Reshaping the internet for women

Image source: Chippers in a Shipyard [Shipbuilding. Three Women Working], 1942, US National Archives.

By Flavia Fascendini
Publisher: APCNews     09 January 2017

A conversation with Wikimujeres on how to [edit] the internet to make it truly for, and from, us all

During the AWID International Forum in September, the Feminist Exchange Hub hosted the Wikimujeres delegation who provided several spaces around the Whose Knowledge? global campaign, aimed at making the internet truly for, and from, us all. Flavia Fascendini, from APCNews, had the chance to participate in their Wikipedia editing session, where questions were raised about how to empower women to edit the online encyclopedia and to make them visible throughout history.

“As we find ourselves processing the results of the United States elections in November, we recognise that now – more urgently than ever – credible and plural sources of knowledge and information are needed. It is critical that the full depth and diversity of the world is easily understood and accessible by curious young people and powerful decision-makers alike. Overcoming hate, bigotry and misogyny requires seeing and knowing each other as fully and as honestly as we possibly can. Our responses to the questions below are in that spirit, and we’ve tried to include some concrete suggestions for knowledge-sharing actions that everyone can take in that same spirit.” This is how Anasuya Sengupta and Siko Bouterse, coordinators of the Whose Knowledge? global campaign, contextualised the interview with APCNews, after the sessions that took place in September at the Feminist Exhange Hub in the AWID International Forum.

There is definitely something important that needs to be done before editing Wikipedia in order to reflect women’s contributions to history: to work on the sources. One approach is to do original research. Also to generate content for media. As well to publish and create this huge corpus of reliable sources that will tackle on Wikipedia’s problem when it comes to a verifiability policy that seems to overlook centuries of silencing and undermining of women’s and marginalised communities’ contributions to humanity. But this is not the only issue, as APCNews discussed with Anasuya and Siko from the Wikimujeres delegation at the AWID Forum, supported by the Wikimedia Foundation.


APCNews: The session on editing Wikipedia at the AWID Hub triggered many questions. To begin with, Wikipedia call itself “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” In 2015 Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the site, said that the organization failed to meet its goal of increasing women’s participation to 25% by 2015, despite launching several initiatives. Former Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner cites nine reasons why women don’t edit Wikipedia: A lack of user-friendliness in the editing interface; Not having enough free time; A lack of self-confidence; Aversion to conflict and an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars; Belief that their contributions are too likely to be reverted or deleted; Some find its overall atmosphere misogynistic; Wikipedia culture is sexual in ways they find off-putting; Being addressed as male is off-putting to women whose primary language has grammatical gender; and Fewer opportunities than other sites for social relationships and a welcoming tone. Do you agree with this?

Anasuya Sengupta and Siko Bouterse: “Open” and “welcoming” are two different things on the internet today. Platforms like Wikipedia are theoretically open to everyone, but Wikipedia operates on a set of norms and assumptions that, like much of the rest of the internet, were designed and constructed by white men from the global North. And so we see a lot of everyday cultural practices and community norms in Wikipedia which in practice exclude contributions from and knowledge about those who aren’t white, male, straight, or from the global North. Yes, anyone can push the edit button, but that doesn’t mean that everyone finds a warm and supportive environment in which to share their knowledge after they push that button.

Men do still tend to have a greater share of leisure time in many countries, and masculine styles of working often include high self-confidence and tolerance for conflict. These are conditions than help set up more men than women for success in Wikipedia’s culture. And although we don’t accept the regressive argument that Wikipedia’s editing interface is harder for women than men to use, it is true that Wikipedia’s interface takes time to learn how to use, and it isn’t easy to find social support on-wiki. This means that any individual or community with less leisure time, or less inclination to learn through an argumentative mode of discussion, will be less likely to succeed in navigating Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, Wikimedia’s 25% women’s participation goal wasn’t paired with specific strategies or large-scale resources to meet its target, and so it hasn’t yet been achieved. At the same time, over the last five years we’ve seen some changes across the Wikimedia movement that give us hope for Wikipedia. Five years ago, there were very few organized groups working on systemic bias in Wikipedia, and very few Wikipedians would publicly say they focus on addressing Wikipedia’s gender gap. Today, there is both a Wikimujeres and a WikiWomen’s user group aimed at supporting women’s participation, and countless local groups around the world organize activities to support both more women contributors and content about women each year.

