By Nathalie Collida and friends
It’s no secret that Wikipedia has a shortage of female editors. According to a survey commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation in 2011, a mere 8.5 per cent of the people contributing to the online encyclopaedia identify as women. In a recent op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, Sue Gardner – who became the figurehead of Wikipedia when she signed up as Executive Director with the Wikimedia Foundation 5 years ago – tried to explain this by focusing on what she perceives as the “geeky, tech-centric, intellectually confident, thick-skinned and argumentative” nature of the average Wikipedian. Outside observers, among them Web2.0 expert Joseph Reagle, add another component to the mix: good old-fashioned sexism. His latest study, “’Free as in sexist’ Free culture and the gender gap” examines how the combative locker-room culture of Wikipedia’s male contributors – a good portion of whom are teens and pre-teens – makes women less likely to participate. While Reagle’s journal article relies heavily on previously published analyses and interviews with Wikipedians, we’ve decided to take a look under the bonnet of Ms Gardner’s million-dollar on-line empire, with examples taken not just from articles but also from areas of the encyclopaedia and its sister projects often overlooked by its readers: the talk pages of articles and editors as well as various discussion boards.
Wikimedia Commons and the art of masturbating in public
Natka Brown is a Russian-born language teacher who not only contributes to Wikipedia but also uses the site and its picture library Wikimedia Commons with her 8-year-old granddaughter by her side. During an unrelated search on Commons, she came across one of the thousands of pictures of male masturbation hosted on the project. Surprised and offended, she started a conversation on the Mediawiki IRC channel and was immediately trolled by two male Wikipedians, Funfood and Nickname1 riffing on the much-abused policy which states that “Wikipedia is not censored”. Unfazed, Natka took to the talk page of Jimbo Wales, one of the most popular venues for the Wikipedia in-crowd, where things quickly went from bad to worse. Natka had made the mistake of adding the following comment to her question as to whether hosting a video of a masturbating Wikipedia contributor was compatible with the project’s educational mission: “I fail to see any public benefit in public mastrubation. It hurts. Please do something about it!” A male Wikipedia user who also holds the prestigious positions of Bureaucrat and Administrator on the porn repository that is Wikimedia Commons was quick to respond: “When I masturbate in public, I don’t really feel any different than when I do it in private; can you possibly tell us why when you masturbate in public, it hurts?” A few minutes later, he added another puerile remark: “Additionally Natbrown, funny that you were looking for Russian words for “motion”. Tatu have a song called “Простые движения”, which translates as “Simple Motions”. There’s even a music video for it. Take a look; it’s got simulated masturbation, although by looking how good she seems to be feeling, perhaps it is real, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting her. Not at all.” Wikipedia user Ian Thomson joined the all-male choir by stating “But guys, simply avoiding sexual topics, or using a simple software plug-in to block images, or maybe monitoring one’s child’s internet activity, instead of insisting that no one else can use educational resources on the matter would require not being a prude. That’s just an unreasonable demand.”
Natka Brown went on to launch the Facebook group “Stop Pornography on Wikipedia”. One of the first people she invited was the Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner. At the time of writing, Ms Gardner has yet to join.
Donkey see, donkey do
In January 2012, the on-line world’s attention focused on Wikipedia’s article on the violent urban myth that is the donkey punch, in reaction to an answer given by a contestant on the US show Jeopardy. Within a matter of days, the write-up received record views and brought attention to the crudely drawn animated file used to illustrate this particularly puerile piece of crowd-sourcing. Not for the first time, mind you. Feminist blogger Carmen aka Penny Sociologist describes her reaction when she came across the Wikipedia article in November 2011:
There I was greeted, at the top of the short entry, with a cartoon of a man in doggie-style/anal position over a woman with his fist drawn back. To my shock, the cartoon started to move, and I watched in horror as the man punched the woman in the back of the head. Her neck snapped back, a couple of little black marks shot out to illustrate impact, and she grimaced painfully. […] This animated how-to gif on the Wikipedia page impacted me so deeply that I burst into tears and slammed the lid of my laptop. It’s not that I haven’t seen uglier things. I have. It’s that sexualized violence against women is now so normalized that somehow, it’s deemed appropriate to graphically illustrate it on fucking Wikipedia. […] I’ve never edited on Wikipedia before, because frankly I have lots of other shit to do. But I quickly learned how and within minutes I had successfully removed the image. […]
An hour or so later, it was back. I removed it again, at which point the dedicated misogynist (one “cptnono”, a 40-something death metal drummer in Florida) who had put it back sent me a message telling me to “stop edit warring” and go air my opinions on the Discussion page if I didn’t like it. […] The Discussion page didn’t leave me with much hope that a lone feminist stood a chance of removing hate speech against a dedicated team of misogynists who undoubtedly sit around in their mum’s basements wanking to violent porn all day in between monitoring Wikipedia pages, so I decided to send my protest to Wikipedia. […]
The email back, from one Wikipedia misogynist and hate speech supporter who I will call “PK”, told me that this type of content has been the subject of much “serious discussion” and that of course, it’s all decided by “consensus”. Let’s revisit the serious, consensus-building Discussion page for donkey punching:
Misogynist: “Just want to say that the picture with this article is HILARIOUS!!!
