Behind the Scenes at Wikipedia with the GSoW

Susan Gerbic

I would like to introduce you to the most prolific editor for Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW), Leon Korteweg. Leon is unusual in many good ways, but as far as our Wikipedia editing team goes, he was already a prolific editor when he joined us. The majority of our (so far) 150-member team are first-time editors. That is one of our specialties; we train beginners. Leon found our project from a JREF workshop video from early 2013. I think we had just started calling ourselves GSoW. Leon told me the reason he joined GSoW way back in the beginning, May 3, 2013, was because he wanted to make skeptic videos more accessible by adding subtitles. Leon did do some subtitling, and I do think this is a wonderful idea, but I think we should hold off on the task. We get better software each month that allows for auto translations, and manual translating is very time-consuming.

The real reason I think Leon wanted to join GSoW was because of one of the big concerns within WikiMedia: its anonymity. It is a volunteer group, and being anonymous has a lot of benefits. After all, the goal is to write and maintain an encyclopedia of all known things in all languages. However, this is a goal that isn’t conducive for socialization. We are humans, and we usually like hanging out with like-minded humans. I’m remembering a book I have read twice about the formation of the Oxford Dictionary. It’s the strange relationship between the main editor, Sir James Murray, and its most prolific contributor, Dr. W.C. Minor, who was imprisoned in Broadmoor Hospital. The whole story is compelling and told in the book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I just realized that some of you might be thinking I’m comparing Leon to this madman in Broadmoor. No, not at all. What I’m saying is that even when the mission is to do something amazing such as creating the Oxford Dictionary or Wikipedia, which has little room for ego or personal relationships with other participants, we find a way to engage with others. It’s the personal touch that motivates most people like Leon and me to want to sit down in our own personal places and sort through journals, books, and online sites looking for citations to use for articles we are working on.

WikiMedia (this is the parent of Wikipedia and includes far more than just the website you are familiar with) has been grappling with adding a personal touch for years. Each editor can have a talk page where others interact with each other with discussions about the encyclopedia. Editors also have a user page that allows us to express ourselves with a biography, photos, and cool graphics showing off our interests. Mine shows that I belong to a secret cabal (which I seriously do).

Editors are allowed to award virtual badges, plates of cookies, and more onto other user pages. Some people are more into that feature than others.

One update that was added only in the past few years is the “thank” button. It also hasn’t really caught on, but I love to use it. When checking a page’s history we can see an option for thanking the editor for the edit. It’s a simple way of saying, “Hey, I saw what you did and thank you.”

WikiMedia has conferences and edit-a-thons from time to time. I haven’t been to any of them, but from the photos I’ve seen, participants really enjoy themselves and usually there is food involved. Maybe even a plate of cookies for real. Even with all this offline socializing, most editors don’t know each other. Most people edit with usernames that have nothing to do with their real names, and it is considered very bad form to research who people are in real life. Very bad. In some cases you can be banned for doing so.

Personally, I have always edited showing my real name, Sgerbic. I’m a public figure and feel that I don’t want people to think I am trying to hide any of my edits. Besides, knowing that anyone looking at the editor name would know who I am keeps me from slipping into snarky language or pushing the envelope too far.

As I said, WikiMedia is trying to address this issue of editor retention and allowing people the opportunity to interact with each other if they choose to. On a Wikipedia page’s talk page we sometimes let our personalities shine, and a lot of humor can be squeezed into a sentence about formatting or the correct placement of a photograph.

GSoW is different. We take advantage of all those WikiMedia options but add one major difference. We have a secret cabal on Facebook. We have tried other options to communicate, such as email, and we even created a forum that we struggled with for a couple of years. My team convinced me eventually that the forum was little used and it was killing GSoW as it lost the social aspect. Leon was one of the most vocal critics of the forum if I remember correctly, and he was right. We moved to a secret Facebook group and have been happily interacting with each other since then.

The cabal is full of great conversations about all things Wikipedia as well as what is happening in the skeptic world. We discuss who will be speaking at upcoming skeptic conferences and how we can improve their Wikipedia pages in advance of the conference. We have long discussions about whose Wikipedia page we should be writing next, and discussing a person’s notability (not popularity, which is a completely different thing) can be very raw. Not something for public consumption.

We also talk about grammar and American vs. British spellings (yes there is a whole policy about this). The Oxford comma, photo placement, as well as what photos to use on a Wikipedia page, and so much more. We joke and share personal stories of what we once believed in and how best to communicate to believers in pseudoscience. We spend a lot of time welcoming new people to the team, giving lots of feedback, and motivating each other. Before we make a page live, we work on it in our user space. And once we think we have it mostly fleshed out, it is given to the cabal for comments. Because we are a worldwide team, we can post at any time of the day or night and someone is awake and can respond.

The comments are always polite and kind, but we hold nothing back as far as critique of the articles. The editor will rewrite sections over and over, hyperlink to other Wikipedia articles to explain terms, and justify why the page they are creating is notable enough to be on Wikipedia. Some pages we create take weeks to be ready. But having a team to review, check citations, and research even better citations allows us to be able to make the page live. We never write stubs; everything we produce should be as complete as we can make it. And once it is live, we have no control over the page (as it should be). Non-GSoW editors are welcome and encouraged to edit as they please, which they do. No matter how many times we read through a page before putting it up, someone will find a silly error once the page goes live.

