Archives for posts with tag: editors

On August 22, the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning announced she wanted to be called Chelsea, and recognized as female. Within an hour, the English-language Wikipedia had renamed the article and changed its pronouns. That kicked off a week-long often-acrimonious debate among Wikipedia editors, which resulted, over the weekend, in the article title being reverted back to Bradley Manning. (For further context, here’s a news story and some detailed analysis.)

This disappointed me. I think Wikipedia did the right thing in promptly responding to Manning’s announcement, and I feel like reverting the change was, for many reasons, a bad call. And, I’m dismayed by subsequent on-wiki discussions that look like they may result in revisions to editorial policy that would support, in the future, similar bad decisions on trans issues.

The purpose of this blog post though, isn’t to argue why Wikipedia should respect that Chelsea Manning is a woman. (I’ve already done that extensively this past weekend on-wiki, as have others.) The purpose is to talk about the underlying factors that I think led Wikipedia to make a bad decision, and point to where I think solutions might lie.

First, I want to question some of the frames people are currently using to understand what happened here. Some editors have been characterizing the debate as political in a narrow sense — with left-leaning Wikipedians favouring use of Chelsea and right-wing Wikipedians favouring Bradley. Others are framing it as accuracy versus kindness — saying that editors who support using Chelsea are motivated by a desire to not hurt her feelings, and are prioritizing that goal over truth. I think both those frames are wrong. I think what the debate is actually revealing is a blind spot that Wikipedia has about gender.

Last summer I drafted a blog post about Wikipedia’s coverage of rape. I haven’t published it yet, and at this point I think I probably never will: its moment may have passed. But the similarities between what I observed in our discussions about rape, and what I’ve observed over the past few days as we talked about trans issues, are I think instructive. In both cases a non-negligible chunk of our editing community, all of whom ordinarily value accuracy and knowledge and expertise, seem instead to be going on gut feeling and knee-jerk assumptions. We aren’t applying our normal judgement and standards.

On rape and trans issues, the typical editor probably doesn’t have much expertise. That’s not at all unusual — people edit on topics they don’t know much about, all the time. We fix typos, we smooth out writing styles, we dig up and add citations. What’s unusual here is that rather than deferring to people who had read and thought a lot about the article topic, as we normally do, instead a substantial chunk of the community seemed to let itself be swayed by prejudice and unexamined assumptions. (To be clear: I do not mean that a large chunk of Wikipedians are themselves prejudiced. I mean that they let prejudiced ill-informed people establish a tone, an overton window if you will, of what was acceptable to think and say.)

Here’s what’s normal: When Pluto was declared to not be a planet, Wikipedia deferred to the experts, and reflected what they said in the article.

Here’s what’s not normal: When Dominique Strauss Kahn was accused of having raped a hotel cleaner, and when Todd Akin made pseudo-scientific claims about rape and pregnancy, many Wikipedians’ discussions were (I thought) remarkably ill-informed. Some editors seemed to believe that false accusations of rape were common. Some didn’t seem to realize that rape is seriously underreported. They didn’t recognize that there’s a body of knowledge on rape that’s well-sourced and reliable.

It took me a while to connect this to systemic bias — to realize that rather than Wikipedians being unusually lacking in knowledge about what rape is and how it works, I might better understand it as me being more-knowledgeable-than-the-average-Wikipedian on the topic. Because I’m a woman, and also a journalist, I’ve followed rape issues pretty closely in the media, I’ve talked about it a fair bit with my female friends, and I’ve read a couple of dozen books and studies on it and related topics. It took me a while to realize that that level of interest, and therefore expertise, is unusual on Wikipedia, presumably at least partly because our editor community skews so heavily male.

The same is true for transgender issues. A number of editors have made truly ignorant comments over the past week or so, comparing Chelsea Manning to someone who woke up one morning believing herself to be a dog, a cat, a Vulcan, Jesus Christ, a golden retriever, a genius, a black person, a Martian, a dolphin, Minnie Mouse, a broomstick or a banana. In saying those things, they revealed themselves to be people who’ve never thought seriously about trans issues — who have never read a single first-person account of growing up transgendered, or a scholarly study or medical text, or maybe even the Wikipedia article itself. That in itself is perfectly okay: different things are interesting to different people, and I for one know nothing about trigonometry or antisemitism in the 19th century or how a planet is determined to actually be a planet. But I don’t deny that there is stuff on those topics worth knowing, nor do I mock the knowledge of others, nor accuse them of bias and POV-pushing.

Wikipedians normally don’t either. Wikipedians won’t ordinarily defer to someone just because of their credentials, but we do normally attach extra credibility to people who’ve demonstrated they know more about a topic than we do. In this instance though, Wikipedians are considering sanctioning the two thoughtful and well-informed editors who originally made the change from Bradley to Chelsea. Which to me suggests systemic bias fuelled by groupthink.

So what needs to happen now?

The entire controversy has been referred to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, the body of experienced editors who’ve been elected by the community to adjudicate difficult issues.

My hope is that ArbCom will clarify Wikipedia policy, and affirm that we have a responsibility to respect the basic human dignity of article subjects, to not mock or disparage them, and to attempt to avoid doing them harm. That we must not participate in or prolong their victimization.

I also hope ArbCom will weigh in on how Wikipedia handles trans issues in general. I’d be particularly interested in an examination of the role that subject-matter expertise is playing in our current discussions, and an exploration of how editors might choose to conduct themselves in disputes in which they have little expertise, and in which systemic bias risks skewing outcomes. In the Manning situation, for a variety of reasons that almost certainly include systemic bias, discussion didn’t achieve a result consistent with our desire to protect the dignity of an article subject.

