Annoyed Librarian
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Women and Wikipedia

Lately some librarians have been discussing the recently discovered fact that Wikipedia contributors are 87% male. Or rather than 87% of Wikipedia contributors are male. Actually, the way it’s usually put is that the contributors are “fewer than 15%” women. I don’t know why this reminds me of the classic New York Times spoof headline, “World Ends Tomorrow; Women, Minorities Hardest Hit.”

Wikipedia is 100% voluntary and open to all contributors, which makes charges of discrimination against women contributors impossible to prove. Instead, there are charges of discrimination against articles.

The girl-friendly “friendship bracelet” entry is much shorter than the boy-friendly “baseball card” entry, and this supposedly is a sign of discrimination. Friendship bracelets are a recent fad of interest to no one but girls under 12. Baseball cards have been around a century, are collected and traded by grown people, and are auctioned at Sotheby’s. When friendship bracelets are sold on Ebay for $10,000, maybe they will get a longer Wikipedia entry.

Or the descriptions of individual “Sex and the City” episodes are much shorter than the descriptions of “Sopranos” episodes, though one has to wonder how much description a “Sex and the City” episode really needs.

Or that Pat Barker, an English novelist relatively unknown in the United States, has an entry much shorter than Niko Bellic, a character from the videogame Grand Theft Auto IV.

I can’t say I quite understand what the problem is here. Is there anything not being represented in Wikipedia that the users of Wikipedia really want to see? If not, they can contribute it.

The problem for some is that women are underrepresented, but that’s not the case. The problem, if there is one, is that men are overrepresented in certain areas that only men care about, but it’s not like there’s a space limit. Why any sane person would want to read or write 2,700 words on Niko Bellic is beyond me, but that doesn’t mean that  Bellic is crowding out Barker.

Do we really need longer entries on friendship bracelets or “Sex and the City”? And isn’t anything found in Wikipedia about either likely to be more detailed than anything found in another reference source?

Speaking of other reference sources, has anyone bothered to compare the male to female ratio of the Encyclopedia Britannica? I’m assuming not, because nobody uses it anymore. I’d be willing to bet that every other major general encyclopedia has more men contributing to it than women, and that most popular culture of interest to women and girls is not represented at all.

Any way you slice it, Wikipedia is better for topics of interest to women.

“Sex and the City” gets 322 words in Encyclopedia Britannica. The main entry in Wikipedia has over 11,000 words, and the major characters plus the list of episodes get related entries. Basically, there’s a short book on “Sex and the City” in Wikipedia. ” Can we really say it’s poorly represented? Friendship bracelets and Pat Barker don’t get Britannica entries at all.

What criticism the article mentions is based on flawed comparisons and false analogies. Niko Bellic versus Pat Barker? How about Niko Bellic versus Carrie Bradshaw. Bradshaw wins, by 500 words.

So instead of criticizing Wikipedia for underrepresenting women, and claiming that their lack of voices skews it somehow, maybe we should praise it for representing women better than any other general encyclopedia ever has, by freeing women to write about things that interest them without having to deal with male editors who would tell them friendship bracelets weren’t important.

Criticism from librarians is particularly interesting, since about 80% of librarians are women. Does the fact that most of us are women mean we can’t evaluate facts and information like men can? Absolutely not.

87% of Wikipedia contributors are men, but sometimes we have to admit that men, when they’re not obsessing about porn or videogames, can sometimes do competent work. Sure, only men would compile this obsessive Wikipedia list, but there’s some useful and interesting Wikipedia entries as well.

So let’s celebrate Wikipedia for devoting so much attention to female interests, while giving men a safe space to catalog their obsessions, which at least keeps them from bothering other people for a while.

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Comments

  1. will manley says:

    AL, this is much ado about nothing because Wikipedia is of limited value. I personally limit its value to determining if someone is dead or alive. Is Bob Hope dead? According to Wikipedia, yes. Is Phyllis Diller dead? According to Wikipedia, no. Draw your own conclusions.

  2. will manley says:

    AL, this is much ado about nothing because Wikipedia is of limited value. I personally limit its value to determining if someone is dead or alive. Is Bob Hope dead? According to Wikipedia, yes. Is Phyllis Diller dead? According to Wikipedia, no. Draw your own conclusions.

  3. Annoyed Librarian says:

    I got so caught up in reading about Niko Bellic that I forgot librarians are supposed to hate Wikipedia and tell people never to use it.