Initiatives like Wiki Loves Women, Editatonas, Gender Gap Task Force and Art+Feminism are bringing more feminists together to write about women on Wikipedia, including from the global South, and online community spaces like theWikipedia Teahouse and WikiWomen’s Collaborative act as social support for women’s participation. The Wikimedia Foundation has run two Inspire Campaigns aimed at funding more projects to address the gender gap and online harassment. Just like on the broader internet, though, it is going to take more time and a larger and better-resourced push to build a culture where women’s participation and women’s knowledge is fully valued and equally supported.

The larger issue that we see, however, is more than just a culture of misogyny or a complicated user interface acting as a barrier to women’s participation. It is also the architecture derived essentially from the Enlightenment era of what an encyclopedia should be – whose knowledge is considered notable and whose sources are reliable for writing that encyclopedia. This excludes women and other marginalized groups from contributing the full sum of their knowledge to Wikipedia. How do you write a complete biography of a woman activist from the global South when the most reliable sources of knowledge about her may be either oral or recorded only in a small, local, non-English publication? How do you write full accurate coverage of trans rights issues when the “neutral point of view” required by one of Wikipedia’s core policies, as trans Wikipedian Pax Ahimsa Gethen brilliantly said, presumes views of straight cisgender white men as the neutral default, while reliable sources don’t accurately reflect transgender lives? There is as much work still to be done around architecture and policies as there is around culture or technology in order to incorporate more knowledge and participation from marginalized communities, including women, in Wikipedia.

APCNews: On Wikipedia’s verifiability policy: “In Wikipedia, verifiability means that anyone using the encyclopedia can check that the information comes from a reliable source. Wikipedia does not publish original research. Its content is determined by previously published information rather than the beliefs or experiences of its editors. Even if you’re sure something is true, it must be verifiable before you can add it.” How to close the gender bias in Wikipedia’s content without the pre-existance of reliable or non-gender biased sources? How is it possible to edit Wikipedia to reflect women’s contributions to science, technology, medicine, politics, etc, when the only sources that could offer verifiability to our page are subject to the same historical invisibility and lack of acknowledgment?

AS and SB: To be clear, core principles of the Wikipedia community – like ‘verifiability’ and ‘reliable’ sources – are what have made Wikipedia a legitimate and credible source of popular information in the 15 years it has existed. These principles have helped bring an immense wealth of reasonably curated knowledge online in ways that are easily accessible. Yet, exactly as you point out, these core principles are also what might well limit Wikipedia’s growth – and certainly its mission of seeking the ‘sum of all human knowledge’ – over the next 15 years and beyond. The knowledge that currently exists on Wikipedia is primarily male and from the global North; data shows us that blank”>1 in 10 editors are projected to be female, and -_Global_South%2C_WMF_Metrics_Meeting_February_2015.pdf” target=”_blank”>20% of the world (mainly from Europe and the US) is writing about 80% of the content.

Wikipedians – particularly on the English Wikipedia – have found it hard to accept sources that are local publications in non-familiar languages, and certainly, to accept and accommodate the fact that the majority of the world’s knowledge (especially but not only in the global South) is oral, not written in published material. Google estimated a few years ago that the total number of published books in the world is about 130 million in 480 languages, but there are over 7000 languages and dialects in the world. “Oral citations” – a concept first explored by Achal Prabhala and his team in a fascinating 2011 film called People Are Knowledge – are not yet given credence within the community of editors.

This is precisely the reason we started the Whose Knowledge? global campaign, to think about how to bring online different forms of knowledge, in multiple languages, particularly from marginalised communities. Knowledge production does need to be less male, white, straight, and global North in origin, than it currently is – on Wikipedia, as well as beyond it on the broader internet.

We think of closing the knowledge gap – including the gender gap – in different phases of potential collective action: to start with what does exist online but isn’t yet easily curated and disseminated, and to end with significant action to create new sources of existing knowledge that can be brought online.

From the perspective of what we can do right now, there do exist reliable sources for women’s knowledge and contributions. They may not be as extensive as those around men, but we must collect what exists, use them well, and educate those who don’t recognise them as ‘reliable’. Wikipedians around the world have done this in many different successful ways: examples include Women in Science work by Wikipedians in the US and India, AfroCrowd editathons on race, and Latin American editatonas adding content to Wikipedia particularly around feminism. Secondly, when sources don’t exist easily or are not accessible online, feminist and other organisations should work intentionally to bring existing sources online and create reliable, credible sources of such information. For example, when Indian women realised there were no reliable sources around Indian women scientists, they created a well-designed, well-written biographies project and published it as ‘Lilavati’s Daughters’, and this is now a significant source for many of Wikipedia’s biographies on Indian women scientists.