So. Here’s the question. Given that Wikipedia makes decisions by consensus, how can majority-culture (male, young, Western, heterosexual, cisgendered) editors best participate in discussions in ways that work towards good decision-making, rather than groupthink?

For anybody reading this who doesn’t know: I’m the ED of the Wikimedia Foundation, and I’m also a Wikipedia editor. It’s in my latter, volunteer capacity that I wrote this blog post. What I say here is mostly informed by my experiences editing, but of course my experiences as ED have also shaped my opinions. Also: everything I say here, I say with lots of respect for the Wikipedia community. This is a rare misstep: an unusual and unfortunate blind spot.

Thank you to the people who vetted and gave feedback me on the draft version of this post — I appreciate it :-)

Edited to add, as per Aoife’s request in the comments. Here are some of my arguments in favour of titling the article Chelsea Manning. Here are some pages where you can read all the discussions we’ve been having.

CC-BY-SA

Wikipedia editors in Washington DC at our annual conference (July 2012)

(This post is a very lightly-modified version of a piece that appeared in the L.A. Times this past weekend. I wrote it because at Newfoo I was describing Wikipedians to the Times op ed editor — she found it interesting, and asked me to write it up for her. It’s also in honour of Wikipedia’s 12th anniversary, which is tomorrow.)

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit (yes, even you!), but most people don’t think much about who does the work. With half a billion people around the world relying on Wikipedia for information, we should.

More than 1.5 million people in practically every country have contributed to Wikipedia’s 23 million articles. More than 12,000 new entries are created every day — eight in the last minute. The authors are poets and professors, baristas and busboys, young and old, rich and poor.

It’s crazy. An encyclopedia is one of humankind’s grandest displays of collaborative effort, with contributors from pretty much every ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic background, political ideology, religion, sexual orientation and gender. The youngest Wikipedian I’ve met was seven, a boy in Tel Aviv who makes small edits to articles about animals and children’s books. The oldest I’ve met was 73, a retired engineer who writes about the history of Philadelphia, where he’s lived for half a century. My most recent cab driver in San Francisco, a middle-aged guy who I think was Eastern European, told me he edits, although I don’t know on what topics. I don’t know of a comparable effort, a more diverse collection of people coming together, in peace, for a single goal.

But beneath that surface diversity is a community built on shared values. The core Wikipedia editing community — those who are very, very active — is about 12,000 people. I’ve met thousands of them personally, and they do share common characteristics.

The first and most defining is that Wikipedians, almost without exception, are ridiculously smart, as you might expect of people who, for fun, write an encyclopedia in their spare time. I have a theory that back in school, Wikipedians were the smartest kids in the class, kids who didn’t care what was trendy or cool but spent their time reading, or with the debate team, or chess club, or in the computer lab. There’s a recurring motif inside Wikipedia of preteen editors who’ve spent their lives so far having their opinions and ideas discounted because of their age, but who have nonetheless worked their way into positions of real authority on Wikipedia. They love Wikipedia fiercely because it’s a meritocracy: the only place in their lives where their age doesn’t matter.

Wikipedians are geeky. They have to be to want to learn the wiki syntax required to edit, and that means most editors are the type of people who find learning technology fun. (It’s also because Wikipedia has its roots in the free software movement, which is a very geeky subculture.) The rise of the dot-com millionaire and the importance of services such as Google, Facebook and Wikipedia have made geekiness more socially acceptable. But geeks are still fundamentally outsiders, tending to be socially awkward, deeply interested in obscure topics, introverted and yet sometimes verbose, blunt, not graceful and less sensorily oriented than other people.

Nine of 10 Wikipedians are male. We don’t know exactly why. My theory is that Wikipedia editing is a minority taste, and some of the constellation of characteristics that combine to create a Wikipedian — geeky, tech-centric, intellectually confident, thick-skinned and argumentative, with the willingness and ability to indulge in a solitary hobby — tend to skew male.

Although individual Wikipedians come from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, we tend to live in affluent parts of the world and to be relatively privileged. Most of us have reliable Internet connectivity and access to decent libraries and bookstores; we own laptops and desktops; we’re the product of decent educational systems, and we’ve got the luxury of free time.

Wikipedians skew young and are often students, concentrated at the postsecondary level. That makes sense too: Students spend their reading, thinking, sourcing, evaluating and summarizing what they know, essentially the same skills it takes to write an encyclopedia.

Like librarians and probably all reference professionals, Wikipedians are detail-obsessed pedants. We argue endlessly about stuff like whether Japan’s Tsushima Island is a single island or a trio of islands. Whether the main character in “Grand Theft Auto IV” is Serbian, Slovak, Bosnian, Croatian or Russian. Whether Baltimore has “a couple of” snowstorms a year or “several,” whether the bacon in an Irish breakfast is fried or boiled, whether the shrapnel wound John Kerry suffered in 1968 is better described as minor or left unmodified. None of this makes us fun at parties, but it does make us good at encyclopedia writing.

As befits an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedians tend to be iconoclastic, questioning and curious. Wikipedia is a place where debate is a form of play and people are searching in good faith for the most correct answer. We’re credentials-agnostic: We want you to prove what you’re asserting; we take nothing on faith (and the article on “Faith” has ample footnotes). We’re products of the Enlightenment and the children of Spinoza, Locke and Voltaire. We oppose superstition, irrationalism and intolerance; we believe in science and reason and progress.

