Athena Talks
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Athena Talks

Open letter to Jimmy Wales: Why I can’t bring myself to donate to Wikipedia

Dear Mr Wales,

A few days ago, when I was using Wikipedia, I saw a message from you asking for donations to keep the site running. It even said that most people would ignore the message, and urged us to take the message in and consider donating. Well, I didn’t ignore the message. I read it over and over again, a few times, and let it all sink in. Still, I decided that I wouldn’t donate. I couldn’t bring myself to. Instead, I decided that I wanted to tell you why I really couldn’t bring myself to donate.

There really is a case for donating money to Wikipedia. You made the case very well in your message. Wikipedia is a free resource, provided by a non-profit and maintained by volunteers. Donations keep this resource up and running, serving us all.

However, Wikipedia, as it stands, also contributes to structural discrimination. Wikipedia is known to have unequal representation of women and minorities in its content. Various feminist groups have hosted Wikipedia edit-a-thons to try and rectify this problem, only for participants to find that a large part of this problem is inherent in Wikipedia’s current design. New editors often try to add pages about authors, theorists and artists that have inspired them or have voiced the perspectives of a minority, only to have such pages ‘speedily deleted’ according to the Notability policy.

The Notability policy is largely based around notability in ‘reliable sources’, which for most subjects (barring selected subjects intensively studied by academics) would be mainstream media. As a subject has to be repeatedly featured in-depth in mainstream media, this effectively means that Wikipedia will always favour including those things the establishment favours, and excluding those people and ideas the establishment has already disenfranchised. Which would be sad but still not such a major issue if Wikipedia wasn’t a virtual monopoly when it comes to online encyclopedias. With the reach and power Wikipedia has, it cannot really claim to be just reflecting the inequalities of the outside world, because it is actually acting as an amplifier of those inequalities. Wikipedia’s effect on the internet is effectively one of limiting its ability to level the playing field, especially for ideas on the so-called long tail. And for this, donating to Wikipedia really doesn’t sit well with my feminist conscience.

Many Wikipedians don’t even want to have a conversation about the Notability policy, simply trying to shut up dissent by saying that the policy is required for quality control. But people like myself have made a case otherwise. Put it simply, it isn’t a binary choice between the current Notability policy versus allowing your local bus driver (or even his dog) to have a page on Wikipedia. Here is merely one possible alternative structure we have developed:

On the other hand, many Wikipedians and even non-Wikipedians are ready and eager to have this conversation. Ever since I started on my own mission to raise this conversation, I have come across plenty of interested people. In fact, a simple Google search will reveal that dissatisfaction with the Notability policy goes back more than a decade, and has come from people from all walks of life. And just earlier this year, I read several articles on tech sites like Boing Boing describing how deletionists on Wikipedia are destroying useful information, employing the Notability policy as their weapon. From what I can see, the Notability policy is really poisoning Wikipedia, and a conversation surrounding its impact is urgently required.

I love the idea of Wikipedia, and I really would love to be able to donate one day. But as things currently stand, with the Notability policy firmly in place and with the Wikipedia establishment refusing to even have a proper conversation about this topic, I’m afraid my conscience simply won’t let me do so.

Yours sincerely,

p.s. This letter is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license, so feel free to share it around. In fact, I would love it if more people shared it around, and I hope that it will eventually reach the attention of Mr Wales himself.



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