I used to visit Wikipedia unthinkingly, and on a daily basis, until I found myself working behind-the-screens as a fledgling editor on The Dowse Art Museum’s Wikipedia Project. It was then that I became clued up on some of the issues that plague the internet’s largest open-source encyclopedia. It was a revelation that the status-quo needed to be challenged and improved upon. For starters, Almost 90 percent of Wikipedia’s editors are male, and the website has a fairly bad track record when it comes to coverage and quality of topics relating to women, arts, culture, minorities and non-Western areas of the world. What’s worse, the haphazard way Wikipedia is run can create barriers for new editors keen to contribute and improve content. Whether we like it or not, Wikipedia is such a part of the way we gather information in our daily lives, and a lack of diversity in voices and topics is a loss for us all. In the past few years, however, a range of GLAM sector-led projects have started tackling these issues in intelligent and empowering ways, both overseas and here in Aotearoa. The beauty of Wikipedia’s open-source nature is that if something doesn’t seem right, we have the power to change it.
Wikipedia fast facts
Wikipedia is the internet’s seventh most visited website, and more than 500 million different visitors access articles in hundreds of different languages every month. In theory, anyone with an internet connection can edit and contribute to this global collection of ‘free knowledge.’ Wikipedia’s open-source model is kept in check by strict guidelines and fast-acting senior editors who help to enforce core policies emphasising notability, neutrality, verifiability and ‘no original research.’ Unfortunately, despite its idealistic, open structure, Wikipedia’s editing culture has been criticised for its hostility and out of control bureaucracy. Experienced editors will swoop in and correct, delete, or revert the work others, sometimes without explaining why. The website is also plagued by in-fighting and large scale ‘edit-wars’ where groups of Wikipedians take sides and delete, re-upload, delete, and viciously argue over the smallest of details. Some of these edit-wars are straight-up ridiculous.
Where are the women editors?
A study conducted by Wikipedia in 2011 revealed a worrying imbalance in the gender of Wikipedia’s editors. Only 8 to 13 percent editors are women. Despite a push to raise the number of women editors to 25 percent by 2015, Wikipedia’s gender gap remains a real issue. Forbes journalist Deanna Zandt said it best when she noted that ‘over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written.’
This gender disparity affects the content of Wikipedia in wide-reaching ways. Historically, Wikipedia’s coverage of popular culture, science and current events has greatly outweighed coverage of notable, influential women and minorities. Further, when it comes to article content, researchers analysing the 150 most used words on any given biography page found that articles about women overwhelmingly referenced their family lives, relationship and gender, at a rate of 23-32 percent. In articles about men, this number sits between 0 and 4 percent. When you consider that Wikipedia has 38 million articles and counting, then realise how much of that knowledge is written by this relatively small and homogenous group, the importance of diversity becomes clear. Wikipedia’s mission, outlined by founder Jimmy Wales is to give ‘every single person on the planet… free access to the sum of all human knowledge.’ That’s a big concept, and one that can’t be worked towards without a multiplicity of voices telling their stories. ‘At the end of the day,’ declares a Wikipedia report on gender diversity, ‘the breadth of topics is a mark of quality – one that can be raised if more women get involved.’
Speculation about why this gender disparity occurs ranges from the idea that women (and many other people) may be turned off by the hostile culture and convoluted rules, or that women don’t count editing Wikipedia as a good prioritization of their time. I think many are simply unaware of the issues and the importance of adding their voices. When I began as a new editor, Wikipedia’s system seemed convoluted and frustrating, and the rules difficult to access and navigate. I could see why anyone might be discouraged from editing. You only need to look at a directory of Wikipedia’s key policies to get the picture. A bit of guidance from editors at a Wikipedia seminar at the 2014 National Digital Forum made a real difference. Having real-life people to guide us through the process of making edits and creating articles was invaluable and kick-started our confidence and knowledge, enabling us to make progress quickly.
A directory of Wikipedia's key policies and guidelines
Cue the GLAM sector, stage left
As GLAMs increasingly embrace the opportunities the internet provides, initiatives to improve underrepresented content on Wikipedia are gaining ground. The British Museum, British Library, Smithsonian Archives of American Art and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis count among some of the institutions that have hosted ‘Wikipedians in Residence.’ This program connects an editor with an institution for a set period of time. The institution provides access to their collections and data, and the editor uses this information to add to existing pages and create new entries, working to improve the quality and frequency of cultural, social and art-related content on Wikipedia.
Formed in direct response to Wikipedia's gender disparity, Art + Feminism is a GLAM sector group working to grow female editorship and improve coverage of women and the arts while they’re at it. Founded in 2014 by a group of scholars, librarians, curators and artists in the United States, Art +Feminism run Edit-a-thons that encourage women to contribute to entries about women and the arts. Editors new and old take along their computers, and the organisers provide training, troubleshooting, pointers and resources. One of the first Art + Feminism Edit-a-thons was held at MOMA, and last year on International Women’s Day, Edit-a-thons were held in 75 locations across 17 countries, bringing together 1500 editors working towards a single goal: more coverage of women in the arts.
Getting on board in Aotearoa
Here in New Zealand, The Dowse launched a project that brought its small but significant area of knowledge to the internet. With funding from Ngā Taonga a Hine-te-iwa-iwa, we set out to research and write 100 articles about significant New Zealand craft artists and add them to Wikipedia, where pages about New Zealand craft were scarce. Now a quick search reveals entries for weaver Verenoa Hetet, jeweller Kobi Bosshard, potter Chester Nealie and the Pacific Sisters group, among many others. Adding to the quality and quantity of information online was only one of the goals. Starting with its three Wikipedians, part of the project was about learning how to navigate Wikipedia, and pass that knowledge onto others. The Dowse got behind the Edit-a-thon model and hosted Art + Feminism and Māori and Pacific Artist Edit-a-thons, with the goal to educate and empower a new set of editors to get online.
There are plenty of hardworking editors who volunteer their time to improve New Zealand content on Wikipedia, but wouldn’t it be great to have a whole range of New Zealanders telling their stories and improving coverage of a range of topics? Notable Māori women, for example. University students develop these incredible research and academic writing skills, yet get taught to steer clear of Wikipedia completely due to its inaccuracy and unreliability. But what if students were encouraged to fix an issue when they came across it, or to pick an area of interest and improve upon it. There’s so much at play here, and I think there is room for our cultural sector to educate new editors and work on a whole range of content that really should be well-represented on the internet.