  4. The Doctor says:

    ah, and the unhinged crawl out of the woodwork to becoman wikipedia. classic.

  5. The Doctor says:

    excuse me. “bemoan” rather. apparently i shouldn’t be using wikipedia to research the correct spelling of words. yuk yuk yuk.

  6. Chocolate gets more space than Niko, but Batman gets more than chocolate. And Chocolate Batman, the short-lived blaxploitation comic from 1971, gets no mention at all. So is Wikipedia racist? No, because I made up Chocolate Batman.
    But what about that 80% number for librarians? Wow. I feel like everything now is cheating me and unfair. No wonder we never go boy-girl-boy-girl when we divvy up the goodies around here. I just get my one-vote say in every decision. Well, for now on, men get one vote and all the women share one vote. Thank you, pointless NYT Wikipedia article for pointing out this mistreatment. Power, baby.

  7. Retiring Librarian says:

    I Don’t use Wikipedia;
    Don’t suggest, recommend or encourage use of Wikipedia;
    Don’t care what Wikipedia says or doesn’t say;
    Don’t understand why anyone would bother writing about Wikipedia, including me.

  8. Randal Powell says:

    I think that the overrepresentation of men contributing to Wikipedia may be due to gender preferences. Men tend to read more non-fiction, while women tend to read more fiction – or so I’ve been told. I would expect websites dealing with fiction to have a greater representation of women. Come to think of it, women could make major contributions to Wikipedia by filling in the gaps in fiction coverage!

    As far as Wikipedia being relevant, it is and always will be. Go ahead and get over it. I use Wikipedia all of the time, and think that it is an excellent “learning tool”. If I were doing professional and/or academic work, I would seek out authoritative sources because Wikipedia is not perfect (come to think of it, neither are the authoritative sources, but never mind). If people view Wikipedia as a learning tool instead of a work tool, I think that they will understand the benefits and disadvantages of using it better.

  9. librarEwoman says:

    I agree with Randal about this. Wikipedia is useful as a learning tool. I wouldn’t cite it as a source in an academic paper or a work-related report, but that does not mean I don’t consult it for information on a casual basis. When I want more detailed or accurate information, I seek other sources, in addition to Wikipedia.

    As far as the reason why women don’t contribute to Wikipedia nearly to the extent that men do, I think it has to do with the fact that women use the Internet much more for social networking purposes than for research purposes. This does not mean that women don’t use the Internet to get information, but that they exchange information in more socially-oriented contexts (Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc.).

  10. AL said, “Criticism from librarians is particularly interesting….” You bet it is. The ALA regularly uses Wikipedia for propaganda purposes, and it does so in an underhanded manner that is disgraceful and should result in legal action taken against the ALA.

    Look at the Judith Krug page history, for example. The Judith Krug page was created on 6 July 2005 by Jonathan Kelley who worked for Judith Krug. In violation of Wikipedia policy against using Wikipedia as a soapbox for advertising purposes, it was a word for word copy of the ALA’s promotional material. Here is what Jonathan Kelley added. Here are the exact same words the ALA used for its own benefit. Only when I got involved starting 5 October 2005 did the page start to become compliant with Wikipedia policy, and I had to fight Deborah Caldwell-Stone, another person who worked for Judith Krug, every step of the way.

    Then Caldwell-Stone went on to use Wikipedia to promote ALA pecuniary interests and astroturf anonymously for George Soros and Free Press on the issue of net neutrality. See ALA Pushes Net Neutrality on Wikipedia; Political and Pecuniary Interests Promoted Anonymously by ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom May Violate Ethical and Tax Codes. Members dues paid for this. Only later did George Soros essentially buy the services of the ALA’s OIF with about half a million dollars.

    What a disgrace that a Deputy Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom would lower herself and the ALA in such a fashion. An ironic disgrace at that–”intellectual freedom”? What a further disgrace that the ALA has taken no disciplinary action against her for her actions. That indicates complicity.

    Of course, all this is my opinion. ;) But “criticism from librarians is particularly interesting”? You bet it is. In reality, the ALA thanks its lucky stars it has such an effective means to propagandize on behalf of itself and its liberal causes that have little to do with libraries.

    Gee, I wonder if that is why the ALA apparently started the effort that led to my being blocked from editing at Wikipedia for blogging about Caldwell-Stone’s anonymous propagandizing on Wikipedia.