The most contentious topics on Wikipedia are the same as those in the rest of the world, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming, intelligent design, the war on terrorism and people such as Adolf Hitler, Ayn Rand and Dick Cheney. We believe it’s not our job to edit Wikipedia so that it reflects our personal opinions; instead, we aim to be fair to all sides. Entries need to be neutrally stated, well-documented and verifiable. Editors are asked to avoid stating opinions, or even seriously contested assertions, as facts; instead, we attribute them to their source. We aim for non-judgmental language: We avoid value-laden words like “legendary” and “racist” and “terrorist.” If we don’t know for sure what’s true, we say so, and we describe what various sides are claiming.

Does this mean Wikipedia’s perfect? Of course not. Our weakest articles are those on obscure topics, where subtle bias and small mistakes can sometimes persist for months or even years. But Wikipedians are fierce guardians of quality, and they tend to challenge and remove bias and inaccuracy as soon as they see it. The article on Barack Obama is a great example of this. Because it’s widely read and frequently edited, over the years it’s become comprehensive, objective and beautifully well sourced. The more eyes on an article, the better it is. That’s the fundamental premise of Wikipedia, and it explains why Wikipedia works.

And it does work. On Dec. 17, 2001, an editor named Ed Poor started an article called “Arab-Israeli conflict” with this single sentence: “The Arab-Israeli conflict is a long-running, seemingly intractable dispute in the Middle East mostly hinging on the status of Israel and its relations with Arab peoples and nations.” Today that article is 10,000 words long, with two maps and six other images and 138 footnotes. It’s been edited more than 5,000 times by 1,800 people in dozens of countries, including Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Canada, Britain, the United States and Russia.

Since it was founded 12 years ago this week, Wikipedia has become an indispensable part of the world’s information infrastructure. It’s a kind of public utility: You turn on the faucet and water comes out; you do an Internet search and Wikipedia answers your question. People don’t think much about who creates it, but you should. We do it for you, with love.

For the past sixteen months, the Wikimedia Foundation has been having uncomfortable conversations about how we handle controversial imagery in our projects — including, a few weeks ago, the staging of a referendum on an image hiding feature requested by our Board. The purpose of this post is not to talk specifically about the referendum results or the image hiding feature: for that, I’ll be talking in more official venues. The purpose of this post is to step back and assess where we’re at, and to call for a change in tone and emphasis in our discussions.

Please note also that due to the nature of the topic, you may find yourself offended by this post, and/or the materials linked from it.

In March 2010, editors on the German Wikipedia ran a poll asking their colleagues whether they would support a rule restricting the types of material that could appear on the German home page. Thirteen voted in favour of restrictions, and 233 voted against. A few weeks later, the German Wikipedia featured the article about the vulva on its home page, which included a close-up photograph of an open vagina. Twenty-three minutes after the article went up, a reader in Berlin wrote “you can’t be serious?!,” and called for the image to be taken down. This initiated an on-wiki discussion that eventually reached 73,000 words – the length of a shortish novel. It included a straw poll in which 29 people voted to remove the image and 30 voted to keep it. The image was kept, and the article remained on the front page for its full 24 hours.

A few months later, in June, the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees began to discuss how the Wikimedia community was handling controversial imagery. Why? Because some people seemed to be using Commons to stockpile commercial porn; because the German community had put a close-up photo of a vagina on its homepage; and because upskirt photos and controversial editorial cartoons seemed to be being categorized in ways that seemed designed to be provocative, and the people who complained about them were being shot down.

The Wikimedia Foundation was concerned that a kind of market failure might be happening — that the Wikimedia community, which is generally so successful at achieving good decision quality through a consensus process, was for some reason failing to handle the issue of controversial material well. It set out to explore what was going on, and whether we needed to handle controversial imagery differently.

That triggered community members’ fears of censorship and editorial interference. And so we find ourselves today, sixteen months later, locked in angry debate. At a meeting in Nuremberg a few weeks ago, German Wikipedian User:Carbidfischer furiously denounced our Board Chair Ting Chen. The other day –as far as I know for the first time ever– somebody called someone else an asshole on one of our mailing lists. User:Niabot created this parody image. It’s unpleasant and unconstructive, and if you’re familiar with transactional analysis, or with the work done by the Arbinger Institute, you’ll recognize the bad patterns here.

The purpose of this post is to figure out why we aren’t handling this problem well, and how we can get back on track.

So: backing up.

Is there a problem with how the Wikimedia projects handle potentially-objectionable material? I say yes. The problems that led the Board to want to address this issue still exist: they have not been solved.

So what’s the solution? I have read pages upon pages of community discussion about the issue, and I sympathize and agree with much of what’s been said. Wikipedia is not, and should never be, censored. It should not be editorially interfered with.

But refusing censorship doesn’t mean we have no standards. Editors make editorial judgments every day, when we assess notability of topics, reliability of sources, and so forth. The German Wikipedia particularly is known to have extremely rigorous standards.

So why do we refrain from the expression of editorial judgment on this one issue?

I think there are two major reasons.

First, we have a fairly narrow range of views represented in our discussions.

We know that our core community represents just a sliver of society: mainly well-educated young men in wealthy countries, clustered in Europe and North America. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, when we skew liberal/libertarian/permissive, especially on issues related to sexuality and religion. Our demographic and attitudinal narrowness is a shame because at the heart of the projects is the belief that many eyes make all bugs shallow and yet, we’re not practicing what we preach. Instead, we’ve become an echo chamber: we hear only voices like our own, expressing points of view we already agree with. People who believe other things fall silent or abandon the conversation or are reduced to impotent rage. Or, and even likelier, they never made it to the table in the first place.

Second, we are confusing editorial judgment with censorship.

Censorship is imposed from outside. Editorial judgment is something we do every day in the projects. Applying editorial judgment to potentially-objectionable material is something that honourable journalists and educators do every day: it is not the same as censorship, nor does it constitute self-censorship.

