I don't think that I would want to have that formal a restriction. But again I don't feel super strongly about it one way or the other. I took the requirements very seriously when I was talking to Sarah about it at the beginning for myself, but what I take seriously myself I don't necessarily think that I need to impose on everybody else, if you know what I mean.

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How is the Teahouse doing? As far as I can tell, you are the top Teahouse host, by seniority. In effect, you are kind of the head of the Teahouse in as much as that is a role. You certainly know your way around. What are your impressions of the Teahouse in 2016?

Well, let me say that I don't consider myself the head of the Teahouse. I recognize that I'm the most active host and the most senior host, but I don't have much interest in bossing other people around, if you know what I mean. Or playing on my experience to somehow gain more credibility than anybody else. Because if somebody comes in and they've only been a host for a month, but they're giving good solid answers, I consider them an equal. So I'm an egalitarian in that way. I'm not really interested in being the administrator of the Teahouse if there was any such position, so with that disclaimer I think we're doing a pretty good job, but we could do better. One area that I'm not well versed in and don't consider myself strong on is how the Teahouse is publicized to new editors. I haven't gone into that side of it, and so I believe that we could handle greater traffic with the current group of hosts, and if traffic increased because we publicized and it was necessary to recruit new hosts, then I would certainly be willing to play a role on that, but you know I could probably easily answer 2-3 times as many questions on average per day or per week as I do now. So I don't consider myself overworked at all with regards to the Teahouse. I think that we're providing a valuable service. We're not 100% [nc] ... my mild concern with some hosts being a little bit brusque and too businesslike and not friendly enough, so we can work on that for sure. But in general I believe that the Teahouse is providing a very, very valuable service and I'm just thrilled when either somebody thanks me, which doesn't happen a whole lot of the time, but when it does I'm pleased with that. When somebody comes to Teahouse manages to write a halfway decent encyclopedia article, especially if they go on to write two or three or five or ten more. To me that's what it's all about.

And that what really makes it feel personally fulfilling for you?

Absolutely. I can think of a couple of editors who came to the Teahouse when they first got involved and have gone on to become very, very productive editors over the long haul, and I'm very happy we were able to help them when they were newcomers.