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December 20-26, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Wikipedia vs. Women

By Annalee Newitz

TWO YEARS AGO, tech entrepreneur Joi Ito was spending a lot of time with the managers and editors of the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, and he noticed that there were far more women wikipedians than women bloggers. In late 2004, Ito wrote in his blog:

"Wikipedia seems much more gender balanced than the blogging community. ... I wonder what causes this difference in gender distribution? Is it that the power-law aspect of blogs is inherently more competitive and appeals to the way men are 'trained' in society? Or is it that we're just talking to the 'head' of the blog curve and that the more interesting blogs are actually by women in 'the long tail'? Or is it something about Wikipedia that attracts powerful women?"

He received a handful of comments, almost entirely from men, which all boiled down to "I don't know" or "Maybe women are just more collaborative." As far as I know, Ito never got any good answers to his questions.

But last month, a group of women finally provided an unexpected rejoinder to Ito's long-ago musings. Dozens of long-term contributors to Wikipedia formed the "WikiChix," a group modeled after the female-dominated Linux Chix.

The members of WikiChix, which of course has a wiki (, say they are sick of how male-dominated Wikipedia has become. Some say they are intimidated by nasty comments and sexist insults on Wikipedia mailing lists, and others argue that topics of interest to women on Wikipedia are too often ignored or edited out of existence.

One example of this problem, which isn't explicitly discussed on WikiChix, is the "feminist science fiction" entry on Wikipedia. All wikis like Wikipedia are websites that can be modified by people browsing them. Contributors create an account, hit an "edit" button on any page and then add their own information.

Certain entries, however, get ensnared in "revision wars"—battles between editors who keep changing information back and forth to reflect what they consider true. "Feminist science fiction" was one such entry. Although this is a legitimate genre of science fiction, and many famous SF writers like Ursula LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson consider all or part of their work to be feminist, the entry was subject to such an intense revision war that at last administrators determined that it should be removed and replaced with "women in science fiction" in 2002.

Obviously, "women in science fiction" is hardly the same thing as feminist science fiction, in the same way an entry on "operating systems" could hardly be said to replace an entry on "Linux." It wasn't until June of this year that the category "feminist science fiction" was created again, after a great deal of agitation.

As I said, this particular entry wasn't cited specifically by the WikiChix as their reason for creating the group. But many issues like this one led this group to form a women-only wiki to discuss Wikipedia and wiki management more generally. The question this move raises is as old as feminism itself. Is it better for women to segregate themselves or stay in the male-dominated realm of Wikipedia and fight to be given an equal voice? In the WikiChix FAQ, the group writes to men who don't like the idea of separatism:

"Instead of feeling excluded, try to see [WikiChix] as an opportunity to hear a conversation you would not hear otherwise. If men are not talking, what women say to each other becomes a different conversation. When we as women can stop defending ourselves and explaining that bias, sexism, or patriarchy exist, then we can move further in discussion and support of each other."

Is it really separatism if these women are posting in a public forum? I think not. They've simply created a public forum where all the speakers are women. I've been in so many online communities where all the speakers were men that I think this could be an interesting social experiment—if men bother to visit the wiki and find out what women talk about when men don't talk.

More than that, though, I want to know what happened between 2004 and 2006 that turned Wikipedia from a gender-balanced place to a gender-unequal one. Glancing at the gender distribution of contributors who list themselves on Wikipedia, it looks like the ratio is nearly equal (as of this writing, there are 77 women and 80 men). That only captures the people who bother to list their names and genders, however. Still, I want to know. Did something change? Or was it just that there were problems all along and the only change is that women are finally speaking out about them?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who thanks Laura Quilter for fighting to keep feminist science fiction in the Wikipedia.

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