March 26, 2014

Open Source Feminism: An Intervention with Wikipedia

I use the Internet every day. I love the Internet. This is kind of a stretch, but I sometimes tell people that I grew up online — with Internet chat rooms, messaging, random message boards, and music sites that shaped a lot of my social interactions in high school. And though I’ve written millions words online and spent thousands of hours online, like most people, I’ve never really participated in shaping the biggest parts of the Internet. Not until last month.

In February 2014, groups of artists and tech-savvy folks staged what called they called a “feminist intervention” to Wikipedia. The idea that technology is not neutral is a heavy one. Though the whole point of open source technology is that it’s made stronger and better through collaboration, actually figuring out how to use the technology is not an equal playing field.

Though anyone can edit Wikipedia—that’s the beauty of its open source framework—surveys show that only about 13 percent of people who actually edit the site are women. In February, groups in 17 American cities trained folks (like me) how to add information to Wikipedia, and encouraged them to flesh out or create entries about female artists who are underrepresented on the site.

On the afternoon of February 1st, I dropped in to New York City’s Art and Feminism Edit-a-thon at the Eyebeam technology and art center. Tables of people hunched over laptops packed the ground floor of Eyebeam’s warehouse-like community space. The vibe was friendly, but focused, as dozens of people busily typed away at fresh Wikipedia entries.

Upstairs in a small room, I talked with the event organizers about how it can be an alienating experience when editing Wikipedia on your own. Though the site has a simple interface, it’s a complicated process learning the rules and ethics of editing—especially if you’re not familiar with writing in HTML. It can be confusing to be a Wikipedia newbie, and that keeps many people from diving in. “Wikipedia has become more and more important as an information source—it’s in the top three results of any Google search you make,” said organizer and artist Michael Mandiberg. “So it’s important research, but it can be changed.”

Settling in downstairs, I took a crack at creating a page myself. I asked around for help and immediately, a LaGuardia College English Professor named Dr. Ximena Gallardo crouched down next to my chair to show me the ropes. She often goes by the name, “Dr. X”.

“We have to move from seeing Wikipedia as a site for just learning about things to a site where we can include our knowledge,” Dr. X explained. “We all have knowledge, we all have books in our houses that we could put up there. We can all help a little bit to make it better.”

I wanted to create an entry for one of my favorite artists—Seattle street photographer, Kelly O. I worked with Kelly O briefly at The Stranger newspaper years ago and I’ve always loved her photos.

Even with Dr. X walking me through the process of creating an account, a new entry, and the finer points of adding in citations, it took me two hours to create Kelly O’s entry. It was far more complicated than I thought it would be and getting the hang of Wikipedia’s editing system made for slow going, with lots of mistakes.

It turns out Wikipedia is far less of a wild west than I thought it was.  As night fell over New York, I filled out her biography, added in links, photos, and references, and then pushed away from my desk, worn out. Dr. X and I looked over my newly minted Wikipedia page—it was so simple, only a few short paragraphs, but it was live! I Googled Kelly O’s name and my new entry came up. I couldn’t have been prouder.

I biked back to Brooklyn, but before I could reach my destination, my phone lit up with emails. My entry had been flagged for speedy deletion! The curt description from a user named “reddogsix” said, “Non-notable ‘street photographer’ lacking non-trivial coverage. References are mostly examples of subject’s work.” What the heck did that mean? I changed course, went straight to a coffee shop on 7th Avenue and dove back into my laptop.

I took me a while to dig through the discussion on Wikipedia to even figure out how to reply to the call for deletion. After navigating through what seemed, to a novice like me, to be an arcane labyrinth of dialogue boxes, I finally found the right place to defend my entry.

“Her work is not trivial,” I protested, writing a paragraph about how her photos should be seen on par with photographers who captured Seattle’s grunge scene in the early ‘90s. The debate picked up from there, with other users chiming in, calling for the post to be deleted. Then someone named “Blue Rasberry” [sic] patiently took the time to explain why the entry was controversial—I hadn’t included enough independent references saying her work was important. I needed to include at least two articles from media outlets that say that her work as an artist is important.

It took me another long hour to figure out where to find Wikipedia’s rules on references, to read through and decipher them, and to go back and add more links to my original post. Meanwhile, the delete-or-not-delete debate continued on. “Unremarkable street snapper!” remarked someone. But another user dropped in and gave me a digital gold star for “patience and diligence” as a new editor. My heart soared. Over dinner, my friends asked how my day went and I could barely contain my excitement, “I got a gold star on Wikipedia!” I said. On the one hand, jumping in to the open-source-editing world felt like launching myself into a high school debate club where people fought tooth and nail over the rules. On the other hand, people were kind and helpful, and wanted me participate and succeed.

In the end, I couldn’t find enough relevant sources to support Kelly’s O’s significance. I had one solid article, but the rest were basically press releases, or were a conflict of interest since the newspaper she works for published them. Though she’s published thousands of photographs and is well known locally, Kelly O just hasn’t been written about that much. While Wikipedia is a great platform for knowledge, it builds on existing institutions. The fact that female artists are less likely to have their work reviewed in mainstream media and less likely to have their work shown in museums means it’s harder to add them to Wikipedia, too.

But now I’m hooked. I’m better at editing now. And I’ll be sticking around, excited to help make the site better page by painstaking page.

This essay is adapted from a Bitch Media podcast episode all about feminism and open source. Listen to the podcast, which also includes an interview with Mozilla data architect Selena Deckelmann, at BitchMedia.org

About the author:

Sarah Mirk is a multimedia journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She’s the online editor for national feminism and pop culture magazine Bitch, the author of nontraditional relationship guide Sex from Scratch (August 2014), and also makes nonfiction comics.  Follow her on Twitter @sarahmirk.

 

Sarah Mirk