Thursday, 18 August 2011

The gender of Wikipedia

Over the last 10 years Wikipedia has made phenomenal progress with more than 3.5 million articles in English, wikis in over 250 different languages and a ranking 7th place for the worlds most popular website.

Despite this progress, Wikipedia has suffered from inequalities prevalent in our offline communities, which has been reflected in the types of editors and articles that construct the online encyclopaedia.
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipeida, announced at the annual Wikimania conference held in Haifa earlier this month that Wikipedia was suffering from a severe lack of female contribution.

According to a study conducted by Wikipedia, 90% of Wikipedians (those who create and/or edit articles) are male. Wales announced at the conference that the average Wikipedian is a 26-year-old geeky male with a PhD.

The methodology behind this study has not yet been made publicly available. According to Internet guru Clay Shirky it is near impossible to identify an ‘average Wikipedian’ or draw any significant conclusions about the types of people who contribute to Wikipedia, as many contributors are only identifiable by IP addresses and types of editing vary so enormously, even for registered users it is difficult to determine any commonalities.

In an interview with The Independent, Wales talked about the impact the gender imbalance of Wikipedians has on the site: ‘At the moment we are relatively poor in a few areas; for example biographies of famous women throughout history and issues surrounding early childcare.

This statement in itself is questionable and reflects a greater stereotype of the areas of interest and achievement common to each of the sexes. As Wikipedia is comprehensive in its articles from the fields of science and technology, traditionally male dominated disciplines, do we then draw the conclusion that these articles have been constructed by male Wikipedians? Is there a danger of Wikipedia fostering and enhancing the segregation of traditional gender specific subjects?

In an attempt to attract more women to edit articles, Wikipedia has introduced a new function called Wiki-love that aims to create ‘a general spirit of collegiality and mutual understanding among wiki users. But why are such measures needed? In an online space that is open to all and allows contributors to remain anonymous or take on an alias, why are we seeing such a great gender imbalance?

A recent blog post by Guardian journalist Jemima Kiss suggests that the cause of this is the ego wars that take place between long standing dedicated Wikipedians. A key motivation for contribution to any type of wiki platform is recognition, as such those from the inner sanctum of Wikipedia editing have worked very hard to create their profile and secure a high status.

This has lead in many cases to competition, with frequent editing disputes showing the competitive and almost aggressive nature of many of the core contributors. Based on this, Ms Kiss speculates that it could be that the belligerent nature the community that is deterring women from participating.

Please comment below and share your thoughts. Is Jimmy Wales in danger of perpetuating gender specific disciplines by suggesting that the cause of certain articles being thorough or lacking information is based on the gender of Wikipedia editors?

Philippa Lysaght

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