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Business, Op-ed - Written by on Friday, September 11, 2009 7:31 - 3 Comments

Wikipedia…does tenacity matter more than insight?

Like most social media communities, most people are users of Wikipedia rather than contributors. Although it is the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” most people don’t. I can speak from experience that it is not always that people are too lazy, disengaged or intimidated to participate. If you are not an “insider” or a frequent poster it is hard to make your edits stick.

An excellent study conducted recently by the Wikimedia Foundation and UNU-Merit identified some interesting facts including that only 13% of the respondents were female Wikipedia contributors (meaning that they actually posted content). Speculation on the implications of this fact appeared throughout the blogosphere including this article by Ryan Tate which includes this passage:

MIT instructor and alumni Philip Greenspun has floated a theory as to why women are underrepresented in high-end scientific professions: Science is generally a terrible career choice, but it contains a dysfunctional status hierarchy that tends to appeal the male egos.

“A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Child Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job? …Young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group. [Yet] men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”…

So it is with Wikipedia. Why invest your free time wrangling with a politicized Wikipedia bureaucracy of infighting editors and bitter story subjects, all for the honor of creating a free resource for other people and paying out of your own pocket to go to high-level meetings for the Wikimedia elite? If you’re a man, for the honor of being near the “top” of something, no matter how fruitless.

To Greenspun’s point, there is a lot of work involved in contributing to Wikipedia. Not so much in actually making the edits, but in defending the changes against people with generally a lot more time to engage in an edit war. In essence, being right isn’t enough if you don’t want to put a lot of effort into convincing people that you are right.

From my personal example (the fact that the topic seems to be banal proves the point), I made an edit on the Frasier page a couple of years ago. It was in regards to a reference that John Mahoney who plays Martin Crane, like many of his colleagues previously appeared on Cheers. No surprise here, of course, the former was a spinoff of the latter and they shared not only the title character but also the same producers. Mahoney’s role on Cheers was a washed-up ad man hired by Rebecca Howe (who had a budget of $50) to write a jingle for the bar. He ended up playing the piano while he sang the jingle “Beer and Pretzels that’s our game…” Because of this someone had described him the character as a pianist. I changed the entry to describe him as an “ad man” because while pianist was correct, it wasn’t completely accurate (the post could have said he played a vertebrate which was equally true). In any case, an edit war occurred and I eventually lost interest. By the way, I checked before I wrote this post and (no thanks to me) the entry now reads the way it should…

Some cast members of Frasier appeared previously in minor roles on Cheers. John Mahoney, who played Martin Crane, appeared in an episode of Cheers, as Si Phlembeck, an over-the-hill advertising executive hired by Rebecca to write a jingle for the bar. In it, Grammer and Mahoney exchanged a few lines.

That episode ended up being incredibly valuable for Mahoney as it certainly led to his casting on Frasier and the ensuing vast riches. There is an interesting story behind how he got the role described here by the writer of the episode. I’d edit the Wikipedia entry to reflect the cool info, but once bitten, twice shy my friend.



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Closer To The Ideal » Blog Archive » Women constitute only 13% of Wikipedia’s contributors
Sep 13, 2009 13:23

[...] Mike Dover links to a study that says only 13% of Wikipedia’s contributors are female. Dover then quotes Phillip Greenspun offering a theory about why: “A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Child Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job? …Young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group. [Yet] men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”… [...]

Wikicronyism
Jan 7, 2010 17:30

This is a very late comment – sadly I missed the active discussion of gender on Wikipedia. I’ve been wanting to say something on the topic for a long time, and I hope you don’t mind if I put it here.

First, I totally agree that women are repelled by the time commitment required by edit wars. I would like to see this issue explored in further depth. First of all, Wikipedia provides abundant tools for tracking other users. Therefore if you get into a conflict over some edit, your opponent can easily “escalate” the matter by tracking every edit you’ve ever made and conducting the war on a thousand fronts. For instance, I objected to the use of a corporate logo as advertising, and then found every image I’ve ever added deleted – not because they violated copyright, but for vague reasons about pictures suggesting some “value”.

