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Wikipedia: yesterday's news? Calls for women, doctors, and scholars of humanities; Wales makes Wikimedia work "look easy"

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By Skomorokh, Mono, and Tilman Bayer

Wikipedia: big idea or yesterdays' news? A historian's quandary

Marshall Poe in November 2007

In The Atlantic, historian Marshall Poe recounted his experiences in attempting to pitch, write and sell an overarching "book of ideas" with Wikipedia as its central focus. After stumbling across Wikipedia whilst pursuing an interest in reader-contributed informational resources, Poe was struck by a citation to his work on an obscure Austrian diplomat. He became fascinated by the sheer depth of the project, its radical transparency in providing page histories of each change to an article, and the emergent social order of its a-hierarchical community of contributors. In September 2005, his autobiographical article was nominated for deletion a week after he created it (as MarshallPoe). His curiosity piqued by these encounters, Poe writes that he delved further into the intricacies of the nascent website, and wrote for the editors of The Atlantic Monthly – for whom he had been working as a researcher – a vivid and short-form history of the founding of the project and its early leaders: "The Hive" (September 2006). This was followed – within a month – by two additional Wikipedia-centric articles for the magazine: "A Closer Look at the Neutral Point of View (NPOV)", a case study of the encyclopaedia's handling of controversial content focusing on the Abortion entry, and "Common Knowledge", a personal history of the historian's experiences with the burgeoning project.

Around this time, Poe describes how Wikipedia had become a hot topic in the thinking press, and that he saw an opportunity to author the "book of ideas" he had long dreamt of. Poe recounts how, having found himself a literary agent who had read his piece with enthusiasm to score him a book deal, he was told he had the requisite stature (as an academic and contributor to a respected intellectual periodical) but needed a hook, a captivating and counterintuitive thesis that would serve as the book's "big idea" and catchy title, and thus, it was hoped, propel it and Poe into the bestselling ranks of instant classics such as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Poe chose "Wikipedia changed everything". A New York publisher duly took the bait (and offered considerable remuneration). Given six months to capture Wikipedia right in the spotlights of the zeitgeist, Poe writes about how he began researching in earnest, but quickly ran into a stumbling block: Wikipedia did not change everything – the thesis did not hold. "The truth about Wikipedia", Poe recalls, "was messy", and his manuscript a "convoluted story involving evolution, human nature, media technologies, and their effects on human society and thought." Poe's historians' nous could not countenance Wikipedia-as-big-idea – instead finding it to be a phenomenon of "irreducible complexity" that defied any attempt at breezy reductionism. By the time he had reworked the manuscript into a difficult "book of ideas", Wikipedia's moment had deemed to have passed, and the publisher had lost interest, Poe writes. The modest impact of subsequent book-length studies of Wikipedia-style collaboration,[1] such as Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (2008), Andrew Lih's The Wikipedia Revolution (2009), and Joseph Reagle's Good Faith Collaboration (2010), may well bear Poe's insight out.

In brief

Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner, who kept up the public discussion of Wikipedia's gender issues in an interview with CBC Radio.


