Research:New editor support strategies/Teahouse p2

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Editor has worked at the Teahouse since 2012 or 2013. Currently highly active on Teahouse and Help Desk.

Session video (YouTube)


What got you started editing Wikipedia in the first place?

I was thinking about this. I remember finding Nupedia and going "oh wow, I want to be part of this" and then going "hmm, I don't see where I can contribute". And then I didn't notice what was happening. I wasn't following it. And so I don't know how it was after Wikipedia was launched that I discovered it. It wasn't right away. But I was excited by the concept. I was already into Open Source work and I saw it an extension of that to more people. SO something that I could contribute to in that way I was excited by from the beginning. I did the usual things of finding some topics that interested me and enthusiastically editing without having any understanding of the principles of verifiability and referencing which in those days was more common, or you could get away with it then. I'm not proud of what I wrote in those days and I keep thinking I should go back and fix some of them. I don't think I ever created an article I remember there was one I was going to, found it didn't exist, and a few days later went and looked and a few days later someone had created it. I've contributed to some. You may have noticed if you've looked at my contribution history that something like three quarters of my edits are not in article space. I haven't done a great deal of work on articles. I've done a lot of little stuff. But once I discovered the help desk, and there was another beginner's thing that got closed down when the Teahouse was invented. It's still there in the category.

Yeah, the new contributors help forum which I think now redirects to Teahouse.

Yeah, so I was working on both of those. I'm the sort of person who likes nothing more than helping people. Indeed, it's been noted that sometimes I force my attentions on people that don't actually want to be helped, and that's a thing to curb. So, those are where I spend my time. I look at generally 5 pages. The Teahouse, Help Desk, and three sections of the reference desk that interest me. I may go elsewhere but those are my staple.

How did you find out about the Teahouse, do you remember?

No, I don't remember. But the chances are it was from the Help Desk talkpage. I would guess. I may say that I don't really, I'm not at all sure that there is an advantage to having two separate, to having the Help Desk and the Teahouse separate. I tend to treat them both more or less the same. I for example after the first one or two occasions at which I answered at the Teahouse somebody took me aside and said there is actually some guidelines for how to host it which I hadn't seen at that point, but I find that the sort of welcoming and so on, I do at the Help Desk as well, nearly always. So to me I don't operate much of a difference between them. But how I found it in the first place don't remember. This is a bit discursive but, last year I went to a meetup in Manchester, the only one I've been to, which was very interesting meeting other people, other Wikipedians. And I was quite taken aback to find that they didn't know what I was talking about when I talked about the Teahouse. I sort of assumed everybody would know but these people were into governance of MediaWiki UK, and they just didn't know about the Teahouse. I guess the whole thing is so huge that nobody can know all of it and people have their different areas of interest.

I'm similarly surprised when I find that people in the Movement generally, or at the Wikimedia Foundation, or on English Wikipedia, don't know about the Teahouse. Can you tell me a little bit about why you started participating at the Teahouse? Sounds like you were already active in the help spaces, but was there anything about the Teahouse that made you decide that it was particularly worthwhile, or was it just that this is just another help space.

No, it was just another help space.

Looking back at the way you've participated in the Teahouse over time, tell me a little bit about what you generally do around the Teahouse project. What kind of activities do you perform? Are there particular types of questions you gravitate towards, or situations? Yeah, a little bit about what you see your role as.

Well the first thing I'll say is that I rarely put links on anybody's userpage, or was it user talk page? User talkpage, isn't it. I know some Teahouse hosts will often say "I've put some links on your talkpage". That's something I've never done. In a way I can't see the point. Sometimes I'll give them links on the Teahouse page because it's clear that... [nc]

My apologies, I wanted to just clarify. You're speaking primarily of links to help pages, policy pages, things like that.

Yes, so when I'm answering a question, I tend to answer it there rather than putting stuff on their user talk page. I can see arguments both ways, but I do that. I guess I always have the hope that the next person coming along with a question will actually read what's in the page, but there's abundant evidence that most of them don't. So that's the first thing about how I do it. What do I do? I tend to avoid giving help on questions about editing contentious pages. I don't  do it myself, I don't want to get into those confrontations so while I know the policies it tends to be something I don't wade in and guide.

What are some examples of contentious pages or contentious scenarios?

One that comes up quite a lot, although I've only seen one recently, is about disputed borders. From time to time you get somebody posting a rather belligerent message about "you've got this wrong, the border isn't there it's there." And I won't pick up those unless I see they go a few days and nobody else has. Equally, there was one today I think. "This title is wrongly titled, it says [assassin] he's a freedom fighter." And I don't go into those. I suppose that's partly because when I'm on the Help Desks generally—I really don't distinguish which one—I really not interested in the content. They're really not supposed to be about the content anyway. I'm often directing people to the talkpages anyhow. But I'm much more interested in guiding people about how to do, how to play the game. In fact, that's a metaphor that I've often whether we shouldn't actually use sometimes. It might be confusing. You know, I've wanted to say sometimes "you're playing Wikipedia's game, you need to play by Wikipedia's rules." But I'm afraid that people will take that the wrong way and think I'm saying it's not serious.

