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.

(I’m in Haifa this week at Wikimania, which is what prompted this post.)

There are two kinds of travellers — people who wing it, and compulsive hyper-rational utilitarian minimalists, like me. This blog post will bore or horrify the former group, but I hope it’ll be useful for the latter :-)

I travel with a small carry-on rollerboard, and yet I have what I need for pretty much any situation. That’s because I iterate — every time I have a problem on a trip, I refine how I pack so it never happens again.

And I have made a lot of mistakes. Running out of Sudafed once cost me half an afternoon in Amsterdam, where only one pharmacy is open on Sundays, and, by the way, pseudoephedrine is illegal anyway. Over the years I have forgotten and needed to hunt down all kinds of things, often in countries where I don’t speak the language. Out of sheer absent-mindedness, I have bought laptop power cables and phone batteries on no fewer than five continents.

But now I am pretty much optimized. Here’s what I do.

Use case #1: On the plane

On the plane, I’m space-constrained and weight-constrained, I’m either working or killing time, and my needs are totally predictable.

I always wear the same jacket with zippered pockets, with my passport and boarding pass in the left and my phone on the right. I never think about them because I know where they are.

My laptop and e-reader live in brightly-coloured neoprene sleeves, so I don’t leave them behind. A zippered pouch holds my earphones, plus a travel-sized power cable for my laptop, plus a phone charger. On night flights, I bring a tiny flexible-neck USB-powered light so I don’t irritate the people beside me by using the overheads.

I carry a ziploc bag that holds alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, antiseptic ointment, paper napkins, pseudoephedrine, benedryl, ibuprofen, lip balm, a toothbrush and paste, mouthwash and a plastic spork. Most of that was recommended by Dan Pink, who gives excellent advice about how to keep from getting sick and jet-lagged on long flights.

The one thing I will never fly without is pseudoephedrine, because it’s illegal or restricted in many countries. If I get sick travelling and don’t have pseudoephrenine for my flights, I end up deaf and miserable for days afterwards. (Hello Lima, Nijmegen, Buenos Aires and Bangalore!) I’ve tried plenty of substitutes, and pseudoephedrine is the only thing that actually works.

If the box says PE, you know it does not work

Use case #2: Charging stuff

The first thing I do when I get settled in a hotel is plug everything in.

I carry this style of travel adaptor, because it’s self-contained with no parts to break or lose. The ones I own are black but I’d rather have them in a bright colour so I would notice when I am leaving them behind.

I carry the Monster outlets-to-go powerstrip, which is recommended by Larry Brilliant on Kevin Kelly’s wonderful Cool Tools blog. I have the four-outlet version as well as the three-outlet version: the latter is smaller and I’ve never missed having a fourth outlet. And I use these converters to connect the powerstrip to the travel adaptor. This set-up gives me the ability to simultaneously charge three devices from one outlet, which is useful in hotel rooms and has made me lots of friends in conference centres and airports.

All my mobile devices are micro-USB, but I carry a bunch of adaptors anyway: they don’t take up much space and have been useful when I’ve accidentally brought an old mini-USB charger or needed to charge my phone from my laptop.

All my electronic accessories. Neatly bound because cable mess sucks :-)

Use case #3: In the hotel, getting washed and dressed

Clothing: I don’t pack anything that’s bulky or needs ironing or dry-cleaning — I mainly pack unstructured clothes (like knits) in solid neutral colours, and I roll them so they’re compact and don’t wrinkle. I don’t pack like things together –all socks or all T-shirts– instead, I put complete outfits into ziploc bags sorted by date.

Toiletries: I carry a lot of different items, so I aim to keep the amount of each super-small. I buy micro-travel-size items from places like Minimus, and when I can’t get something in a small size, I decant from bigger containers into small leakproof plastic bottles like these from The Container Store. And because leakproof is more aspirational than actual, I pack those bottles into self-sealing waterproof bags. And then I pack those bags, perhaps somewhat freakishly, into a single zippered mesh pouch.

Leakproof bottles in leakproof bags :-)

Use case #4: Out of the hotel, working

I normally just need my laptop and phone, plus chargers. But because my Droid Pro only gets about eight hours out of its extended battery, I also carry an external battery pack which can fully charge my phone at least two or three times before needing a charge itself. It’s a little bulky to carry around, but better than not having connectivity.

