Today’s article is the first in a series of articles about a subject that is near and dear to my heart and, I suspect, to the hearts of all of you who have ever wanted a quick source of information about something new.
The subject, of course, is Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is a major source of information for anyone who speaks English and has a working internet connection. For many people, it is the first place they go to learn about something new.
Before I became an editor at Wikipedia, I thought that it was run by a bunch of professionals, or that the top experts in various fields work on these articles. It’s not. They don’t. A casual glance through any article on a topic that matters to you will bring that lesson home very quickly. Wikipedia is run by a bunch of volunteers. I am one of them, and I think you should be too. Here’s why.
First, as I said above, Wikipedia is one of the first places people go to get new information. Whatever they find there will give them their first, and possibly lasting, impression. If you care about people having accurate information about sex and sexuality, racism, birth control, gender and gender expression, and the list goes on, then I urge you to care about the quality of Wikipedia’s articles. For example, check out the first sentence of this article on sexual intercourse. Maybe you are past the point at which you need to google that phrase, but I can guarantee that curious teenagers will be stumbling onto that article for years to come. Which brings us to point number two.
Wikipedia suffers from systemic bias. The article I’ve linked on the left says it better than I can, but in short, women, members of minority groups, members of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, and those who live at the intersections among the three, are substantially less likely to volunteer as editors of Wikipedia. That means that content that matters to people from these groups is getting the short end of the stick. That means that we end up with a Wikipedia article on sexual intercourse in which the first sentence defines it as “chiefly” taking place between “a male” and “a female” and equates it with penile-vaginal penetration. Though it is discussed later in the article, non-heteronormative sex is only mentioned in the introduction / article summary as something that is illegal in some places. Its other mention in the introduction / article summary is as something that bonobos, dolphins, and chimpanzees do. Good for them, but last time I checked, this also happens with humans, who are the species of interest in this article.
Which brings us to a riddle: how can you have a neutral encyclopedia in which the information is selected and edited almost entirely by white, upper-class men?
Unlike in other publications, there is something you can do about this. Haven’t you ever found yourself reading a poorly-sourced news article and wished you could reach through the screen, grab the bullshit, and replace it with facts? In a Wikipedia article, you can.
My goal in this series is to demystify that process and to encourage those of you who might be less familiar with Wikipedia to become active editors of articles about Things That Matter. We’ll be addressing both technical challenges, like how to find Wikipedia’s semi-hidden how-to articles, and less tangible challenges, like how to edit while overcoming impostor syndrome.