A young Wikipedia editor withstood a decade of online abuse. Now she’s fighting back — on Wikipedia itself.
The “fuck you” project crystallized one Friday night last year. As Emily Temple-Wood video-chatted with friends, an email pinged in her inbox:
“There are alternate realities where I raped you and got away with it,” it read. “In those realities it’s legal for me to rape you as long as I want and as hard as I want. I am dead serious.”
The note came from someone with a history of harassing the 22-year-old medical student. This man hates women, Temple-Wood thought to herself. Then she had another thought. What do misogynists hate more than successful women?
She’d been receiving vicious emails for a decade. Sometimes she sought solace by commiserating with friends, or by stomping off to do something else, or occasionally — after the cruelest messages—by lying on her bed and crying. Temple-Wood became a frequent target of abuse merely because she is the rare female Wikipedia editor who has been active on the site for years. She manages to let much of the harassment slide off her. But many women eventually find the bullying to be too much, and leave the site.
Across the internet, trolls disproportionately target women and members of other underrepresented groups. On Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other open platforms, victims of harassment are forced to make a difficult choice — go silent and preserve their mental health, or try to ignore the abuse and continue expressing themselves openly online. As the wounds deepen, that latter choice becomes harder and harder to justify.
When people get forced off the web, their voices disappear from the internet’s public squares. The ideas and memes that dominate skew even further toward a white male perspective. The web becomes less interesting, less representative, less valuable. We all lose.
But on that Friday night, Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.
Temple-Wood didn’t want to give up her voice — the web was the only place where she felt free to be herself. Growing up in suburban Chicago, Temple-Wood was the type of middle schooler who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, because she thought the idea of making children swear a loyalty oath was bizarre. Her rebellious streak didn’t win her many friends, and she found herself yanked up by the elbows by her classmates and chided by adults at assembly.
The first time she tried editing Wikipedia, in 2007, she created a page under an anonymous account to taunt her younger sister. Sophie is a butt-head — by Emily! she wrote. To her, it was a fun little prank. To the tiny minority of web users who constantly edit Wikipedia’s millions of articles, it was something else entirely: vandalism. They saw Temple-Wood’s edits as not all that different from scratching windows on a public bus or spray painting someone’s front fence. (They quickly erased the butt-head page.)
Oblivious to the unseen legions powering that online resource, Temple-Wood continued exploring Wikipedia in the hours after she got home from school. With a shock, one day she realized there were actual people creating and maintaining the site, for free. Sitting in front of her home computer, she started to regret her prank. “I felt bad for wasting somebody’s time,” she says. “So I thought, I’ll do something to make up for it.”
Temple-Wood decided to tackle the nuts-and-bolts of article categorization. “I discovered easy ways to contribute; things that your average smart, motivated 12-year-old could do,” she recalls.
How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.backchannel.com
Under the username Keilana, her account history shows that her first edit took place on April 30, 2007: a minor category tweak to an article about a Taiwanese pop star’s fourth Mandarin studio album. Four days later, Temple-Wood added a snippet of information about the naming of the asteroid 1952 Hesburgh, and left this comment for her fellow editors: “Added more info, needs to be expanded a lot; nasa.gov has a lot of tables and such, but since I’m not an astronomer, I can’t decipher them. Perhaps someone could? Thanks.”
Bit by bit, she slowly sculpted and rearranged material so that the resource became easier for everyone to use. In short order, she threw herself into reverting vandalism as well as fixing typos, creating talk pages for new users, sorting and tagging stubs, and rewriting articles concerning, say, Powderfinger albums or the Kurukh language, which is spoken by millions of people in south Asia. “When you’re 12, pretty much everyone is better than you at certain things,” she tells me over Skype. Yet by the end of 2007, she was a site administrator, having quickly earned a favorable reputation among the editorial community. Few of her fellow editors realized their newest admin was a 12-year-old girl.
In this unique community of intellectuals, geeks, subject-matter experts and sharp wits, Temple-Wood found a playground where, for the first time, she fit right in. Here, she was judged by the accuracy and quality of her work, rather than by her age, gender, or appearance. Known only as Keilana, this outsider had discovered her tribe.
Over time, Keilana’s confidence grew, but her outspoken, high-achieving nature made her a target for hateful emails and messages from anonymous trolls, both on-Wiki and off. “People have been harassing me since the first vandal figured out I was a lady,” she says, “Which was within a month or so of my joining the site.”
Wikipedia, which started in 2001, has about 30,000 people who are classed as active English-language editors, meaning they’ve logged on to make at least five changes in the last month. As with any large and intellectually robust online community, an undercurrent of hostility is never far away. Minor disagreements can flare into harassment if they’re not dealt with promptly and transparently.
When Keilana first started receiving nasty messages, their contents came as a shock. “There’s only so many ‘You’re a faggot bitch Nazi Illuminati slut!’ comments you can take at that age,” she says. In 2008, when she was 14, her userpage became a regular target for vandals, who would replace its contents with “I am a fat lonely bitch.” Or: “I have no friends.” Or: “DISREGARD THAT I SUCK COCKS.”
