Wikipedia wants YOU (if you’re a woman)

Wikipedia has turned 10 – as I’m sure you’ve heard by now. Like all good organisations celebrating an anniversary, it is engaging in a little navel-gazing – and discovering some interesting things. To wit …

Gender symbols

Gender symbols (

Yesterday the thoughtful Stefanie of So many books emailed me an article from The New York Times because she remembered that I’d mentioned being a Wikipedia contributor. Thanks a bunch Stefanie. I  thoroughly enjoyed the article, which is titled Define gender gap? Look up Wikipedia’s contributor list.

It turns out that I’m a rare beast. According to the article, only about 13% of Wikipedia contributors (editors) are women, and the average age of contributors is the mid-20s. I cannot tell a lie. I am in fact somewhat older than that and, if you haven’t guessed already, I am a woman.

How does this finding accord with my experience? I have, over the last three years, attended two Wiki meet-ups in my city. At both there were two or three women to the ten or so men. Hmm … a bit better than 13% but not much. It was certainly a disproportion I noticed. As for age, I would have to say that the majority were over 30 years old …

Anyhow, Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation suggests that her goal to increase the percentage of women contributors is

running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving world that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.

There is probably some truth in this. Contributing to Wikipedia is not hard, technically speaking, but it can be daunting if you are a little unconfident and nervous around technology. And, I suppose, the whole premise of an encyclopedia is to provide facts – not opinions – about subjects, though really it’s a little more organic than that. Some subjects – at least those I’m interested in (but I’m a woman of course!) – are not black and white. Take literature, for example. An article about a writer needs to provide the facts of that writer’s life – a general biography – but it should also provide a sense of their work and here there is some opportunity to explore a range of ideas about that writer’s style, themes, and so on. These ideas need to be researched and cited so that users can trust it, but it is more than a simple recitation of facts. Wikipedia’s principles require that your work not be “original” but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a dry recitation of facts.

However, there are other factors, besides these two, that may discourage women – and one is that Wikipedia can be a fairly aggressive place. While there are a lot of enthusiastic, friendly and helpful contributors and administrators in Wikipedia, there is also more aggro than I expected. It is not pleasant when you are a new contributor to be rather abruptly or rudely called to task for what is a misunderstanding or an honest mistake. It is also not pleasant – whether you are new or not – to get caught up in an article controversy where contributors spend more time insulting each other than working out a compromise. I have experienced both. These are things that women, perhaps, are less willing to put up with? I’ll say no more on this – but hope that Wikimedia executives, trolling the web, might just come by and add it to their things to think about.

All this, though, begs the question: Does it matter if most of the contributors are young males? Well, yes, I think it does. And Sue Gardner does too. She gives several examples of “gender disparity” in terms of emphasis. I’ll repeat just one that would interest litbloggers. She checked the article, she says, on one of her favourite writers, Pat Barker (the author, readers here probably know, of the Regeneration trilogy). Barker’s article at the time comprised three paragraphs. By contrast, the article on Niko Bellic was about five times as long. Niko Bellic, if you don’t know, is a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV! Need I say more? (Get your value judgements free here!)

So, what does Sue Gardner plan to do about the problem? Well, she plans “to use subtle persuasion and outreach though her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies…”. She says:

Gender is a hot-button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it … I am not interested in triggering those feelings.

Doesn’t that just about say it all!

If you look up Wikipedia…

Back in June I wrote a post on Wikipedia’s fairly rapid rise over the last two years in the credibility stakes … about how it is even being cited as a source by Aunty ABC (Australia’s government-backed broadcaster, for my overseas readers). Well, it has risen even higher than that now. Yesterday, the minister conducting a funeral service I was attending said during his address “If you look up Wikipedia ….”. I was so stunned that I barely heard the rest of his message! I did manage to gather, though, that what I would find in Wikipedia was that, globally, over 200,000 leprosy cases were registered in 2006. Don’t ask me what lepers had to do with the funeral service, except that it was something to do with gratitude!

Now, my question to you is, how much higher can Wikipedia go!?

More on blogging, images and copyright

Courtesy of Uncommon Depth at flickr (using Creative Commons Licence)

Courtesy of Uncommon Depth at flickr (using Creative Commons Licence)

Those of you who have read my very early posts will know that copyright on images is an important issue for me – it’s why I often don’t have a lot of images on my posts, much as I’d like to. I’m sure that it won’t be long before the whole copyright situation is blown sky high but, until it does, I’m erring on the side of caution.

Today I was sent two links concerning a controversy at Wikipedia regarding the uploading there of images from the National Portrait Gallery in London. Apparently the Gallery has threatened legal action on a Wikipedian who uploaded onto Wikipedia over 3000 public domain images from the Gallery. The Gallery claims that while the original images are in public domain, their scans are protected by copyright. This is just one of their claims. It is all explained in an edition of Wikipedia’s magazine Signpost.

Another Signpost edition comprises an open letter written by three administrators to the Wikipedia community. It explains the reasoning behind Wikipedia’s philosophy while also recognising where institutions like the Gallery are coming from. It gives examples of other more positively negotiated solutions to the problem. A basic issue is that cultural institutions spend a lot of money preserving and storing their collections, and never have enough funding to do all they need to do. Many supplement their incomes by charging fees for commercial use of their images. Often, in the case of public domain images, they call this fee a “preservation” or “handling” fee. In our new digital world, many institutions are starting to free up non-commercial use of low-resolution images and I have myself obtained permission to upload low resolution images onto Wikipedia. However, the Wikipedian in question downloaded high resolution images from the National Portrait Gallery…a whole new ball-game.

