Categorisation of women novelists sparks media debate on Wikipedia's sexism
On 24 April 2013, novelist Amanda Filipacchi published what turned out to be an influential op-ed in the New York Times. In her piece, "Wikipedia's Sexism Toward Female Novelists", Filipacchi explained that she had just—
... noticed something strange on Wikipedia. It appears that gradually, over time, editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the "American Novelists" category to the "American Women Novelists" subcategory. ... The intention appears to be to create a list of "American Novelists" on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men.
Noting that there wasn't a category for "American men novelists", Filipacchi said that readers looking at the category listing for "American novelists" might not even be aware that women had been excluded. It is "small, easily fixable things like this", she argued, "that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world."
Other publications weigh in
Her point was picked up and endorsed by other mainstream publications including –
These writers generally expressed incomprehension at why even the most minor male novelists remained listed in Wikipedia's "American novelists" category, while major American novelists such as Harper Lee were moved to a subcategory purely on the basis of their gender. The Independent quoted Caroline Criado-Perez of feminist website "The Women's Room":
It perpetuates the idea that men are the default and don't need to be marked in any way, whereas women are still seen as the outliers. If it is a prominent woman, it is a special case; it is a really Victorian attitude and shocking to see in 2013. It exemplifies how far we have to go for women just to be as accepted as men are; as the default.
Sarah Ditum, writing for the New Statesman, pointed out that Wikipedia appeared to sift Victorian novelists the same way as American novelists:
It's not just America which is to be sifted by sex. I took a look at Victorian Novelists, and there you can find a single subcategory: Victorian Women Novelists. While some women get to sit in the main section, many don't — including George Eliot. George Eliot, arguably both the finest novelist and the most Victorian of all Victorian novelists, tucked away in a feminine dependency of literary history. No such fears of perverse classification for Hardy or Dickens, of course: Victorian Male Novelists doesn't even exist as a category, because to be a man is to be neutral of gender in this system. It doesn't feel like we've shaken off all that much of the sexism which caused Mary Anne Evans to publish Middlemarch under a male pseudonym, does it?
The controversy deepened when Filipacchi published a follow-up in the New York Times on 28 April (this also appeared in the paper edition), reiterating her earlier points and noting that her Wikipedia biography as well as Wikipedia articles related to her and her work had come in for unfavourable attention from Wikipedians:
As soon as the Op-Ed article appeared, unhappy Wikipedia editors pounced on my Wikipedia page and started making alterations to it, erasing as much as they possibly could without (I assume) technically breaking the rules. They removed the links to outside sources, like interviews of me and reviews of my novels. Not surprisingly, they also removed the link to the Op-Ed article. At the same time, they put up a banner at the top of my page saying the page needed "additional citations for verifications." Too bad they'd just taken out the useful sources.
In 24 hours, there were 22 changes to my page. Before that, there had been 22 changes in four years. Thursday night, a kind soul went in there and put back the deleted sources. The Wiki editors instantly took them out again.
I knew my page might take a beating. But at least I'm back in the "American Novelists" category, along with many other women.
Welcome to the age of "revenge editing." The edits didn't stop at Filipacchi's page. Edits were also made to pages about her novels, stripping content from them on the grounds that they were overly self-promotional (a big Wikipedia no-no.) One editor ... even started editing the pages devoted to Filipacchi's parents, and slashed huge swaths from a page about the media conglomerate Hachette-Filipacchi, whose chairman emeritus happens to be Filipacchi's father, Daniel Filipacchi. As is usually the case with Wikipedia, high-profile "revenge editing" clearly motivated by animus tends to draw a lot of attention. A frequent result: ludicrous "edit wars" in which successive revisions are undone in rapid succession. ...
Wikipedia's saving grace is that all the edit wars—all the ugly evidence of "revenge editing"—is preserved for eternity for anyone curious enough to investigate in the "talk pages" that reveal precisely how Wikipedia's knowledge is constructed. ... the vast majority of the anti-Filipacchi edits [were] made by just one person, a Wikipedia editor who goes by the user-name "Qworty."
Leonard then quoted various talk page contributions by Qworty that he felt reflected very poorly on Wikipedia:
Wow! We've got Judith "weapons of mass destruction" Miller, penis comparisons, dog feces and accusations that Filipacchi "sent thugs" after Wikipedia editors, all popping up in the context of an apoplectic defense by one Wikipedia editor of actions that other Wikipedia editors labeled "revenge editing." There's a lot of anger here (not to mention an unhealthy fixation with excrement!). Call me persnickety, but reading Qworty's comments did not give me the greatest faith in Wikipedia's internal process for building an encyclopedia of human knowledge.
Both Andrew Leonard in Salon and James Gleick in The New York Review of Books stated that a large number of recategorisations performed by a single contributor, named by Gleick as User:Johnpacklambert, had been responsible for precipitating the crisis.
