Good citations at Wikipedia’s annual meeting

The online encyclopedia is open about its flaws, which include a gender imbalance and cultural bias. But there's plenty of cause for optimism

Wikimedia executive director Lila Tretikov and co-founder Jimmy Wales at Wikimania. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty

Wikimedia executive director Lila Tretikov and co-founder Jimmy Wales at Wikimania. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty


Citation needed: it’s a phrase you see everywhere in this crowded hall, scrawled on Post-its and printed on T-shirts. They’re here for Wikimania, Wikipedia’s annual conference, this year at London’s Barbican Centre. For three days, “Wikipedians” will attend talks on the fifth most popular website in the world, and the biggest ever encyclopedia.

This is a community built on volunteer effort and a devotion to the open-data cause. There are 250 volunteers, along with 17 staff employed by Wikimedia, the name for the foundation behind Wikipedia. Are all these “wikis” getting confusing? Because that’s not to mention MetaWiki, Wikimedia Commons, Wikiquote, Wikibooks and my personal favourite, the Wiktionary).

The conference is surprisingly accessible: for every talk addressing the legal complexities of Commons images or UX design for mobile, there are sessions on more familiar topics such as paid editing and Wikipedia’s gender gap. They can’t afford to alienate new recruits: Wikipedia’s number of contributors is in decline, with the bulk of pages written by a tiny number of editors.

In his closing speech, co-founder Jimmy Wales asks “please don’t bite the newcomers”, and one clear goal for the foundation’s future is to make editing Wikipedia easier, rather than trying to educate the public to meet its demands.

This niche pursuit contains additional niches: long-term Wikipedian Andy Mabbett records people’s voices for the “Wikipedian voice intro project”, while a project called Histropedia arranges Wikipedia into a chronological timeline, creating a visual world history.


The overlooked

Panels also consider how Wikipedia often overlooks segments of society: one talk, “Where’s the T in Wikimedia Diversity?”, addresses the website’s treatment of transgender people and questions why the living subject of a Wikipedia page cannot request changes to be made when they transition. This question borders on the debate around the “right to be forgotten”, which Wikipedia was recently drawn into.

History will be written by Wikipedia, but who are the Wikipedians who compose it? The predominance of male editors – surveys place them at 84 per cent – is Wikipedia’s most uncomfortable statistic. Wales has acknowledged that attempts to raise the number of female editors have “completely failed”, but the conference leaves me feeling hopeful. In May, Wikimedia appointed Lila Tretikov as its executive director, previously the role of Sue Gardner, and Wikimania tickets are not overly expensive, at £50 for the weekend, a deliberate measure to encourage women who also have to factor in childcare.

The last conclusive survey of Wikipedia and gender took place in 2008, drawing on a low number of responses. Similarly, more recent complaints of bias are grounded in fuzzy measures such as “male-sounding” Wikipedia usernames and “male” articles (sports events?) taking up more space than “female” ones (fashion week, apparently). It seems wholly plausible that the gender gap is closing: certainly at Wikimania 2014, women make up a very visible proportion of the attendees and speakers.

Another problem Wikipedia faces is its knowledge gap and the “digital divide”: how can a website claim to present an unbiased view of the world when there are so many barriers to contributing? Knowledge favours the already knowledgeable: 24 per cent of Wikipedia editors have completed third-level education, and 26 per cent are current undergraduates; 76 per cent edit English Wikipedia rather than its sister sites in other languages; and 20 per cent live in the United States.

Meanwhile an estimated 4.3 billion people worldwide have no internet access. Add to this the countries that censor Wikipedia partially or entirely – including Russia, Iran and China – and Wikipedia appears radically imbalanced.

A truly global reserve of editors might be wishful thinking, but Wikipedia’s efforts to extend its reach shows the site’s potential as an international power for good.

A short film is screened before Wikimania’s closing ceremony that tells the story of Wikipedia Zero, an initiative asking mobile operators to waive fees on access to Wikipedia so that children can use it in schools. So far it has reached an estimated 350 million people in 29 countries, the greatest example so far of Wikipedia as a force for positive change.

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