Inside The Activist Fight To Diversify Wikipedia

New editors are helped at a Wikipedia edit-a-thin (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Francesa Lissoni)
Activists hope Wikipedia will soon no longer be the domain of cis white men.

I n 2011, a survey report by the Wikimedia Foundation put numbers behind what many had long suspected: Wikipedia is largely the product of cis white men.

The survey found that only 8.5% of Wikipedia editors identify as female, and less than 1% as transgender. The startling report echoed the conclusions of researchers at the University of Minnesota, who found that this lack of diversity among editors creates noticeable content disparities: Wikipedia articles on topics that are typically gendered as feminine tend to be shorter and less-developed than articles on subjects related to men, and women artists are less likely to have lengthy, in-depth entries on Wikipedia.

More recently, The Atlantic reported on male editors harassing female colleagues, and noted that many women feel unwelcome due to content that’s hostile toward them (movie entries, for instance, often refer to rape scenes as “sex scenes” or even “making love”). Meanwhile, internal efforts at Wikipedia to fix the gender gap have, by admission of the site’s own founder, “completely failed.”

And gender imbalance isn’t Wiki’s only problem.

The racial demographics of Wikipedia editors remain under-studied — the Wikipedia page for “Wikipedians” doesn’t address race at all under its “demographics” section — which is itself rather alarming. But the Wikimedia report does note that “Wikipedia editors are disproportionately from countries in the Global North,” largely North America and Europe.

Content disparities further suggest that editors often overlook the narratives of people of color. Wikipedia lacks entries for many notable people of color — for example, only nine of Haiti’s 37 first ladies have Wikipedia articles, whereas all 45 first ladies of the U.S. have entries. Similarly, the entry for the History of Montana (with 90 citations) is far longer and more thorough than that for the History of Botswana (3 citations). Other prominent people of color lacking Wikipedia articles include Judy Juanita, a novelist and playwright who served as editor-in-chief of the Black Panther Party newspaper in the late 1960s; Milton Allimadi, publisher and CEO of the Black Star News; and Zambian-born writer and graphic novelist Efemia Chela, who was nominated for The 2014 Caine Prize For African Writing.

Considering that Wikipedia receives 273 million pageviews per day, these disparities matter, ensuring that a large swathe of the population is exposed to a very limited view of the world.

Fortunately, activists are working to correct this lack of representation by writing women and people of color into Wikipedia.

It may seem counter-intuitive to use Wikipedia as a platform for activism; after all, according to the site’s own community guidelines, articles must be written from a neutral point of view and should avoid advocacy. But given the site’s popularity and crowd-sourcing model, it’s also an ideal way to broaden the artistic canon that so often excludes women and people of color — especially in the current political climate.

In 2014, Wikipedia’s potential as a tool for change inspired a group of artists, academics, and activists — Siân Evans, Jacqueline Mabey, Michael Mandiberg, and Laurel Ptak — to launch Art+Feminism, an organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of marginalized artists by expanding and adding Wikipedia entries related to feminism and the arts.

Art+Feminism event in Lima, Perú (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Lapalabranecesaria)

Since then, Art+Feminism has been working to reshape Wikipedia’s demographics and content by hosting edit-a-thons, events that encourage people of all genders to edit the site. In the last three years, Art+Feminism has hosted more than 280 events around the world, welcoming “anyone and everyone interested in learning more about editing Wikipedia, regardless of experience, gender, or background.”

The organization’s founders believe that editing Wikipedia can be an empowering act. Mandiberg, who had taught Wikipedia editing to his students at CUNY, found that collaborating on editing “stubs” — underdeveloped articles lacking citations and detailed information — with experienced Wikipedians showed students just how valuable their knowledge could be to a wide community of readers.

This March, I attended Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at the Modern Museum of Art Archive & Library in New York, where community members — most of them women — gathered for a day of trainings and panels. Throughout the day, volunteers from Interference Archive, a group that studies how art and culture intersect with social movements, and AfroCrowd and Black Lunch Table, organizations that host Wikipedia edit-a-thons focused on increasing the visibility of black people and people of African descent, led break-out sessions and discussions.

Arriving in the library’s airy lobby, I registered, made a nametag, and picked up a badge showing a version of the woman power symbol with the raised fist wielding a paintbrush, then joined the other attendees loitering by the coffee station — most of whom were women.