Use case #5: Something goes wrong

I’ve got scans of my passport and credit/debit/ID cards online, plus the helpline numbers. I haven’t needed any of this yet, but when I do it’ll be there.

And, I keep a pouch tucked in a corner of my suitcase that holds stuff I won’t normally need, but will be grateful to have if I do. It includes a mini first-aid kit, laundry soap, tiny amounts of painkillers and other medications, a couple of granola bars, a manicure kit, some pressure point tools for stiffness and pain following long flights or long sessions on my laptop, miniature basics –mostly from Muji— like glue and tape and pens, plus a multitool and a few duplicate essentials like phone batteries and chargers. I add something new every now and then, but mostly I don’t touch it or think about it: it just lives in my suitcase.

That’s what I do. If you’ve got more or better hacks for ridiculously-efficient travel, please share them in the comments :-)

Donors Choose thank you letters from kids


This past March at TED we were given $100 gift cards for Donors Choose, the online non-profit that connects donors with American classrooms that need money. I’d heard of Donors Choose, but I’d never donated through them, so I was happy to get a push. I’m not an obvious prospect for their work —I don’t have kids, have no particular interest in the primary school system; I’m not even American— and I probably would never have given, without the card.

So I did some poking around the Donors Choose site, and ended up putting the money towards a Grade 4 science class in New Mexico that wanted to buy a model of the solar system. Frankly I didn’t put a lot of thought into it: I just did a search, made the donation, and forgot all about it.

Months passed. Then last night, when I picked up my mail I had a big envelope from Donors Choose.

Crap!, I thought. They have my address. And now I’ve gotten a big envelope of shiny advertorial spam. I’ll never donate again, but I’ll be on their list forever.

But when I opened the envelope, what spilled out was dozens of handwritten letters from Grade 4 kids, addressed to me. “Sue Gardner,” they wrote, “thank you for the money you sent us.” “You are very nice.” “We worked in pairs on the project. Manuel and I learned a lot.” It was the opposite of direct mail: a bunch of utterly unique, handmade letters complete with creases and smudges, misspellings and crossed-out bits, awkward sentence structure and sloppy handwriting. Not from a fundraising staffer at Donors Choose, but from real kids.

It was awesome. I actually cried a little, it was so cute and so moving.

So I tried to figure out why it worked so well.

1) It was a happy surprise. I had ticked off the box in the donation form asking for letters, but by the time they came I’d forgotten all about them.

2) The letters came from kids, so their lack of perfection made them more appealing, not less. This means nobody from Donors Choose needs, I assume, to do any heavy-handed expensive quality control.

3) It’s actually good for the kids too. My mother used to have her primary school classes sponsor poor kids through World Vision, purely so they would learn about charitable values and the importance of gratitude.

4) There was no ask! It’s irritating to feel obligated and coerced, and it felt great to get something from a non-profit that didn’t do that. It also didn’t trigger transactional feelings in me: the letters weren’t a quid waiting for the quo of a new donation. They felt like a gift: pure pleasure.

5) I hardly ever get handwritten mail, but when I do, it’s pretty much always thank you cards or letters from family. “Handwritten” has purely positive associations.

6) There’s something joyful about handcrafted, tactile, physical objects, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time online. Kids writing something on paper and it coming to me through the postal system feels archaic and surprising, which adds to the charm.

I donate to lots of non-profits, and this was by far the best experience I’ve had.

It’s normal for the donation process itself to feel good, but the experience afterwards generally sucks: you either get a form letter thank you or no thank you at all, and then a series of generic e-mails, seemingly published on a schedule, demanding attention and money. “Policy and Advocacy Update: What’s Happening in Sacramento.” “We Need Your Help For Auction Donations: Help Now.” “Highlighting the Devastating Consequences of the Republican Plan and what you can do.” It’s depressing, it’s exhausting and it’s boring.

So I think there is lots to learn from Donors Choose. I started writing a list, and then I realized it really boils down to one big idea.

Conventional fundraising is inherently oppositional and makes the donor feel bad not good. A situation is dire, your help is urgently required, we will hassle and shame you until you give. That kind of fundraising works, but it doesn’t create a very enjoyable experience for the donor. Nobody opens a fundraising appeal in a spirit of joy and curiosity.

My Donors Choose experience, by contrast was pure pleasure. The package I got was surprising and fun. It didn’t create any social obligation from me. It felt like a gift.

