Business, Op-ed - Written Friday, September 11, 2009 by Mike Dover - 3 Comments
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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