Women's history Wikipedia edit-a-thon at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, 2013
This editorial originally published on October 21, 2015 by the then-editor-in-chief Gamaliel almost looks as if it was written last week. Perhaps the situation for women on Wikipedia has slightly improved in the last four years. Perhaps nothing has changed at all. - S
The talk in many corners of Wikipedia this week has been Emma Paling’s article "Wikipedia's Hostility to Women" in The Atlantic. The article, which we cover in detail in this week's "In the media", discusses the major issues involving women and the encyclopedia, including systemic bias in Wikipedia's coverage, the gender gap among contributors, and this summer's Arbitration case, which ended in a site ban for Lightbreather. Most of these goings-on will be familiar to readers; ITM contains a number of links to previous Signpost coverage for those who are not.
A number of Wikipedians have dismissed this article due to several small errors of fact that have since been corrected, including mention of the article about Nellie Brown instead of Clara H. Hasse, and the misidentifying of one user as an administrator. Other editors noted that the Lightbreather case was primarily about her behavior on articles related to gun control, a topic not mentioned by The Atlantic, and have written that her behavior justified the ban. To them, these temporary inaccuracies make the rest of the coverage of Wikipedia suspect. To the outside world, these are minor details. Sorry, nobody cares which of us is an administrator here and which of us is not. Non-editors may even agree that Lightbreather's behavior was inappropriate and she should have been banned. What they will never understand—when they see directed at her the sentence "The easiest way to avoid being called a cunt is not to act like one", a sentence that remarkably remains un-redacted and un-oversighted to this day—is why she was banned and the person who said this to her was not.
Of course, Paling’s argument remains devastating: calling a woman a cunt is permissible, but that woman’s feisty editing was intolerable, even after taking into account vicious and unremitting sexual harassment. Indeed, ArbCom initially urged future culprits faced with harassment to lower their profile—an invidious recommendation that was reluctantly amended after community outcry.
In the big picture, petty procedural details have no impact outside Wikipedia, while Wikipedia's continuing embrace of harassment and protection of harassers remains the key story for the world outside the project’s back rooms.
This is clear as day to everyone who is not on Wikipedia. In any sane institution or workplace, this behavior would be unacceptable, and Wikipedia seems to be one of the few places left that doesn't understand that. Here, the mansplaining brigade comes to tell women that the harassment directed at women is all just in their heads, or that men have it just as hard as women online. In the face of all the evidence and all the accounts of harassment offered, they persist, as if out of some deep-seated psychological need to minimize the harassment of women. Or perhaps they like it that way; perhaps they prefer a swaggering atmosphere of faux-intellectual machismo, and they think it's their due as macho content creators to drive their enemies before them and hear the lamentation of women editors.
Wikipedia cannot simultaneously claim to be at the vanguard of technological and informational change while clinging to a Mad Men-era attitude towards the treatment of women. The world is changing. Case in point is the recent controversy regarding Geoffrey Marcy. He spent an entire career allegedly engaging in sexual harassment and other victimizing behaviors while a whole host of others enabled and protected him because he was or was becoming a prominent scientific content creator. The world will no longer stand for this behavior. If a male scientist at the top of his field who was frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender is out of a job, do you think the world is going to accept similar behavior from amateur online encyclopedia article writers?
The denizens of the 15-year-old Wikipedia may smugly dismiss the findings of the 158-year-old Atlantic, but the rest of the world isn't seeing it that way. Rhododendrites posted on Twitter that "It's goddamn embarrassing that problems faced by women on Wikipedia have persisted so long that it's now a mainstream media narrative." Even my own mother, whose interest in internet drama seldom ventures beyond Candy Crush, is posting articles on Facebook about how Wikipedia is struggling with issues involving women. We may have successfully rebutted the media narrative about Wikipedia's instability and unreliability with years of hard work and improvements to the encyclopedia, but all of that work may come undone if this persists as the new media narrative.
Here's a hard truth for you: If you don't clean up this mess, the adults are going to come and take your toys away from you. The money could dry up: donations could drop, grants could disappear, academic research involving Wikipedia could vanish. Already, scholars of video games and digital media are reporting difficulties finding funding and academic support in the wake of the internet hate mobs of Gamergate. The same thing could happen to Wikipedia.
You may think of Wikipedia as some kind of libertarian techno-utopia that is immune to outside forces, but Wikipedia exists only because the world allows it to exist. It is supported by funding and donations, by academic research, and by its prominence in Google search results. At WikiConference USA two weeks ago, Andrew Lih asked "Where will Wikipedia be in another 15 years?" and warned that we could easily go the way of any number of other failed web projects. Its failure to deal with misogynistic harassment and systemic bias issues could be a contributor to its collapse. Something dramatic could happen, like Richard Branson putting Jimmy Wales in charge of a new billion-dollar web encyclopedia. More likely, it will go out not with a bang but with a whimper, slowly and incrementally, perhaps as the funding shrinks or Google drops the search engine prominence of what it perceives to be a misogynistic cesspool. Historians will look back on this as the turning point, and as old men (as we are, after all, mostly men) we will wonder whatever happened to that fun project where we used to spend so much of our time.
Maybe you don't care. A lot of us came here from other web projects and might disperse into new projects if Wikipedia fails. But if you do care, you will only have to do one thing: get out of the way. Stop interrupting every conversation about these issues by attempting to minimize them with your mansplaining. Stop disrupting every attempt to enforce the few rules that we do have and harassing the people attempting to enforce them. Stop objecting to every attempt to build new policies and structures to grapple with these problems. If you are in a position of community trust, such as an administrator, functionary, or arbitrator, resign.
If you do this, we'll fix the problem for you and preserve your sandbox for as long as you want to play in it. You will find to your surprise that little will change for you on Wikipedia. You will have to do a lot less mansplaining and be a lot less belligerent, but you'll still be able to work on encyclopedia content otherwise unmolested. No matter how good you think your content creation and other contributions are, if you’re unable to cope emotionally with diversity, you put at risk the survival of your work beyond the short term.