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A feminist’s Wikipedia biography

By Andreas Kolbe

Anita Sarkeesian is a media critic and video blogger whose work focuses on sexism in video games. Her video blog, Feminist Frequency, is used as reading material in numerous universities’ women’s studies courses. Last year Sarkeesian became the target of a sustained harassment campaign because of her Kickstarter project, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The attacks on her were coordinated from various video game forums.

Sarkeesian was subjected to a torrent of hate on YouTube – thousands of abusive and often sexually explicit hate messages. At the same time, her Wikipedia biography was vandalised. Sarkeesian herself spoke of harassment via Wikipedia vandalism.

She posted a screenshot of her vandalised biography on her blog:

The image below shows the result of the vandalism that took place over the course of June 5th and 6th, 2012. This was not done by just one or two trolls but was a coordinated cyber-mob-style effort involving a whole gang working together. The screenshot below was downloaded directly from one of the internet forums organizing the harassment. They were proudly posting this image as a trophy to boast about what they were doing and to encourage others to join in.

Sarkeesian's Wikipedia biography at the height of the June 2012 harassment episode.

Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia biography at the height of the June 2012 harassment episode.

The vandalism included changing the text, changing the page categories, changing the external links to re-reroute to porn sites and adding a drawing of a woman with a man’s penis in her mouth captioned with “Daily Activities”. 

Some of the vandalism was subtle, and bore the marks of insider knowledge. Adding her biography to the “Cancer” or “Oxygen Waste” category, or classifying it as a Nazi Germany stub, requires familiarity with Wikipedia’s internal processes and complicated mark-up language.

The Wikimedia community

Who writes Wikipedia? According to page 8 of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Strategic Five-Year Plan published in 2011:

The people who write the Wikimedia projects are disproportionately male, young, and from countries in the Global North: Four out of five editors are male. Half are under the age of 22. Four out of five edits come from countries in the Global North.

In a recent op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner proudly highlighted the fact that the Wikimedia community includes many very young contributors:

The youngest Wikipedian I’ve met was 7 … There’s a recurring motif inside Wikipedia of preteen editors who’ve spent their lives so far having their opinions and ideas discounted because of their age, but who have nonetheless worked their way into positions of real authority on Wikipedia. They love Wikipedia fiercely because it’s a meritocracy: the only place in their lives where their age doesn’t matter.

In fact, many Wikipedia administrators are school-going teenagers. The youngest I personally am aware of was 11 years old when he won administrator rights; at 12, he became a bureaucrat, which means he had the ability to close requests for adminship and appoint other editors as administrators.

Wikipedia has a well publicised shortage of contributors.

Minors have time to edit. They do not have jobs, families and children to worry about.

However, while the experience Gardner describes may be a very validating and confidence-building one to the child or teenager in question, it does not necessarily make for mature decision-making, nor is it likely to attract the most capable writers. A veteran Wikimedian with more than 200,000 contributions to Wikimedia projects recently expressed the following sentiments, illustrating the resulting tensions within the community:

Under the current system, any little ignoramus who has chatted on IRC for ten days can amass enough support to become an admin, and attack long-standing editors of the highest calibre, driving them away from Wikipedia. That these people (who universities would fight to employ) are treated with such disdain by a pack of semiliterate high school kids is depressing, because it spells the writing on the wall for Wikipedia. As a result, the vast majority of currently active sysops appear to be teens who, judging by their lack of interest in contributing content, fail at school and can’t do Pythagoras’ theorem. Some seem to hate learning and hate knowledge. They spend most of their time chatting on IRC making infrequent appearances on Wikipedia only when rallied by other IRC admins to add their voices to a chorus of support. Hence my contempt for the Wikipedia officialdom.

The importance of video gaming in Wikipedia

Given its demographics, it should come as no surprise that Wikipedia’s editing community includes many video game enthusiasts. Wikipedia has far more “Featured Articles” (articles that have won Wikipedia’s highest quality award) on video gaming than it has on chemistry and mineralogycomputinglanguage and linguisticsmathematics, philosophy and psychology combined.

Wikipedia has more Featured Articles on video gaming than on chemistry and mineralogy, computing, language and linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and psychology combined.

Wikipedia has more Featured Articles on video gaming than on chemistry and mineralogy, computing, language and linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and psychology combined.

Video gaming is a topic area that is more closely watched on Wikipedia than most other topic areas. The editors are dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts.

When a contributor, Jagged 85, was recently found to have added misleading material to Wikipedia articles on video games, misrepresenting the cited sources, he was banned from Wikipedia. However, he had been doing much the same thing to history articles for years, without coming to any harm.

Jagged 85 was banned from Wikipedia when he was found to have misrepresented sources in video gaming articles – after a long history of similar misrepresentations in history articles.

