Why there is an Urgent Need for a Wikipedia Equality Movement
Traditionally, when we talk about civil rights movements, we generally mean the kind that is aimed at correcting injustices perpetuated by governments. Women’s right to vote and marriage equality are good examples. But then, governments are not the only entities with massive power over our society and culture, and therefore not the only entities capable of perpetuating privilege and injustice. Social justice movements must therefore also look at and challenge other power structures.
Wikipedia is arguably the most important source of information on the internet today. Many people begin their research into unfamiliar topics with Wikipedia, a habit further encouraged by the fact that Wikipedia entries, where available, often come up in the top three Google results. There is also no practical alternative to using Wikipedia, as there is no other website that provides the same breadth, depth and timeliness of information, and it would not be feasible to aim to set up one from scratch. It has become like the Google or Facebook of online encyclopedias, in other words. As such, Wikipedia is no mere website. It has become an integral part of our culture, and holds substantial power over the formulation, articulation and imagination of cultural ideas in our world.
Yet Wikipedia has come under repeated criticism from a feminist and social justice point of view in recent years. Wikipedia’s content and editors are both heavily white and male biased, often failing to respectfully reflect the ideas, values and viewpoints of women and minorities. There have been various attempts at correcting this bias, for example by encouraging women to edit Wikipedia. It has even become common to hold Wikipedia editing workshops where women will edit Wikipedia in groups, adding information about women’s achievements and ideas. However, many women have come to eagerly participate in Wikipedia with a mission to change things for the better, only for their efforts to be entirely rejected. With no recourse to complain, they simply give up. Hence Wikipedia’s content and editors remain as heavily male biased as ever.
Why is this happening? You see, Wikipedia has policies upon which content can be removed, many of which are either somewhat subjective or selectively applied. Once a decision to apply a policy and remove content is made, it is usually final. It’s not like one can appeal to a higher court or something like that. Women editing Wikipedia have found that such policies have been very vigorously, even over-zealously, applied to their edits, while they haven’t been consistently applied to other topics, perhaps because those topics are of more interest to the majority of Wikipedia’s editors (read: young, white, male, and perhaps middle class). A movement of Wikipedia Equality must challenge these policies, both regarding their actual content and their application.
While there are numerous policies within Wikipedia that should be examined and challenged, I believe focus is important. With no focus, energy is splattered in multiple directions, and nothing gets done. While we may want Wikipedia to change in multiple different ways, we need to do things step-by-step. The first step is, of course, challenging the most centrally oppressive elements. Without women having the right to vote first, there could never have been the other waves of feminism, because women would simply lack political power to demand anything. Without the decriminalization of homosexuality first, there could never have been any other LGBT rights movement, because LGBT voices would be effectively suppressed.
While Wikipedia has many controversial policies, the most controversial of these policies is perhaps the Notability policy, which has resulted in the removal of an untold number of Wikipedia biographies, many of them female, minority, or both. Moreover, when new Wikipedia contributors hear from other editors that their ‘heroine’ is considered non-notable and therefore to be expunged from Wikipedia entirely, it can discourage further participation. More than any other policy, the Notability policy is (literally) keeping the disprivileged out of Wikipedia, limiting the kind of ideas and conversations that are admissible to Wikipedia, and preventing challenge to existing privilege. From a Wikipedia Equality point of view, it needs to be the first domino to fall, if there is going to be any real and lasting change.
Wikipedia is notoriously resistant to change, and this movement may take some time to make any impact. Nevertheless, with Wikipedia being an entity that wields enormous power and is working to uphold privilege and exclude women and minorities, it is a movement we need to have. I do have faith that, if we start the conversation and spread the awareness, change will come in the end.