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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?

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.

I haven’t posted here for a while because I was on a long and slightly gruelling trip, timed to coincide with Wikimedia’s 2010 fundraiser. (Which has just successfully concluded with more than a half million people contributing a total of USD 16 million, exceeding our goal in our shortest annual campaign to date: you can read more about it on the Wikimedia Foundation blog. My thanks to everyone who donated / helped with the campaign, and congratulations to Zack and the fundraising team!)

The gist of the trip: Between November 20 and December 6, I was in Stockholm, London, Dubai and Delhi. I spoke at three conferences, was interviewed by 16 journalists, and met about 50 Wikimedians as well as a few supporters and friends at cultural institutions, and I interviewed candidates for the Wikimedia Program Director for India. Afterwards I went on three weeks of holiday in India, including a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Karnal, north of Delhi. The trip had multiple overlapping goals — to advance awareness of Wikipedia (particularly during our fundraising season) and encourage people to try editing, as well as to support chapters and find out a little more about the challenges and opportunities faced by editors in the Middle East. On the whole, the trip was successful and we’ll probably aim to do similar ones in future, building on lessons learned this time. I’ll blog more about it here as I get my notes organized.

Now, I’m back in San Francisco, and catching up on the 650-ish e-mails that accumulated (and didn’t get responded to) while I was away. Happy 2011 :-)

I stumbled recently across sociologist Gary Marx‘s documentation of tactics covertly used by external parties to hurt or help social/political movements [1].

Like for example the FBI attempts to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by painting him as a womanizer.   Or the CIA’s 1967 project Operation CHAOS, designed to monitor the student antiwar movement. Or the FBI’s attempts under COINTELPRO in the late sixties to undermine what it called “black nationalist hate groups” by inciting rivalries among them.

I’m kind of a categorization geek, so I liked Marx’s crisp table of the ways in which folks have aimed to covertly undermine the movements that they found threatening. By investigating and harassing participants, and discrediting leaders. Fomenting internal conflict: encouraging jealousy, suspicion, factionalism and personal animosity. Spreading damaging misinformation. Undermining morale and thwarting recruitment efforts. Undermining activities that generate revenue. Encouraging hostility between the movement and its potential allies and partners. Creating similar organizations that compete for resources and public mindshare. Sabotaging events and projects. And so forth.

Reading all this, I started thinking about Wikimedia, which is of course a sort of social movement. Our goal is to make information easily available for people everywhere around the world – free of commercialism, free of charge, free of bias. That’s a radical mission.

Given that, it’s interesting to look at how external entities have responded to Wikipedia’s extraordinary success – especially those who have reason (or think they might have reason) to feel threatened by it.

So for example, the media. Conventional media business models are crumbling, and media organizations are struggling to persuasively articulate their value proposition.  Some see Wikipedia as a competitor. So it doesn’t surprise me that –with a fervour that can border on the obsessive– some media talk so relentlessly about why Wikipedia can’t succeed, and make predictions about how quickly, and in what manner, it will fail.  Cultural and educational and PR organizations have less of a megaphone, but apart from that their initial responses have been pretty similar. [2]

None of that is surprising. What has surprised me though, is the other side of the balance sheet.

Marx posits a world in which detractors work against a social movement, and supporters work in favour of it.

At Wikimedia, we’ve had our share of detractors. But I’ve found myself more surprised by the other side — surprised that Wikimedia’s most articulate and passionate supporters –its core editors– don’t do more to promote its success.

Here are some of the things Marx says people can do to support social movements:

  • Work to create a favourable public image for the movement
  • Support participants and help recruit new participants
  • Help with effective communications
  • Support revenue-generating activities
  • Build and sustain participant morale
  • Build and support leaders
  • Encourage internal solidarity: support kindness, understanding, generosity and a sense of common purpose
  • Encourage external solidarity: support the development of common cause between the movement and its potential allies and partners
  • Support movement events and projects.

I want to be clear: lots of Wikimedia editors (and other supporters) do this work. We have a communications committee which is sometimes remarkably effective. The Wikimedia network of international chapters is excellent at outreach work – particularly the German chapter, which pioneered the Wikipedia Academy concept, and lots of other initiatives. Editorial and movement leadership emerges almost entirely organically at Wikimedia, and I have seen it warmly and enthusiastically supported. And we have some really terrific editors working tirelessly to develop strategic partnerships with cultural and educational institutions. So there is lots of good work being done.

But even so: sometimes when I read our mailing lists, I laugh out loud at how Wikimedians can be our own worst enemies. We subject each other to relentless scrutiny — criticizing our own leaders and supporters and activities, monitoring, speculating, worrying, and poking and prodding each other. All, frequently, in public.

I’ve been trying to figure out why we’re like this. And I think there are two main contributing factors. One is, Wikipedians are engaged first and foremost in building an encyclopedia, and knowledge workers of the encyclopedia-writing type are famously fussy, fastidious, fact-obsessed and obsessive about neutrality. So it makes sense that neutrality is a value that extends to our communications about the Wikimedia projects. We don’t want to shill for anybody, including, LOL, ourselves.

Second though is the disease of paranoia, which seems unavoidable in social movements. Anybody who’s committed themselves to working to advance a cause, particularly voluntarily –and who has only very limited control over the rest of their social movement– is vulnerable to paranoia. It makes sense: you’ve worked incredibly hard for something you care about a lot, without any expectation of reward, so of course you worry that others could destroy what you’ve accomplished.

(Lawyer and writer Bill Eddy tossed off a fascinating aside in his book High-Conflict People in Legal Disputes – to the effect that groups often instinctively elevate the most paranoid among them into leadership positions. Essentially because although hyper-paranoid leaders may often mistake innocence for evil, it can at least be assumed that they will never do the reverse. As in Michael Shermer‘s TED talk: better a false positive, than a false negative that results in being eaten by a predator.) The upshot: social movements often exist in a kind of amplified state of vigilance, which is probably occasionally useful, but equally often just wasted effort, or carries with it an opportunity cost, or is just really destructive.

Personally, I would like to see the core Wikimedia community better support itself and its own success.

[1] From Gary Marx’s chapter “External Efforts to Damage or Facilitate Social Movements: Some Patterns, Explanations, Outcomes, and Complications,” in the book The Dynamics of Social Movements, edited by M. Zald and J. McCarthy, Winthrop Publishers, 1979.

[2] I should be careful to be clear here. First, Wikimedia’s got lots of supporters — and we’ve always had strong supporters in traditional media. I don’t want conventional media to see Wikipedia as a threat and I don’t think it is a threat: I think Wikipedia’s a useful complement, part of a balanced information diet. Second, everybody’s reaction to Wikipedia has gotten warmer over time, as Wikipedia’s earned credibility. But the original systemic pressures haven’t changed: they are still what they always were.