Most of the people I met at the edit-a-thon, like me, had never edited Wikipedia before. Many seemed to have arrived almost by chance: One student told me she’d decided to join the event after attending a panel on feminism the previous week; later, I spoke with an illustrator who had spotted the event on Facebook, or maybe Eventbrite. Many of the women I met with told me they were seeking out new forms of activism in the months following the election and the Women’s March. Darla Elsbernd, an architect who I spoke with during lunch, told me, “It seemed to be the right time to take action and get involved in a meaningful way.” This idea was echoed in a statement from Art + Feminism’s current lead coordinators, Evans, Mabey, Mandiberg, and McKensie Mack, who told me:

“When you have a government actively pushing ‘alternative facts,’ improving the reliability and completeness of Wikipedia is an important act of everyday resistance. And people seem to recognize this and responded to our call to action.”

I was surprised to discover that many of the event participants — including Art + Feminism co-founder Sian Evans — were librarians. Academics often regard Wikipedia with suspicion, and many students are taught never to use it; in high school and college, I had been vehemently warned away from Wikipedia by teachers, librarians, and professors. But many librarians and academics — at least those involved with the edit-a-thon — expressed a different view.

As I sipped my coffee at the event, I found myself chatting with Helen Lane, an Emerging Technologies Librarian at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who uses Wikipedia to teach students how to conduct research and think critically about sources. Lane asked, “What better way to teach research and critical thinking skills than to have students research and write articles that require citations from verifiable sources and which undergo a very public peer-review process?”

Art+Feminism event in Taiwan (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the past two years, Lane has hosted two edit-a-thon events at FIT, one inspired by Art+Feminism and one officially affiliated with the organization. Her aim in hosting the events, she said, was to “encourage our mostly female student body to engage with technology.” Lane values Art+Feminism’s mission in part because her work as a librarian has shown her how gender bias has historically led to the devaluation of fields like Fashion History. She explained:

“It was considered, until a few decades ago, a frivolous, feminine topic not worthy of academic pursuit. This could even be seen in the collection policies of major university libraries. Why hold on to old copies of Vogue? Be sure to weed out the old books on beauty when the featured make-up trends pass. In the case of fashion and costume history, however, I think that academia is ahead of Wikipedia in its serious coverage of the topic.”

Wikipedia’s crowd-sourcing model gives it the potential to cover topics that have been marginalized in traditional academia; unfortunately, as Lane’s comments on Fashion History show, that potential remains largely unfulfilled. Wikipedia’s gender gap has led to the replication of gender biases in academia and traditional publishing on Wikipedia. During the training session I attended, Evans explained that community guidelines ask editors to flag and delete entries that do not adequately cite third-party sources that are considered reliable — and even on Wikipedia, “reliable” generally means “mainstream.” As a result, entries for women and minority artists who have not been reported on by mainstream publications or referenced in multiple peer-reviewed works are at risk for deletion.

At the same time, some argue that Wikipedia’s anonymous, crowd-sourcing model is detrimental to the work of women and minority scholars. Lane told me:

“The most resistance I have received at FIT to my involvement with Wikipedia edit-a-thons has come from an individual who had to fight to be recognized as a scholar of merit because she was a woman and because her field of research is costume and textile history. She is deeply offended by the idea that anyone can write for Wikipedia and that the entries are anonymous because she feels that it undermines the work of women who are fighting to be recognized as authorities and scholars. I actually understand where she’s coming from. It’s too bad she won’t join us. We could use her knowledge.”

I have to wonder if Lane’s colleague has a point — too often, in academia and in so many other aspects of our society, the contributions of women and people of color go unnoticed or overlooked. It’s a privilege to be able to afford to volunteer one’s work (and editing Wikipedia articles certainly is work) without any kind of recognition. And yet, I’m also drawn to the notion that Wikipedia can be a platform that makes the stories of marginalized people more visible.

Art+Feminism is still growing and developing as an organization. In a joint statement, the organization’s lead coordinators told me, “We believe that feminism is praxis, ideas enacted as an everyday ethical practice, and part of that practice is constant reflection.” The organization is committed to intersectional feminism, and this year, with the support of a $100,000 grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, it has expanded its leadership team with the intention of becoming more international and inclusive. Consultants Daniela Capistrano and Brittany Oliver are working with Art+Feminism to improve outreach to queer communities and communities of color across the U.S., and Art+Feminism now has project ambassadors based around the U.S. and in Ghana, Peru, Canada, and Europe.

There is no doubt in my mind that edit-a-thons are making a positive mark on Wikipedia. Over 2,500 participants at more than 200 events around the world participated in Art+Feminism’s fourth annual Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, creating or improving nearly 6,500 articles on Wikipedia, almost twice the output of the 2016 events.

Though anyone with an internet connection can edit Wikipedia, such events create a sense of camaraderie and purpose among individuals who might not otherwise become Wikipedians. Wikipedia’s power as a tool for activism lies in its crowd-sourcing model. As Art+Feminism’s lead coordinators told me, “Wikipedia is something that belongs to all of us.”

Responses
The author has chosen not to show responses on this story. You can still respond by clicking the response bubble.