Edit war

Women leading movements to champion equality on Wikipedia

Frustrated by Wikipedia’s male-dominated culture, women are spearheading efforts to record history fairly, and take control of their own stories

Women participate in AfroCROWD's edit-a-thon at the Schomburg Center (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

On a recent Saturday afternoon in the heart of Harlem, dozens of people click-clacked on their laptops in the Schomburg Center for the Black Life Matters Wikipedia edit-a-thon. Organized by the AfroCROWD initiative with the Wikimedia Foundation, the event was in tandem with Black WikiHistory Month, and its mission was to recruit more Wikipedians of color, to rectify the online encyclopedia’s gaping diversity problem.

“Today we know that there isn’t enough content in Wikipedia about black history and about black culture, so we’re here to correct that bias,” said librarian Maira Liriano. “We are counting on all of you to help us change that.”

Wikipedia reigns supreme as the largest source of free knowledge on the planet. It’s also the sixth most popular website in the world, with 500 million unique monthly visitors a month and over 5 million articles in English. (It’s available in over 290 languages, including languages in the African diaspora.) Since its debut 15 years ago, the digital masterpiece has been trumpeted as the universal knowledge database that humanity has been waiting for, but it contains one massive problem: Its mob of editors are predominantly white and male.

Although it’s difficult to quantify exactly how many Wiki editors are women, surveys have indicated that only about 8.5–16 percent of them are female. Unsurprisingly, this colossal lack of diversity affects Wikipedia’s coverage and culture. Its backend is a boys’ club, and its articles can be steeped in sexism. Much has been written about Wikipedia’s hostility towards female editors and its sweeping show of chauvinism, but the same systemic bias applies to other minorities. AfroCROWD founder Alice Backer launched her NYC-based initiative a year ago to rectify Wikipedia’s lack of articles about black history and black culture. With her project manager Sherry Antoine, they’ve raised awareness about this pervasive issue.

Backer says AfroCROWD’s monthly edit-a-thons are meant to “demystify” Wikipedia so that people of color don’t get discouraged from editing. “The idea is to personalize Wikipedia,” Backer said. “We come together, we have food, we’re in a room together, we discuss, and everybody here can have 1-on-1 help if they want it.” (Over sixty people attended the edit-a-thon, including a handful of Wikipedia wizards.)

(Katie Booth/Women in the World)

Alice Backer, Founder of AfroCROWD (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

“When you use the Wikipedia platform, it can be intimidating at first. At something like this edit-a-thon, you’re relaxed, you’re meeting people, and you’ve got people to guide you,” said Antoine. “It’s an available resource that allows you to have a voice in the making of history. Take advantage of it.” She pointed to how black activists frequently use Twitter, a popular source for unbiased narratives and eyewitness accounts. “Why not also redress that bias in Wikipedia?”

According to AfroCROWD, many people in their target group have complained that “too many entries reflect the lack of diversity in editors, specifically when it comes to the black experience.” Their goal? “To improve the number of Afro-descendant users editing Wikipedia and see them become more engaged in digital technology as a bi-product.” Interestingly, most of AfroCROWD’s events have been comprised of at least 50% women, a higher proportion than in the Wikipedia editorship at large.

Student and aspiring history teacher Jeanetta Green, who was attending the AfroCROWD edit-a-thon, never considered editing Wikipedia before the event, but she now sees it as a responsibility that deserves more publicity. “We need to take control of our own narrative… As a community, we need to take control of our stories, and dig in and get to doing the work of editing.”

Although AfroCROWD was just started a year ago and it was “very grassroots,” Backer and Antoine have already seen a surge in demand for their events and expertise. “We know that the number of people of African descent who edit Wikipedia today is not proportional to the number of people of African descent in the world. AfroCROWD is an effort to bring Wikipedia to people of African descent, in a cultural context,” Antoine said. “By now, AfroCROWD has grown to a point where people know what AfroCROWD is. It’s an idea that’s spreading.” They’ve hosted edit-a-thons and talks in places like the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Public Library, New York University, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, and they’ve connected with people in cities like Houston, Charlotte, and New Orleans to organize AfroCROWD edit-a-thons around the country.

“As it’s becoming viral, people are inviting us to come support events that they are organizing, and people are starting to organize these events outside of New York,” Backer said. “So we’re ecstatic, because that’s what we want. The virality.”

(Katie Booth/Women in the World)

(Katie Booth/Women in the World)

“Digital is taking over in a lot of ways, in the way that we understand history and the way that we learn about each other,” Antoine said.“Right now, we’re very underrepresented in the numbers of editors on Wikipedia. We’re trying to increase that to make it more reflective of society.”

There has also been a push for more editors with diverse backgrounds as well, including Asians and Latinos. “We have held edit-a-thons targeting afrolatinos and other language groups in the United States, like Haitians,” Antoine said. Still, she emphasized the need for more organizations like AfroCROWD to target certain groups. Want to start something similar, or host your own edit-a-thon? It’s easy.

