Photos for Wikipedia

Susan Gerbic

DeWitt Historical District
Photo by Shane Vaughn

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. If so, WikiMedia Commons must have the equivalent of a few zillion words on its website. Most people don’t understand that the images they see on Wikipedia pages are all uploaded and licensed by the owners of the photos, usually the photographers. You cannot just take an image (or audio or video) and plop it on a Wikipedia page. As a part of Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) training, we highly encourage the use of images to improve the Wikipedia page, making it more enjoyable to read.

The very first editing assignment we give to brand new GSoW editors is adding a photo to a Wikipedia page. Sound easy? Well actually it is pretty simple, but there is a lot more going on behind the scenes to make this happen. I want to explain this to you, because frankly, we need your help.

GSoW training can take months to complete. There is a lot to learn, so we need to keep the assignments (especially at the beginning) simple and fast. We want to get people making edits right away because it is so satisfying to see content you have added read by others. Adding a photo to a page is a perfect assignment, except for one problem: How do you know where to find a page that needs an image, and how do you find the correctly licensed image to add? We can’t ask people to go out and photograph something in their town, upload it, and add it to a Wikipedia page. We would lose trainees on day one.

If you ask people, they usually will help as much as they can. So now I’m asking for your help. We need more photos. We need them uploaded correctly and placed on a spreadsheet for my new trainees to choose from and add to relevant Wikipedia pages. That’s it. It really isn’t that difficult; I can teach you how to upload that image (I even have a video that will walk you through the steps). I have the URL to that spreadsheet right here waiting for you to volunteer to help. We are very quickly running out of photos.

Photo by Shane Vaughn

A few years ago, my Facebook friend Shane Vaughn offered to help us out by traveling around his state of Arkansas and taking photos of historical sites (many of them obscure), uploading them for us, and adding to the spreadsheet. I’m looking at the list right now, and there are over ninety-three entries. A few of them are mine, but most are from Shane. He tells me that he really enjoys helping and it gives him an excuse to travel the backroads with his dog and visit obscure museums and forgotten graveyards and buildings. What he comes up with is terrific. My very favorite image he added for us was at the Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It’s of a giant snow plow. Why is this photo one of my favorites? Because Shane has his dog lying down next to the plow. I asked Shane about it, and he laughed and said he didn’t think anyone would notice, but he did it to show the scale of how big the snow plow actually is.

I asked Shane for his thoughts and tips on what he looks for and the process he goes through and he has kindly included a detailed run-down for anyone who wants to help out. It is a kind of John Steinbeck, Travels with Charlie narrative that I really enjoyed reading. It explains how relaxing it is to drive around, stop where you like, and talk to locals.

GSoW is an International group. We have editors from Bulgaria, Sir Lanka, and all over. It delights me to see a new person from Australia or Poland adding a photo from the Zachariah Ford House in Stone County, Arkansas. We teach that we are here to improve Wikipedia—not just the science and skepticism pages but everything. I want this lesson learned early on in training. Many of these Wikipedia pages contain maybe a half-paragraph of text and few citations, so a couple photos will really add a lot to the page.

Photo by Susan Gerbic

When I travel I look for forgotten museums and historical sites. I quickly look to see if there might be a Wikipedia page that photo can go on and snap away. Upload the image and then give it to a new person to add to the Wikipedia page. It is very rewarding. One day when we were running low on photographs, I took a look at the Salinas, California, Wikipedia page, followed a few links, and then took my bike out and took photos of the library, bus station, old town area, and the local college. Nothing fancy. I came home, uploaded them, and assigned them to someone to add them to a Wikipedia page. While writing this article, I looked through my personal photo albums from the past few months and unloaded some photos from the March for Our Lives event and a photo of a dandelion tree. That is diversity.

And when I say “nothing fancy,” that’s what I mean—just a nice shot of the front of the courthouse, the plaque on the statue, the downtown area of main street. Try to avoid people’s faces, licenses plates, and trash and make the image generic. Most camera phones are just fine for this task.

I have people waiting to assist you if you want to help us out on this project. You might already have a bunch of images sitting on your computer or phone right now. Just ask and we will teach you what to do. And let us know if you are interested in assisting us by uploading audio or video.

Thank you for your assistance and support. Together, we are educating the world and making Wikipedia a stronger tool against nonsense. Reach out to us at our website.

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.