Time magazine recently did a true-to-form story on Wikipedia, where guest editors (and our very own featured author) Jonathan Zittrain (see here too), Robert McHenry, Benjamin Mako Hill, and Mike Schroepfer assisted in writing/editing/re-writing a feature entitled Wikipedia’s “Ten Years of Inaccuracy and Remarkable Detail.” As the piece explained, Wikipedia just celebrated its 10th birthday. The site has 17 million entries in more than 250 languages, quite a feat given that Encyclopedia Brittanica only has 120,000 and only in English. The Time wiki-like piece notes that Wikipedia has a “diverse, international body of contributors.”
According to The New York Times, most contributors are male. More specifically, “less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are female.” This, in turn, has skewed the gender disparity of topics and emphasis. Wikimedia’s executive director Sue Gardner explains that topics favored by girls such as friendship bracelets can seem short when compared with lengthy articles on something boys typically like such as toy soldiers or baseball cards. The New York Times notes that a category with five Mexican feminist writers might not seem so impressive when compared with 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons.”
Why is this so? Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia,” explains that Wikipedia’s early contributors shared “many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd,” including an ideology that “resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.” He notes that adopting an ideology of openess means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists.” The demographics of Wikipedia’s editors may also stem, in part, from the tendency of women to be “less willing to assert their opinions in public.”
How Wikipedia is now, and has been, responding is worth noting. Sue Gardner told the Times that she hopes to raise the share of women contributors through subtle persuasion and outreach to welcome newcomers to Wikipedia. Dave Hoffman and Salil Mehra’s terrific piece Wikitruth Through Wikiorder demonstrates that the site has already fostered efforts to create a more inclusive environment. As Hoffman and Mehra explain, Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee whose volunteer members rule on disputes and set forth concrete rules on how users should behave. The Arbitration Committee has sanctioned users who make homophobic, ethnic, racial or gendered attacks or who stalk and harass others. According to Hoffman and Mehra’s empirical study, in cases when either impersonation or anti-social conduct like hateful attacks occur, the Administrative Committee will ban the user in 21% of cases. Wikipedia’s more than 1,500 administrators, in turn, enforce those rules. Wikipedia also permits users to report impolite, uncivil, or other difficult communications with editors in its Wikiquette alerts notice board.