She admits that her reaction to these attacks, either on-Wiki or in private message, was “usually unproductive — I stayed up all night getting in stupid internet fights a couple times, because I was so irritated by people.” Keilana elected to keep these battles private. Meanwhile, she was also dealing with real-life bullying in middle school. “I was a kiddo, so I wasn’t super great at coping,” she reflects. “There was lots of crying.”
In November 2012, after more than five years of dealing with online filth, Temple-Wood decided enact her revenge. “I’ve always been a shit stirrer,” she says. “I had to do something with that angry energy, and let it off in a productive way.”
As Temple-Wood well knew, it takes a special kind of person to invest their free time in improving this free resource, and for this reason, biases abound. About 90 percent of Wikipedia’s editors are male, so the encyclopedia’s 5.32 million articles tend to skew toward the achievements and interests of men. So to thumb her nose at her harassers, she started the Women Scientists WikiProject, to improve the quality and coverage of biographies of notable achievers in this field. “Unfortunately, part of Wikipedia’s systemic bias is that women in science are woefully underrepresented. Let’s change that!” reads a note at the top of the project page. The community now includes 90 editors.
She’s not the only person leading an effort to increase diversity on Wikipedia — public gatherings to promote inspirational women, African American artists and LGBT-related content, known as edit-a-thons, pop up sporadically. But Aaron Halfaker, a principal research scientist at Wikimedia Foundation, noticed that starting in mid-2013 — about six months after Temple-Wood kicked off the WikiProject—articles about women scientists began to grow much faster than the rest of Wikipedia.
In the process of creating almost 400 articles, many of which concern notable women scientists, Temple-Wood has learned how history’s great women overcame their own challenges. “Reading and writing about women who dealt with so much garbage helps me deal with garbage,” she says, offering an example from 1878: “Caroline Still Anderson was told that she couldn’t have an internship in Boston because she was a lady and she was black, and black ladies couldn’t be doctors. She marched in, and lectured them until they let her do it! Alright, I feel better now!”
As her online profile grew, she set up filters to deal with the influx of emails from unknown senders. Vandals have made edits to the Wikipedia article in her name, such as: “Temple is trying to get all male scientists to take estrogen on a monthly basis in order to better become to Temple’s likeness.” Or: “Wood has blow up dolls of her favorite female scientists that she ‘has fun with’ a lot.”
Patrick Earley, a member of Wikimedia Foundation’s seven-person Support and Safety team, believes that many misunderstandings and bad interactions arise because people on the site communicate solely in text. “Some people write drive-by comments that contain horrifically insulting or violent stuff,” says Earley. “The community is very supportive, and it will generally be removed quite quickly, but the psychological effect of it is there.”
“There are definitely times where I cry and lose it, or feel really bad and let it get to me,” says Temple-Wood. “All of us who handle harassment well have times where we don’t. We snipe at loved ones, or we sit in the shower and cry.”
Jake Orlowitz, the head of The Wikipedia Library, was at the annual Wikimedia conference in Mexico City in July 2015 when he witnessed Temple-Wood’s anger and frustration boil over. “Out of nowhere, Emily turns red and chucks her cell phone against the wall,” recalls Orlowitz. “She was not in the mood for another death threat, and that’s what had come to her inbox. But at this point, it’s very clear that somehow, Emily is fueled by every challenge.”
That day, they were about to head into a closed-doors discussion about how Wikipedia can better handle online harassment. Of that incident, Temple-Wood says, “That was the last time I really felt that awful. It gets better.”
Until he met her in person, Orlowitz only knew Temple-Wood by her username, and he remains a friend and admirer. “It’s incredibly dangerous to invite attention from misogynist internet trolls; it’s not trivial,” he says. “But she did it in such a graceful, badass, strong and clever way, and I think it’s one of the best ‘fuck yous’ I’ve seen. It’s exciting to watch her turn that pattern of harassment on its head and say, ‘Come at me, bros! Send me your emails from wherever you’re hiding from, and each time you do, a little more money is going to go into the Bank of Women!’”
In her decade of editing Wikipedia, Temple-Wood has made more than 57,600 edits. Her extensive contributions to articles concerning endometrial and ovarian cancers are read by hundreds of thousands of people each year. In June 2016, she became a joint recipient of the Wikipedian of the Year award, alongside Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, a 60-year-old health care administrator in California who is similarly active in combating harassment and increasing the encyclopedia’s coverage of notable women.
Temple-Wood is now studying medicine at Chicago’s Midwestern University, but in her spare moments she chips away at the Women Scientists WikiProject. In mid-November, for instance, she expanded a stub she’d started in late August on Cuchlaine King, a British geomorphologist known for her work in glaciology.
Temple-Wood taunts the trolls by ensuring that great achievers aren’t forgotten. Because of her and her fellow project members — and the unrelenting abuse she has received — it’s now a fact that strong, smart, and resilient women scientists are becoming more visible online. She takes the trolls’ energy, and deftly sculpts it into something more lasting. Or as she puts it: “We have to polish those turds as best we can!”
Mute. Block. Unfriend. If you really want to understand people who don’t think the same as you, get off of Facebook.backchannel.com