Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wikipedia is sexist.

Amusing: An artist named David Horvitz has been photobombing Wikipedia:
From December 2010 to January 2011, Brooklyn-based artist David Horvitz drove up the West Coast from Mexico to Oregon, stopping to take pictures of himself staring off into various vistas as a part of his latest project, Public Access. Horvitz took each of his images — a collection of pensively photobombed beaches, bridges, lighthouses, and creeks — and uploaded them to their proper Wikipedia pages, adding to and sometimes replacing the images already there.
I love the comments from Wikipedia's stalwart and finicky editors: "Crap photo of dubious sourcing" ... "another sockpuppet inserting poor images" ... "I’ve been replacing these with cropped versions where it’s possible to crop them and still have a useful image, and removing the others, because we don’t need to be supporting this .. .whatever it is" ... "Actually, it can be very good to have a person in these kinds of images, in order to show the scale of the features. In these cases, I don’t think we should care who that person is" ...

Wikipedia has been on my mind lately, after hearing the statistic passed around a week or so ago that something like 87% of Wikipedia contributors/editors are male. This didn't surprise me in the least, and initially made no impression on me whatsoever. A few days later the obvious consequences of this dawned on me: Wikipedia is sexist. Of course this affects the content. Of course this bias trickles down and bleeds into the articles in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I wouldn't want to read a magazine if only 1 out of 10 of its editors/contributors were women. Especially if the whole point of the magazine was to present objective, unbiased information in an encyclopedic fashion.

Maybe I'll boycott Wikipedia.

UPDATE: While I'm editing my misuse of "effect" (sigh), I'll pull up a clarification I made in the comments. The title is intentionally provocative, and echoes a line I recently read in a satirical novel about the NYC literary scene in the '70s: "Technique is racist." To be clear, I'm not accusing any particular person or particular group of people of sexism, I'm saying that the entity/system itself fosters sexism (gender bias, if you prefer).


  1. Thank you for this!

    I have very mixed feelings about Wikipedia. On the positive side, you can just pop a few keywords into the search engine and *POOF* there is the info required (with citations if you are lucky). Wikipedia is great for putting a quick end to those "is so-and-so famous person alive or dead?" debates - very useful when the more argumentative person will not shut up about it.

    On the flip side, the fact that Wikipedia has become an acceptable academic(!) reference source when hundreds of sour-grapes tweens can log in and post insulting, racist nonsense on a Grammy winner's bio page makes me think people want information that fits their perspective, not facts.

    But I am biased. I love libraries and have held various positions in public and government libraries for years. I've heard may people opine that Wikipedia (and the "internet" in general) will make libraries redundant. I believe it makes libraries more important than ever.

    Another good thing about libraries? There are women, lots of women working in them, women that will give you facts from reliable sources.

  2. I know, that's the thing -- Wikipedia is ubiquitous and so easy to use, that "everyone does it." I "check facts" on Wikipedia all the time.

    I love the idea behind it -- a living resource, a free, encyclopedic index of everything available at your fingertips. But the current system has serious flaws that most people ignore.

    I bet 87% of people I know haven't stepped in a library in a year or more!

  3. Isn't it men who should boycott it? :)

  4. I meant boycott using it as a resource, not editing articles (which I've never done).

  5. Wikipedia is not sexist, it's a reflection. Unlike the sexism uncovered in the publishing world, anyone can post an article on Wikipedia. Gender isn't even asked of the poster. I wonder, though, if the tendency to want to post articles to Wikipedia isn't a (stereotypically?) characteristic male quality; the need to quantify, explain, collect -- John Cusack in High Fidelity in a nutshell.

    BTW, word verification = dismsoc

  6. I'm not saying that some power isn't allowing women to edit the content, and therefore women are being excluded from the process. I'm saying that the content itself MUST be biased, because it's written and edited primarily by men. Even if the bias is unconscious, it's there.

