August 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Get your Wiki on

By Oscar Schwartz
Wikiclub NT is raising the Northern Territory’s profile on Wikipedia

“Welcome to Wikiclub,” says Caddie Brain with a smile. “This is only our second meeting. It’s good to see some of you again. And for those of you who are new, welcome!”

There are 16 of us at Wikiclub NT, volunteering our Sunday afternoon to add and update Wikipedia pages about the Top End. We’ve assembled at Darwin’s Northern Territory Library, which is inside Parliament House, a building that looks like a tropical wedding cake floating at the edge of the Timor Sea. The ground floor of the library is quiet and sparsely populated with elderly people reading newspapers. We’re at a large rectangular desk in the far corner, amid a tangle of extension cables, chargers and laptops.

Caddie, 31, has been living in the Territory since she took a job reporting for the ABC in Alice Springs six years ago. As a journalist, she often found it difficult to find basic information about Northern Territory people and places. At the same time, she also noticed that Territorians, even if only living there for a short while, make it their business to know local history. She figured that if she could help locals become conversant with user-generated platforms such as Wikipedia then this wide-ranging local information would find a stable and public home. “That’s what the Wikiclub experiment is trying to do,” Caddie tells us. “Pass on some basic skills so you can all share your knowledge.”

The president of Wikimedia Australia, Gideon Digby, has flown up to Darwin for the week to help Caddie. At the start of the session, they both give us a run-down on how to create a Wikipedia account and use the editing tools. The average age of Wikiclub NT members is in the mid 50s, and most people at the meeting pick up the required skills with relative ease. (Although some get stuck on the concept of CAPTCHA, one woman incredulously asking, “Why would I have to prove I am not a robot?”)

Our task for the day is to edit an existing Wikipedia page or to add a new one. I’ve just moved to Darwin, and don’t really know much about the place. For inspiration, I walk around and ask the others what they’re working on.

Gaynor wants to add articles about how Territory women contributed to the military effort during World War Two. Robin, who has worked in conservation up north for a long time, wants to put up the text she wrote for park brochures. Today, she is writing about Tjuwaliyn Hot Springs Park, 200 kilometres south of Darwin. The popular spot for camping during the dry is also a sacred site of the Wagiman women. Julie tells me that she’s written a history of “cat fancy” in the Northern Territory, and that she would like to make it more widely available.

“A history of what, sorry?” I ask.

“Cat fancy. As in, people who like pussy cats.”

The youngest member of Wikiclub NT is Jasmine, who came along with her dad, Jared. She has been looking at her phone throughout the session, occasionally tapping Jared on the shoulder to show him some funny meme, to which he responds with a chuckle. I ask Jasmine, who is in Year 9, if she uses Wikipedia. “Yeah, a little bit,” she says, adding that no one really uses books for research at her school anymore. Jared interjects: “But I often warn her that there’s a lot of rubbish up on Wikipedia.” He beckons me closer to his screen. “Look,” he says, pointing at the Wikipedia entry for Darwin. “It says here that the city’s been destroyed twice. But, you see, it’s actually been destroyed four times. Three cyclones and a bombing. That’s why we’re here. Get rid of the rubbish. Add in the facts.” He looks at his daughter, who smiles graciously and returns to her phone.

I go back to my seat and open my laptop. I still don’t know what I’m going to contribute. The man sitting to my right, Andrew, is powering away on his keyboard. “Created my first Wikipage 11 years ago, about the suburb I was living in,” he tells me, adding that he always conducts extensive research about places he lives. “Now that I have this information, I might as well do something useful with it.”

“What are you going to write about today?” I ask. “I don’t know,” Andrew replies. “Maybe suburbs. Maybe hospitals.” He begins reeling off a truly prodigious amount of information about both topics. “Who needs Wikipedia when you have Andrew?” I joke. Gideon, who has been listening in on Andrew spouting his facts, says, “Andrew’s not always available. You can’t call him up at 2 am and ask him about when Darwin’s third hospital was built.”

Demographically speaking, Andrew represents the voice of Wikipedia: middle aged, white, male. Even if Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, imagines the platform as providing “free access to the sum of all human knowledge”, studies show that “human knowledge” is being dictated by a small and homogenous subset of humans, with a limited world view. Rural and remote areas, minority groups and women are all under-represented. “This is exactly why Wikiclub NT is important,” Caddie tells me. “We’re going to have a week dedicated to putting up information about Territory women. And we’re also going to focus on putting up some of our indigenous artists, who are nowhere near Wikipedia at the moment.”

I finally settle on what Darwin thing I’m going to write about: Rapid Creek Business Village, the shopping centre up the road. It’s probably the only place in Darwin I’ve visited more than once. Earlier that morning I went there to buy some milk from Happy Foodland supermarket. “Hot outside, isn’t it?” I said to the shopkeeper, forgetting momentarily that, in Darwin, it’s either hot or hotter.

“You new here?” the shopkeeper asked. I nodded. “You just wait for ‘the wet’, my friend.” I asked him what it’s like. He chuckled. “You’ll have to feel it to know it.”

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a New York–based writer and researcher.

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