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The Scots offer a lesson in community

Karen Ann Monsy
Filed on September 2, 2020

A massive Edit-a-thon was organised to help improve the Scots Wikipedia articles over the last weekend

Last Wednesday, I fell down a rabbit hole. A friend had flagged me about a real mess that the Wikipedia community is currently embroiled in - one that has been labelled "cultural vandalism on an unprecedented scale".  

As everyone knows, Wikipedia (the go-to resource for when you want to know something about anything) is available in multiple languages - including minority dialects like Scots, which is the form of English used in Scotland.  

Well, it now turns out that almost half the articles on the Scots version of Wikipedia have been written by a single person - an American teenager who can't speak Scots. And the tens of thousands of articles he published over the last seven years are - as native Scots speakers are discovering - nothing more than mangled English. Yet, that's not even the story anymore - for me, at least. It's about how the community responded. 

With little more than 1.5 million speakers, according to a 2011 census, the Scots dialect has not only been dubbed vulnerable by Unesco - but also long been mocked as "not a real language". In fact, detractors often deride it as English with a very heavy accent (and one only needs to take a look at a sample sentence like "Robert Burns' wark is celebrate aw ower the warld" to see why). 

Nevertheless, the discovery that one youngster had managed to create such a massive volume of articles in "pretend Scots", by using 1:1 dictionary translations or even substituting words with invented/misspelt English, created quite the furore. If Scots had a poor rep before, the scale of damage caused by this teen's actions was monumental. Critics were even using the Scots Wiki to prove their point that the language was a farce! 

Therein began the rabbit hole - but also what I see as a lesson in community we can all learn from. The discussions that followed over the next few days easily amounted to more than a hundred pages of chat transcripts. Volunteer administrators, editors and well-wishers all rallied together to bandy proposals back and forth and figure out if there was any way to salvage the mess.  

What was amazing to observe was how quickly most of them moved away from dwelling on the person responsible to the more constructive question of 'What can we do?'.  

There were overwhelming calls to "nuke" the entire project. Doing so would've 'saved face' in the short-term by deleting all of the offending posts - but it would've probably signalled the death of Scots Wiki as a potential resource altogether, considering Wikipedia depends entirely on volunteer writers and editors to build the content. Why would anyone take on such a daunting task?

Instead, what happened was that more than 100 volunteers stepped forward to help. The director of the Scots Language Centre offered to coordinate a 'Big Wiki Rewrite'. Zoom training sessions were hosted and a community support group was created to help those trying to help. A massive Edit-a-thon was organised to help improve the Scots Wikipedia articles over the last weekend. Even non-Scots speakers signed up to help with technical aspects. 

In just two days, nearly 2,500 articles were edited by 30 editors. Of course, they've only begun to scratch the surface of the task ahead - but what that small community on the other side of the world has done is a perfect example of what responding to seemingly insurmountable problems should look like.  

In a world fractured by issues that run so deep they appear to be beyond remedy, torpedoing the system is not always the answer. Treating issues as 'someone else's problem' isn't the solution either. We must learn to dialogue constructively, not violently (the Scots Wiki discussions saw their share of reactive, aggressive folks too last week). For some of the problems the world is currently facing, there may be no immediate fix. But can we harness the power of conversation and community - positively - to change the status quo? Absolutely, aye.

karen@khaleejtimes.com


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