Wikipedia contributor Jagged 85 had a long record of misrepresenting sources in history articles. Yet he was only banned after he was found to have engaged in similar misrepresentations in Wikipedia’s articles on video games.

Sarkeesian’s biography revisited

Over the past few months, Sarkeesian’s biography has attracted the attention of an anonymous editor known only as Niemti.

Niemti’s most-edited articles on Wikipedia are Mortal Kombat II and Dead or Alive 5. In fact, the vast majority of his most edited articles are articles on video games, or video game characters.

Niemti made his first contribution to the talk page of Anita Sarkeesian’s biography on 16 November 2012. Over the two and a half months that have elapsed since then, he has already racked up more edits to the biography’s talk page than any other editor. In fact, at 226 edits, he has made three times more edits to the talk page than anyone else. He has also become the most frequent editor of the biography itself by some margin.

Niemti is not too impressed with women’s studies as a subject. In fact, he has said on the talk page that the term was new to him:

I must say I’ve never heard about “women’s studies” thing before reading this article, the thing doesn’t even has a Polish Wikipedia article and I still don’t even know how it translates.

Accordingly, Niemti resented a mention of the fact that Sarkeesian’s work is “utilized as material for university-level women’s studies courses”. The cited reference was a February 2011 write-up by the news service of Sewanee, the University of the South, introducing Sarkeesian as the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by The Women’s Center’s 36th annual Conference on Women. The write-up pointed out that “Feminist Frequency videos are often included on course syllabi and screened in traditional classrooms and by educational organizations”. This source was not good enough for Niemti to support the statement made. He deleted all mention of Sarkeesian’s work being used for university teaching, and his change stood.

But Niemti did not just resent the mention of the “women’s studies thing” in the biography. He also thinks Sarkeesian knows nothing about video games.

I’d actually turn what you said around and say there’s nothing about Anita Sarkeesian indicating she is a reliable source for anything video game related.

Niemti prefers sources like the video games blog Destructoid. He argued that it should be used as a source in Sarkeesian’s biography.

He also takes a dim view of the way Sarkeesian brought the harassment she suffered to public attention. In addition to removing the reference to her work being used in academic teaching – a use which predates her 2012 harassment – he argued that her video blog is not notable, and that she is really only notable as a victim.

She was basically unknown before the controversy (she was known only in some feminist circles) [...] the notability (also on Wikipedia), and the money (from donations), all of it was only due to the massive trolling response to her trailer video for a Kickstarter project, which she then media-savy way used to start a huge moral panic (a smooth move, I’ll admit) instead of just ignoring it, or do things like counter-attack literally using her vagina, which is what Hepler did, and so this is what she is “best known for” (note: best). 

A woman who is sexually harassed online and writes about it is engaging in a “smooth move”, and causing “a huge moral panic instead of just ignoring it”? Instead, we are told, she could (and perhaps, by implication, should) have done things like “counter-attack literally using her vagina”?

Is this bizarre or what?

Woman for deletion

So there we have it. A female academic is harassed. Then an attempt is made to expunge her competence and academic significance and present her as a professional victim who unduly and improperly profited from the harassment, and is otherwise unnotable.

And an editor who values Destructoid over a university news service becomes the most frequent editor of a feminist’s Wikipedia biography. In Wikipedia, ignorance is strength; especially when coupled with persistence and lots of time for talk page posts and edits. It works, at least for a time.

In the end, Niemti went one step too far. He suggested that Anita Sarkeesian’s entry in Wikipedia should be deleted altogether. Instead, there should either just be an article on Sarkeesian’s blog, Feminist Frequency, or an article on the “Reactions to the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter project” or the “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games controversy”.

At this point, several other contributors had had enough. They asked that Niemti be topic-banned. After eleven days and just under 10,000 words of heated and bitterly divided discussion at the administrators’ noticeboard, on 29 January 2013 a volunteer administrator banned Niemti from contributing further to Anita Sarkeesian’s biography or its talk page.

Anita Sarkeesian’s biography currently stands at 680 words of prose. During the two and a half months of Niemti’s participation, its talk page was filled with nearly 30,000 words of discussion, more than three times the total of all discussions prior to his involvement. This is one of Wikipedia’s most intractable problems – endless discussions that add relatively little value.

The Wikimedia Foundation talks about the importance of attracting female editors to its project, and making female editors feel welcome, through friendly initiatives like the Teahouse. But given the male-dominated current culture, friendly oases can only be a part of the solution.

I believe that to be successful, the Wikimedia Foundation needs to employ a little more fighting talk. They should take a leaf out of Laurie Penny’s book. She has recently started a campaign to Take Back The Net, and to end the culture of online misogyny.

It’s time to take back Wikipedia.

Image credits: Wikimedia, where everything is freely licensed.

 

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