Tell me a little about how you... it sounds like you don't generally come out and emphasize that it's a game, or it's a particular way of writing, a particular way of collaborating.

Oh, I do that. It's just I think the idea of a game and playing by the rules would be very helpful, but I'm cautious about using it because people might interpret it as taking us over into a different area. No, I find myself quite often making a point that I've not seen in this form on any of the help pages. And perhaps I ought to put it somewhere, at least for discussion. Which is I say that Wikipedia is not interested in what the subject or their associates say about them at all. It's only interested in what other people have published about them. That's obviously implicit in policies, but it's not something I've seen expressed anywhere. But I've said it repeatedly. And recently I find I've been saying it more often on the help pages.

Why do you think that is? Do you think you have more occasion to say it, or do you think you just come to find that argument particularly useful?

Both. I think there is more. Probably as Wikipedia has become more familiar to more people without understanding what we're about, there are more people coming in and doing it their way. Or, maybe there always have been. That's how I started. It wasn't COI in that sense, but it was still without the attention to verifiability and sourcing and that. Another one I've been doing for a bit longer is explaining notability not quite in the terms that it's presented, but in terms of what I think is the justification for it. Which actually comes from the same as what I've just been saying, that's a new way of putting it. I've been saying that if there are reliable sources that we can write an article from, then we can write an article. If there isn't, then we can't. We call that notability. So trying to explain what's behind the principle of notability, or the application of it. Tho I suppose in a sense that's my own take on it. I haven't seen that argument laid out anywhere, and I don't know whether that's why the principle of notability was established. That's an assumption on my part.

But it's a way to use the principle of notability without necessarily having to address the origins of it. It strikes me as a very practical approach to explaining notability.

Well, yes. I'm trying to give some rationale for it so that it doesn't appear arbitrary, which it can, especially when you're talking to somebody who doesn't understand why their favorite topic is not passing it when other stuff exists.

Thinking about some of the core policies and the Pillars, what are some of the other core concepts that you've tried to, or find yourself trying to explain to new editors, that they seem to struggle with alot? And how do you try to explain that to them in a way that is productive?

Well, independence of sources is one. The first thing that I shared that I've been using is trying to address that. Original research? No, not so much. I don't know that there are any others particularly. They all come up, but most of them are fairly easy I think to put across. Their application in particular cases might be trickier, but that's... no, nothing comes to mind.

What are some of the issues that you see most often, in terms of the kinds of questions that users have and what's behind those questions?

"Why was my article deleted" or "declined" is by far the most common. One that has, I think, decreased a bit and I take some credit for that, I recently a few weeks ago I edited the page Your First Article to take out any suggestion of creating an article without using Articles for Creation. It's mentioned in passing that you can, but previously it was written as it was at the time, it was written as though that was the way and as an afterthought it said "you might want to consider Articles for Creation". After discussion I turned that round, and it now says "use Articles for Creation unless you're sure you can get your article right the first time". Which I think has made a difference. Not a huge one, because the majority of people who show up there haven't read it either way. But I'm happier directing people to it.

Have you participated in Articles for Creation?

No, I have never created one.

No, I mean, do you review drafts?

Oh, I see have I reviewed. No, actually. I have sometimes given feedback on a draft article when there's a question about it shown on the Teahouse. But I've never done a formal review. I've got the reviewer rights, but I've just never done it. I guess that's a level of organization? Not quite.


Formalism that I've not wanted to...

And why is that?

That's a good question. I think actually that the reason is that I regard working on Wikipedia as a leisure activity, not a work activity. I've only just caught that, I'm glad you asked me the question. That also would explain why a year or two back somebody was setting up a new mentoring program and asked me to be involved, and I sort of said "yes" and actually I didn't do anything with it. And I think that's the same reason. It's like... I'm glad you've asked that and it's opened up in my mind because I hadn't been thinking about this. The truth is that until now is that I've avoided taking on any commitments, I just do things. That's an interesting point. That's the answer!

That's a great answer. Thinking about editing as a leisure activity, is there anything about the Teahouse or the Help Desk or the kind of work that you're doing there... what is it about that work that makes it feel less like work than doing something more formal?

Partially it's because I can do what I want. I can look at the questions and it's often that I can say "I'm not going to try that one, I'll leave it to someone else". If I were in a different mood then I would take that one. I don't have a responsibility, I mean I do in some sense obviously but now I can just take it or leave it. Is that all? There's more of it than that. Yeah, I guess there's also something about not being required to make decisions, which then.... [not] being responsible for somebody else's experience. But then again, every time I answer somebody I'm responsible for part of their experience, but in a different way. I suppose that's... is that just because it's a personal role, personal activity? Rather than if I were to review in a sense that's as part of Wikipedia, isn't it? Taking on a corporate role in a sense. I'm exploring this as I think about it obviously.

Are there other types of, outside of Q&A spaces, other types of particular new editor support or curation work that you do? Reviewing, however lightweight or heavyweight it might be, welcoming, recent changes, new pages feed, anything like that that you participate in?