In newsrooms, editors don’t vote on whether they personally are offended by material they know their readers will find objectionable, and they don’t make decisions based on whether the angry letters outnumber the supportive ones. They exercise empathy, and at their best they are taking a kind of ‘balance of harm’ approach — aiming to maximize benefit and minimize cost. The job is to provide useful information to as many people as possible, and they know that if people flee in disgust, they won’t benefit from anything the newsroom is offering. That doesn’t mean newsrooms publish only material that’s comfortable for their readers: it means they aim to exercise good judgment, and discomfit readers only when –on balance– discomfort is warranted.

How does that apply to us? It’s true that when people go to the article about the penis, they probably expect to see an image of a penis, just like they do when they look it up in a reference book in their public library. It’s also true that they probably wouldn’t benefit much from a gallery of cellphone camera shots of penises, and that’s why we don’t have those galleries on our articles. In lots of areas, we are currently doing a good job.

But not always.

When an editor asks if the image cleavage_(breasts).jpg really belongs in the article about clothing necklines, she shouldn’t get shouted down about prudishness: we should try to find better images that don’t overly sexualize a non-sexual topic. When an editor writes “you can’t be serious?!” after vagina,anus,perineum_(detail).jpg is posted on the front page, the response shouldn’t be WP:NOTCENSORED: we should have a discussion about who visits the homepage, and we should try to understand, and be sensitive to, their expectations and circumstances and needs. When we get thousands of angry e-mails about our decision to republish the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, we should acknowledge the offence the cartoons cause, and explain why, on balance, we think they warrant publication anyway. None of that is censorship. It’s just good judgment. It demonstrates transparency, a willingness to be accountable, and a desire to help and serve our readers — and it would earn us trust.

I believe that in our discussions to date, we’ve gotten ourselves derailed by the censorship issue. I know that some people believe that the Wikimedia Foundation is intending to coercively intervene into the projects, in effect overruling the judgment of the editorial community. I don’t see it that way, I regret that others do, and I dislike the ‘authoritarian parent / rebellious adolescent’ dynamic we seem to be having trouble resisting.

Wikipedia is not censored. It should never be censored. That doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to be thoughtful and responsible.

So: what needs to happen?

We need to have a discussion about how to responsibly handle objectionable imagery. That discussion doesn’t need to happen with the Wikimedia Foundation (or at least, not solely with the Wikimedia Foundation). The projects should be talking internally about how to avoid unnecessarily surprising and offending readers, without compromising any of our core values.

Those community members who are acting like provocateurs and agitators need to stop. Demonizing and stereotyping people we disagree with pushes everyone into extremist positions and makes a good outcome much less likely. We need to look for common ground and talk calmly and thoughtfully with each other, staying rooted in our shared purpose. Some editors have been doing that throughout our discussions: I am seriously grateful to those people, and I wish others would follow their example.

“Wikipedia is not censored” is true. And, we need to stop using it as a conversation killer. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.

We need to set aside anxieties about who’s in charge, and quit fighting with each other. We need to be aware of who’s not at the table. We need to bring in new voices and new perspectives that are currently lacking, and really listen to them. Those community members who’ve been afraid to talk need to speak up, and those who’ve been driven away need to come back.

The purpose of this post is to call for that responsible engagement.

Like I said at the top of this post, my purpose in writing this is not to talk about the referendum results or the image hiding feature: for that, I’ll be talking in more official venues.

The New York Times piece on Wikipedia’s gender gap has given rise to dozens of great online conversations about why so few women edit Wikipedia. I’ve been reading ALL of it, because I believe we need to understand the origins of our gender gap before we can solve it. And the people talking –on science sites and in online communities and on historian’s blogs– are exactly the ones we should be listening to, because they’re all basically one degree of separation from us already, just by virtue of caring enough to talk about the problem.

So below is a bunch of comments, culled from discussions on many different sites — people talking about experiences on Wikipedia that make them not want to edit. Please note I’ve only included quotes from women, and I’ve aimed to limit the selections to first-person stories more than general speculation and theorizing.

1) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because the editing interface isn’t sufficiently user-friendly.

“Wikis are not very friendly – that’s for sure! I guess I also in the rare 15% because I have not only edited but created Wikipedia pages in the past! Like you, I wish the interface was nicer but I think the whole wiki-point is “stripped down” or perhaps it’s just “for geeks only”.” [1]

2) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they are too busy.

“Want to know why I’m not editing Wikipedia? I’m busy doing science.” [2]

It’s true that study after study after study has found that around the world, women have less free time than men.

But it’s worth also noting though, that a 1992 survey investigating why women didn’t participate much in an academic discussion list found that women were in fact LESS likely to describe themselves as “too busy” to contribute, than men.

“Both men and women,” study author Susan Herring wrote, “said their main reason for not participating was because they were intimidated by the tone of the discussions, though women gave this reason more often than men did. Women were also more negative about the tone of the list. Whereas men tended to say that they found the “slings and arrows” that list members posted “entertaining” (as long as they weren’t directed at them), women reported that the antagonistic exchanges made them want to unsubscribe from the list. One women said it made her want to drop out of the field altogether.” [3]

3) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they aren’t sufficiently self-confident, and editing Wikipedia requires a lot of self-confidence.

