On Being Intimidated by the Wikipedia Community


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.

United in Hate-Reading


The filter bubble is often discussed in terms of affinity: Online, the theory goes, we congregate around our likes and our passions, whether they are political causes or My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

But hatred also unites people—and I’m not talking about the loathsome outposts of racists and misogynists. Many people—most of us—cherish at least the occasional hate-read, delighting in something that irks, irritates, and infuriates.

In 2013, after the New York Times examined the hate-read phenomenon, my Slate colleague Katy Waldman captured the psychology behind it:

No doubt some hate-reading comes from a place of bored or dissatisfied loneliness. (Where are my betches? Why aren’t I in Vegas? I despise you, Instagrammed artisanal blueberry-clove cupcake-on-a-doily!) But maybe one’s deep scholarship of detestable crap on the Web is more than just the expression of an inferiority complex. Maybe it is an outlet, a way to access or exorcise extreme passion, sort of like watching a horror movie. The Greek tragedians knew that getting worked up is more than entertaining—it’s cathartic. And the experience of hate-reading is one part pure transport, one part fascination with the intensity of one’s own feelings, and one part something else. This third rail of hate-reading, I think, is what redeems it. At its best, hate-reading highlights something lighthearted and even anti-hateful in us: a playful capacity to be amused by (and thus step back from) our own contempt.

But hate-reading is not just a solo activity. Many an Internet community is built on such shared amusement and contempt. These are not trolls, in that they are not solely trying to provoke outrage, though they may delight in driving someone off—making a blogger “flounce” from the Internet. Rather, they are seeking and developing communities that are, in their own way, affirming.

Perhaps the best example is Television Without Pity, whose motto is “Spare the snark, spoil the networks.” TWOP, which was purchased by NBC Universal’s Bravo Media LLC in 2007, offers a space for people to dissect the shows they hate to love and love to hate. In TWOP forums, viewers compete to find plot holes and, for reality TV, continuity flaws, or evidence of producer machinations; an earnest, as opposed to ironic, defender of a show may find herself mocked by commenter after commenter. Sourness and crankiness are virtues.

Similarly, bloggers who evince strident philosophies or worldviews—especially when it comes to parenting—may find their fan communities invaded by groups of those who wait eagerly for new posts to appear so they can cut them down. Sometimes, the hate-read contingent can bring a blogger down, either because she can’t stand the criticism any longer or because they uncover questionable information about her. (For instance, devoted critics of the mommy blogger MckMama dug into her bankruptcy and created not one, but multiple, forums where they could trade theories and rumors about her.)

When the uninitiated encounter such sites online, they often ask: Don’t you have a life? For many, the answer may well be no; if you are a rumormonger at heart but have no one about whom to gossip, snark communities like these can provide a target, peers, and affirmation that their hobby isn’t bad or unusual.

These hate-read-based communities can offer incisive observations about culture, entertainment, and politics, but the worthwhile material is often buried among vitriolic pointing-and-laughing and cheap shots. Smarter hate-readers give glimpses of being capable of creating commentary that rises above gossip and cruelty, and indeed they may do so elsewhere. But the lack of empathy for the subjects of their criticism—whether a parent blogger or the producers of a show—is notable, and makes me wonder: Are they venting in a way that allows them to be more kind and tolerant in their in-person reactions, or can rather mean-spirited thought processes online seep into “real” lives, thus leaving them more isolated and in need of hate-read communities more than ever?

The Sorry State of Peer-to-Peer E-Book Lending


For most of my awkward life, books have been a way to escape or avoid stressful social interactions. Only recently have I realized that books also allow me to serve a social function: recommending titles to friends and family members, based on my understanding of their interests and character. Some people find book suggestions obnoxious and presumptuous, but in my experience, some carefully thought-out picks can transform a nonreader into a book liker, if not a book lover. When a friend raves about a book and asks me to suggest another, I gloat a bit and then attack my shelves, to find another delightful tome to pass on.

But the e-reader! Oh, the e-reader. The Kindle is a childhood dream come true, an opportunity to carry with me enough titles to assure that if I finish a book, I will not be left to make uncomfortable small-talk on the plane. But it is ruining the one bit of social currency I can offer. In only limited circumstances can one lend a book to a friend, and when you are attempting to convert a nonreader, being able to give them the book instantly, for free, is vital.

Of course, e-book lending is a fraught topic for publishers and public libraries. In May 2013, the divine Ursula K. Le Guin laid out the absurd terms on which the “big five” publishers permit digital titles to be lent. But slowly, that situation is getting better; some months after Le Guin wrote her pierce, Macmillan announced that it would make its full backlist available. HarperCollins still demands that library obliterate a digital copy of a book after it’s been lent 26 times, which is an abomination. Still, this isn’t likely to last much longer; as Cory Doctorow detailed in a convincing column in September 2013, it’s in the best interest of the publishers to make libraries their allies.

But even as publishers and libraries warily come to agreements—slowly though they might—person-to-person lending remains nigh impossible. On the Kindle, for instance, digital rights management sometimes permits owners to lend a title—but only once per book. Most books don’t permit sharing at all.

Publishers’ concerns about consumers lending books to people they don’t know through book-swap sites could be ameliorated: For instance, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici has proposed a self-described “pretty good solution” that would entail people meeting in person, physically, to “bump” titles from one device to another. True, that would require social interaction, but I think I could handle that brief encounter.

Without creating a mutually acceptable way to permit easier, more widespread book sharing, the personal social networks that exist between readers will fray. While Americans continue to read at about the same pace as in years prior, the rate of e-book reading continues to rise, according to the Pew Research Center. The rise in digital book consumption is particularly sharp among 18- to 29-year-olds. This is despite the death of the e-reader, which websites have been predicting since at least 2011. Even if tablets render my beloved Kindle obsolete, e-book reading will continue to grow. Permitting readers to swap titles will only accelerate that adoption, not diminish it. Because reading truly is a social activity, no matter how solitary the individual curled up with a book may appear. One could even make notes or highlights with a particular fellow-reader in mind, then delete them or adjust them for subsequent borrowers. This would only complement the strong social networks for readers that have cropped up online.

So please, publishers. Don’t take away my only bit of social utility.