And that is how Wikipedia works. And it works very well. GSoW is a team, but so are Wikipedia and WikiMedia. We try to have each other’s backs and try to assume good faith about each other (this is one of the main principals of Wikipedia) and get work done. It’s a wonderful place, flaws and all.

As I said, I wanted you to know about Leon and will ask him to speak to you about his thoughts on being a Wikipedia editor and also a part of the GSoW team. But let me toot his horn a bit because I know he won’t.

Leon has already created 266 Wikipedia pages for the GSoW project, even more if you add in pages that don’t fall under our focus of science, scientific skepticism, and the paranormal.  That is an insane number from one person. He often asks for help from others and has others review the pages, but he was the main driver on all these pages. He isn’t creating stubs or making pages live and telling others to finish them off, which is what some prolific Wikipedia editors do. He is putting everything he can into the page, proving notability right up front. 

Those 266 pages are mostly in English and Dutch with a scattering of a few other European languages. Leon speaks many languages; he has explained that it is common in the Netherlands for people to be trilingual, and oftentimes more. He jokingly says that this is because Dutch is such a hard language to learn, so they have to learn to speak other languages to communicate outside the Netherlands.

Those pages have already been viewed 4,696,746 times. Over 1.2K a month and 22K a week. Leon has a wide variety of interests. He writes about logical fallacies, for example ad hoc hypotheses, appeals to flattery, and the series of argumentation, argumentum ad antiquitatem, argumentum ad crumenam and argumentum ad lazarum. These five pages have been viewed over 14K times.

My favorite pages he has written are about the people and organizations of scientific skepticism. I’ve learned a lot about what is happening in Europe from Leon’s writings—Catherine de Jong, Comité Para, Círculo Escéptico, and so much more. This is just a sampling from the C section of Leon’s work.

Leon has done so much work to support the people and organizations of the European skeptics that he is an associate member on the European Council of Skeptical Organisations. He also uploads photos, video, and audio onto WikiMedia so that it can be used on Wikipedia pages. This task is one of the hallmarks of a typical GSoW editor that Leon exemplifies.

Leon writes about religion, and I don’t mean about the atheism vs. religion conversation. I’m talking about the works of the Christian Bible such as the Acts of the Apostles and Epistle to the Alexandrians.

Currently, Leon has been doing a lot of work on notable ex-Muslims, which is very important work we can do to support those who have had to flee their homes to remain safe.

There is so much more about the importance of Leon’s work, but with 266 pages to choose from, that’s a lot of links to look though. We teasingly refer to him as a vampire because he always seems to be awake and working, something that we would like to discourage from time-to-time; sleep deprivation will catch up to everyone eventually. There will always be more work to be done. I think I speak for all GSoW members when I say that Leon is an inspiration to us all, not only with his productivity but for his motivation and attitude; it’s infectious. And that is something I never want to find a vaccine for.

Leon, I know you are going to fact check me on all the above, but would you please share your thoughts about being a Wikipedia editor as well as being a part of GSoW? How do you choose what to work on, and what are you working on next?

Commentary from Leon:

What I like most about Wikipedia is the ability to correctly inform people about important topics, about which the difference between a right and a wrong answer to a question can have major real-life consequences. Not only is Wikipedia the no. 1 site most people go to or are redirected to by search engines for answers, anyone can edit and correct it, with a well-balanced set of rules and guidelines to make the information evidence- and science-based and generally quite objective and neutral. In an age in which anyone can set up a website or blog full of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, quackery, fake news, and religious extremism, Wikipedia stands out as the most complete and most reliable collection of resources online on all topics combined.

I know that my articles will be read a lot; currently they are read about 5,000 times a day in total; you probably won’t have that much success with your personal blog, let alone reach that many people when you’re arguing with them on social media. People on social media often don’t even actually read your comments and links (trust me, I’ve already wasted far too much time arguing on Facebook with people who are only sending and not receiving information). People who read Wikipedia are actually interested in getting informed and do not assume they already know everything about a topic. They can go and get that information even when I’m not there writing about it (as on social media). Thousands of people across the world are reading my articles while I’m asleep. Moreover, my Wikipedia articles will probably be corrected if they contain mistakes that I overlooked, or they will be updated when something new has happened.

Reliable science-based information empowers you to make the right decisions in everyday life. Besides just finding the proper arguments to use in discussions, you can perhaps even find the kind of charity you’d like to support or the kind of politicians you’d like to vote for to help move society forward and make the world a better place.

The great advantage of projects like Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia is that editors from across the world who share interests in the same topics and are very concerned about the availability and especially reliability of information on Wikipedia can work together to achieve their common goals. We help each other deal with the issues we face, provide each other with resources, and translate each other’s work, saving a lot of time and frustration. Together we accomplish feats that none of us could do on our own. And with that, fellow GSoW members can become some of your best friends.

If you would like to meet Leon Korteweg in person, he can usually be found at the European Skeptic Conferences and QED in Manchester, England.

Special thanks to Joshua WaitWhat for help with my prose.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.