An artful response to Wikipedia’s gender gap

Art+Feminism’s 2015 Edit-a-Thon.

By Liz Pelly

There are worlds within Wikipedia, but in a larger sense, Wikipedia is also a reflection of the world. Power structures and inequalities included.

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“Women, people of color, and members of marginalized communities have not historically always been represented in public discourse,” says Katherine Maher, Chief Communications Officer of Wikimedia, the foundation that runs Wikipedia. “Whether in the media, or in research, or in non-fiction work, because their voices have not always been heard or told.”

Because Wikipedia works by citations of secondary sources, these voices also do not end up reflected thoroughly on Wikipedia – which essentially mirrors the information that is easily available in the world.

Edit-a-thons, often organized autonomously surrounding a specific topic, are one way of working underrepresented voices into Wikipedia.

Editors working around the resource table at Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon 2014. All photos courtesy of Wikipedia. All .GIFs by Faye Orlove.
Inter-generational support at Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon 2014.

This weekend, the organization Art+Feminism hosts its second annual Wikipedia edit-a-thon specifically focused on adding and editing articles related to female artists. The central event takes place at The Museum of Modern Art, with over 70 official satellite events occurring around the world.

The 2015 installment is the work of four organizers who met through art and library communities: librarian Siân Evans, of Art Libraries Society of North America’s Women and Art Special Interest Group; curator and art work Jacqueline Mabey of failed projects; Dorothy Howard, a Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Metropolitan New York Library Council; and artist Michael Mandiberg, with support from POWarts.

Edit-a-thons (inspired by the concept of hack-a-thons) are what they sound like: gatherings where participants bring their laptops, set up, and edit articles together; they have been organized around women in science, and queer and trans activists, and around themes like #BlackLivesMatters and “Gender/Sex Activism of Yesterday and Today”, to name just a few examples.

“It sort of felt like the library commons during finals period,” says Mandiberg, of the 2014 Art+Feminism edit-a-thon, which took place at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center.

Art+Feminism’s event is welcome to all editors of all experience levels; for first-time editors, there will be training workshops running once per hour all day. The lesson plans are also posted on their website. In advance of the main event, the organization already hosted a “Train the Trainers” workshop in February at CUNY, where participants signed up for Wikipedia accounts, learned about the anatomy of a Wikipedia page, were trained on making citations, and learned about Wikipedia protocols like “notability” — the test that Wikipedians use to decide whether a subject warrants an article.

Participants are encouraged to show up with ideas for pages that need to be added or updated; Art+Feminism will also have a list of suggestions for pages to edit, partially drawn from the recent MoMA publication Modern Women.

“It’s pretty new,” says Howard of Wikipedia, which started in 2001. “When it started it was mainly articles about cartoon culture, anime, and computer science. It’s really become the encyclopedia of our time. But the editors have historically been male … Wikipedia is now so ubiquitous, but there’s a lot missing.”

The ultimate purpose is more than just filling in those gaps; it aims to encourage technical literacy skills and confidence online.

“When you attend an edit-a-thon, there’s a sense of empowerment that is often expressed by attendees,” says Howard. “This control of the Internet or control of representation of things that are important to you online. Feeling like, okay I can learn code. I can learn how these systems that are running my life work.”

Training people to edit Wikipedia is a mechanism for teaching about public domain copyright, and how to read Wikipedia better, among other lessons.

Editing the entry on Hannah Hoch at the Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon 2014.
A discussion of strategy at the Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon 2014.

Evans initially thought to create an art and feminism specific edit-a-thon in order to combine her art and library backgrounds with information activist work. “Information activism” is a broad term, with a long history, that generally refers to organizing that seeks to make information more accessible. This can encompass training communities on how to use technical platforms that aren’t taught in schools. From a feminist perspective, examples include groups like Girls Who Code and Hacker School for Women.

“When we hear the word activism, we really imagine protest culture, and being in the streets, and a very physical manifestation of protest,” says Evans. “I think there are also other ways that one can be an activist. Writing, for example. Advocacy. Twitter activism.”

Evans’ first foray into activism was getting involved with Occupy, not by marching or camping out, but by getting involved in their archives. “I thought of that as a specific information activism,” she says. “Because of this idea that information is really important in how we talk about the world, how we describe the world. Giving people a voice.”

In many ways, edit-a-thons like Art+Feminism’s speak to the inherently activist, decentralized spirit of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is one of the 10 most visited websites on the Internet, among Google and YouTube and Facebook. But in a world of pay-wall culture where the web is becoming increasingly less neutral, the foundation still does not seek a profit.

“Wikipedia stresses that its information strives to be as objective as possible, but it is perceived by the public as an activist organization,” says Howard. “It represents, as a whole, an activist approach to the web in that it’s really about collaboration from the ground up and not from the top-down.”


Wikipedia’s gender problem has been explored at length. The New York Times has run articles and op-eds on the topic since 2011; there is a tradition of grassroots activism in the name of making Wikipedia inclusive. In April 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation’s first semi-annual Wikipedia survey suggested that nine percent of Wikipedia editors are women, and that fewer than one percent of Wikipedia editors are transgender. Reasons for the disparities are vast. As Maher points out, the gender reality of Wikipedia speaks to the constant lack of non-male voices in the media and research in general—but it also reflects total cultural overtones of sexism and gender inequality in everyday life, and especially within open-source culture.

