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  • This is how the New Hampshire wikipedia page looked on the day it was created, 27 Jan. 2001. The person who created it no longer has a wikipedia account. It was called "NewHampshire" at the time; nine months later, it was changed to "New Hampshire" by a person in Melbourne, Australia, who decided on a whim to fix up articles about U.S. states.
  • This is how the New Hampshire page on wikipedia looks today. There are also wikipedia articles about hundreds of towns and cities in the state, all the major mountains and other geographic figures, state history, culture, etc. There's even an article titled "Music of New Hampshire" which has a long paragraph about the various state songs that have been proposed.
Sunday, January 3, 2010

N.H. Wikipedia editor says site isn’t going anywhere

David Brooks

Perhaps you’ve heard some news reports that say Wikipedia is fading? Don’t tell that to Ken Gallager.

“If it shut down, it would be pretty horrific,” Gallager, 46, said during a recent phone interview. “Before Wikipedia, when I’d do Google searches, you’d look up a book, find 100 different Web sites selling the book, but hardly anything written about the book. … I’d hate to see trying to do searches go back to that pre-Wikipedia era.”

There’s another reason not to tell him: He doesn’t believe it.

“It’s like you’re on Facebook and they make some changes, and suddenly everybody gets alarmed and panicked,” he said. “There’s always going to be some kind of drama about how things are going and where they’re going. But I haven’t seen any change.”

Why is Gallager’s opinion worthy of note? Because amid the thousands or tens of thousands of people who spend time on the “encyclopedia that anybody can edit,” he is the premier editor for New Hampshire-related articles.

That’s only my opinion, but since I’ve been a Wikipedia regular for three-quarters of its existence, my opinion counts.

“Oh, I don’t think so. I’m not alone in terms of people wanting to make sure that things about the state are reasonable,” Gallager said hastily when this opinion was conveyed to him.

Besides, he added, “There are plenty of articles I don’t look at.”

Plenty of articles – now, there’s a relevant phrase.

In preparation for this story, I tried to count how many Wikipedia articles cover New Hampshire topics, from “Isles of Shoals” to “Holman Stadium (Nashua),” from “Alan Shepard” to “Judd Gregg,” from “Free State Project” to “America’s Stonehenge,” not to mention “Hairy hand case.” (More on that in a moment.)

But I gave up: There are literally thousands, maybe tens of thousands, and more arrive weekly.

So, how can people say Wikipedia is fading?

Actually, nobody did. What happened is that a researcher at a Spanish university analyzed Internet logs and concluded that editors – a loose term for anybody who makes any change to any article – were fleeing the site, apparently because its mind-boggling growth has made it too complicated, or perhaps too rule-bound.

Specifically, the researcher said 49,000 people had stopped editing on Wikipedia in the first three months of 2009, 10 times the figure of the same period in 2008.

Still, the idea that “people are fleeing Wikipedia” produced much discussion in online circles.

The folks overseeing the site disagreed, saying the researchers were unclear about how to count actual editors. They claim the number of people doing edits has been stable since 2007.

In Wikipedia’s own discussion forums, many folks opined, both pro and con. They tended to say either “Of course that’s true, the place has become a legalistic enclave controlled by a clique that is driving everybody away,” or “We’re fine, it’s just the stupid media getting everything wrong again.”

Despite my long experience with Wikipedia – I’ve played around with it since January 2003, when it was less than 2 years old, and am one of several thousand “administrators,” a title that doesn’t mean much – I was unsure, so I thought I’d check with the only other New Hampshire resident who I know is an expert.

Gallager and I have crossed paths regularly on Wikipedia over the years because we both keep an eye on various New Hampshire articles. (Gallager has about 2,000 articles on his “watchlist,” which notifies him whenever something is done to any of those articles. My watchlist is at 841.)

I haven’t directly communicated with him before, but thought it would be interesting to hear his opinion about this issue – partly because he has done a lot of work on Wikipedia in the three years since he came across it, but also because Gallager is a model of what a Wikipedia editor should be.

For one thing, he edits under his actual name rather than some goofy pseudonym, a sign that he’s approaching this like an adult.

For another, he sticks to topics he knows. He knows New Hampshire, since he lives here and does plenty of outdoorsy stuff in the state. Also, he works for the state government in mapping, so he understands geography and geology and such topics

Finally, he’s calm. Gallager doesn’t get sucked into “edit wars” and other online spats, beyond an occasional polite back-and-forth over part of an article, such as whether to include mention of creationist School Board debates in the article about Merrimack.

He is happy just to apply his knowledge in small, but useful ways, such as organizing U.S. Geological Survey data about locations or ensuring that each of the hundreds of towns and cities that have articles are listed in the right county.

So, when he says he hasn’t noticed any decline in Wikipedia participation or the way it functions, you can believe him.

Wikipedia has plenty of faults, including deliberate vandalism that has led to a crackdown on how easy it is to edit articles, particularly articles about living people. Teachers are correct to tell students they shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source for papers; like any secondary source (tertiary, actually), it’s a great place to begin research, but a poor place to end it.

Having said that, I never cease to be amazed at what Wikipedia has become. When idle curiosity led me to create my first article (about British naturalist Gerald Durrell), I never, ever, ever would have believed that the amorphous, quarrelsome semi-cooperation of unpaid online volunteers could create such a stupendous wealth of interconnected knowledge.

Gallager shares my astonishment at the breadth and depth of Wikipedia and how it has just grown organically, with minimal guidance.

Here’s his favorite example of its weirdly powerful reach:

Many article about cities, counties or states include a list of “notable inhabitants.” This is a vague category, so it attracts plenty of vandalism (“Jamie, cause he’s a cool dood!”), plus arguments about who should be included. But sometimes it includes a gem.

The article about Berlin, N.H., includes this gem: “George Hawkins, the victim of a bad skin graft that led to the celebrated “Hairy Hand” case of Hawkins v. McGee.”

“The ‘hairy hand’!” said Gallager, delighted at the thought. “Without Wikipedia, I never would have heard of it.”

But that isn’t the end of it. The sentence includes a hyperlink to a Wikipedia article about that case, which begins like this: “Hawkins v. McGee, 84 N.H. 114, 146 A. 641 (N.H. 1929), is a leading case on damages in contracts handed down by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. This case is also famous for its mention in the John Jay Osborn, Jr., book, ‘The Paper Chase,’ and in the film version of that work, as well as its use in legal education.”

Encyclopedia Brittanica would never have included that in a thousand years.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.