Christchurch in New Zealand, where Wikipedia editor Mike Dickison grew up
Christchurch in New Zealand, where Wikipedia editor Mike Dickison grew up

How an encyclopedic collector became New Zealand's chief Wikipedia editor

New Zealand is not well represented on Wikipedia – but one man who grew up collecting shells, feathers and insects has quit his job to change that

Charlotte Graham-McLay
Thursday 22 November 2018 12:30
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In the grand library of the Auckland War Memorial Museum on a Saturday morning in August, a small group of new and slightly nervous Wikipedia editors gather for a day of training that will arm them to tackle New Zealand’s lacklustre representation on the crowdsourced online encyclopedia.

Leading the so-called Wikiblitz is New Zealand’s official Wikipedian-at-Large, Mike Dickison, 49, who has in some senses been preparing his entire life for this job. As a collector of things and knowledge, he has pursued a string of enthusiasms, beginning with insects, shells and feathers (he put together his own museum as a boy), then giant flightless birds (a PhD on those), then ended up, appropriately enough, with a job as the natural history curator at a museum. He once taught a class in knitting as therapy for stressed-out men after a major earthquake.

For the moment, he is involved in something a little less fascinating, guiding the group through the process of adding photos from the museum’s collection to pages on Wikipedia. The new editors – curious members of the public, many of whom had created their accounts the evening before – were mostly women, a fact Dickison was pleased to note. Wikipedia records its editors as 90 per cent male.

“Be bold! Don’t be stymied by worry,” Dickison tells the group, assuring them that early in his Wikipedia career, he accidentally “blanked” more than one entire page by mistake – leaving it completely empty of information.

As the country’s roving Wikipedian-at-Large, he is spending a year coaxing New Zealanders to take up volunteer editing on what is the world’s fifth most visited website. His salary and travel are funded by a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, as part of its investment in encyclopaedic contributions from “emerging communities”, including New Zealand.

As a boy, Mike Dickison would display his collected items in a homebuilt museum

The South Pacific country is underrepresented on Wikipedia, and Dickison describes the state of many of the country’s pages as “dire”.

His skills are self-taught, but Dickison’s affinity with Wikipedia’s gathering of community knowledge follows on from his lifelong obsession with collecting. Growing up in Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, the son of an apprentice boilermaker father – who later ran a sporting goods store – and a homemaker mother, Dickison feels he was “destined” for a museum curator’s job.

What started as a typical childhood infatuation with dinosaurs developed into a fascination with the moa, a giant flightless bird native to New Zealand, which is now extinct. Dickison’s father, who had left school at 15, encouraged his son’s enthusiasm for curating. He built the glass cases for his son to display his treasures in his “museum”.

Even then, Dickison was irked by the lack of information about New Zealand’s native fauna.

A skeleton of a giant moa found in New Zealand

“I was mad on insects, and in 1983 you had one book on New Zealand insects, which was written in the Seventies, with just a few colour plates,” he says, adding that he is now writing his own children’s book on New Zealand’s natural history.

His preoccupation with the moa led Dickison to complete a PhD​ on the subject of giant flightless birds at Duke University in North Carolina decades later.

“I had no idea where North Carolina was or any fact about it whatsoever,” Dickison says. “The only Duke I knew was The Dukes of Hazzard.”

The appeal of giant flightless birds, to Dickison at least, seems simple: “They’re just enormous. They’re really big. I mean, why do kids like dinosaurs? Because they’re huge.”

He dreams of travelling back 1,000 years in time to see the moa in its natural New Zealand habitat before it was wiped out by Polynesian settlers 500 years ago. He has even investigated the taxonomic origins of the Sesame Street character Big Bird (his conclusion: a giant flightless crane).

Dickison made some of his first contributions to pages about Jaffas, a New Zealand sweet, mandolins, and the film This Is Spinal Tap

His enthusiasm for the smallest pieces of knowledge – Dickison’s own website includes a map of everywhere in the world he has received a haircut – led to a day job as natural history curator at Whanganui Regional Museum, on the North Island.

But by night, he was beginning to rack up hours as a volunteer editor on Wikipedia, and he ran workshops training other new editors at a local library.

His edit history, which began in 2009, is not quite as lettered as his museum pedigree: Dickison made some of his first contributions to pages about Jaffas, a type of New Zealand sweet, mandolins and the film This Is Spinal Tap.

He said he realised towards the end of his tenure as a natural history curator that the work he did on Wikipedia in his free time had “much more impact”.

After successfully applying to be Wikipedian-at-Large, Dickison left his job then “filled my four-wheel-drive with plastic bins of worldly possessions and launched off around the country on an adventure”.

Dickison is no stranger to connecting unlikely groups of people. Upon his return to New Zealand from Duke, the sometime ukulele player was frustrated by the lack of sheet music for New Zealand standards. So he wrote a book of local songs for ukulele and travelled the North Island, teaching and performing them.

Christchurch Cathedral after an earthquake in 2011 

After a deadly earthquake struck his home city of Christchurch in 2011, killing 185 people and flattening much of the central city, Dickison ran the knitting-as-therapy class, having taught himself first as a way of coping with the devastation.

In the 1990s, he hosted sessions in internet cafes to help newcomers explore the World Wide Web.

“I don’t understand why I do these things,” he says. “I’m supposed to be an introvert. But if I find something I’m passionate about, I need to share it and get other people involved too.”

The fate of Christchurch was a cautionary tale about the need for societies to preserve their information, Dickison says. When the 2011 earthquake struck, every formative place from his childhood was destroyed, including his family home and former schools.

“Google Street View was still running images of prequake Christchurch for a while after the earthquake, and there was a huge worry that they would take those down and replace them with up-to-date views,” he says, adding that images of the city before the disaster had now been archived and preserved.

“I feel like we’ve been a bit cavalier about looking after knowledge in New Zealand,” Dickison says. “Too often, it just slips away.”

As Wikipedian-at-Large, he is charged with recruiting others to help preserve that knowledge online, with a particular emphasis on women and minorities, who are underrepresented in New Zealand’s small editing community. He plans more meetups and training sessions like the one at Auckland Museum, and he will be resident around the country at locations including a government department and a bird sanctuary.

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Dickison also hopes to entice reticent public and private institutions to crack open their vaults of knowledge and expertise, making them more accessible for Wikipedia editors to use.

“I often have experts tell me they read a Wikipedia article that they know something about and it was full of inaccuracies,” he says.

“I always say, ‘Well, did you fix them? And if you didn’t fix them, why are you complaining to me? It’s like walking outside and complaining that it’s raining and not putting up an umbrella. Of course you’re wet!’”

© New York Times

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