Who remembers being told by teachers that Wikipedia is not a reliable source? I sure do, but how do we begin to address the biases and problems with Wikipedia?
This week’s blog post is a response to the Disrupt Wikipedia event that took place in Butler Library on Monday. The panel discussion on Wikipedia was moderated by Columbia’s Wikipedian-in-Residence, Darold Cuba, with special guests Sherry Antione of Afrocrowd and Merrilee Proffitt who wrote “Leveraging Wikipedia: Connection Communities of Knowledge.”
What I found so wonderful about the panel was its candid discussion of Wikipedia, its failures and its successes. Wikipedia has become huge since its launch in 2001. There’s a lot of room for really radical work to be done with this platform. For one thing, it’s open-source. As much as academics have traditionally scoffed at its usage, there is something to be said for Wikipedia’s reach. Not everyone has access to libraries full of peer-reviewed resources on any topic imaginable. Wikipedia also has entries in 304 languages, making it more accessible than even the most conscientious academic journal. This all being said, with great power comes great responsibility and there are real problems of representation in the world of Wikipedia.
“This is the new encyclopedia for the world’s history and the world’s knowledge,” explained Sherry Antione, “all history and all human knowledge should be by all people.”
“All history and all human knowledge should be by all people.”
But that’s simply not the case for Wikipedia as it exists right now. Antione works for an organization called Afrocrowd, which seeks to improve the number of people of African descent editing and even reading Wikipedia.
Right now only 9% of Wikipedia editors are cis-women and only 1% are trans-women. The other 90% are men and though we don’t have the statistics on race, anecdotally, the situation isn’t great. Wikipedia doesn’t even track the races of its editors, which has its own baggage. Our own Wikipedian-in-Residence, Meredith Wisner, presented on Wikipedia and representation.
These issues with representation have effects on what topics are covered on Wikipedia and how. Only 18% of biographies on Wikipedia are of women. “There are gaps so large on Wikipedia that I think you could drive a truck through it,” explained Merrilee Proffitt. This isn’t just a problem in Wikipedia, however, it’s a reflection of a much broader issue. “Wikipedia may have gaps and biases, but so do our libraries, so do publishing industries,” she reminded us.
Like our libraries and our publishing industries, the solution isn’t to cut off any association with the site, allowing the biases and gaps to remain. The way to fix Wikipedia is just simply to fix it. “It’s forgotten in many ways that you can edit Wikipedia,” Proffitt said.
The reality is that Wikipedia does lend itself to discursive practice. You can edit entries that have gaps or biases. Those edits can be edited by another user with something important to add. Importantly, these edits are logged. You can see how the representation of a topic has changed over time. There is an opportunity for us to make Wikipedia a source worth referencing, but to do that we need to edit. The problem of representation occurs when editing Wikipedia is put on a pedestal, something that only experts do. This isn’t true. Anyone can be a Wikipedia editor and everyone has something valuable to add, that’s the beauty of a platform as open as Wikipedia.
I wasn’t a Wikipedia editor before Monday, but I am now. It’s easy to sign up and you don’t have to create a whole new entry in your first week. Maybe start with a small edit on an entry that has a grammatical error. Or maybe add a section that was left out in the biography of a figure you know a little about. As Wisner explained in her presentation, “if you mess up, that’s okay, someone will come around and fix your mistake!”
This is all to say, “why not try?” I’m excited to explore more of what being a Wikipedia editor really means and I hope you all will look into it as well. The DHC has held Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons in the past and while being an editor is not a prerequisite in the slightest, it may save you some time if you come to one in the future!