  1. ^ A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that Shirky's Here Comes Everybody was a book-length study of Wikipedia.
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  • In the News - and there's nothing about journalist Johann Hari and his so-called "apology" (more a non-apology) in a British national newspaper for his libellous and malicious sockpuppetting as User:David r from meth productions on Wikipedia, amongst other things? [1] [2] [3], [4], [5] and a thousand other blog posts about it. Seriously? What is going on here? Are you censoring because Wikipedia hasn't exactly covered itself in glory the way it has dealt (or rather, not dealt, over the last 6 years) with the whole thing?. This is a MASSIVE story in the UK and you ignore it? What's going on? I smell a rat. (talk) 20:38, 20 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    No, we didn't deliberately not include it. I was fully aware of the story, blogged about it on my personal site, and should have covered it on Signpost. I was busier than usual at the weekend with the new university term starting and the usual family and work commitments so didn't have as much of a chance to write up stories for Signpost as I would usually like. On behalf of the regular Signpost editors, I apologise. If it is any consolation, we covered it in the In The News section when it first became public back in July and if there are any further developments (there is an active WP:SPI going on, for instance), we'll cover the results of that in future editions. —Tom Morris (talk) 21:17, 20 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    Indeed, I had meant to cover it too, but forgot in heat of the moment. - Jarry1250 [Weasel? Discuss.] 17:14, 22 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    Also, I think "MASSIVE" is overcooking it slightly. And besides, a lot of the aspects of the story were not to do with his Wikipedia editing. - Jarry1250 [Weasel? Discuss.] 17:20, 22 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    Add me to the chorus of apologists and conspiracy-deniers; unfortunately, The Signpost is understaffed and too often working at the last minute to find and curate relevant content; stories do fall through the cracks. Please be assured we have every intention of covering the Hari story in next's week's issue. Skomorokh 16:08, 23 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • "more articles had been written about Antarctica (7,800) than any South American or African nation", according to the report, but this in fact refers to the number of articles with coordinates only. It makes sense that Antarctica would be overrepresented there, because there isn't much more than geographical features on Antarctica. Based on WikiProject counts, we actually have 21,317 articles on Brazil, 14,224 on Antarctica, 10,829 on South Africa, and (for comparison) 143,902 on the United States. I think the latter figure will exclude numerous articles tagged only for daughter projects of WikiProjects United States. Ucucha (talk) 21:39, 20 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    The point about the narrow scope of the survey is granted, but why would overrpresentation of the geographical features of Antarctica compared to those of Africa and South America not be considered problematic? Skomorokh 16:08, 23 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    The point I was trying to make is that articles about Antarctica are more likely to be about geographical features (and thus, to have coordinates), while articles about say Brazil are relatively more likely to be about culture or other subjects, which are less amenable to having coordinates. Thus, measuring how well a region is represented by the number of coordinates is likely to inflate representation of Antarctica. Ucucha (talk) 23:10, 23 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • I wish Sue would let up on the "gender gap" stuff. I feel that the past handling of this issue has harmed Wikipedia's reputation more than it's solved anything. Out of curiosity I just checked her account. In the English encyclopedia, she has less than 500 edits. Does participation at that level really give a person a sense of the culture of editing? Gaining a feeling for that, I think is crucial for the Foundation to make good decisions. Many of the issues that the Foundation is dealing with today — "gender gap" issue, declining editorship, "hostile environment" — really require an intimate feel for the community to judge their validity. This can only be gained by active participation. One thing I know is that non-editors have mentioned to me now that they've heard that Wikipedia is unpleasant for female editors. They obviously gained this idea though the media which was responding to statements released or managed by the Foundation. I see the "Wikipedia is anti-female" notion to be a total and complete myth with its origins in the misinterpretation of data. By not handling the gender disparity properly, the project has shot itself in the foot. Jason Quinn (talk) 14:40, 21 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
And what is the proper way to handle the gender disparity? Danger (talk) 21:54, 21 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
It's simple. First double check to make sure no policies hinder female participation. They don't so that won't take long. Second make sure that there are policies against editors discriminating or harassing other editors. There are so that won't take long. Pretty much the buck ends there and the matter should no longer be considered a "problem". It's just a matter of who chooses to participate. Now since it is an admirable goal to increase female participation, it's worthwhile to do some directed marketing to women (and at the same time directed marketing to men). That's it. Any more time and effort spent on this issue is a giant waste of donated money. Jason Quinn (talk) 18:00, 22 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Jason, in Sue's defence I would make the point that institutional culture depends on far, far more than formal rules and enforcement. It is an established fact that Wikipedia culture is less welcoming to females, and our explicit policies are one of the last things I would cite as a plausible contributory factor. The argument that "as long as we are being fair on paper gender disparity doesn't matter" is all well and good if you believe that neither the editing community nor the encyclopaedia suffer as a consequence and that there is no ethical imperative to proactively alter our culture to be de facto as well as de jure nondiscriminatory and welcoming. I don't think any of those propositions are defensible. Skomorokh 16:08, 23 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
I reject the claim that Wikpedia culture is less welcoming to females. And while I would say that Wikipedia is pretty much neutral in regards to gender, in some sense Wikipedia is more welcoming to females: Wikipedia has explicitly reached out to new female editors and made large gender-based changes while, as far as I know, there have been no efforts directed towards men. I'm not sure what you meant by "institutional culture" but I suppose what you mean is the same as what I would call "bureaucratic culture". This is when the amount of managerial work starts to increase relative to what is necessary. Here, significant effort has been put into a topic based on flawed thinking that more or less boils down the fallacy where it is assumed that because there's a gender disparity that means that the Wikipedia culture is hostile to women. The former does not imply the latter. It is is the same as saying "because there are fewer parents on Wikipedia, Wikipedia is has an anti-parent environment". An imbalance can exist even in a perfectly welcoming environment because there are other factors at work. In the case of parents, it's obvious: they are spending time raising their kids. In the case of the gender imbalance, it's not obvious what the factors are but it's completely possible that women aren't participating simply because they don't want to spend their free time editing Wikipedia. In fact, if the Foundation would listen to the women in the polls they do, time and time again women have expressed the idea that they don't edit because they feel like "they have more important things to do". This is what women have been saying and yet the feminist-mindset has people stick their fingers in their ears while saying that it has to be a hostile, anti-female culture. At some point, this view is as unscientific and unwarranted as any other idea whose basis is on emotion and not data. [In the interest of brevity, I will stop. There's extra complexity I'm ignoring between "internal" and "external" culture (to Wikipedia). The Foundation's role and ability to do something about each is different. A full discussion necessary has to explore that idea.]
I forgot to reply to one of your statements. I thinking saying the encyclopedia has "suffered" do to less female participation is overly dramatic. Information is a gender neutral concept so the bulk of the material shouldn't carry any hidden bias due to an imbalance in the sex of editors. Yes, there's a topic bias but the completeness of Wikipedia has really pushed "gender-related" topics to the fridges of notability anyhow. The "extra" coverage of what could be called male topics (e.g., mixed martial arts) is not a problem. The "missing" coverage of female topics is so minor that it's not worth getting worked up about. Plus, they'll get covered eventually anyhow. Lastly, I don't think efforts to force women to participate until a 50/50 ratio would have the slightest chance of succeeding; so eliminating this bias is a pipe dream.
  • Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody is not a "book-length study of Wikipedia" (Wikipedia is only one of many examples covered, although an important one), and it does seem to be of the most influential books about Web 2.0. Lih's and Reagle's book on the other hand have surely seen lower sales than say Gladwell's, but then again their topic is much more specialized. (Btw, Reagle's book just became available online under CC-BY-NC! [6]) Regards, HaeB (talk) 16:19, 22 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    • Thank you, that was a misstatement, now corrected. The point that Wikipedia-esque collaboration has failed to make comparable intellectual headway or capture public imagination in anything other than a superficial manner holds nevertheless. Skomorokh 16:08, 23 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]


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