Wikimedia NYC is a great resource for anyone wanting to become an active Wikipedian, from getting your account to regularly writing articles and navigating the checkpoints that allow your edits to stay and grow on the site,” said Antoine. At their recent edit-a-thon, they had volunteer Wikipedians on-site to assist new editors with set-up and proper source citation. They also encourage new users to focus on a theme, partner with local organizations that are interested, and use the resources available on Wikipedia to bring it all together. Antoine said AfroCROWD is also happy to help new editors through the process.

“We want to make sure that when people come here, they leave with at least one edit,” said Antoine. “Its like a seed being planted. You plant a seed on Wikipedia, it becomes a tree of knowledge. For example, MLK is one of the articles that’s the most edited, and when it started, it was a little thing. Now, it’s one of the biggest articles on Wikipedia. This is a seed planting event. They come, they get introduced to Wikipedia, they get their account, and we want to get them started with at least one sentence, because that’s something they can work on their own when they leave… You would never think that you can feel empowered with Wikipedia.”

Richard Knipel, the President of the Wikimedia New York Chapter, was equally encouraging. “Wikipedia is as good as the breadth of people who contribute to it… There are probably hundreds of millions of people who read Wikipedia, there are definitely less than a million people who edit it, and the more diverse the group of people who edit it, the stronger it is.” He believes that the key to growing a diverse army of editors is to target particular communities and under-covered themes with a welcoming attitude. “Wikipedia is a handmade encyclopedia, there’s no board of editors, there’s no editor-in-chief, it’s as good as you make it, and hopefully it can become a better product with more people participating.”

Knipel also stressed the amount of information that’s missing, or being underrepresented, on Wikipedia. “There are so many topics that are under covered, there are African-American topics that are just missing. We have long, long lists of biographies of African-Americans that are missing from the encyclopedia.” (Here’s an extensive list of articles that editors were asked to work on during AfroCROWD’s edit-a-thon–the articles in red do not exist yet.) “We have a lot of important topics in all sorts of areas that are missing.” He referred to a group called Women in Red, which focuses on creating large lists of notable women who don’t yet have Wikipedia presence yet, and then creating articles about them.

Knipel also referred to the popular group Art + Feminism. Its lead co-organizers are Siân Evans, Jacqueline Mabey and Michael Mandiberg, and they’re hosting their third annual edit-a-thon the weekend of March 5 at the Museum of Modern Art, along with about 125 related events around the world, to increase the number of women artists on Wikipedia. Since Art + Feminism’s launch in 2014, Mabey and Mandiberg have seen a huge change in the conversation about Wikipedia’s gender gap. “It’s important to host events like this to both raise awareness about the lack of inclusivity on Wikipedia and to try and change it. It’s consciousness-raising, and concrete action,” said Mabey. “A big part of how the encyclopedia is shaped is the conversation that happens on top pages, and if you bring in a greater variety of editors, then the nature of conversations on those top pages will change as well.”

(Katie Booth/Women in the World)

Women participate in AfroCROWD’s Wikipedia edit-a-thon at the Schomburg Center (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

Mandiberg enjoys watching his “stubs,” or new, short articles, grow and proliferate overtime. He’ll post it one day, and then watch it bloom as other editors add information. “Over the following year, or two, I’ve seen those articles be expanded substantially. You can see these moments of catalyzation. It was just awesome. At our event at Eyebeam, the place was vibrating with energy. It was very positive, people were very excited, it’s very empowering.”

The two have seen pages for incredible women artists who belong on Wikipedia get deleted, while the artists’ husbands’ pages were not. They also noted how wives are frequently mentioned as wives, while husbands are not, which was the case with Lee Krasner and her husband, Jackson Pollock, as though women are defined by their relationships with men. Women’s articles also tend to include more information about their personal lives than men’s. Mandiberg also cited a study which revealed that links on both women’s and men’s Wikipedia pages generally all link out to men’s pages. “It’s a way of charting power dynamics… As if a woman’s legitimacy has to be confirmed by linking to other men.”

Like AfroCROWD’s organizers, Mabey and Mandiberg encourage people to organize their own edit-a-thons. “It’s not that difficult,” said Mabey. They have a handy downloadable Organizer’s Kit and a list of Wikipedian ambassadors who can help on their website for aspiring hosts. “It’s as simple as gathering 6 people together and looking at training materials, and working together. You have to start small. Keep it simple in the beginning and play around.”

The women of AfroCROWD hope that it will connect thousands of people to the creation of their history. They view Wikipedia as a gatekeeper, “on issues that face the black community, and what we know about ourselves.” Aside from its popularity, the site also has tremendous influence on how people see the world, and it’s clear from everyone who was attending their edit-a-thon that understanding what’s being recorded for the future is an important concern. As Antoine said, “It’s empowering to be able to be a part of the telling of your own history.”

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