The kind, gentle approach to retaining new editors

Susan Hewitt, user:Invertzoo, of WikiProject:Gastropods
Susan Hewitt of WikiProject:Gastropods. Photo by Susan Hewitt. CC-0 1.0

At the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re developing a number of tools to improve editor retention, from a dramatically simpler editing interface to improved article feedback tools. But what if keeping new editors and helping them become productive long-term contributors were simpler than all that?
Susan Hewitt believes fostering a little wiki love and a sense of camaraderie will go a long way toward increasing new-editor retention. She is the informal den mother to WikiProject:Gastropods, one of the 2,000 WikiProjects on English Wikipedia organized by editors who share an affinity for a particular subject area and want to see the quality of those articles improved.
“[Wikipedia] is a very big place,” said Hewitt, who lives in New York City. “You start editing, it’s like you walked in off the street — it’s as big and echoey as Grand Central. It’s like an enormous hospital or an enormous high school, where you don’t know what’s going on, and you don’t know where you’re supposed to go, and you’re disoriented by it.”
According to Hewitt, technological tools are vital to improving the editing experience and she expressed gratitude to MediaWiki developers, paid and volunteer, who consistently improve the editing experience. But the question of human interactions remains even after the code is deployed. We should approach each other on Wikipedia, she said, “with this attitude which is kind, considerate, warm, appreciative, thankful and gentle. It’s just like everyday life. This is a really amazing project, there’s a lot of people working on it, and in a sort of vague way they know you’ve got to try to be polite.”
She has developed a system for welcoming new editors to the project and she has become adept at marshaling their strengths for improving Wikipedia. She uses AlexNewArtBot to monitor new articles related to gastropods, one of the largest taxonomic classes on the planet and better known as snails and slugs. When she sees an unfamiliar new editor, she drops by their talk page with a colorful template and words of encouragement. She invites editors to participate in the WikiProject using an array of pictures and barnstars, like a deep water sea snail in the genus Guildfordia or the luminous Janolus fuscus.
Her methods are paying off.
“To me, the moment Susan came to me and invited me to the project was crucial, essential,” said Daniel Cavallari, a biologist living in São Paulo, Brazil. “If I hadn’t been welcomed and helped when I joined in, perhaps I wouldn’t be editing at Wikipedia presently.”
Hewitt and Cavallari have never met in person, and maybe never will. They are thousands of miles apart, but they share a mutual respect for the project and they improve it constantly. Cavallari noted that he has had a much different experience editing on his native Portuguese language Wikipedia, where some editors have not been as kind to him.
A photo of Chromodoris willani, by Alex Jenner, Wikimedia Commons
A photo of Chromodoris willani, by Alex Jenner, Wikimedia Commons

Another member of Hewitt’s circle of wiki love is Alexander Jenner, an astrophysicist living in Tokyo, Japan. Just like Cavallari, Jenner has never met Hewitt in person, but he is grateful she welcomed him. Given his interest in scuba diving and underwater photography, Hewitt encouraged him to contribute his photos to Commons.
“Susan, she was doing other areas of Gastropods and she said ‘Nobody’s doing nudibranchs, so we’re happy to have somebody doing it.’” Jenner noted. “I guess I got a buzz when I was the first person to add a high definition photo of a species that didn’t exist [on Wikipedia]. It was like, ‘I did that photo.’”
Jenner said he had a much different experience on another WikiProject, where there is no welcoming committee and there are often heated arguments. If he had joined the other project before Gastropods, he said, “I doubt I would have edited nearly as much. That early phase before one becomes accustomed to the ways of Wikipedia is very important.”
“Susan most certainly made a difference in my case,” he added.
(To get involved with WikProject:Gastropods, feel free to contact Susan Hewitt on her talk page or reach out to any of the members of the project. For more information, read this excellent piece from the Wikipedia Signpost WikiProject series.)
Matthew Roth
Global Communications Manager

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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I absolutely agree with this approach, and applaud it! Just over these last few months, I have met more cooperation and goodwill on WP than in the previous 7 years I’ve been editing. Many congrats to Susan for her bravery, and thanks to WP for embracing this style! Long live happy editing!

It apparently makes a real difference to go that extra mile to welcome the newcomers. At first, I thought that Daniel Cavallari had been victim of hostility at the Portuguese Wikipedia (which unfortunately can still happen), but looking in his talk page there, I see no sign of that and all the interaction I see there seem positive about his work (I even found a message I sent him a while back that I no longer remembered). What is the difference then? It is precisely the reaching out and meeting newcomers instead of waiting for them to reach out to… Read more »

We all need to learn a little bit more about the “kind, gentle approach” that Susan uses with everybody she meets. I was fortunate enough to meet her in person after “meeting” her first through WikiProject:Gastropod. I couldn’t get enough of so much information! I was constantly researching gastropods so of course we eventually met since she reached out to help me. She is kind and gentle to everyone… that’s why she is the best “teacher” I have met in this big web school of information and technology.

It’d also be good to look at the reasons why former editors are not coming back. I’ve stopped actively editing the English Wikipedia years ago (partly because of deletionism). My talk page has since become a long list of pages that people want to delete (sometimes successfully, for the deletionists at least). It’s frustrating to see that the work I’ve put into Wikipedia can be deleted for sometimes very silly reasons and it doesn’t make me want to become an active editor – at least not until I know that the work I put into (the English) Wikipedia is a… Read more »

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Seems like a very interesting approach to retaining new and good editors in a long term management action.