'Converting' the tribe

As this is the first post since being added to Wikimedia Planet I’d better make it a good one!

Those who know me will know that I’m especially keen to see professionals with expert knowledge in a particular area join up to the Wikimedia movement. Furthermore, you might know that I’m particularly keen on museums and galleries (more about them later). The argument that we’ve already taken the “low hanging fruit” on [the English] Wikipedia only gives added impetus to our challenge to seek out and convince experts to share with us what they have learnt over a lifetime of study. The trick is how to do it…

Personally, I think the most effective method of getting experts  is not to try and convince people one-by-one to write on Wikipedia. This might work, but it doesn’t scale and its inefficient in terms of evangelist resources. Rather, I argue that we should be targeting people in positions of authority (especially persuasive authority).

Let me explain:

In Malcom Gladwell’s bestselling popular psychology book “The Tipping Point” he describes how Christian missionaries were so successful in converting rural communities across the globe. Rather than try to convert the whole tribe at once, or going house to house, they converted the existing charismatic leader in the community. We all know that you can be told something by an advertisement 50 times but when that same thing is told to you by someone you look up to, then you actually start to listen. That’s the power of personal recommendation. The Christian missionaries didn’t convert all the tribespeople, no. They converted one person and then the rest of the tribe converted themselves.

So, if we want to reach out to expert communities we first need to lower the barriers to their entry in the first place (such as the usability initiative – Forza!) but then we need to identify leaders in that area and teach them as much as we can – in order that they can teach their colleagues. Our efforts so far in working with scientists have been pretty good. They like us, they’re technically minded, they’re very computer literate, they’re used to open-access. None of these things are the case for the (old-school) of the museum sector – my favourite expert group which I mentioned in the first paragraph – and that’s where all the beautifully hidden expertise lies.

Unlike scientific articles in Wikipedia, articles which pertain to museum and gallery objects (paintings, sculptures, artifacts) rarely have any references back to the institution that actually works with/owns/displays that object. For example we recently displayed a featured article on the main page of Wikipedia about a painting, [[The raft of the Medusa]] – but the link to the catalogue record for the painting in the gallery that owns it – the Louvre – was not added until after it had left the main page. This indicates that we are completely ingoring the people that know most about the subject of these kinds of articles – the museums and galleries that actually own them!

Therefore, what I propose is one painting. Rather than to try and ‘convert the whole tribe’ in museums and galleries, I suggest that we go to our local gallery and ask them to chose one painting. Just one. Chose one that’s out of copyright and that’s not even currently on display – it all lowers the barriers to their participation. Find the curator who is most interested in Wikipedia – they will be your charismatic leader – because you can be sure that not all the curators will look kindly upon you when you mention Wikipedia… Work with that person and teach them about what we can do, about the contextualisation we can bring, the audience we have, the idealism and honesty behind why we do what we do. Ask them to release a photograph of the one painting. Ask them to release any text they have written about their one painting. Don’t try and take your own photograph and writer your own text (yet). Leave the power and the decision with them. It’s their painting after all. Upload these to Wikipedia and Commons and watch the article improve (or not).

If everything goes well, then you can return and your curator will no doubt be happy to help share their experience and to start ‘converting their own tribe’. If everything doesn’t go well, it doesn’t matter so much because you have limited the damage to one painting. But what you have now built is:

  • a relationship
  • an improved article which can be used as an example
  • a ‘convert’ to the advantages of working with Wikimedia
  • an article that probably no current Wikipedian could write without the help of your expert
  • a best-practice for how similar articles can be created

I urge you to find your local gallery or museum and have lunch with a friendly curator there. Just talk with them about what can be achieved together and what potential problems there might be. It might be slow, it might not generate lots of publicity, it might only result in one article created and one photo uploaded but it will be the beginning of a relationship – and that’s what we need more of.

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