Monday, March 9, 2015

How do you solve a problem like Wikipedia?

She is gentle! She is wild!
She's a riddle! She's a child!
She's a headache! She's an angel!

She's a girl! (1)

Actually, Wikipedia is not a girl. A 2011 survey by Wikimedia (cited by Laura Goldstein in her article, "Mass Wikipedia Edit To Make The Internet Less Sexist") found that “less than 8.5% of Wikipedia contributors were female.” Wikipedia, in fact, has a girl problem. 

She’s a headache. 

Specifically, Wikipedia has a problem with the shockingly low numbers of female editors, female entries, and the classification of women in the arts. Amanda Filipiacchi, in a 2013 op-ed for The New York Times, uncovered an ongoing classification problem whereby women authors were systematically being moved from the “American Novelists” page to the “American Female Novelists” page. As Filipiacchi points out, this practice of creating a sub-category will lessen the chances of those moved to the American Female Novelist page of showing up in a general search. This subjugates not only the information about these authors but the authors themselves.

She’s a riddle. Or is she an angel?

Often maligned and discredited by teachers across the United States as being “unreliable,” Wikipedia is also revered by those who understand that open-sourcing provides a huge base of information that is constantly being edited in real time, allowing for the most accurate and timely publication. And yet, even Wikipedia doesn’t want to be known as “open-source.” A decade ago, Daniel Terdiman wrote "Wikipedia’s Open Source Label Conundrum" for, and the confusion still stands. Is Wikipedia a free-for-all? Or is it highly reputable? Does the allowance for anonymity of authorship and edits create a meritocracy? Or does it allow for trolling and for edits of a disreputable nature and intention?

She is wild.

After Filipiacchi wrote her piece in 2013, there were numerous edits to her Wikipedia page, sabotaging her information. Although most of the edits were done by one person or a small group of people, their anonymity protected them from any backlash. In essence, Filipiacchi was bullied for simply noticing and writing about the sub-categorization of female authors. The Wikimedia Foundation takes no ownership or control of content. According to Martha Nichols and Lorraine Berry, in their article, "What Should We Do About Wikipedia," "The Foundation estimates that there are about 80,000 active editors (those who make at least five edits a week) for all the Wikipedias around the world...With the exception of removing a very small number of articles or posts that might violate copyright or potentially harm someone, [the Foundation does] not remove or alter content. That’s all in the hands of [the] volunteers.” In essence, there is very little oversight. The system relies on the common good of the group to edit for good, not evil. And some would argue that the edit history would allow users to discriminate between good and bad information; but this is assuming that the average user would be savvy enough to check the history and understand its implications. Part of the issue IS the average user: one who would never search sub-categories for information and therefore would miss out on all of the content that has been sub-categorized.

She’s a child.

Nichols and Berry point out that this issue is just the tip of the iceberg. The authorship of Wikipedia skews just as heavily to certain demographics as it is heavily male. Pages written about minority subjects are often sub-categorized, institutionalizing the social and political imbalances present in our society into Wikipedia’s entries. Wikipedia’s foundational beliefs supporting free authorship are idealistic and simplistic in a world governed by race, money, gender, and class. It’s immature to believe that the system will govern itself, if the dominant voices in the system are of the dominant group.

She is gentle...

One response to this issue of the sub-categorization of women on Wikipedia, and of the glaringly low female authorship of Wikipedia pages is the The Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon,sponsored by MoMA and held on International Women’s Day. According to Jennifer Schuessler, writing for The New York Times’ Arts Beat,“Last year’s event, which drew participants in six countries, resulted in more 100 new articles on female artists, feminist artistic movements and feminist scholarship and improvements to more than 90 articles.” This year, the event has the same hopes and is held across the globe at more than 70 sites worldwide. Although this event is not a traffic-stopping march, it is an educated and calculated attempt to meet Wikipedia on its terms and strive to make it better.

So, how do we solve a problem like Wikipedia?

Events like the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon are one solution. If those groups disenfranchised by Wikipedia add their voices and their pages and move their subjects into primary categories, their subjugation by sub-categorization will subside. It is time for all voices to be represented by Wikipedia; the only way for that to occur is if those very voices demand to be heard.

Goldstein states, “In the 21st century, when women have unprecedented freedoms, they are still marginalized, not just in the art world, but also on the digital plane, often relegated to a footnote or brief citation. While we’re still a distance from common-sense realities like equal pay for women, comprehensive childcare, and a reproductive rights bill, at least the digital world will be a slightly more female-friendly place after this weekend.”

Wikipedia needs not only to be a girl; it needs to be a boy and everything in between; it needs to be all genders and without gender; it needs to be all races, and yet blind to race. It needs to be the egalitarian database that its very premise sets it out to be.
          (1) Rodgers, Richard, and Oscar Hammerstein II. "Maria." The Sound of Music. 1959. 

“Wikipedia:Wikipedia logos.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 4 Feb. 2015. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2015. . Available:
Zywalewski, Dariusz. “The first Wikipedia Monument in the world • Collegium Polonicum.” Text, n.d. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2015. . Available:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments on this blog are moderated. I will approve on-topic and non-abusive comments. Thank you!