Wikipedia’s Querelle des Femmes

Christine de Pisan

The foundation for my print project is in reaction to two recently published articles in the New York Times about the scarcity of women’s voices in online discussion forums, particularly Wikipedia, and the greater implications of this disparity. My project will explore and discuss the various sources that debate and evidence this gender gap in online discussion forums. The original article by Noam Cohen ran in the Business section under Media & Advertising on January 20th. 2011. He reveals that according to a study conducted last year, only about 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women. Cohen questions how this could have happened in such an open, collaborative forum? He submits that it comes down to the, “traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.”

Cohen cites Joseph Reagle, a Harvard fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society who published the book, “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.” Reagle’s stance, according to Cohen, is that the ideology behind the open source culture of Wikipedia, “resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity,” which can be a problematic. Without active neutralizing forces, this ideal of openness enables zealous contributors to take aggressive, conflicting positions that could manifest as misogynistic, among other things.  Thus the potential for anonymous sexist attacks on woman-generated/woman-oriented submissions probably drives away potential female contributors who are not interested in having to defend their honor. Delving further into Reagle’s text, I will try to unpack this argument more carefully and establish whether he can help answer Wikipedia’s querelle des femmes.     

Another source I will reference is a New York Times Op-ed from February 4th, 2011, written by Susan C. Herring, an information science and linguistics professor at Indiana University. She states that after conducting multiple studies over the past two decades about “gender dynamics in Internet communication,” she is not surprised that 87% of Wikipedia’s contributors are men. Focusing on linguistics, a field in which more than 50% of the Ph.D.s are held by women, there proves to be a disproportionately low rate of participation by women in web discussions.  After surveying a random sample of subscribers to certain linguistic forums, Herring deduced that women do in fact report to be turned-off by the confrontational, mud-slinging, antagonistic nature of the male dominated discussions. She also specifically mentions the Wikipedia ‘talk pages’, where highly contentious bickering wars go on behind the “Neutral Point of View” content of a topic page.

Herring unabashedly makes blunt statements about gendered communication styles in her piece, for better or for worse.  She reiterates some of Cohen and Reagle’s points about women’s aversion to the ‘kill or be killed’ nature of online debates. She reinforces her assertions with the previously mentioned studies on the nature of factual vs. opinionated content of women and men’s posts. Herring posits that women typically submit more factual evidence in their contributions, but are also are more likely to phrase their opinions in a conciliatory manner. The opposite goes for men. She concludes that, “Men traditionally populate the public domain, whether it be in politics, religion, or on the Internet. They tend to feel a greater sense of entitlement to occupy public space.”

When you’re finished rolling your eyes at that last statement, consider her closing argument which explains that women are more present in the blogging and social networking world because they are able to maintain control over who has access to their posts. Based on something of a ‘kinship-network’ appeal, Herring references The Omnipotent Lord Zuckerberg’s theory that, “the future of knowledge sharing on the Internet is social recommendation — people will trust information more if someone they know and like is associated with it.” Therefore information coming from familiar sources is more credible and, in turn, more valuable in the eyes of women. That then will also deter them from jumping into the ring with the cave men beating each other with rhetorical clubs.

Beyond analyzing the writings of Cohen, Reagle and Herring, I will also do primary research. I will examine some provocative Wikipedia talk pages (to be chosen) in order to personally evaluate the content in question. Is this talk space as hostile and discouraging as our authors claim? I will also explore some of the Wiki initiatives like the WikiProject Gender Studies. This forum seeks to engage women contributors in order to counteract the overwhelming ‘masculine’ content and discourse on Wikipedia. Further, I will compare the tone on more private web sources, such as blogs and Facebook pages. This should shed light on Herring’s theory that women’s voices are more pervasive in exclusive forums.  Surveying these various sources should help me better understand the state of gender participation on web discussions. I intend to gain a solid opinion of the current debate over women’s presence in online academic forums, anthropologically evaluate the possible reasons for this disparity and offer substantiated theories that could help restore balance to this gender-skewed world of online debate.