The Politics of Knowledge Production (or, how Wikipedia landed in hot water)

A couple of related controversies burst into pixillated glory like fireworks recently, and while the links may have cooled, the core issues for feminists remain current: who and what determines knowledge production?

First, a little background: Wikipedia, as you may know, is an open-source online encyclopedic project. Although by no means comprehensive or definitive, it does contain useful information for the casual user. Anyone with a pc and internet access can sign up to become an editor.

So far, so internet... but here come the bright lights:

Shelley Powers of Burningbird noticed a distinct gender divide in the technology entries at Wikipedia, starting with herself and a male colleague. She lit the fuse with "Ladies, Wikipedia is Ours":

Rogers Cadenhead wrote on Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales edits of his own biography. During the discussion, Rogers mentioned his own Wikipedia entry. I checked, and sure enough: Rogers has an entry. That's odd, I thought. Many of the male webloggers I know have an entry in Wikipedia, but most of the women I know, don't. I brought this up with Rogers and he noticed the same.

Why are there significantly fewer women? I think one reason is that we women are taught not to put ourselves forward. Men are complimented for tooting their own horn; making known their wishes; noting their own accomplishments. Women, however, are expected to be sweet, demure, and most of all, stay ever so slightly in the shadow. Well, unless we're eye candy, in which case not only should we be in the light, we should be wearing as little as possible so that our 'assets' can be fully explored.

(My excerpt does not do it justice; please, read the entire article!)

Powers' essay is incisive and engagingly written, as are all her posts at Burningbird - a blog that blends nature photography, technology industry commentary, and feminism. (Oh, and a cat, Zoë).

But additionally, her post gives rise to a lively discussion in the comments thread. If you're interested in understanding how Wikipedia works, or what the community culture is like, you will be completely engrossed by this thread. Both the post and the comments are a must-read for feminists interested in issues of knowledge-production (academics, anyone?), gender, social media, and/or open-source online projects.

Firework #2

Similarly, but unrelated to Powers’ piece, Scribble Pad notices a difference in the entries for man and woman at Wikipedia and, being a feminist blogger, blogs about it.

She notes in "Tell Me Another One!":

call me cynical, but i don't think there is such a thing as a neutral source of information in mainstream media. a system like wikipedia that is declared neutral, but without a powerful enough verification system to keep up with the data being entered is bound to be dangerous…

She goes on to do a side-by-side gender analysis, using the search terms "woman" and "man". Surprisingly (or, perhaps, unsurprisingly) she received some flak in the comments section for her criticism of Wikipedia's inclusion of "vulgar terms" under "woman".

But check out her update - it's pure gold: Scribble Pad writes to Wikipedia's Information Team, and shares their bland (and somewhat inadequate) response to her post. She then proceeds to fisk with verve. Her rebuttals to their remote, autocratic email would be funny if they weren't so painful.

Here's just one snippet (the Wikipedia Information Team's email text is in italics):

4. "we are (ambitiously) trying to document all human knowledge, and that means there will always be some material included that individuals may object to."

true. i should shut up because this is for the Glory of Knowledge.

She closes her post with: "we live in interesting times."

Indeed.

Hat-tip to blackfeminism.org for the link to Scribble Pad.

Related links:

  • Read Scribble Pad's follow-up post about the aftermath of her Wiki-critique.
  • Death Ends Fun describes the change in the woman entry as a consequence of Scribble Pad's feminist analysis (and action) in "The terms of it all".

Bonus link: Wikipedia at crossroads, by The Armchair Realist (via Scribble Pad).

Melinda Casino, Contributing Editor, Feminism & Gender
Sour Duck / Sour Duck's Link Blog

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