“I think my experience may explain some of it – I’ve never edited anything because I’ve never felt I had the necessary expertise in a subject. It was always “oh, I’m sure there’s someone who knows a lot more than me! Besides, who am I to go change what the person before me has written?” Which, now that I think about it, is a very socialised-female kind of behaviour. Boys don’t tend to be encouraged to doubt themselves and defer to others nearly as much.” [4]

“I thought I’d do something about [the gender gap], by updating a wikipedia page on an institution I’ve attended (one of the few things I have felt knowledgeable enough about to contribute to in the past). Sure enough, since I last looked (over a year ago) someone has updated the page to say that women are required to wear skirts and dresses. It’s not true, (although it may be wishful thinking on the part of some old-fashioned administrators). Still . . . I hesitated to correct it . . . because . . . because it’s already on the page . . . because I might be wrong . . . because someone more knowledgeable or influential might have written that . . .” [5]

Not everyone feels self-doubting, though: “It’s not that it intimidates me. It’s more than, well, if I spend three hours carefully composing a concise article on something, complete with blasted citations and attention to formatting consistency, the chances of it being poof!gone the next day are still high, and on top of all my work I don’t get anything back apart from the ineffable sensation of contributing to humanity’s knowledge base. I want friends who will excitedly inform me how pleased they were by my penultimate paragraph, dammit. I want a way to team up with someone who knows the markup and can help iron out problems before stuff gets published. I want a social backbone to keep me contributing and caring, one that doesn’t depend on the frequency of my contributions. Contests for “best article about birds in November”. Basically, give me a LJ-flavored wikipedia editors fan community.” [6]

4) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they are conflict-averse and don’t like Wikipedia’s sometimes-fighty culture.

There is lots of evidence to suggest this is true.

“My research into the gender dynamics of online discussion forums found that men tend to be more adversarial, and to tolerate contentious debate, more than women,” said Susan Herring to a reporter from Discovery News. “Women, in contrast, tend to be more polite and supportive, as well as less assertive … and (they) tend to be turned off by contentiousness, and may avoid online environments that they perceive as contentious.” [7]

This assertion is supported by women themselves — both those who don’t edit Wikipedia, and those who do:

“[E]ven the idea of going on to Wikipedia and trying to edit stuff and getting into fights with dudes makes me too weary to even think about it. I spend enough of my life dealing with pompous men who didn’t get the memo that their penises don’t automatically make them smarter or more mature than any random woman.” [8]

“Wikipedia can be a fighty place, no doubt. To stick around there can require you to be willing to do the virtual equivalent of stomping on someone’s foot when they get in your face, which a lot of women, myself included, find difficult.” [9]

From a commenter on Feministing: “I agree that Wikipedia can seem hostile and cliquish. Quite simply, I am sensitive and the internet is not generally kind to sensitive people. I am not thick-skinned enough for Wikipedia.” [10]

“From the inside,” writes Justine Cassell, professor and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, “Wikipedia may feel like a fight to get one’s voice heard. One gets a sense of this insider view from looking at the “talk page” of many articles, which rather than seeming like collaborations around the construction of knowledge, are full of descriptions of “edit-warring” — where successive editors try to cancel each others’ contributions out — and bitter, contentious arguments about the accuracy of conflicting points of view. Flickr users don’t remove each others’ photos. Youtube videos inspire passionate debate, but one’s contributions are not erased. Despite Wikipedia’s stated principle of the need to maintain a neutral point of view, the reality is that it is not enough to “know something” about friendship bracelets or “Sex and the City.” To have one’s words listened to on Wikipedia, often one must have to debate, defend, and insist that one’s point of view is the only valid one.” [11]

“I think [the gender gap] has to do with many Wikipedia editors being bullies. Women tend to take their marbles and go home instead of putting a lot of effort into something where they get slapped around. I work on biographies of obscure women writers, rather under the radar stuff… contribute to more prominent articles makes one paranoid, anyone can come along and undo your work and leave nasty messages and you get very little oversight.” [12]

“I used to contribute to Wikipedia, but finally quit because I grew tired of the “king of the mountain” attitude they have. You work your tail off on an entry for several YEARS only to have some pimply faced college kid knock it off by putting all manner of crazy stuff on there such as need for “reliable” sources when if they’d taken a moment to actually look at the reference they’d see they were perfectly reliable! I’m done with Wikipedia. It’s not only sexist but agist as well.” [13]

5) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because the information they bring to Wikipedia is too likely to be reverted or deleted.

From a commenter on Pandagon: “When I read about the shortage of women writing for Wikipedia, I immediately thought of this article and the ensuing discussion and the extent to which I do not have the time or emotional energy to fight this fight, over and over.” [14]

Another commenter on the same forum: “Even if I don’t explicitly identify as female in my Wikipedia handle (and I don’t), I still find myself facing attitudes of sexism and gender discrimination, attempts at silencing, “tone” arguments, and an enforced, hegemonic viewpoint that attempts to erase my gender when editing.” [15]

Barbara Fister writes in Inside Higher Ed magazine: “Since the New York Times covered the issue, I’ve heard more stories than I can count of women who gave up contributing because their material was edited out, almost always because it was deemed insufficiently significant. It’s hard to imagine a more insulting rejection, considering the massive amounts of detail provided on gaming, television shows, and arcane bits of military history.” [16]

From a commenter on Feministing: “There was a discussion about [women contributing to Wikipedia] on a violence against women prevention list-serve I am on. The issue was that the Wikipedia entries on the Violence Against Women Movement and Act were very misleading, incorrect in some cases, and slightly sarcastic and minimizing to the work of women rights advocates. Every time an advocate would try to make corrections and update the entries, it would be removed and edited back to it’s original misleading version. I think many advocates felt like it was pointless to try and change it-or didn’t have the same kind of time and energy around it that these majority male editors have to maintain sexist and incorrect posts.” [17]

From a Wikipedia editor at Metafilter: “I can add all kinds of things to male YA authors’ pages with minimal cites and no one says a word. Whereas, every time I try to add a female YA author, or contribute to their pages, I invariably end up with some obnoxious gatekeeper complaining that my cites from Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal aren’t NEARLY enough, and besides, this author isn’t SIGNIFICANT enough to have an entry, who cares if she published three books? They’re not NOTEWORTHY. Meanwhile, 1-Book Nobody Dude’s Wikipedia page is 14 printable pages long.” [18]

6) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they find its overall atmosphere misogynist.

