The Woes of Wikipedia

There's a lot to like about Wikipedia, but it's becoming a hostile place for many editors.

August 23, 2016

A Wikipedia editor who I know, Karen Coyle, recently left the site, finding it an inhospitable place for a woman. It’s nothing new. But considering the cumulative impact of the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” it’s troubling when it turns out a lot of people actually can’t edit it because there’s a significant chance they will run into fellow editors who engage in trollish behavior.

When I say “trollish,” I don’t mean the kind of weirdly anarchic, playful, but gross and offensive behavior documented by Whitney Phillips in her fascinating ethnography, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. In the context of Wikipedia, I’m referring to the ways that behavior reflects and is reflected in our current life online. Phillips describes “highly stylistic lulz-based trolling” that flourished on 4chan in the first decade of this century, which takes a kind of Rabelaisian joy in wreaking havoc online for no purpose other than their own entertainment. She goes on to address how aspects of their humor became the stuff of digital franchises and boosted the profits of social media platforms, how some trolls became political activists, and how trolling reflects “pervasive cultural logics” of our time.

Those cultural logics include valuing logic over emotion, winning over negotiation, aggressive confrontation over accommodation, individual liberty over the common good, and a sense of entitlement wrapped in a defense of “free speech” - speech that can win by aggressively silencing others. One of the curious ways individuality in this context is expressed is through creating a like-minded community that can swarm and overcome enemies. It’s a team sport. These are also characteristics that have made combative talk shows popular, comments sections too toxic to be representative of a news organization’s readership, and has influenced anti-establishment campaigning.

When editors on Wikipedia squabble over whether an article has a sufficiently “neutral point of view” (attempts to include aspects of gender or race in articles are often considered not neutral by definition) or whether an individual is sufficiently notable to be included or whether someone is qualified to be an administrator, it’s easy to use arcane rules and endless debate to wear people out. Though there is a civility policy and an arbitration process, it doesn’t always work.

Wikipedia has acknowledged the gender gap and encourages people to join, and edit-a-thons strive to fill in the gaps. But it’s getting harder to get volunteers to spend time contributing to a site when they will have to spend their energies defending their contributions. As Karen points out, Wikipedia’s gender problem can’t be fixed by recruiting women editors to fix a community that is so often hostile to them. Adrianne Wadewitz also spelled out some of the problems with expecting women to make Wikipedia a “nicer place” or to fill in all the missing bits. There’s something ironic in the fact that Wikipedia’s article on “Gender Bias in Wikipedia” currently has the note “This article needs to be updated.”

Andromeda Yelton has written a brilliant piece about how difficult it is to separate ourselves, gender and all, from how we negotiate our interactions in a place where a complicated set of rules is used for establishing and presenting a singular truth, something that becomes visible when librarians (80 percent female) get together with Wikipedians (90 percent male) to consider ways to join forces. There is an adversarial, argumentative bent in much Wikipedia deliberation that celebrates a kind of discourse that is inhospitable to those who aren’t so inclined. A motto for Wikipedia is “be bold,” and that boldness surfaced in men interrupting and women remaining silent, making her wonder whether there was some value of “humbler discourse patterns.”

I’m seeing a problem so much more difficult and more slippery than training, or documentation, or policy…our genders as ghosts in the very language we speak. Boldness as liberatory only for the bold, creating a space where the strengths of female-coded discourse patterns are pushed off to the margins, where humility looks like weakness.

Humility is basic equipment for trying to understand each other. How can we have empathy for alternative perspectives without it? How can we let go of beliefs that don’t hold up to scrutiny if all we can be is bold?

There’s a lot to like about Wikipedia. Nearly ten years ago I wrote an article praising it when the big debate was how to discourage students from using it. It has improved immensely since then through the efforts of a lot of people who voluntarily spend time there, including librarians, academics, and students. It’s a shame to let that work, and the promise of a universally accessible and ever-growing encyclopedia, go up in flames.



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