Wikipedia Is Shockingly Biased: 5 Lessons From An Admin
Unless you're one of those freaks with attentive parents and a good education, Wikipedia has probably taught you more than school and family combined. It's society's go-to source for knowledge, from settling disputes at the bar to cranking out term papers hours before they're due. But as Chris, a veteran Wikipedia administrator explained to us, this is a problem. That's because ...
The Lack Of Diversity Skews What Information Is Available
The Wikipedia community often has a bad vibe to it. Chris cited Sue Gardner, former director of the Wikimedia Foundation, who rattled off nine reasons women don't edit Wikipedia, including "a lack of user-friendliness," "an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars," and a sexual culture and misogynistic atmosphere. Those are valid issues, but at least part of the hostile culture may be down to simple, outdated tech. This is what editing Wikipedia looks like:
You damn near need a programming degree to notice that someone bafflingly described Vanilla Ice as "Reggae."
It's not entirely indecipherable, but it's not exactly Microsoft Word, either. Chris says, "It is obtuse and difficult to get into ... We're supposed to be open, but the community has an increasingly low tolerance for editors who produce low-quality work. It may only take one bad experience for a newcomer to decide that Wikipedia isn't worth it. When I first started serious Wikipedia writing, I was berated for not including references immediately. At the time, it felt like I was being mobbed. I stuck with it, [and] I now understand their frustration. That being said, I know that a lot of people would not have wanted to continue after such a 'welcome.'"
But at least there's a gargantuan, esoteric help page to get new users into the groove.
Whatever the reason, Wikipedia is inarguably dominated by men, so most articles tend to be about subjects that appeal to dudes. It's not sexist to have specific interests, but it limits the perspective of the site, like trying to look at the entire world while squinting. Chris says that, according to 2011 self-reported data, only 15 percent of Wikipedia editors are women. "This means a lot of topics of specific interest to women, or which deal with historical women, are poorly developed. Only 16.4 percent of Wikipedia's biographical articles are on women."
The problem is self-sustaining. Wikipedia doesn't write about women, because it's not friendly toward women, which is a barrier to more articles about women. "There are women who will not identify themselves as such to avoid harassment. Several of the women I know have faced on-wiki and off-wiki harassment. Some keep trekking. Others just disappear. LGBTQ topics are also woefully under-covered. When I nominated this image of Alison Bechdel for Featured Picture status, one comment was '[The image] may ... give an impression it's a man and not woman.' It was certainly an eye-opener."
Because if there's one thing that matters when evaluating MacArthur Genius Award recipients, it's the shape of their crotch.
Wikipedia is also heavily skewed toward the Western world. Again, that makes sense -- that's what Western users are going to know and care about. No one's intentionally saying that the rest of the world is unimportant. But if you're trying to build a universal database of all human knowledge, "most of the planet" is a bit of a blind spot. "The better-covered non-Anglosphere subjects are ones that a lot of Anglosphere audiences enjoy, such as anime and Japanese RPGs (looking at you, Final Fantasy). There are articles on minor American poets, while the entire field of, say, Tanzanian poetry has no article."
There is a page for Tanzanian literature, but the 16-sentence article may not fully explore the subject.
Tanzanian poetry may seem like an obscure subject to you, but somewhere out there are people -- Tanzanians, maybe -- who do care. But they don't write for Wikipedia. The site is driven by people who are passionate about very specific subjects, and when your writer base needs basic tech skills and is predominately white, male, and Western, that creates trends.
"Military subjects are quite popular. Video games and [TV] are popular. A lot of the more 'classic' encyclopedia subjects -- languages, countries, etc. -- are covered in less detail. Other editors I've known wrote extensively on early pornography, numismatics, British cricket, Victorian stage actors, Guantanamo Bay detainees, the shrub genus Banksia, etc. That's one reason Wikipedia's coverage is so unbalanced. People write about what interests them, and these interests can be awfully esoteric. One editor [made] more than 40,000 edits just changing 'comprised of' to 'composed of.'"