  7. I think I read a few years ago on Barbara Jane Reyes blog that her Wikipedia entry was removed (at least once, if not more) for the reason that she wasn't deemed a "serious" poet by the Wiki contributors and standards. This was at the time when she had 2 books, both published by reputable presses and after she won the James Laughlin prize. If I'm remembering correctly, her husband, Oscar Bermeo kept putting it back up until finally stayed.

    I remember Jessica Smith's wiki article removed for similar reasons, yet there were numerous male poets with similar publications/achievements (or in some cases much less) that never went through this scrutiny.

  8. Reb: EXACTLY. I envision the same kind of thing happening in every discipline.

  9. Wikipedia's a pretty good microcosm of the internet as a whole. Ever been to Reddit? I've been a member for years but I can't stomach the misogyny that they giggle at like 12 year olds- oh wait...they are 12 year olds. Same with Wikipedia.

  10. Oh yeah Reddit has gotta be like 95%+ male.

  11. I'm fascinated and surprised by this statistic. Given Dan's comment and your response, Elisa, I'm inclined to say that I think you've got it right in your post when you refer to the "bias" that "trickles down and bleeds into the articles..."

    I'm not so sure that "sexist" is the right word simply because it carries with it connotations of intent: "1. Pertaining to, involving, or fostering sexism; 2. a person with sexist attitudes or behavior"

    Basically, I think I would want to agree with you, and yet nuance the idea of "sexism" by leaning more towards bias.

    I guess you could say that, ultimately, the content itself does foster sexism, but I'm not sure, given the lack of restrictions on who can post to Wikipedia, that it's right to refer to Wikipedia itself as a sexist enterprise.

    I'm more interested in what about Wikipedia and/or its posts that rendered the statistic unsurprising! I have never thought of this, and perhaps my lack of surprise reveals something about my own gendered awareness...

    btw-word verification: kedne

  12. Hi Matt,

    The title is intentionally provocative. (I keep thinking about a passage in a novella I recently read, called Lucinella, which is a satire of literary culture. There's a conference of sorts at which Lucinella is "the woman poet" and another writer is "the black poet." During one panel "the black poet" utters the phrase, "Technique is racist." Which I find hilarious.)

    I do think the system/entity that is Wikipedia "involves" and "fosters" sexism, wherein sexism is defined as "prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women" (via Merriam Webster). This "prejudice" needn't be intentional/conscious, though it often is.

    So to clarify I think the system fosters sexism, and therefore the content is inherently biased.

    The reason I'm not surprised is because I've seen the way Wikipedia pages function in process, and it mimics the way other mostly-male web cultures function.

  13. I guess it's worth asking how far this affects the reliability of content; virtually everything I look up on Wikipedia is dully factual, and, e.g., no one in their right mind would trust a Wikipedia article on controversial, troll-attracting issues like abortion. I agree that the Wikipedia talk pages are a little like reddit, and that leads to a slant sometimes, but it's hard to see how one can fix this sort of thing; it isn't like people-in-general _want_ to write Wikipedia articles, the enterprise only seems to appeal to a certain demographic that happens to be mostly male, and reflects their perspective... it isn't clear to me that _other_ mostly male perspectives, like the jock perspective, are terribly well represented on Wikipedia either.

  14. Hi Sarang,

    I don't really have any desire to try to "fix" Wikipedia or Reddit etc. ... I agree that the system only appeals to certain demographics. I just have much less desire to use it since having this realization. And I'm a little put out about how accepted it is as a source. For example I can see someone citing the fact that so and so "doesn't even have a Wikipedia page" as indicative of their importance to a field.

  15. Elisa -

    Pretty much all written history is wildly sexist and racist, and has been passed down from sexists racists to a younger generation of sexist racists, and I think it'll be a long process undoing this.

    However, when my Mom asks me if I can guess who the shortest president was, I go to Wikipedia so it seems credible that I already knew.

