Wikipedia and Sexism

A couple days ago, The New York Times had an opinion piece, Wikipedia’s Sexism Towards Female Novelists.

Long story short: “editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory.”

Also take a look at The Atlantic Wire’s take: Wikipedia’s Boys Club of American Novelists. It’s helpful because of the screen caps which capture what the pages at issue looked like at the time of the original reporting.

Forbes had an interesting reply: Yes, Wikipedia is Sexist — That’s Why It Needs You. While taking a more nuanced approach to what was happening, it still said that “there’s no doubt that gender and other biases, both conscious/intentional and unconscious, are common on Wikipedia.” In addition, “Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written.” It encourages people to start editing, to add diverse voices, with some helpful resources.

Now, I’m not saying not to get angry, but before getting too angry, take a peak at the behind the scenes talk pages for the entries/date in question. It’s a revealing look at how wiki works; the talks the editors are having; trying to sort out what categories are for; etc. Here is the talk page for American Novelists; here it is a different discussion log.

I’m not going to lie: I use Wikipedia. I especially love it for pop culture but I turn to it for other things, typically in a light recreational way. I don’t think it cannot be used for research; but I think it has to be used for research knowing.

Knowing what? Well, there are mistakes. That don’t get changed. A relative’s page has the wrong birthplace, and has had it for a while. It also has only one reference, despite there being a couple of good resources (that have the correct birthplace); and now that I look at it, there are a couple of other minor errors. I like that it’s an example of the weaknesses in how Wikipedia works; and shows that the value for deeper research is in using the references to discover primary and secondary sources that are more reliable.

This issue with American novelists is another example of knowing. But, instead of it being a question of realizing Wikipedia has errors, it’s about how it’s it written. The back and forth of the editors. When one person can make a change that impacts other things. Basically, for good and bad, it’s showing how the sausage gets made. Who edits Wikipedia? How? What biases may or may not be shown? How can one know what changes have been made and why? What has or hasn’t been erased, and how does that shape what we think about what we read?

And, aside from bias, just how does Wikipedia work? Part of what I enjoyed about reading the discussions going on about this topic is the consideration of what it means to have categories; sub-categories; and lists; how users use Wikipedia; whether an entry should follow the logic of the editor or the logic of the reader. To go back to the American Novelists and American Women Novelists: what does it mean when a women is removed from the first category? When is there value for such a category? What goes into making that determination? And if these changes are played out in real-time with the Wikipedia categories, what does that mean to the person relying on Wikipedia?

So, how do you use Wikipedia with students and teens? Do you, like me, have a favorite entry that is wrong to use to illustrate the danger of solely relying on Wikipedia? Do you think there is gender and other biases at work in Wikipedia?

Edited to add:

But wait! There’s more!

The author of the op-ed piece, Amanda Filipacchi, has a follow up op ed in The New York Times, Wikipedia’s Sexism: “As soon as the Op-Ed article appeared, unhappy Wikipedia editors pounced on my Wikipedia page and started making alterations to it, erasing as much as they possibly could without (I assume) technically breaking the rules. They removed the links to outside sources, like interviews of me and reviews of my novels. Not surprisingly, they also removed the link to the Op-Ed article. At the same time, they put up a banner at the top of my page saying the page needed “additional citations for verifications.” Too bad they’d just taken out the useful sources. In 24 hours, there were 22 changes to my page. Before that, there had been 22 changes in four years.”

For ease in seeing this, links to both Filipacci’s Wikipedia page and the talk page.

So, again — how does this, and the transparency behind it, influence how you use Wikipedia and teach Wikipedia?

Further edited the title to add “and sexism” to clarify the post.


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