Wikipedia doesn't have a page for "Grammar Nazi," but if they did, it would presumably link to his profile.
Oh, and sometimes that esoteric interest is the writer's dick. "A surprisingly large number of people are willing to upload pictures of their throbbing manhoods, even if the images are poorly lit and ill-defined. The human penis categories, including 'Human penis by degree of rigidity,' has well over a thousand images. A former admin who is now banned wrote an article on Australian artist Pricasso -- three guesses as to what his gig is -- and commissioned a portrait of Jimmy 'Jimbo' Wales, the founder of Wikipedia."
It was painted with the artist's dick. It's a dick painting. In case that wasn't clear.
Citing Wikipedia Is A Bigger Issue Than Mere Personal Inaccuracy
Depending on when you went to school, your teachers either gave you stern lectures on Wikipedia's many flaws, or they built their lesson plans with it. But those teachers you ignored so you could pound out your essay quickly and get back to video games were right: Wikipedia's greatest strength (the fact that anyone can access it) is also its biggest flaw. And so it's locked in an eternal war against inaccuracy that will last until there's a mass extinction event, and the handful of survivors argue about what to call it on Wikipedia.
"Anyone can edit. Even a student thinking 'You know what, a coati looks like an aardvark. Let's call it the Brazilian aardvark.' Most of the obvious stuff is reverted quickly. Someone changing the genre for AC/DC to classical will be reverted in minutes. But mistakes that originate from the sources themselves may last a while, and cannot readily be fixed within Wikipedia guidelines. There are cases of Lord Byron suddenly obtaining a pet crocodile, or Muhammad Ali somehow having a rose named after him. Such vandalism is insidious, because it can last for years or decades."
"Walt Whitman invented beer pong? Sounds about right."
This creates a bizarre ouroboros of inaccuracy. "One shouldn't cite Wikipedia. You have no guarantee [of accuracy]. If a journalist sees information in an article and reports it without fact-checking, we suddenly have a source for the incorrect claim. Citogenesis is real."
For example, someone once inaccurately edited Sacha Baron Cohen's Wikipedia page to say that he worked for Goldman Sachs prior to supplying your least-funny friends with terrible impressions. Three days later, The Independent included that "fact" in an article about Cohen, which was then cited by Wikipedia as proof that Cohen was once a banker. It's like a game of telephone, only at the end of the game, the garbled nonsense gets published in a newspaper.
Grudges And Petty Arguments Derail The Site All The Time
Like your own workplace, the biggest problem with Wikipedia is that some people are happy dedicating all of their time to arguments about pointless bullshit. "Sega Genesis or Sega Mega Drive? Star Trek Into Darkness or Star Trek into Darkness (before the film was released, obviously)? Some of the worst have historically been the debates between American and British spelling. Is it 'color' or 'colour?'"
If you've ever looked at the front page of Wikipedia, you may have noticed this box:
It changes daily. It's simply a fun little widget meant to attract readers to obscure articles, but some are willing to start generational vendettas over them. "Some people were concerned that the quality of the articles being promoted was too low. Debates over this box, which most readers probably ignore, ended up spanning three months. There are sometimes paragraphs and paragraphs of debate over the wording of individual sentences in the box, or whether or not they should be included at all."
"How dare we belittle the site that hosts a list of animals with college degrees by including a fun fact about mushrooms!"
Okay, but as ridiculous as the depth of these discussions can get, they're all professional, right? Ha, no. "There are those who'll stalk and vandalize everything an editor has written. [One person followed] my edits for several months, and appears to have directed others to do so as well. There are editors who have followed other editors, nominating articles they write for deletion within hours of the articles being written."
"Article nominated for deletion: Punic Wars. Reasoning: Fuck Greg."