    I don't believe a purely unbiased history or fact exists. Possibly science can reveal empirical fact (like mathematics for example), but the rest is and always will be interpretation. Everyone tells a story a different way. The most practical way to fix it would be getting as many women as possible to author entries and include information that would be otherwise excluded.

  16. Hi Pepe, Yep, I agree, there's no way to completely escape bias, though I'm all for trying to reduce it. And gender/racial/other bias is "grandfathered" into much of history.

    I agree it would help if women wrote for Wikipedia, but I'm not sure it's actually a "practical" solution. As noted above in the comments, it's not like they're being locked out so much as that women are just less interested in getting involved. So I think it would take some serious strategizing to even the numbers.

  17. You might find the discussions at the Wikimedia Foundation Gender Gap list of interest:


  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Congratulations, Elisa -- now you have a 24/7 job, watching your Wikipedia biography for defamation. It's already in "condescending" mode.


    If you're interested in just who wrote up a Wikipedia biography about you, just hours after you were critical of Wikipedia, make sure you check the Colorado state supreme court for an opinion on that author.

  20. Elisa,

    Returning to the topic at the head of the page, and speaking on behalf of the entire male moiety, I feel a need to clear up a couple of points.

    Wikipediot Culture is not male culture, it is not even boy culture — it is obnoxious punk culture. It is simply a sad but perhaps hormonally conditioned fact that adolescent males are over-represented in obnoxious punk culture.

    As a result, it is not just the larger share of women who find themselves alienated by Wikipediot Culture — pretty much anyone but obnoxious punks will eventually become alienated by it.

  21. Jon, perhaps true, though the average drive-by Wikipedia user doesn't really get exposed to the culture behind it, right? My impression is that most people think Wikipedia is essentially a good and a legit thing (if not always accurate). (I always gave it the benefit of the doubt.)

    I agree with you that it's not "male culture" period but a culture that happens to be mostly male, and the gender bias is just one of its distinguishing features.

  22. Elisa,

    It looks like commenting is broken. I got the email copy of my midnight post but don't see it on the page yet. Consider this a test, and I'll try again later.

  23. Jon, I saw that. Here is the comment you tried to post (and here's the link which may have tripped some filter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Elisa_Gabbert):

    Reader Advisory : Acronyms Ahead !

    Update on the Biography of Living Persons (BLP) issue:

    Someone was nice enough to initiate an Article for Deletion (AfD) proceeding on your BLP. Folks who know this routine can tell you that it's best to sit quietly in the docks the first time around — there be wiki-piranhas out there, and you don't want them scenting fresh blood. If sanity prevails — it usually doesn't — they will decide your life and reputation are not worth messing up, and you'll be able to sleep at night and get some actual creative work done. So that's enough about that for now.

  24. I had already seen this and yes, it looks like it will be deleted.

  25. Back to the topic …

    Right, the casual reader of the megablog we know as Wikipedia is likely to remain oblivious to its organizational culture — the character and the conduct of the people who produce its contents.

    More careful observers, however, and anyone who finds that peculiar culture touching on matters of personal and professional concern, will find plenty of things to think about when first they peer beneath the veneer of its facile contents.

  26. I agree it is sexist. Any male chauvinist theories are expounded in detail, apparently authored 2000 years ago, but the footnote implies a source written in the 60's. Where women were absent from competitions, their abence is noted as such, when in reality they were excluded, eg Thaden 1934. Female scientists have a paragraph on their physical features, eg whether they had good teeth which is absent in the male write-up. Female mathematicians, eg Ada Lovelace, are allowed to be discredited as mad and depressive even though there is no evidence, new or old, to support this. I have since deleted some of the sexist commentary, recommend you do the same. Sad that this is 2012 and males still feel they have to put women down to make them feel like men

    1. Thank you for commenting, and I'm sorry your comment was stuck in moderation for a couple of days. I appreciate your examples and bet there are many more such cases.