A couple of weeks ago, I participated in Strong Voices, Indigenous Women, a Wikipedia edit-a-thon at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. It was my first foray into Wikipedia editing, and I was a little intimidated. I knew that Wikipedia uses a special markup language that I wasn’t familiar with, and beyond that I was feeling the import of editing such a hugely popular and public information resource. I’m no expert – who am I to edit this content?
But as I chatted with some of the other participants, it was clear that I wasn’t alone. These feelings are not uncommon among new editors, but overcoming them is a key to righting a big problem with Wikipedia – the lack of diversity in Wikipedia’s scope and content that’s been widely attributed to an overwhelmingly homogeneous editor community. Wikipedia’s gender issue has gained particular attention over the past several years, but the problem goes far beyond that. If you’re not very familiar with these issues, Sara Boboltz provides an incisive overview. As she succinctly puts it, Wikipedia editors are “mainly technically inclined, English-speaking, white-collar men living in majority-Christian, developed countries in the Northern hemisphere.”
There are many theories as to why this is, including the burden that the technical knowledge and time required place on potential editors. For example, women in many communities have less free time to devote to work like this. Also, like much of the rest of the male-dominated internet, women are not always welcomed and are much more likely to face harassment in these spaces, which inherently discourages their participation.
Another big part of this problem is Wikipedia’s notability guideline, which says that a topic has to have “received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject” in order to be included in Wikipedia. It’s one of the ways that Wikipedia tries to maintain the integrity of its content, but it’s not hard to see the perpetuating effect that this guideline has on the lack of coverage of historically disenfranchised groups of people in our documented history.
If Wikipedia’s aim is to compile “the sum of all human knowledge”, everyone should be represented in the editor community. And as Wikipedia continues to grow as one of the most popular websites in the world, and its content becomes increasingly visible and authoritative, this is increasingly crucial. For example, Google now pulls Wikipedia content into it’s biographical sidebar making the information even more prominent.
The good news is that the Wikimedia Foundation is keenly aware of this problem and dedicating resources toward correcting it. For example, in 2012 they released VisualEditor, a more user-friendly editing interface and they’ve also allocated funds to initiatives that are building content on under-represented communities and subjects, like Wikipedia edit-a-thons.
While events like edit-a-thons are very successful at introducing Wikipedia editing and creating a safe space for first-timers to learn, a problem this entrenched and complex will require long-term engagement from this new wave of editors. We all have a right, and I might also argue, a responsibility, to participate in the documentation of our collective knowledge and history, and for all its shortcomings, Wikipedia provides an amazing space for us to do just that. In the words of co-founder, Jimmy Wales, “See that link up there? ‘edit this page’. Go for it, it’s a wiki.”