There are also vandals who go way beyond renaming Queen Latifah "Queen Laqueefah." "There are long-term vandals. One spent years making sock puppet accounts, [renaming] prominent articles to '[article title] on Wheels.' Not just one or two accounts. Thousands. Another vandal has been vandalizing Wikipedia for so long that the Wikimedia Foundation has contacted both his internet provider and his family. There are those who'll spend years slipping in and out of articles, changing heights, weights, or musical genres. We've got countermeasures in place: blacklists of images that can only be used on certain pages (the autofellatio one, for instance), robots, filters, etc. But we're always on the defensive."
You have to wonder what drives people like that, beyond the incessant screeching noise in their brain.
There's An Entire Website Dedicated To Destroying Wikipedia
It's called Wikipediocracy, and their only goal in life is to call out Wikipedia's flaws. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but between a pretentious slogan -- "The tragedy of Wikimedia Commons" -- and an overblown description, they seem less like a public service and more like a bunch of Mensa wannabes trying to high five, only to awkwardly smack each other in the nose.
Oh, and their methods run the gamut from extreme ...
"Wikipediocracy, though obviously biased, has been instrumental in identifying hoaxes and some problematic editors. [But they] dox editors active in areas that they disapprove of. One editor wrote extensively on early pornography ... when he was doxxed by Wikipediocracy back in April 2012, he left."
... to self-destructive ...
"Gregory Kohs, who was blocked for his paid editing activities through MyWikiBiz, ran an experiment in which he inserted deliberate misinformation into 30 different articles to see how long they would last. Not only did 63 percent of the edits last for weeks or months, but some edits to revert the misinformation were later reverted themselves. Deliberately spreading misinformation to make a point (no matter how important) is reprehensible, but I have to admit that his criticism of Wikipedia's 'immune system' of self-regulation hits the nail on the head."
Luckily, Wikipedia knows how to deal with hoaxes: meticulous cataloging.
... to plain mean.
"Some people there are reasonable. Others are spiteful banned Wikipedia editors who just want to see the world burn. I've seen Wikipediocracy members say I should accept that I'm a teacher and focus on grading papers, and criticize me for citing a journal article I wrote (the post calls it a "term paper" and claims it's written in Sanskrit, which is ridiculous). They also called me a sock of a banned editor known as Benjiboi (a prolific editor of articles about gay porn movies and performers), and insulted my appearance."
When you start calling people ugly for disagreeing with you, that's about the time your argument stops qualifying as "academic."
Wikipedia Is Dying
Wikipedia feels like a service that's magically going to exist forever. But while it's doing well financially, it's bleeding away users. "The number of 'very active' editors (defined as more than 100 edits in a month) dropped from nearly 5,000 to about 3,200 between 2006 and 2014. The number of 'active' users (at least five edits per month) dropped from 50,000 to 30,000. One of my friends dropped out of editing several times because things were too contentious. Admin statistics are worse. We only have 551 active admins. We're not replacing admins at a fast enough rate. [The process for naming admins] is horrible and broken. It was not an experience I'd wish on anyone else."
Apparently, the long string of "How To Not Be A Dick On Wikipedia" articles haven't quite sunken in yet.
Wikipedia faces other issues too, including the risk of restrictive copyright and web legislation. But the biggest issue is that people have to volunteer their time and money, and some guy (we can't remember who ... if only there were a place to look it up) once said that those two things were one and the same.
"People might not realize how much of a [financial] investment a lot of editors make. I have personally invested several thousand dollars in a variety of materials. The camera equipment I have is worth a good $2,000. I don't sell any of the results. I just use the photographs to illustrate articles. The books I've used have also set me back a pretty penny, particularly the older magazines that I've used as references. Factor in travel expenses for taking photographs, a decent internet connection for uploads, and a laptop and software capable of processing everything I need..."
The fact that it's all free for the reader makes it easy to forget that article on steam-driven vibrators (NSFW) cost actual resources.
Wikipedia is humanity's main font of knowledge now, and the vast majority of it is created by a slowly dwindling number of obsessive volunteers. That's an amazing accomplishment, right up until that number dwindles too much and there's suddenly no one to provide us with an exhaustive list of every Mario game in existence. Is that really a world you want to live in?
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