Learning pattern: feminists teaching with Wikipedia

I created a Wikimedia “learning pattern” on doing using Wikipedia’s gaps as feminist teaching tools. I’ll reshare it here:

Using Wikipedia’s gaps as feminist teaching tools

What problem does this solve?

University instructors who are not experienced Wikipedians may wish to engage with Wikipedia in their classrooms, but may not have the experience or time to do content editing assignments with their students. What are other ways that instructors, particularly feminist instructors, can teach with Wikipedia in a meaningful way?

What is the solution?

Instructors can marshal broader issues of concern around Wikipedia — examples include participation, harassment, and the neutrality principle — into classroom activities.

1. Participation

One option for university instructors is to discuss the contours of participation with students. Wikipedia is a volunteer project. Part of the appeal is that volunteers will be making the world a better place by sharing knowledge with others, working together to make a free, open, democratic internet-based encyclopedia “that anyone can edit” and “access.” This is often understood as a noble goal.

Yet the appeal of the encyclopedia rests on a number of assumptions — including that everyone has a computer and internet access, not to mention the time, skill, literacy, and resources to contribute freely. Instructors can wade into this discussion of digital divisions and ask students to question who the project might appeal to. What explicit and implicit requirements are there to volunteer? Students can list the necessary tools, skills, and interests necessary to make volunteering appealing, and the perceived unpaid rewards for such efforts. That certain social factors shape the “choice” to volunteer is evidenced with data on participation, particularly around the gaping “gender gap” in the project. The 2011 editors survey suggests that somewhere between 8.5 to 16.1 percent of English-language Wikipedians identify as women.[1] This gender gap, along with broader systemic bias, has resulted in a masculine participatory culture that can be confusing, and hostile, to outsiders, newcomers, and women (more on which is described in the next section). This gap also affects content, there are fewer biographies of women and African Americans, for example. Moreover, this gap has yet to be resolved in the four years since the survey was administered.[2] Further diversity initiatives such as the Inspire Campaign have since been launched by the Wikimedia Foundation, which is the umbrella organization that manages the servers and other operations of wiki-projects including Wikipedia, but does not manage editing or editors.

Instructors can also ask whether or not, and how, participating on Wikipedia differs from other social media platforms. Why is this significant? On one hand, Wikipedia is often heralded as an example of commons-based peer-production, an anomaly in a sea of for-profit social media companies.[3] But at the same time, José van Dijck (2013) questions the possibility of such a project being as successful as it is in a commercial internet industry. She draws attention to ideological alliances between volunteering for Wikipedia and the discourses of freedom and democracy underwriting for-profit media giants.[4] How is participation in the Wikipedia “movement” distinct from other forms of internet sociality. How is it not?

Raising questions about the contours of participation opens up space to discuss what it means when voices and perspectives are missing — a weighty question for a project that seeks to be “the sum of all human knowledge.”[5] Asymmetries in participation also raise questions about how to resolve the inequalities. What can be changed? How might change take place? Students can become familiar with diversity initiatives including edit-a-thons (e.g. Art+Feminism and Black Lives Matter), WikiProjects such as WikiProject Women, and FemTechNet’s wikistorming. Each are devoted in some way to ameliorating gaps and biases in the project. Why would someone opt to participate in an activist project around Wikipedia? Why might this be a useful conduit to social change? What are the limits? What else can or should be done?
Suggested readings

2. Harassment

Another option is to use Wikipedia as a space to think about harassment. On Wikipedia, harassment takes many forms. Harassment can take place between editors, where editors may deploy sexist and gendered name calling on talk pages and user pages. This name-calling generally puts down women, requires emotional labor by the user to defend their position, and perpetuates hostility towards women and non-gender normative-identifying participants.[6] In some cases, harassment between Wikipedia editors has continued off the site, leading to the doxxing of non-male identifying editors by male editors.[7] There’s also evidence that non-Wikipedians go on Wikipedia to harass by way of editing living persons’ entries with false or derogatory information.[8]

In what ways is Wikipedia a microcosm of gender-based harassment or verbal abuse that takes place elsewhere online, and offline? Are there features to the wiki platform and the community culture that effect how harassment take place which are specific to the site’s policies and procedures? For instance, Wikipedia does not have the “real name” policy that other social media sites have, and users are discouraged from sharing personal information that is unrelated to their work as editors. But at the same time, when a majority of the editors self-identifying as educated, white men, do the demographics of the community shape the culture of the website? What can be done to change the experience and make Wikipedia more friendly, less tolerant of harassment, and overall, less sexist?

