Monday, February 07, 2011

Women and Wikipedia

I've some thoughts on the ongoing discussion of the underrepresentation of women in Wikipedia's contributor community. Doing a depth-first traversal let's start with Justin Cassell, who suggests that Wikipedia's vigorous culture of debate is partly responsible for the relative paucity of female contributors:

However, it is still the case in American society that debate, contention, and vigorous defense of one’s position is often still seen as a male stance, and women’s use of these speech styles can call forth negative evaluations. Women may be negatively judged for speaking their mind in clear ways and defending their position. A woman who wishes to collaboratively construct knowledge and share it with others might not choose to do so as part of a forum where engaging in debate and deleting others’ words is key.

Cassell's fundamental argument, that debate is a "masculine" trait, seems unarguable. But if that is indeed the underlying reason there are few female contributors it makes the topic as a whole somewhat less interesting; the gender imbalance at Wikipedia ceases to be a Wikipedia-specific phenomenon (and thus worthy of a "Room For Debate" forum) and becomes instead a symptom of more general social conditions. However, I'm not entirely convinced by Cassell's argument since Wikipedia users need not reveal their sex/gender1. Women who wish to speak their mind may decline to provide this information (or pretend to be men), thus avoiding censure. What would be really useful is a breakdown by gender of the "reasons for not contributing" table on p. 10 of the summary of the inciting survey, since that would speak directly to the reasons that women aren't contributing to Wikipedia.

Jumping up one level, Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to Cassell as follows:

It seems to me that is not just a Wikipedia problem, but a societal problem likely extending out from families and schools. Defending your words strikes me as a really good thing. Dissuading women from doing that strikes me as just the opposite.

Again, if you think Cassell's thesis is correct then characterizing this as a "Wikipedia problem" misses the point. As Mr. Coates seems to recognize, Wikipedia is effectively inheriting this problem from the greater social context in which it is embedded. It follows from there that, providing Cassell is correct, the best way to resolve the issue is to fix society as a whole; focusing on Wikipedia is putting the cart before the horse. Also, I find it hard to swallow Mr. Coates' idea that trolling is a contributing factor:

That said, I'm not convinced that there's nothing that can be done. For whatever reason, I think Internet sites that allow trolling and aimless idiocy to run roughshod have a disproportionate effect on women. (Terri Oda hints at exactly that here.) I don't know if that's because trolls and idiots are more likely to say something sexist or what. But I don't think the problem is aggressive argumentation, so much as its weak people saying these behind a cloak of anonymity which they'd never say publicly.

In World of Warcraft, I almost never talk in the public channels as they seem to be a haven for racists. When Matt was here, and before I was actually blogging, I was often tempted to comment. But it seemed that whenever a social science post came through, no matter how well written, in comments, it eventually came down to black people having smaller brains. Or some such. Enforcing strong standards in comments is a kind of general value that, I think, has specific impact on women and others.

Mr. Coates, I do not think that word means what you think it means. The discussion on Wikipedia's talk pages are about as far from what you find in the public WoW channels as you can get. I mean, really... take a look at the talk page for "Feminism"; the participants may disagree, but they're engaging in long-form discussion while avoiding ad homonym attacks. That looks like neither "trolling" nor "aimless idiocy" to me; if anything Wikipedia's talk pages are frequently accused of being overly bureaucratic.

Which brings me, finally, to Amanda's response to Ta-Nehisi:

And that’s exactly it; even the idea of going on to Wikipedia and trying to edit stuff and getting into fights with dudes makes me too weary to even think about it. I spend enough of my life dealing with pompous men who didn’t get the memo that their penises don’t automatically make them smarter or more mature than any random woman. I don’t even have to go onto Wikipedia to tell you that it’s probably like that, on steroids, since, as Justine Cassell notes, on Wikipedia you can actually delete people’s actual words.

Yea verily... who wants to spend their time with that? Note, however, that Amanda doesn't cite anything like "fear of censure" or a desire to avoid vigorous debate, which blows a big whole in Cassell's argument. Rather, she just doesn't want deal with the bullshit of having her edits constantly reverted because it takes all the fun out of contributing. I'd argue that what she (and other women) are experiencing is not an expression of misogyny per se2, but rather is a function of the entrenched user base defending their position against new users. New and occasional contributors of all stripes frequently have their edits reverted3:

Though the English Wikipedia reached three million articles in August 2009, the growth of the edition, in terms of the numbers of articles and of contributors, appeared to have flattened off around early 2007.[36] In 2006, about 1,800 articles were added daily to the encyclopedia; by 2010 that average was roughly 1,000.[37] A team at the Palo Alto Research Center speculated that this is due to the increasing exclusiveness of the project.[38] New or occasional editors have significantly higher rates of their edits reverted (removed) than an elite group of regular editors, colloquially known as the "cabal." This could make it more difficult for the project to recruit and retain new contributors, over the long term resulting in stagnation in article creation.

Given all of the above my overall take is Cassell's explanation is simplistic at best and flat-out wrong at worse; there's no direct evidence that women are being scared off by the need to express their opinion. Nor is there much evidence in support of the proposition, advanced by Ta-Nehisi and Amanda, that trolling is keeping women away, since the Wikipedia talk pages are, if anything, civil to the point of ossification. If any single cause is predominant its likely to be something along the lines of what Amanda expressed, namely frustration over bureaucratic edit wars. And that, in turn, is less about misogyny and more about insiders manning the ramparts against newcomers. Which is an important result because Wikipedia process is only Wikipedia's problem; its independent of the greater social context and, as such, is amenable to remediation by Wikipedia itself.


1 Actually, users needn't register at all, which complicates the exercise of gathering user demographic information. The survey overview doesn't provide information on the actual survey methodology, so there's no basis by which to gauge whether the survey accurately captures the demographics of the community. Given the difficulty of reliably identifying contributors I'd take the "15%" with a grain of salt.
2 Though if y'all have evidence to the contrary please feel free to share.
3 This assertion is empirically testable; we can simply ask whether the reversion rate for "new and occasional editors" is correlated with the editor's gender.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any woman identified as a woman who edits Wikipedia and dares to stumble into some territory some male or group of males has staked out will quickly find that the double standard lives and they will be criticized and their words twisted, even when men who say the same things are ignored or cut some slack. If they dare to persist in holding their ground or acting as equals in the conversation the criticism may escalate to insults and off and on wiki harassment. If a woman complains about a man's incivility in its various complaint forums, her complaints are not as likely to be taken as seriously as when men complain about other men or about the occasional woman who rocks their world with incivility equal to their own.

Female wikipedia editor for a few years now.

10:45 PM  
Blogger GG said...

Now we're getting somewhere. Questions which come to mind, in no particular order:

* Who are the people doing the staking out? Is there a consistent trend, or are they just random groups of males?

* What territory do they typically stake out?

* Can you point to some examples of harassment in talk pages (or other fora)?

* Do you think this is a major contributing factor to the gender imbalance at Wikipedia?

* Why do you self-identify as a woman when editing if you know it's going to subject you to this double-standard?

* Do you have any explanation for the other types of imbalance that Cassell notes i.e. relative length of "female-oriented" vs. "male-oriented" articles?

Apologies if any of these sound inadvertently accusatory; that's not my intention.

10:24 AM  

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