And finally, of course, we need to be thoughtful, creative and rigorous about how to create new standards of ‘reliability’ and ‘verifiability’ around oral knowledge and other forms of knowledge that are less easily understood as peer-reviewed, published material. We may need to create repositories of such knowledge in spaces and places other than Wikimedia projects until Wikipedians are ready to accept them as reliable sources.

See more of our recommended actions below, to help create the Wikipedia and the internet that the world deserves!

APCNews: There is definitely something important we need to do before or in parallel of editing Wikipedia: work on the sources. How can we do this?

AS and SB: Creating more reliable sources for use on Wikipedia is really important. Some recommended actions:

1. Put your knowledge online. Digitise what exists offline. Record and upload oral histories. Put reports, data, and other knowledge out on your own website or other websites that are known feminist knowledge aggregators. This is the first step in making your knowledge more accessible for others, even if it isn’t yet in the form of a reliable source for Wikipedia.

2. Share under open licenses and in open repositories. Creative Commons has several good options for licensing your knowledge products so that they can be freely used by others. Wikimedia Commons is an open repository for sharing media under free license, where you can add images and sound files for later use on Wikipedia. Wikisource is an open online library for sharing freely licensed source texts. Wiktionary is a free and open dictionary that can be used as a preservation tool for indigenous languages. As knowledge is made freely available, it becomes easier to incorporate it into Wikipedia.

3. Publish and disseminate. Are you a journalist or an academic? Publish research and stories about marginalized people and issues so they can be used as reliable sources on Wikipedia. We need to be each other’s credible, reliable, legitimate sources. And the more feminist knowledge is seen beyond the usual circles, the more power it has. Does your funder have a website? Publish there. Do you know journalists? Encourage your local newspaper to write about you and your work as well as the work of others whose knowledge you consider to be important.

APCNews: Is getting more women to post a sufficient measure?

AS and SB: No. As with other examples of this kind that feminists know well (political representation, for instance), greater numbers are a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress. The values and approaches of those who edit are critical, and we need to focus on both content and contributors. As Adrienne Wadewitz, a late great Wikipedian and academic said, “Wikipedia needs to recruit women, yes, but, more importantly, it needs to recruit feminists. And feminists can be of any gender.” At the same time, because Wikipedia does rely on an encyclopaedic style (as opposed to opinion pieces), editors need to inform, not to advocate.

Women’s and feminist perspectives and issues need to be covered in far greater range and depth than currently exists on Wikipedia. Wikipedians and the women’s movements globally need to be working together in much more productive ways. A small but satisfying start was the work we did at the AWID Forum in Brazil in 2016; we added and improved content, including over 30 pictures of global feminists that we’ve started adding to their Wikipedia articles!

APCNews: What is WikiMedia/Wikipedia doing about the problem of online harassment on its sites?

AS and SB: The Wikipedia community and Wikimedia organisations are still grappling with the problem of online harassment, like much of the broader internet. There are no quick answers, but we need to see true progress on this issue soon. Some anti-harassment pilots are moving forward with funding and support from the Wikimedia Foundation’s June 2016 Inspire Campaign, and we understand that the Foundation is also looking at how to resource more anti-harassment work internally as well. Through Whose Knowledge?, we hope to help by connecting with organizations beyond Wikimedia and collating best practices (including from our partner, APC and its Take Back the Tech campaign!) to share with Wikimedians.

Safe spaces have to be designed and built starting with the assumption that harassment is a critical issue to address, and that we can’t continue to favor “open” at the expense of “safe.” “Open” outcomes sometimes require a process of creating “safe” or incubated spaces in which knowledge can be produced safely before it is shared more broadly as “open” data – for example, when working on knowledge relating to indigenous rights or race. Wikimedians have done a lot of work over the past two years to create safer offline spaces, thanks to improved friendly space policies and protection plans for in-person events, and we’ve seen offline events improve as a result. Wikimedia’s online spaces still have a strong bent towards open before safe, though, and the tension between designing for “open” and designing for “safe and secure” is one that all open culture projects need to resolve in order to address harassment online.

APCNews: Does a change in Wikipedia culture need to take place?

AS and SB: YES!