One recent case study of internet harassment that played out on Wikipedia is the #gamergate controversy. In my experience, undergraduate students often have not heard of #gamergate, nor entirely realize the hostilities that women in the gaming/computer/IT culture face. It’s worth introducing students to way that sexist/discriminatory discursive violence unfolds online in general and through legal frameworks such as freedom of speech. Discuss the ways that the Wikipedia community allows and limits certain behaviors, and according to what logics. Dive into the talk pages of Wikipedia to understand better how harassment is carried out between users in the editorial process.
Suggested readings

  • Citron, Danielle Keats. 2014. Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: Harvard University Press.
  • Mandiberg, Michael. 2015. “The Affective Labor of Wikipedia: GamerGate, Harassment, and Peer Production.” Social Text Journal, February. http://socialtextjournal.org/affective-labor-of-wikipedia-gamergate/.
  • Massanari, Adrienne. 2015. “#Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s Algorithm, Governance, and Culture Support Toxic Technocultures.” New Media & Society, 1–18.
  • Reagle, Joseph. 2013. “‘Free as in Sexist?’ Free Culture and the Gender Gap.” First Monday 18 (1). doi:10.5210/fm.v18i1.4291.
  • VanDerWerff, Todd. 2014. “#Gamergate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World Is Fighting.” Vox.com. October 13. http://www.vox.com/2014/9/6/6111065/gamergate-explained-everybody-fighting.

3. Neutral point of view

Neutrality on Wikipedia is often described as the best practices editors should adhere to in order to achieve neutral encyclopedic content. According to the Neutral Point of View project page, this means “representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.” This definition raises the question of what constitutes a reliable source, and how editorial bias is determined. Reliable sources are often those sources which are already determined to be “legitimate” by other knowledge-making institutions, such as libraries or academic indexing. Adrienne Wadewitz (2013) describes how Wikipedia’s reliance on following existing rules and established publications means that the site will reproduce existing social and cultural biases.[9] Meanwhile van Dijck (2013) unpacks how neutrality is achieved through the site’s unique position as a socio-technical system in a complex commercial media ecosystem. Far from being a bastion of objective knowledge or a mirror of preexisting knowledge, Wikipedia’s neutrality is accomplished through the iterative process of subjective volunteer editors taking on procedural police work through debate. Defaults and automated bots safeguard these editorial choices. Given the demographics of Wikipedia’s steadfast editors, feminist scholars have criticized Wikipedia’s neutral point of view procedures for suggesting that there’s such a position as unbiased, when in fact this is a culturally-specific accomplishment that prioritizes certain forms of knowledge, and knowing, while invalidating others.

Often, when undergraduate students are learning to discipline their own writing into an academic, scholarly style — a rhetorical style that has similarities to Wikipedia’s neutral point of view — they may be sympathetic to the argument that neutrality is not only an achievement, it takes skill and training. This style does not come naturallyǃ Rather neutrality is a series of choices about appropriate referencing, organization, language, and presentation formats. On Wikipedia, literacy in navigating these formats are prerequisites to editing success. Understanding this will help them begin to grapple with the way that certain forms of knowing may be minimized in the encyclopedia and the role that rhetorical skills play in decisions about neutrality or bias. Reviewing debates between editors that take place on the neutrality notice board, on the talk pages of controversial articles, or pages selected for deletion will hammer these points home.
Suggested readings

Things to consider

  • While no familiarity with Wikipedia is presumed in this learning pattern, it would be helpful for instructors to complete training
  • If there is time, it’s worth it on many levels to engage students in content editing. Instructors can augment these critical meta-level approaches to Wikipedia with content editing. The Wiki Education Foundation offers instructor training and support services. Students benefit from the public process of actively contributing to, and reflecting on, the dynamic collective project of “knowledge-production,” where what counts as “knowledge” is defined through community-developed standards and procedures.
  • Keep in mind these are just a few critiques of Wikipedia; there is more than one way to approach the project of teaching with Wikipedia from a feminist perspective

When to use

  • This pattern is best used in undergraduate classrooms for instructors teaching in the social sciences and humanities.
  • These approaches work well in classes where the instructor grapples at a meta-level with feminist theories of technology and communication
  • These approaches to thinking about Wikipedia can be used in conjunction with content editingǃ Draw on the Wiki Education Foundation‘s resources, such as the dashboard, to weave together Wikipedia content editing with critical feminist analysis of the process.

Acknowledgements

  • This learning pattern is an outcome of a feminist and feminism-focused gap finding pilot project which was funded by the Wikimedia Foundation Inspire campaign and completed in January 2016. Thank you for this opportunityǃ For the project I worked together with five feminist academic experts (who are not Wikipedians) to begin to think through ways to identify, and attend to, the “bestiary of gaps” on Wikipedia. Some of the suggested approaches and readings are drawn from our work together. Thank you very much for your generosity and participation.
  • I’ve also been inspired by my participation in FemTechNet’s efforts to incorporate Wikipedia editing in classrooms through wikistorming, and to address gender-based harassment online. Some of the suggested readings are drawn from FemTechNet’s collectively-collated repository of resources, including an open syllabus on Feminism & Technology brought together for DOCCs 2015.
  • Aspects of the neutrality section were developed in conjunction with Lauren Berliner, a professor at UW-Bothell for her participatory media course, which she documents in her article on working with wikis. Readings and inspiration also came out of working as a consultant for Alice Lesnick’s course Education, Technology, and Society at Bryn Mawr College, and as a teaching assistant for Lilly Irani’s course Internet Industries at UC San Diego. Thank you all for your collaborationǃ
  • Thank you to Sage Ross at WikiEd. WikiEd has developed an extensive toolkit of training, support, and community-building to enable instructors to enable students to take responsibility for the process of creating or editing Wikipedia pages. Editing Wikipedia is an intensive, and valuable, learning experience that takes place through digital production.
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