Another Misogynist: “Same here. It made me laugh for a good 10 minutes.”
Voice of Reason: “As this act is probably apocryphal and possibly lethal, I would suggest the current picture is unnecessary and inappropriate and should therefore be removed.”
Another Misogynist: “And I would suggest that ur a fag who has a stick up the butt.”
Somewhere later down the page, while misogynists coldly discuss the merits of an earlier illustration that wasn’t animated, one says: “Preferably the image shouldn’t be a cartoon, but actually showing a real couple.”
So there you have Wikipedia’s “serious discussion” and “consensus” building.
When two established Wikipedia contributors and critics, Delicious carbuncle and Jayen466, finally removed the animation and the worst of the unsourced prose from the article in early February, their actions triggered a month-long tug-of-war, with the proponents of “Wikipedia is not censored” re-inserting the animation and the mature editors usually labelled as “prudes” by the former group removing it again. SlimVirgin, the lone female Wikipedia editor involved in the ensuing talk page discussion, was faced with comments such as “If you would prefer an actual photograph instead of a drawing then let me know.” A male Wikipedian named Wnt, who comes with a well-documented history of leaving inflammatory remarks all over Wikipedia’s drama boards, even suggested using a clip from a pornographic film based on the violent urban myth as an alternative illustration. The reason why the original animation was finally deleted from Wikimedia Commons after an equally heated debate? It turned out to be one of Wikipedia’s many instances of copyright infringement.
Sue Gardner had been made aware of the issue by female Wikipedia contributors, both on the Gendergap mailing list and on her talk page. Once again, she chose not to get involved.
Woman, know thy place
The presence of misogynists goes right back to the dark prehistory of Wikipedia. The article on “men’s rights” dates from 2003, and has been constantly editwarred ever since. Wikipedia’s male-dominated culture becomes especially apparent in articles dealing with gender-specific topics. But don’t expect to see any mention of that in the entry on Androcentrism, which, at the time of writing, features this helpful reminder to women as to their rightful place in the Christian faith: “In churches today, women are more often allowed to be leaders and to preach[dubious – discuss] which is clearly stated in the Bible as wrong. The man should be and is the head of the home just as Christ is the head of the Church and gave himself up for it […].” Many women readers of the article on Femininity will turn away in disgust when they come across a statement which asserts that female politicians will “use their femininity to appeal to ordinary people and gain strategic advantage over their male opponents” (from the current “In politics” section). The Wikipedia entry on Breast has 17 illustrations. A whopping eight of them are before-and-after pictures of breast enhancement surgery patients. Self-conscious teenage girls will be pleased to learn that “Breast reduction surgery is a common procedure that involves removing excess breast tissue, fat, and skin, and the repositioning of the nipple-areola complex.” Mothers-to-be, on the other hand, will look in vain for pictures showing how pregnancy may affect their bodies. Stretch marks is illustrated with a photograph of a bloated male abdomen, while the entry on Striae gravidarum has no images whatsoever.
Articles on notable women are particularly at risk of receiving the wrong kind of attention from male Wikipedians. A best-selling female author (name withheld for privacy reasons) may find that a Wikipedia administrator added a link to a streaming pornographic video to her biography, an outspoken feminist blogger will see her Wikipedia entry adorned with sexist and racist slurs and pictures of sexual acts, and a Taiwanese activist forced into sex slavery will be labelled a prostitute by a male Wikipedian with a penchant for penis jokes. The Geek Feminism collective maintains a list of issues that crop up disproportionately in biographies of women, as well as examples of the everyday sexism faced by female Wikipedia editors.
Yes, Ms Gardner, many of your unpaid male volunteers regularly show that they are “the smartest kids in the class” by calling their female counterparts “devious creatures”, “feminazis” and “senseless cunts”. And while glossing over this ugly reality in a ridiculously upbeat op-ed propaganda piece is certainly in your best interest, you should have found out by now that the only way to make Wikipedia more attractive to women contributors is by cracking down hard on its deeply misogynistic culture. We here at Wikipediocracy are not holding our collective breath. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s female readership has narrowly escaped having the article on the Icelandic Phallological Museum featured on the encyclopaedia’s main page on Valentine’s Day. For a while, the “ridiculously smart” people who determine what appears on the most-visited page of Wikipedia had decided that “dicks are most relevant to that day”. But in the end, they were pipped at the post by Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”. Maybe there is hope yet.
Image Credit: Flickr/denise carbonell — licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Many thanks to Erika Kwaffeur, Pierrette Maçon, Dwina Damiano, Joan Ti’Brulée, Andrée Lavictoire and Compé Anansi, all of whom contributed important research and editorial input