The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs the Wikipedia website, launched a pilot program during the 2010-2011 academic year called the Public Policy Initiative. The program required students in courses at participating universities to edit and expand Wikipedia articles as part of their course assignments. Last fall MAAS student Patrick Friedel took a class that followed the Initiative: Dr. Rochelle Davis’s “Introduction to the Study of the Arab World.” Friedel, who had lived for two years in Cairo, was interested in the ruling National Democratic Party of Egypt (NDP) and noted that Wikipedia’s page on the NDP only contained a few lines.
Friedel began writing and editing the NDP page in October of 2010, and finished it in mid-November to meet class requirements. His article immediately received around 100 hits a day, and gained even more views after it was spotlighted on Wikipedia’s “Did You Know?” section. Yet nothing could have prepared him for what would happen two months later, on January 28, 2011, when the NDP headquarters was set aflame during the Egyptian Revolution’s “Day of Anger:” The article got over 5,000 views. “I was shocked at the attention it received,” Friedel says. Roughly 25,000 more visitors would read the page as the revolution progressed.
Friedel’s contextualized and thorough article, complete with cited sources, was of great assistance to those seeking information on the origins of the protests. In the beginning, he was protective of his work and would daily undo edits others made to the article. Yet he admits that “eventually, I had to accept that the article on Wikipedia was no longer mine, which is indeed the point of Wikipedia…I came to learn that things on Wikipedia work themselves out.” Indeed, once Friedel allowed the Wikipedia process to unfold, other users fixed errors due to vandalism and still others instructively added to his original content.
Through his research for the articles, Friedel gained a deeper understanding of single-party politics as well as Arab media. He also came to recognize the role Wikipedia can play in academia. “I like the idea of academics and students giving back to the community, and Wikipedia is a great place to do this,” he says. “Too often students write for only two people: themselves and their teacher.” He also notes that the collaborative process used for Wikipedia articles can expand peer review from a small circle of academics to thousands, making academic writing available to the public free of charge and also exposing it to a democratic exchange of ideas.