“One hostile-to-women thing about Wikipedia I have noticed is that if a movie has a rape scene in it, the wiki article will often say it was a sex scene. When people try to change it, editors change it back and note that unlike “sex”, the word “rape” is not neutral, so it should be left out according to NPOV. Example (this one actually ended up changing “sex” to “make love”, which, oh wow.), example. There are probably more but it’s pretty depressing to seek them out. (It’s not true in cases where the movie is explicitly about rape, like the rape revenge genre that’s got its own page, but please don’t tell me that should assuage my concerns.) There are a few other things I’ve found frustrating about Wikipedia, but discovering that feature was really jarring and made me feel unwelcome there.” [19]

A Wikipedia editor commenting at the blog Shiny Ideas: “Any woman identified as a woman who edits Wikipedia and dares to stumble into some territory some male or group of males has staked out will quickly find that the double standard lives and they will be criticized and their words twisted, even when men who say the same things are ignored or cut some slack. If they dare to persist in holding their ground or acting as equals in the conversation the criticism may escalate to insults and off and on wiki harassment. If a woman complains about a man’s incivility in its various complaint forums, her complaints are not as likely to be taken as seriously as when men complain about other men or about the occasional woman who rocks their world with incivility equal to their own.” [20]

7) Some women find Wikipedia culture to be sexual in ways they find off-putting.

From a comment on the Atlantic Monthly site from a female Wikipedia administrator: “Thankfully, I have never been harassed (much) based on my gender. But, for example, an editor with whom I frequently collaborate used to maintain a gallery of hot chicks in bikinis as a subpage of his userpage. It was ultimately deleted after a deletion discussion, but he was totally oblivious to the fact that things like that create an environment where women do not feel welcome.” [21]

“For what it’s worth, I am offended by the existence of pornography, for a variety of reasons none of which involve my being squeamish about sex,” said a female Wikipedian on the Gender Gap mailing list. “I am not offended by including pornographic images on articles about those types of images. Indeed, I expect Wikipedia to have images illustrating articles whenever possible; I don’t see why we should make an exception for articles about sexuality.” [22]

Another female editor: “In my personal experience, when I have come across material I found offensive I was discouraged from editing in the immediate area (or even commenting) and leaving my name in any way associated with the material. I personally would never generalize this discouragement to other areas of the wiki however. It hasn’t always been explicit material that I have found unpalatable. But I have always felt that there is level of material (of many varieties) on the wikis that I cannot not strongly object to as counter-mission that I wish to campaign for it’s deletion, but that I object to enough on a personal level that I will not do anything to help curate it. Certainly my participation in certain topical areas is discouraged by this. But I don’t know that this fact should be seen as problematic. Isn’t necessary that there be some pieces of material on the Wikimedia projects for every single individual to find objectionable and offensive?” [23]

And another: “I do not find sexually explicit images offensive. There is nothing inherently unencyclopedic about an explicit image, and often they do a better job than a line drawing might (see Coital Alignment Technique, for example. If that line drawing actually gives you an idea of what’s going on, you have better x-ray vision than me. A photo would work far better).” [24]

8) Some women whose primary language has grammatical gender find being addressed by Wikipedia as male off-putting.

From a female Portuguese Wikipedian: “I have no problem with the male “Usuário” (in portuguese). And sincerely, I don’t think the fact of see a male word will push me out Wikippedia. We are quite used to use a male word in portuguese when we don’t know the gender of someone, but yes, would be nice to see a “Usuária” in my page :D” [25]

And from a female German Wikipedian: “I’m one of those women Wikimedia would like to encourage (I’m interested, but I haven’t edited much more than a few typing errors anonymously). I don’t think male words will push people out of Wikipedia – that is, they won’t push out the women that are already in. But I do think that female words could encourage some of the women who are still hesitating and unsure. It says: “Yes, we’re talking to you!” I don’t feel unwanted if someone doesn’t use the female words. But I don’t feel wanted either. I someone does use female words, it feels like it’s more directed to me.” [26]

9) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because social relationships and a welcoming tone are important to them, and Wikipedia offers fewer opportunities for that than other sites.

From a commenter at Metafilter: “Although I mostly avoid editing wikipedia because of the rampant jerkwad factor, and partially because I can’t be bothered to learn the markup to my meticulous satisfaction, a large part of my reason for not contributing my highly esoteric knowledge is that I’m busy contributing elsewhere. Fandom stuff keeps me really busy – we have our own ways of archiving and record keeping and spreading knowledge, and it’s all very skewed towards female. The few times I’ve touched wikipedia, I’ve been struck by how isolating it can feel. It’s a very fend for yourself kind of place for me. Anywhere else online, my first impulse is to put out feelers. I make friends, ask for links to FAQs and guides, and inevitably someone takes me under their wing and shows me the ropes of whatever niche culture I’m obsessed with that month. It’s very collaborative, and prioritizes friendships and enjoyment of pre-existing work over results. Wikipedia isn’t like that, as far as I’ve experienced. There’s no reciprocal culture; to just plunge oneself into the thick of things and start adding information can be highly intimidating, and there’s no structure set up to find like-minded people to assist one’s first attempts. Instead I just find lots and lots of links to lots of information-dense pages.” [27]

Edited on Sunday at noon to add: This post is being talked about on Twitter, which is prompting me to add a little more caveating here. First, I want to be clear that some women obviously do in fact edit Wikipedia: 13% of Wikipedia editors are female. I probably should’ve done a better job calling out that this post is quoting mostly women who’ve tried editing and have stopped, who never tried because of various barriers/impediments, and those who edit despite barriers/impediments. I’m grateful to the women who edit Wikipedia today, whatever their motivations or feelings about Wikipedia may be, and the last thing I want to do is make them feel ignored or invisible or like they don’t matter. Second, a couple of people on Twitter are commenting that a lot of the reasons cited here by women also apply to men. That’s absolutely true. I think Wikipedia needs to become more welcoming and accessible to everyone, and I think the quotations from women here point us towards problems that are experienced by lots of people.