  11. Techserving You says:

    Will Manley-

    Wikipedia is certainly of limited use (and always will be… I’m not sure there’s anything that isn’t of limited use.) But, many of the complaints about it which were true several years ago are not true… or not “as true” today. It actually has very detailed and correct articles on a wide range of topics – so much so that at my library we have switched from telling kids that Wikipedia is evil, to telling them that it can be a great starting point for research. Just know that not everything will always be correct (and often, articles are flagged and that will tip you off) and they can’t base their research on Wikipedia articles. But for a basic orientation to a topic, including giving students an idea of an area of a broad topic on which they might like to focus, it’s often just as useful as a reference book… and sometimes more so.

    There are many well-crafted articles with lengthy lists of citations. There are other well-crafted articles which, from what I can tell, are blatant examples of plagiarism… but they doesn’t make the content any less accurate.

    I think that rather than telling students “you can’t use Wikipedia” we should be teaching them how to evaluate the content, the references, flags, etc. to determine legitimate content, just as we do when teaching them to evaluate Google results, or even paper sources. Librarians at my library finally came around to this way of thinking when we admitted that WE often resorted to Wikipedia. Quite often, a student would come to the reference desk with a question about a subject area for advising the student? Google the subject, which would almost always bring up a Wikipedia article, which we’d read. Then, we’d have a better idea of what search terms to use in our catalog and databases, what alternative terms we should try, what broader or narrower topic we should search. Bad reference skills? Nope – very efficient.

  12. Techserving You says:

    Whoops – typo in my last paragraph… put the cursor in the wrong spot when editing. It should read:

    Librarians at my library finally came around to this way of thinking when we admitted that WE often resorted to Wikipedia. Quite often, a student would come to the reference desk with a question about a subject area for which we had no background. What would we do before advising the student? Google the subject, which would almost always bring up a Wikipedia article, which we’d read. Then, we’d have a better idea of what search terms to use in our catalog and databases, what alternative terms we should try, what broader or narrower topic we should search. Bad reference skills? Nope – very efficient.

  13. Spekkio says:

    Refusing to use Wikipedia – or take it seriously – makes about as much sense as standing in the middle of a recently-finished highway to prevent its construction.

    I found this interesting:
    http://microbiology.se/2011/02/01/underpinning-wikipedias-wisdom/

    The argument here – and elsewhere – is that instead of railing against the new dominant force in reference, academia should be helping to make it better. And to do that, you need to provide incentives to academics (including librarians) to do so.

  14. Lyle Blake Smythers says:

    Agree with many above: I would not cite Wikipedia as a source if I were an academic or writing something for publication; however, when I go to Wikipedia I am doing so for one reason: to get INFORMATION for myself. To fill in some gap in my own personal knowledge.

    In particular, it is invaluable for understanding Internet slang and shorthand, particularly of that oft-impenetrable acronym variety. The first time I saw NSFW I thought the writer was trying to refer to “single white female” and had made a typo. Wiki gave me the answer with blinding speed. I suppose there are other reference sources that cover this area, but Wiki is quick and I know how to get to it because I have it bookmarked. There you have it.

    It’s also superb for pop culture of the manga/comic books/Star Trek ilk. In short, it TELLS ME WHAT I WANT TO KNOW WITHOUT A LOT OF FUSS AND SEARCHING.

  15. Rachel Storm says:

    I suppose this is a little besides the point but I find the assumptions about male/female interests and behavior a bit odd. Maybe this says more about gender stereotypes than the Wikipedia statistic. I just don’t fit into the “Sex and the City-friendship bracelet-Facebook, not Wikipedia” box, I’m sure plenty of women out there would agree.

  16. KidLib says:

    Techserving You–Using it as a start point is really good advice in a lot of places. It’s especially good, as AL says, on pop culture issues that no one else covers, because the people who are obsessed have a forum to put down all the details. It’s a much faster way to get, say, all the titles in a series than going through library databases.

    It’s also fabulous for public domain graphics. I use it a lot for that.

    The women vs. men business? I don’t think it makes any practical difference in content, for all the reasons AL mentions. Having dabbled for a month or so, maybe it’s that the editorial culture is a little, how to put it… pushy? Confrontational, I guess. That tends to be a milieu where men feel more comfortable than women, for whatever reason.