Wikipedia has a billion obscure rules. If some guy wants to harass you, they always have a rule to invoke, and often they bring a whole gang of their friends to bully you until you back down. They skirt the “no personal attacks” rule by using words with loaded spin. They often seem to have friends who are admins of some sort, who are willing to freeze the page after *their* last change. Or they use several friends to enforce their change, then ask that you be banned for repeated reversing. They end up looking like “responsible” editors because they spread out the attack among several people, while a lone defender looks like an article zealot. WIkipedia actively promotes these harassers.

For the same reason, it’s easy to bring offline disputes into Wikipedia. If your former boyfriend turns into a stalker, he can easily follow you all over Wikipedia: and his efforts to mess up all your work will affect innocent bystanders who see their work undone and don’t want to spend all their time watching their Wikipedia edits.

There is some Wikipedia principle to “assume good faith” in edit conflicts. Why assume good faith? From what I’ve seen, 99% of edit wars are entirely bad faith, attempting to use obscure or vague rules (like the NPOV tag) to badger their opponents into submission. The Powers That Be at Wikipedia seem to have no clue about the amount of bad faith going on, and there is nowhere for victims to appeal…except for tips about “wikistress”.

Another important issue discouraging women from participating in Wikipedia is the deployment of corporate employees and marketing experts. They are being paid for their time to monitor particular articles, and they carefully apprentice themselves to wiki-gurus to learn all the obscure rules so they can sound like an Authority when they are actually trying to bully someone away from their article.

The biggest problem is that the face of corporate America is white male interest, and the womens interest is usually consumer advocacy or corporate criticism. I’ve seen whole criticism sections easily wiped out because the Corporate Employee says a criticism section isn’t “Encyclopedic”. The Corporate Employee can quote mainstream media articles placed by their Public Relations Team. The critics can’t provide their own citations because they only have “blogs” which are “self-promotional.” Unless a consumer advocacy group is so big they can afford their own PR firm to place corporate-critical articles in the mainstream media, then only the corporation’s point of view gets heard in Wikipedia. And of course they get the added advertising benefit of putting their logo at the top of the page.

Recently I read that articles *about* women often get deleted on Wikipedia, whereas articles about men with a similar level of “importance” remain. The reason is the top blogs (run by white males) successfully monetized, and that gives them power in the PR/marketing world, which in turn drew the attention of mainstream media, which in turn created an incestuous cluster of cross-links, that in turn gave these white male mutual-linkers Technorati Authority, etc. The result is these guys have the power to create the impression of “importance”, and being quoted by a Power Blog leads to being quoted in mainstream media leads to being considered “important” in Wikipedia.

There are a lot of active women bloggers whose opinions are just as well-founded and important, perhaps more important because they didn’t sell out to the PR/monetizing world to enhance their claims to “followers”. They’ve already sacrificed money and status – why should their ideas be dismissed as “unimportant” by Wikipedia as well? Sadly, though, women are leading the way to their own exclusion: conventions like Blogher are picking and choosing the “good” woman bloggers (non-controversial, mommy-bloggers, “professional” topics, etc.). When is the last time you saw fringe ideas or corporate criticism on the RSS feed for Blogher? If women want to call different ideas “fringe” instead of “important” or “original”, why should Wikipedia do any different?

If anything, I bet the Wikipedia Study *over-stated* the participation of women because women are more likely to respond to surveys. The fact is Wikipedia is an environment for the oldest male professions: gang-forming, bullying, inflating their sense of self-importance, and harassing women. It’s articles reinforce male authority, and it’s editors wield male authority.

Women can only handle so many alternate universes hosting the same sexist games. Hopefully the paucity of women on Wikipedia means that most women are choosing to fight their battle in the real world first. However, as shown by the Blogher example, perhaps women need to stop playing on male terms first (re: meeting standards of “professionalism”, not making waves, not being “fringe”), and start claiming to have “important” ideas of their own.

Mike Dover
Jan 8, 2010 17:28

Thanks for the wonderfully thoughtful comment.

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