User:Julle/Essays/Wikipedia as a physical space

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This personal essay is an attempt to explain why the community reacts to changes and technical development the way it does. My background is on the one hand working for the Wikimedia Foundation, being part of the software development process, and on the other hand having been part of the Wikimedia community for more than a decade.

Wikipedia as a physical space[edit]

Wikipedia is sometimes compared to a library. A place where you go to find information on a large number of subjects, curated by the librarians. Every now and then someone might give the library a book they no longer have any use for. It makes perfect sense – for readers and the very occasional contributors.

Wikipedians interact with the encyclopedia quite differently.

Wikipedia is both a study and a living room. It's a place for toiling, with a desk and an office chair, the walls lined with reference books. At the same time it's a comfortable room with warm light and a nice couch. It's somewhere we go to do good work, make the world a better place. It's a place to hang out, too. Patrolling recent changes for vandalism is sitting back in the recliner, watching some semi-mindless television. It's a room to hang out with friends, grabbing a beer and having animated discussions about all the things we care about: the exact definitions of neutrality, whether a specific type of template should be used or not, what pronouns are acceptable in encyclopedic text. And most importantly: it's our living room. We run these projects. On many sites we use on a daily basis, we're comfortable but aware that we're guests, invited to someone else's house. Not so on Wikipedia. Like any tenant, we feel that the apartment is ours, not the landlord's.

Technical development has to take into account that while the library, the study and the living room are fairly different concepts, they inhabit the same space. The room is cluttered with tools. This is a problem for the library, because they get in the way of reading, but hiding them from sight would mean that readers are shut out of the study. Close that door, and the chances of them sitting down in the office chair dwindles. This is reasonably easy to grasp. More easily forgotten is the living-room aspect.

If you one morning find out that your landlord has painted the walls in your living room bright yellow during the night, this might be a bit upsetting. Maybe the old paint was peeling. Maybe any new visitor would say it's an improvement. You're still surprised and a little bit rattled, and no, you don't consider that sign on the notice board you never look at satisfactory warning. Yes, maybe the radio next to the blown-glass moose isn't that necessary now that you can stream radio from the internet, but you like it.

We need to be comfortable in our space. Feeling at home is what allows us to take initiative and make decisions. It gives us the mandate to act when acting is necessary. It lets us return to spend hours upon hours making the encyclopedia better.

The Wikimedia projects are a concrete apartment block from the 60s. Not built to modern standards. In need of renovation. The old, smelly carpet is still there, under the floorboards from the 90s. The tenants want things to get fixed. They have, however, got used to some things. Learned to work around them. Maybe that thing is even what makes it feel like home. They agree some things are to be done. They are still prone to dislike whenever someone walks into their living room to make something a little bit prettier if it doesn't fix what they consider to be a real problem. They do consider it to be their space. They're anxious their guests are to have a good time, but they still have ideas and strong opinions on how their living room is to be furnished.

They know the space, after all.