[1] Source: A comment left on Mo’s Blog, “Hey gals, let’s all go edit Wikipedia!
[2] Source: Comment from Katherine on the Discover magazine story “On Friendship Bracelets and Ninja Turtles: Wikipedia’s Gender Gap
[3] Source: Susan C. Herring, New York Times, A Difference of Communication Styles
[4] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Quick Hit: Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Are Women
[5] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Why Are Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Women
[6] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[7] Source: Cristen Conger, Discovery News, Is There a Gender Gap Online
[8] Source: From a discussion at Pandagon titled Chronicling the Abuses
[9] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[10] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Quick Hit: Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Are Women
[11] Source: Justine Cassell, New York Times, Editing Wars Behind the Scenes
[12] Source: A commenter named Joyce at the NPR blog, commenting on the Eyder Peralta post Facing Serious Gender Gap, Wikipedia Vows To Add More Women Contributors
[13] Source: A commenter named Sabrina at the NPR blog, commenting on the Eyder Peralta post Facing Serious Gender Gap, Wikipedia Vows To Add More Women Contributors
[14] Source: From a discussion at Pandagon titled Chronicling the Abuses
[15] Source: From a discussion at Pandagon titled Chronicling the Abuses
[16] Source: Barbara Fister, Inside Higher Ed, Women and Wikipedia
[17] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Quick Hit: Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Are Women
[18] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[19] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[20] Source: from a discussion at Shiny Ideas blog, Women and Wikipedia
[21] Source: Comment from a female Wikipedia administrator, The Atlantic Monthly, What Makes Wikipedia Special? Ctd.
[22] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 14, 2011
[23] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 14, 2011
[24] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 16, 2011
[25] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 5, 2011
[26] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 5, 2011
[27] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?

This morning, Noam Cohen of the New York Times published Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List, a terrific, characteristically-thoughtful piece about the gender gap on Wikipedia.

In his piece, Noam quotes me on why the gap matters, and talks with researcher Joseph Reagle about Wikipedia’s origins in the “hard-driving hacker crowd,” and how that contributed to an early male skew. He also cites examples of systemic bias in action on Wikipedia, contrasting light coverage of topics such as friendship bracelets, Sex and the City, Jimmy Choo and Mexican feminist authors against deeper coverage of topics such as toy soldiers, baseball cards, Grand Theft Auto IV and The Simpsons. He gathers opinions and context from Wikimedia Foundation board member and longtime Wikipedian Kat Walsh [1], iconic gender-and-technology researcher Jane Margolis, as well as Katie Orenstein, who runs the Op-Ed Project, an organization aimed at helping women achieve voice as public intellectuals.

That piece prompted a flurry of other coverage, and I also got lots of interesting e-mail. In the next week or so, I’m going to write more about it here. For now though, this is just a quick collection of some of the most interesting coverage.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes a short piece in The Business Insider called Wikipedia Is Hampered By Its Huge Gender Gap, arguing that Wikipedia’s gender gap is a problem “because people turn to Wikipedia as an objective resource, and it’s not so objective in many ways. Another problem is that the community of Wikipedia contributors is famously independent-minded and might rebel at affirmative action-like initiatives to bring in more female contributors.”

Mother Jones publishes a Kevin Drum piece called Wikipedia’s Gender Problem, in which he argues “I suspect the reason has less to do with women having trouble asserting their opinions and more to do with the prevalence of obsessive, Aspergers-ish behavior among men.” “I’ve long been convinced that this tendency toward obsession is one of the key differences between men and women. I don’t know what causes it. I don’t know if it helped primitive men kill more mastodons during the late Pleistocene. But it does seem to be real.”

Matt Warman at The Telegraph writes a piece called Why Wikipedia’s editors are mostly male, quoting Jimmy saying that although editing Wikipedia is most appealing to geeks, he doesn’t think it’s unwelcoming to new people. Jimmy says that a key piece of solving the problem will be increasing our efforts to make Wikipedia’s interface more user-friendly.

Raven Lovecraft at TG Daily writes a piece headlined 85% of Wikipedia entries are made by men, and points out that “in recent years there have been great strides in the female user base of video games, social networking accounts, and jobs in the technology field.” (I might actually question that last: it’s my understanding that women’s representation in technology firms is declining, not increasing.) Lovecraft describes Wikipedia’s gender gap as “almost off the charts.”

Discover magazine publishes a short piece called On Friendship Bracelets and Ninja Turtles: Wikipedia’s Gender Gap, which suggests that “it might also be healthy to acknowledge the danger and shortcomings in labeling articles as “male” or “female”–not every girl weaves friendship bracelets, and not every boy enjoys watching turtle fights,” while also arguing that “more women Wikepedia contributors would mean a more diverse website–one where formerly terse entries become more nuanced, and past untouched subjects get mentioned–creating, in short, a better and more informed Wikepedia.” There are some particularly interesting comments on that piece, many presumably from women working in science.

