Systemic Bias of Wikipedia

I have had access to the internet since I was 11, and I always ignored Wikipedia. I considered it to be a bit of a nuisance, having to scroll down further down the page to get real information. My English teachers’ voices were in the back of my mind; “don’t cite Wikipedia in your thesis papers because it is an unreliable source.” It wasn’t until I read an unsettling statistic from the Wikimedia foundation, 90% of Wikipedia editors are men, that I decided to contribute. I donated $15 the next day, made an account, and made my first edit. I added a sentence to the actress Zoe Kazan’s page regarding her role in the 2017 film The Big Sick. When I refreshed the page, I felt a surge of empowerment. There were my words, published on the Internet for anyone to read.

Wikipedia is a wonder of the free web. With the Internet creating a breeding ground for fame and individualism to become a new form of currency, Wikipedia’s unique feature of anonymity and founder Jimmy Wales belief in “anticredentialism” is a diamond in the rough. Virtually anyone can edit Wikipedia regardless of nationality, educational background, or experience. All you need is Internet access and the ability to contribute to a wealth of knowledge is at your fingertips.

Despite Wikipedia’s egalitarian premise, the demographics of its editors are skewed.  Relatively equal percentages of women and men use the Internet, yet 90% of Wikipedia editors are men. According to a 2011 study from the University of Minnesota, articles women wrote were on average, significantly shorter than those men wrote. Two National Science Foundation Studies examine this imbalance. Perhaps it exists because men were, and still are, dominating the STEM field and were therefore more likely to edit Wikipedia in the early 2000’s when the Internet wasn’t as easily accessible. Secondary sources, which have historically been created by white, educated men, are the backbone of Wikipedia. For these reasons and just the simple fact that Wikipedia is a reflection of our patriarchal culture, Wikipedia is far from the egalitarian haven it is intended to be. Articles about video games and science fiction films are comprehensive and thorough, but articles about prominent female intellectuals and African cultures are lacking. It’s not that the information male editors provide is wrong, it just falls into categories that interest primarily men, while other important topics fall behind.

Whether or not you seek out Wikipedia articles to read, they are an integral part of the Internet experience. Wikipedia articles are at the top of most Google search results because Google uses an algorithm in which pages that are linked to many other sites appear higher than pages that are less referenced. Online services like Siri also rely on Wikipedia. When you ask Siri a question, she often delivers a snippet of information from Wikipedia, reading it as if it were a fact from a traditional encyclopedia. If you are googling porn stars and video games, chances are you can get a good overview of your inquiry from a Wikipedia article. If you are googling influential LGBT figures or indigenous cultures, you will probably have to read many different pages to get an in depth understanding of your inquiry. This is a major problem. Wikipedia is the catchall of our collective knowledge, and while there is plenty of information about topics that traditionally don’t interest men, it is not being curated on Wikipedia.

Feminist Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at the Museum of the City of New York

The Wikipedia demographics need to change; it is imperative to the impartiality of the free web. Some organizations and universities are hosting edit-a-thons to combat Wikipedia’s systemic bias, like the Museum of the City of New York hosting editors to contribute to pages on female activists. These events are helping to change the demographics, but Wikipedia is a democracy fueled by the people who read it, and therefore only the people can change it.  We need women, people of color, and non-westerners editing articles that interest them. We need articles about sub-saharan Africa to be just as fruitful as those about The Avengers. We need diverse voices to stitch the beautiful fabric of our cumulated knowledge. White men have been the sole editors of history for far too long. Make an account. Make your first edit. Use your voice.

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