“There is a larger gender gap in open-source projects than in the larger computer developer community,” says Mandiberg. “It has to do with these kinds of self-moderating communities. There are certain types of voices that rise to the top.”

“It’s the nature of the Internet,” adds Mabey. “The person who yells the loudest gets their way.”

Men statistically have the most leisure time, says a June 2013 Pew Research Center study. That means more time for things like television, games, sports—and hanging out on the Internet. (With that in mind, free childcare is available this weekend at MoMA.) The ways that women are socialized growing up is a factor, as well. “Women aren’t raised to think of themselves as experts on anything,” says Mabey. “Wikipedia’s motto is ‘be bold’. We do not raise young women to be bold.”

Dorothy Howard leading a tutorial session at the Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon 2014.
Two editors hard at work at the Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon 2014.

The Ada Initiative, a feminist organization focused on supporting women in open source communities like Wikipedia, says that “imposter syndrome” is prevalent among women in open source. “Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you aren’t actually qualified for the work you are doing and will be discovered as a fraud,” reads the organization’s website. “It is prevalent among women in open tech/culture, many of whom have been socialised to value other’s opinion of their work above their own.”

And perhaps the most palpably discouraging element to first-time editors is the antagonistic nature of Wikipedia’s complex community-run policies and “talk pages” — the message board-like page-within-a-page that exists on every Wikipedia entry, where users discuss edits. “There are many sub-policies that have phrases that kind of remind you of 4chan language,” says Howard. For an example, see the talk page for the article on Gamergate, a notoriously controversial entry with over 32 pages of archives, bickering over language and policies littered with microaggressions.

Controversial articles like these tend to get overrun by the most experienced editors, meaning largely men. “Those are often pretty much run by an elite minority of people who have learned this Wiki speak,” says Howard. “And are actively writing these policies with a bias in mind. Our work isn’t necessarily to intervene in those kinds of conversations. But I do see this project as more largely trying to change this culture.”

New studies are also finding that articles on women are often not as comprehensive as articles about men or male interests. One recent research study from MIT, published just last month, looked closely at the ways Wikipedia articles about women emphasize their gender dramatically more often than on men’s pages, proving that solving Wikipedia’s deep-rooted gender bias is more complex than just increasing the number of women-penned articles.

The Wikimedia Foundation has made efforts to close the gap through grants, like those offered to Art+Feminism to support this year’s edit-a-thon. Right now, the foundation’s Inspire Campaign is requesting proposals for new projects specifically aimed at addressing gender, with plans to distribute $250,000.

Edit-a-thons take a more direct action approach, though, in that they add articles, but also train new Wikipedia editors and create spaces where people can discuss Wikipedia and be reminded of its inherent value and problems.

“In this current era, having a Wikipedia article marks a certain level in your career,” says Howard. “It’s almost a sign that you’ve made it in your field. There are a lot of women who are successful artists, at the same level as male artists, but they are not going to have that very public sign of recognition for their work. Having a Wikipedia article sort of connotes a certain authority, notability, historical significance.”

Making Wikipedia a more inclusive and accurate resource is particularly important at a time where Wikipedia has become “a first stop for researchers,” says Evans. “Within librarianship, I think there’s this move towards the idea of going where your users are, instead of expecting users to come to you.”

“The average person, when doing research, will go straight into Google,” adds Howard. “We want to make information about women artists as accessible as possible. Not behind pay walls, not on obscure websites that you have to be college educated to know about. We want anyone to be able to find the information they’re looking for.”

A 2014 satellite edit-a-thon in Amsterdam.

Information added to Wikipedia often ends up spread across the Web, used as preliminary research source by the mainstream media, and pulled for event descriptions, the organizers explain.

“Wikipedia is important because it’s an important part of our digital commons of information that’s freely available,” says Mabey. “It’s important because API’s from other websites pull in its content. So an absence there is multiplied across the internet. What’s always the first Google search result? Wikipedia.”

Media literacy teaches the idea that media contains bias; that media should be talked back to, analyzed, critiqued. As Wikipedia becomes a more pervasive part of our everyday lives, it should be treated similarly.

“Editing Wikipedia articles and adding to them is a way of doing work to make the press better,” adds Howard. “To make the press more complete. If there’s a Wikipedia article about a female artist, and the press is doing research on her, they are probably going to use some of the references as a way to really dig into her. It’s kind of a way of loading the cannon for the press.”

Because of its open nature, the potential for using Wikipedia to question what the mainstream media has historically regarded as “notable” is vast.

“Edit-a-thons around the world focus on writing these voices, these people, these important stories into Wikipedia as a way of representing them in history,” says Maher, the Wikimedia CCO, adding that these marathons look beyond the dominant public narratives of notability to which our culture prescribes. “Editing about art on Wikipedia is almost an act of art in itself.”


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