Not with any regularity. Very rarely look at new pages. I sometimes go random and tend to tag pages that I see a problem with. Of course that's not generally to new editors. Although... no, I don't think so.

Do you ever use any tools like Twinkle, or Huggle, or anything like that?

I use Twinkle. That's the only one. When I was at the Meetup I was talking about, they showed me how to use the external Java vandalism tool.

Autowikibrowser, or Huggle?

Maybe it was Huggle. The one to detect vandalism and revert vandalism. Huggle. I used that a few times but actually I haven't used it for a long time, I realize. I've never used AWB. But Twinkle I use a fair bit.

What do you generally use Twinkle for?

For tagging, and very occasionally for AfD. I've done very few deletion requests. I'm not sure if I've ever done a PROD, and hardly any Speedys. A few AfDs.

So thinking about your work on Teahouse and the Help Desk. You've said that you consider them to be just equivalent Q&A forums. I'm curious if you find that the types of questions that are asked, or the types of people that come to those forums are any different?

I don't think so. I don't know but not that I've noticed. If you think about it, if a new person realizes that they want to ask for help, okay there's various ways to look for it and they'll see both on the list. I would have thought that a lot of people would just go to something called the Help Desk without noticing other options. No, I'm not conscious of any sort of systematic difference.

I'm curious because for the Teahouse my bot invites a lot of new editors. They get an invitation to come.

Oh, right.

And a lot of AfC reviewers will put a Teahouse invitation when they decline.

Yes, I've seen that sometimes.

Whereas the Help Desk is linked to from the standard Welcome template, and also from a variety of other pages that are linked from the left-hand nav of Wikipedia. So it's also easy to get to, but I think it's less likely that people will be specifically invited to the Help Desk. So I wonder if you thought that might affect the kinds of questions that came up there.

It's perfectly possible there are some. I really, for me they don't have a particular difference except for the annoying reversal of the order.

I have to claim full responsibility for that <Off-topic discussion>

That was a side issue. It wouldn't surprise me if somebody produced an analysis which shows that there was a systematic difference, but I'm not conscious of it.

In terms of the way people other than you answer questions, the kinds of answers they give, and the way they address the questioners, do you find there's any sort of difference between the Teahouse and the Help Desk?

A little bit. I think hosts follow the policy of trying to answer in words rather than give links, but to some degress that leaks over to the Help Desk as well. I don't think there's a huge difference. But I think, answering on the Teahouse hosts are more aware that they're talking to new people.

Whereas the Help Desk, do you think that the Help Desk sees more traffic from people who aren't brand-new users, since it's kind of a general purpose site that's explicitly for everybody?

I think so. Not a huge amount. I think the bulk of the questions on the Help Desk could be on Teahouse. But there are some more experienced people asking there.

Do you find there are other hosts like you who regularly answer questions in both places?

Once again I'm stuck because I don't distinguish between them. My immediate answer would be Cullen328 but I actually don't know whether he's on the Help Desk or not. I'd be amazed if I now discovered he doesn't frequent the Help Desk but I simply don't know because I don't really distinguish them. I have great respect for him as a Host.

Like you, he's another one of the founders who's been consistently highly active for the majority of the Teahouse's existence.

And he's very diplomatic as well.

Talk about that. What are some of the different... you've talked about the way you've tried to address newcomers and the way you've tried to provide your responses to be most productive. What are some of the strategies you've seen for responding to let's just talking to good faith newcomers. I know we've talked about trolls and unproductive editors. But what are some of the most productive strategies for providing useful support. I'm not asking you to name specific editors, I'm just asking about the kind of strategies people use.

The thing that stands out is that sometimes you get an answer from a less experienced host sometimes one who really doesn't have enough experience, which just in my view isn't helpful because it's either assuming more than the new editor can be expected to know or doesn't put themselves in that person's place. On the other hand as I said I describe Cullen as diplomatic and over and again I read his replies and I admire how his clarity, but also that he doesn't make wrong. I hope that I don't.

I'm sorry, what?

He doesn't make wrong. He's not making the person wrong.

So you're saying that he's abstracting the question away from whether this person is doing the right or wrong thing and make it a little less personal. It's not about them being right or wrong, it's about trying to explain how the issue that they have is related to the way Wikipedia works, or maybe a different understanding they might have about how things are done. is that it?

That's part of it. The other part of it is that what he tends to do I think is he validates what they're doing.

Interesting. Could you give an example of that? Or even a representative fictitious example?

Having said it it kind of goes out of my mind. I'm not sure that I can. Maybe if I had a look at the desk now I'd find one. But probably not.

Yeah, it's hard to come up with these things. If you do think of anything later, feel free to email me or post on my talkpage any particular examples of things that you consider to be good answers, whether they're by Cullen or somebody else. Because I'm always interested in what hosts consider to be really good examples of this kind of work.


It's hard to answer from what you've said, but I would think so. Are we thinking of something that in a way is like a chat, rather than a forum, or?

Real-time chat would probably not be part of it, part of that interface, just because that's a whole new ballgame as far as Wikipedia software is concerned. But it could be kind of a combination of a Teahouse and something like Twinkle where you have many options for how you could respond, and that could involve....