In his article, Gleick reviewed User:Johnpacklambert's edits in some detail, and gave John an opportunity to put his point of view:
Lambert vehemently disputes suggestions that he is motivated by sexism (or racism, as the case may be). He cites principles of Wikipedia categorization: arguing, for example, that huge categories should be broken up and "diffused" because they become useless for navigation. "This whole hullabaloo is really missing the point," he told me. "The people who are making a big deal about this are not being up-front about what happens if we do not diffuse categories." Others argued that laypeople are simply misunderstanding the purpose of a big category like American novelists. "It is really a holding ground for people who have yet to be categorized into a more specific sub-cat," said a user called Obi-Wan Kenobi. "It's not some sort of club that you have to be a part of."
Gleick added that the problem seemed to be "more general and pervasive than most had originally thought", pointing out that African-American and other non-white writers also regularly found themselves "diffused" from the default category to subcategories. He gave the example of Maya Angelou—Gleick found that her biography was categorised in African-American writers, African-American women poets, and American women poets, but not American poets or American writers.
NPR also covered the story, featuring an interview with Wikimedia Foundation employee Ryan Kaldari, who said:
Wikipedia does have problems with sexism because, as a lot of people know, only about 10 percent or less of the editors at Wikipedia are women. And so a lot of times there's this subconscious, white, male, privileged sexism that exists on Wikipedia that isn't really acknowledged.
In this latest piece, Filipacchi took issue with the assertion made by Leonard and Gleick the day before, that a single editor—User:Johnpacklambert, according to Gleick—was to blame for the controversy. Listing a number of edits made to women novelists' biographies in Wikipedia over the past few months, with dates and the names or IP addresses of the editors who made them, Filipacchi showed that User:Johnpacklambert was only the latest in a line of editors who had recategorised major women novelists in the manner she had described in her op-ed.
In the process, Filipacchi also rebutted claims made by Liz Henry in a widely-tweeted post on bookmaniac.org, titled "Journalists don't understand Wikipedia sometimes". Henry, stating that she was "a bit annoyed at the facile reporting that does not seem to take into account the complexity of how information gets added to Wikipedia", had claimed in her post that two of the novelists named by Filipacchi, Donna Tartt and Amy Tan, had in reality never been in the "American novelists" category, and thus had never been removed. In response, Filipacchi provided verifiable dates and times when they were so removed, along with the names of the editors making the edits.
Filipacchi noted that User:Johnpacklambert had done "something particularly interesting and annoying" after her biography had had the American novelists category restored to it: he removed the category again, and instead added Filipacchi to a new category he had just created: "American humor novelists". The change was undone, and at the time of writing, Filipacchi's biography is categorised among American novelists in Wikipedia.
It turned out that the Wikipedia and IMDB articles for Gadyukin were part of a viral marketing campaign for a faux documentary project by film makers Gavin Boyter and Guy Ducker.
The hoax that fooled the largest encyclopedia and Internet movie database on the planet for nearly four years began when Gavin Boyter and Guy Ducker stumbled into a Belgian restaurant in London in 2002. They were tired. Boyter was an inexperienced director who would sometimes shoot reams of footage in a single day. Along with Ducker—who has editing credits on more than 20 films—he'd just passed the whole day cutting down footage for his first film, Anniversary.
The drinks and exhaustion sparked their imagination. They tossed out fantastic hypotheticals, wondering what kind of director would "shoot an insane amount of material, more material than anyone could ever watch," as Ducker later recalled. "What kind of person would shoot an endless film, just never stop shooting?"
The two friends were forging a fascinating character—a fictional marriage of legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and control-freak geniuses like Stanley Kubrick, an archetypal director slowly creeping into madness. Or as Ducker described him, "a slightly psychotic person. And a slightly manipulative person."
They were creating Yuri Gadyukin.
Ducker explained that the viral campaign was "a way of us starting to tell a story, starting to create the world, while in the meantime we waited for people to give us the money. We were determined not be to be stopped from getting that. You have to make sure nobody stops you. That's the key to making a film."
Yuri Gadyukin may well survive the deletion of his Wikipedia and IMDB biographies—the film project is still on.
Churnalism: The arstechnica website reported on a new plagiarism detection tool on 24 April that enables users to check whether media stories have been copied from press releases—or from Wikipedia.
Wikidata a huge step: An article published on ghacks.net on 26 April noted that all Wikipedias can now make use of Wikidata in their articles.
Photo donation to Wikipedia now easier than ever: An article on Ubergizmo.com released on 29 April announced a new app released by Wikimedia Commons for iOS and Android devices that makes it easier to upload photos from a mobile device. Using the app, one can tag, title, and upload images through their account, which must be registered in advance. The app is available from the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store.
Wikipedia "Echo" making Wikipedia more social: On 30 April, The Daily Dotreported on the introduction of Wikipedia's new notification system, "Echo": a small box displayed near your user ID at the top of your Wikipedia window that notifies you when you have new messages or other activity on Wikipedia.
Jimmy Wales in the news: Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, has been prominently featured in BBC News this week for his statement that "boring" university lectures should be a footnote in history. As stated by the BBC, thanks in part to Wales' experience as a university student, he believes that "the traditional university lecture should have been condemned decades ago and replaced with an online video recording that can be stopped and started."