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.

History…The Wikipedia Way???

Is Wikipedia a good reliable source of historical scholarship?

The answer to this question depends upon several factors including, but not limited to our own relationship to historical scholarship.  According to Roy Rosenzweig, “History is a deeply individualistic craft” and its scholarship is characterized by the possessive individualism of historians.  As historians we are taught to cite our sources, giving credit to other historians for the use of their ideas and words to avoid charges of plagiarism.  In contrast, Wikipedia encourages the creation of entries in cooperation with multiple authors, who may be anonymous.  Wikipedia allows users to freely copy and use the entries found on their site in a variety of ways.  Teachers can make copies to use in their classes, students can copy and use the articles in their papers, authors can use the information in books, and anyone with a website can copy information found on Wikipedia to their website.  The only restriction imposed by Wikipedia regarding the use of these entries is…”you may not impose any more restrictions on subsequent readers and users than have been imposed on you”.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free, open, collaborative source which first appeared on the World Wide Web in January 2001.  The idea behind Wikipedia was originally developed in 1999 by Richard Stallman who proposed a website called GNUpedia.   The following year Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales and Larry Sanger, the driving forces behind Wikipedia, developed and launched Wikipedia’s predecessor – Nupedia in March 2000.  This was followed quickly by Wikipedia in January 2001.   The WikiWikiWeb software which enabled the creation of Wikipedia was developed in the mid 1990’s by Ward Cunningham.  Since its premier Wikipedia has become the largest, most widely read and most important free historical source.  Wikipedia has its own set of rules which are intended to regulate participation, however the co-creator and the site’s editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger resigned in 2003 in response to the projects “tolerance of problem participants and its hostility toward experts”.

The Wikipedia Way…

Wikipedia has its own set of policies and guidelines, which are “policed” by both volunteers as well as The Wikipedia Foundation.  The  Wikipedia Foundation consists of five members including Wales, two of his business partners and two elected members who retain the power to “ban users” from the website.

There are four “key” policies which should be adhered to in using Wikipedia.  They include:

1.      Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and therefore personal essays, dictionary entries, critical reviews, propaganda, advocacy and original research are excluded.  Basically, Wikipedia wants the accepted history summarized on the site and discourages anyone, especially historians from breaking new ground with original research.

2.      Avoid bias – All entries must be void of any bias effectively remaining neutral on all subjects – especially volatile ones.  Rosenzweig compares Wikipedia’s “founding myth” of neutrality with Peter Novak’s “founding myth” of the historical profession, “objectivity”.

3.      “don’t infringe copyrights”

4.      Respect other contributors

History…Wikipedia Style!

Is Wikipedia a good, reliable resource for historical scholarship?  This question keeps resurfacing and for good reason.  Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia and therefore is not a good, reliable resource for any student beyond middle school.  Like other encyclopedias the information contained within the entries is limited with a neutral point of view and therefore void of opinion.

Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is a white board site which enables readers to edit the information contained within any entry.  The collaborative writing style encouraged by Wikipedia increases the possibility that Wikipedia entries could be altered at any given time, a characteristic which prevents its use as a reliable source of historical scholarship.

Why should historians and educators care about Wikipedia? The answer to this question is simple…because our students do!  Personally, when I returned to school in 2002 I had not heard about Wikipedia, but I learned quickly.  During my undergraduate and master’s programs my history professors warned us against using Wikipedia for several reasons…

1.      It was new technology and they did not trust the information.

2.      The constantly changing information within the entries

3.      It is an encyclopedia and college students should never use an encyclopedia as a source

I have been teaching history at a community college since last spring and in my syllabus under instructions for research papers I tell my students, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for your paper.  My primary reasons for this are that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and the collaborative nature of the site which potentially results in changing and/or inaccurate information.

Roy Rosenzweig leaves us with an idea, a challenge in regard to Wikipedia’s popular history.  It is his tentative belief that “If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible”.  He challenges historians to devote one day to review and improve those entries which cover their area of expertise.  Participating in this project would enhance the quality of Wikipedia.