On Being Intimidated by the Wikipedia Community

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It’s not as easy as it might seem to figure out what percentage of Wikipedia’s editors are women. A 2011 survey said that worldwide, it was just 9 percent, while Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw estimated in a 2013 PLoS One paper that it’s 16.1 percent; the 2011 survey suggested that 13 percent of U.S. editors are female, but Hill and Shaw put that number at 22.7 percent. Estimates could be skewed by the fact that many Wikipedians choose not to share their gender with the site, and women may be more likely to omit that information.

Regardless of which estimate comes closer to the reality, the demographics clearly disappoint, especially because research suggests female editors make far fewer edits and contributions. (In the 2011 survey, 30 percent of female editors reported making just 1-50 edits, while only 18 percent of male editors did.) This shows in the product: Articles on stereotypically female subjects are less complete. After the British royal wedding, an editing war commenced over whether Kate Middleton’s gown deserved its own Wikipedia entry, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has cited this as an example of how the site struggles on gender topics. (After Wales discussed it at Wikimania 2012 in Washington, D.C., I wrote about it for Slate.) Sarah Stierch, then a research fellow at the Wikimedia Foundation, suggested to Tim Sampson of the Daily Dot in January 2013 that the site’s very layout alienates women: “It’s aesthetically very masculine in its design.”

In high school, I was the only female student in my C++ class; though it mostly vexed me, I’ll cop to deriving a certain pride from it. But I was a dreadful programmer, still am, and so decided to devote myself to fighting the tech gender gap in other ways. It would stand to reason that becoming an active, engaged Wikipedia editor would fit this mandate exactly. Yet like many women, I find myself too intimidated to dive in.

After Wikimania 2012, invigorated and inspired, I signed up for a Wikipedia account—and in the 18 months or so since, I have made exactly one edit. It was a tiny grammatical fix. After my edit, I attempted to explain my change on the text page, then realized afterward that my explanation itself was done incorrectly. I felt embarrassed and haven’t made a change since—a silly, self-involved, wimpy move on my part.

When editors were asked in another survey why they didn’t contribute more, one-quarter answered, “I am afraid of making a mistake and getting ‘in trouble’ for it.” It’s a response that I identify with. The conversation on Talk pages on Wikipedia can be aggressive, dismissive, legalistic in enforcing rules. Virtual battles can become heated on topics large and small; the list of the top 10 most controversial Wikipedia pages in 2013 includes both global warming and “List of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. employees.” For someone conflict-averse, any edit could feel like a potential landmine. “The site, by its nature, favors people with an intense interest in detail and a high tolerance for debate,” Sady Doyle wrote in Salon in 2009. It also favors those who enjoy showing off their knowledge; being self-effacing is not desirable.

On the Internet, the maxim says, nobody knows you’re a dog. No one knows whether you’re a woman, either. But social conditioning and personality are difficult to overcome. But perhaps editing with a strong avatar in mind might empower me to return and make that second Wikipedia edit.

2 thoughts on “On Being Intimidated by the Wikipedia Community

  1. Anouk Lang Anouk Lang

    I’m glad to see Wikipedia mentioned here as it’s an examine of a textual community in which the line between “readers” and “writers” is far from distinct, and the influence of whose content is, obviously, extremely influential. I also appreciate your candor about the difficulties of contributing to it, which I can imagine being largely invisible from the perspective of habitual users. I’d love to see an ethnography of Wikipedia contributors (perhaps someone’s done one already), ranging from the occasional timid toe-dippers to heavy users, and to hear from the horse’s mouth some of the reasons for what seems from the outside like very heavy-handed, and occasionally wrong-headed, policing.

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