And it worked.

I immediately gave again, a hundred dollars to a seventh grade teacher who wants to buy Judy Blume books for her class. I found myself calculating what I spend on clothes and dinners out, and what proportion I might reasonably divert to Donors Choose. Not just because the kids need my money (although I’m sure it helps them, and I feel great about that), but equally for my own pleasure.

In terms of maximizing my own happiness, Donors Choose was the best hundred dollars I’ve ever spent. Kudos to them: the system they’ve built is great.

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.

Here’s some of my favourite coverage of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary.

For Inside Higher Ed, librarian and novelist Barbara Fister traces academia’s journey from skepticism about Wikipedia (“Those faculty who weren’t personally familiar with Wikipedia worried it was full of hoaxes and lies; those who used it regularly were nevertheless perturbed that students used it just as often.”) to embracing it (“Like much of scholarship, this is a big thing done not for money, but for its own sake, a project that will never end, that has no purpose other than to gather and share information freely.”). Inside Higher Ed: Happy Birthday, Wikipedia.

In the Guardian, historian Timothy Garton Ash describes his visit to the Wikimedia Foundation’s office in San Francisco, and celebrates “an American invention which, for all its faults, tries to spread around the world a combination of unpaid idealism, knowledge and stubborn civility.” The Guardian: We’ve seen America’s vitriol. Now let’s salute Wikipedia, a US pioneer of global civility. For all its shortcomings Wikipedia, now aged 10, is the internet’s biggest and best example of not-for-profit idealism.

In the Atlantic, NYU professor Clay Shirky argues that Wikipedia has helped our culture redefine authority. “An authority is a person or institution who has a process for lowering the likelihood that they are wrong to acceptably low levels. And over the last ten years, Wikipedia has been passing that test in an increasing number of circumstances,” he writes. The Atlantic: Clay Shirky on Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary. The Atlantic also includes short essays from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, press critic Jay Rosen, science journalist Mariette Christina, Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman, and others.

The Economist praises Wikipedia as “an astonishing success story,” “a useful reference work” that’s also “the most striking example of the idea that volunteers working together online can collectively produce something valuable.” It also raises three concerns: that Wikipedia contains too many inaccuracies; that it’s not financially sustainable; and that it’s lost touch with its founding ideal of being open to all. The Economist: In Praise of Wikipedia: Wiki birthday to you. A celebration of an astonishing achievement, and a few worries.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Oxford University Press vice-president Casper Grathwohl describes how his view of Wikipedia has evolved since its early days, and calls it “comprehensive, current, and far and away the most trustworthy Web resource of its kind.” He argues that the key challenge for the scholarly community is to “work actively with Wikipedia to build stronger links from its entries to more advanced resources that have been created and maintained by the academy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Wikipedia Comes of Age.

I wrote a column for the Guardian, in which I argue that Wikipedia represents the fulfillment of the original promise of the internet, that the conditions that gave rise to it may be disappearing, and that they are worth defending. The Guardian: Wikipedia at 10: a web pioneer worth defending. The greatest threat to this remarkable collaborative model of non-profit information sharing is not commerce, but censorship.

Agence-France-Press published a good solid overview of how Wikipedia works today, and describes our future plans. AFP: Ten years on, Wikipedia eyes a better world.

Wired UK’s Olivia Solon covers similar terrain in Wired UK, with a special focus on Wikipedia’s efforts to attract more editors: The battle to make Wikipedia more welcoming, part of Wired UK’s Wikipedia Week, which also includes a timeline of important Wikipedia milestones from Duncan Geere, and collects together reflections from people as disparate as Encyclopedia Britannica former editor-in-chief Robert McHenry, to Wikipedia adminstrator WereSpielChequers to Google Summer of Code boss Chris DiBona in Viewpoints: what the world thinks of Wikipedia.

In Lifehacker, Australian journalist and Wikipedian Angus Kidman describes his long-running dispute with a Wikipedia editor named Karen over the article about late-seventies Irish sisters band The Nolans, saying “what’s not always obvious are the social benefits you can derive from actually being a contributor to [Wikipedia],” and “I am not by nature a particularly tolerant or patient person, so I definitely chalk this up as self-improving.” Lifehacker: How Wikipedia Can Make You A More Tolerant Person.

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 :-)