Anna North writes a piece on Jezebel called Why Wikipedia Needs More Ladies, that “it’s not just Wikipedia — social news sites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot remain majority male, with Slashdot clocking in at 82% dudes. Some of these spaces are actively hostile to women (we’re looking at you, Digg), but in Wikipedia’s case the problem is more complex than that. Adding to an entry requires a user not just to set herself up as an authority, but also to sign in and enter an online community that’s deeply focused on information and trivia — a kind of community where women encounter both internal (what does she know?) and external (what’s a girl doing spending time in a place like that?) stigma. Certain forms of geeking out are Cool for women now (liking comic books, for instance), but editing the Pat Barker entry on Wikipedia isn’t one of them.”

And Eli Rosenberg at The Atlantic, in a piece called Where Are All the Wiki-Women?, characterizes Wikipedia’s gender gap as “a little surprising, especially given that the option of contributing to Wikipedia’s vast cultural database is open to anyone with an idea and a keyboard, with little of the implicit male-dominated infrastructure of more traditional corporate or media organizations.” He also offers a great round-up of links to other stories.

Eyder Peralta writes on the NPR blog a piece called Facing Serious Gender Gap, Wikipedia Vows To Add More Women Contributors, observing that “something like Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that everyone is encouraged to contribute to, is supposed to have a democratizing effect; instead, it seems, it’s mirroring — and compounding — the issues we have in the real world.”

Helen A.S. Popkin writes on MSNBC.com a piece called Dude-centric Wikipedia needs more women. “What’s interesting here,” she writes, “is that an attempt to draw simple comparisons to show how Wikipedia, or any other male-centric reference guide, suffers from a lack of female influence, reveals how complicated and touchy this issue is. While female-centric topics of interest are important, it’s the female perspective on subjects of general interest that mean the most in the long run. And rather than having long, drawn out discussions about it, maybe it’s better to just get it done.”

[1] Edited to add: Kat elaborates on her comments to the Times in this blog post.

If you’ve seen other good coverage, please add it in the comments. If you’ve got ideas about the origins of our gender gap, or how to fix it, please share that too. I’ll be writing more on both those topics in the coming weeks.

Ten years ago today [1], Jimmy Wales typed Hello World! into a wiki, and Wikipedia was born.

Today, Wikipedia’s the fifth most-popular site on the internet, and the only site in the top 25 that provides a wholly non-commercial public service, backed by a non-profit. It’s the largest collection of information ever assembled in human history: free to use, and free of advertising. If you’re reading it, it’s for you :-)

The anniversary’s an opportunity for us all to reflect on Wikipedia: its social impact, and what we want to accomplish in the next ten years. There’s been a lot of thoughtful media coverage over the past few weeks: you can read a lot of it here.

What makes me happy about the coverage is that it seems like people’s attitudes towards Wikipedia have finally turned an important corner.

In its early years, Wikipedia was one of our culture’s dirty little secrets: everybody used it, but very few were comfortable saying so. For the longest time, the only people who openly admitted loving Wikipedia were early adopters and iconoclasts.

Today though, journalists, educators and culture critics are finally embracing Wikipedia, acknowledging that its strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses, and that its fundamental premise works. (A reporter told me the other day that mocking Wikipedia is “so 2007.” LOL.)

So today, we celebrate all the people who built this extraordinary thing. The engineers who made the code. The people who write the articles, fix the typos, smooth the text, localize the software, answer readers’ mail, and fight off vandals and POV-pushers. The donors, who pay the bills.

I invite you to check out this page, where there are listed (at last count) 454 Wikipedia anniversary parties, conferences, film screenings and other events. If you can come to one –even if you’ve never edited or even ever met a Wikipedian– please do!

And if you can’t be with us in person, why not do a little celebratory editing? Wikipedia wants your help: here’s a really great place to get started.

Thank you to everyone who’s helped to build Wikipedia. What you’ve done is amazing. Happy anniversary!

[1] It’s the morning of January 15 in southeast Asia, as I write this :-)

I’m in Stockholm for the Swedish chapter’s third Wikipedia Academy, and I spent most of today with Swedish journalists.

I was talking with Robert Brännström, Editor-in-Chief of IDG Sweden, about the characteristics that distinguish people who edit Wikipedia from those who only read it. There are lots – I’d say that relative to the average person, Wikipedia editors are geekier, more curious, more introverted, they tend to be smarter, and are perhaps more inclined to be obsessive. But if I had to pick a single characteristic that’s common to all editors, I’d say it’s confidence. All Wikipedia editors share the belief that they know something worth sharing with others.

Robert immediately started laughing, and introduced me to the word wikipetter.  It’s derived from the Swedish word viktigpetter, which apparently means something like know-it-all, smarty-pants, smart-ass or “big head.” Wikipetter is apparently in fairly common use among Swedes — a quick search turned up quite a few definitions.

I hesitate to say this, because maybe Swedish Wikipedians consider the word wikipetter insulting. And probably they are tired of hearing about it, considering there have been no fewer than twelve lengthy debates about whether the Swedish Wikipedia should include an article about the Wiki Petter concept. (The outcome, I gather, is always no.) But nonetheless: I think it’s charming that the Swedish people have developed a special word for smarty-pants Wikipedians. If you know of other words like wikipetter, please tell me in the comments.

(By the way the title for this post was taken from a comment here, on this usability consultant’s blog. The Google translation made me laugh: it is “Long live Wikipettrar! (Is not a Wiki Petter self).”)

29 November 2010: I’ve just updated this post to correct the spelling of viktigpetter, which Lennart Guldbrandsson kindly informed me I’d gotten a bit wrong.

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