You can see the challenge. The world is full of institutions holding immense and rich collections of material that the rest of us would like to access. These institutions are caught in a bind – the digital world exponentially increases their ability to provide access to their collections but it also hugely increases the risk of non-approved or even illegal use of their collections. And, the rights issue is a complex one. We users are not always aware, when looking at an image, what is in copyright and what isn’t. The issue is further complicated by the fact that we live in a global world but we do not have global copyright laws … I am regularly frustrated in my hunt for images by there being no statement anywhere concerning rights.

They might be juggernauts, but it is organisations like Wikipedia, Google and Flickr which are likely to push the issue to a conclusion. We all know a picture tells a thousand words … and we now have the technology to achieve it. All we need is for our rules and laws to catch up with the technology.

Using Wikipedia

There has been a great change in the reputation of Wikipedia in the two years since I started calling myself a Wikipedian. Two years ago, whenever Wikipedia was mentioned – particularly in the media, in academic circles, by the “intelligentsia” – it was accompanied by a snide remark or derogatory tone. Suddenly, though, I am hearing Wikipedia referred to as a valid source on the radio (even on Aunty ABC) and seeing it cited in such places as major metropolitan newspapers.

Jimmy Wales. Shared under: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Jimmy Wales. Shared under: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

In May 2007, the month I started writing Wikipedia articles, its cofounder Jimmy Wales visited Australia and espoused its philosophy and value. In March this year, Microsoft announced that it will cease its online encyclopedia, Encarta. Its main reason was that Encarta’s popularity faded after the nonprofit Wikipedia went online in 2001. All this is wonderfully validating for we Wikipedians, but it doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels – and it certainly doesn’t mean that users should use it blindly. As an analyst I quoted in my last post on Wikipedia says “Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad.” But there is still “bad” there.

Here are some quick tips for sorting out the good from the bad:

  • check the footnotes/references: good Wikipedia articles cite their sources, not just as references at the end of the article, but in-line at the point statements are made.
  • make sure the sources are valid: look at the domain names (such as dot gov and dot edu) and the authority of the person or organisation behind that source. Blogs, for example, are great to read but they are not necessarily a reliable source for an encyclopedia article.
  • look for multiple sources: these can provide a double-check on statements made, particularly the more controversial ones
  • check that the sources themselves don’t cite each other: circular referencing can be common in the on-line information world.
  • look under the “Discussion” tab: this is where articles are assessed (though these are not always up to date) and where discussion about the article occurs – contentious issues, exclusion versus inclusion of information, definition of terms, etc, can be discussed here.
  • look under the “History” tab: while many Wikipedia editors are anonymous or semi-anonymous, you can get a sense of who has been involved and the level of their activity and involvement.
  • note any tags on the articles: editors tag articles that have problems, such as poor or no citation of sources, incomplete or minimal content, and so on. Some of this may be obvious but sometimes these tags can clue you in to how useful the article may be, where its weaknesses are.

The thing is that despite these caveats, most Wikipedia articles, even the very minimal ones, have something to offer. I regularly go to Wikipedia to look for links to external sites. It is sometimes easier to find a person or organisation’s home page, a town’s tourist office, or some other authoritative source, on the Wikipedia article than via a search engine – particularly in those situations where search engines throw up commercial sites ahead of the more content-driven ones.

In other words, Wikipedia rocks – but especially so if you know how to roll with it.

Notes from a Wikipedian

Two years ago I made my first edit in Wikipedia … and got hooked. You see, as a young teenager I decided I wanted to write an encyclopedia. I did start one, but didn’t get very far. Life got in the way as I recollect. As with several of my early dreams, however, life has had a way of seeing them realised, almost without my being aware of it, and so to Wikipedia I came.

Like any communities – and Wikipedia is a community – it has its ups and downs. Within a couple of days I had incurred the wrath of the “copyright” patrol. Some young (I could tell from their user page) French Wikipedian slapped a “speedy deletion” notice  for copyright infringement on a page one hour after I had created it and while I was still working on it. You see, I had “copied”, with some minor changes, a couple of sentences from a website into a new article I had created. The article was about a conference and these sentences essentially said the conference was held biennially and rotated around the states.  There are only so many ways you can say that! As someone who had worked closely with copyright all my career, I didn’t think I’d breached anyone’s creativity in almost-but-not-quite copying those sentences and, anyhow, I was still working on the article. My initial reaction was, I have to admit, a high level of distress. Sitting quietly on my comfy sofa with my laptop on my lap I felt attacked – personally and professionally (in terms of my sense of self). But, I calmed down, decided to react sensibly and got through it: I politely left a message on the tagger’s user page explaining what I was doing and set about enhancing the article. Three hours later the tag was suddenly, and as mysteriously, removed. Phew! I relaxed. But I did learn some things from that experience:

  1. the Wikipedia quality police are out and about 24/7;
  2. the best way to react is calmly so that you don’t enflame the situation; and
  3. there is an “under construction” tag you can put on a new article to tell the police (and other eager editors) to lay off for a while.

All this came back to me as I read David Runciman’s review in the London Review of Books of a book by Andrew Lih called The Wikipedia Revolution. Runciman describes in some detail the way the Wikipedia community works suggesting that it reverses Gresham’s Law which states that “bad money drives out good”. He writes:

One of the remarkable achievements of Wikipedia is to show that on the internet Gresham’s Law can work in reverse: Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad.

And how do they do it? Via the police of course! Because the truth of the matter is that my French Wikipedian was simply doing his best to ensure that the high principles of Wikipedia were being upheld. He wasn’t to know I was an honest newbie still feeling my way.

Anyhow, read the article … Runciman says some interesting things and, along the way, does manage to talk a little about the book he is reviewing.