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When Shulamith Firestone wrote in 1970, “Feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, will crack through the most basic structures of our society,” she couldn’t have predicted she was referring to Wikipedia.
Although it’s user-driven, and so still not considered a scholarly source, Wikipedia has become an undeniable part of the status quo since its creation in 2001 — it’s the seventh-most visited site on the internet. Though there had long been speculation about gender disparity on the site, the first study to measure the gap wasn’t conducted until 2010, and the results were dismal: only 8.5–16% of editors on Wikipedia are women, with just 1% transsexual or transgender. As of this writing there have been no official studies on multicultural participation and representation on the site. Perhaps the largest hurdle to gathering such data is that it takes being well versed in Wikipedia to do so.
At first glance Wikipedia’s fundamental rules appear fairly progressive: every editor is a volunteer, except for a handful of paid employees of the Wikimedia Foundation, and though there are hierarchies of editors with ascending administrative privileges granted through collective nomination, any reader of Wikipedia can also be an editor by simply creating an account. Once signed in, users have access to “talk pages,” spaces rife with commentary, where debates over articles rage and objections to entries arise. There is strong opposition to the idea of “ownership,” whereby any one person or group can guard a page from collective editing, and by the sheer size of the community, the site is equipped with checks and balances that keep the content relatively neutral and anonymous. In this world where aperspectivity veils individual efforts, blame is hard to place and activism difficult to spot.
Without top-down organization, the Wikimedia Foundation has no power over who uses the site or how, so its attempts to close the gap involve funding independent initiatives. Two of its grants have gone to a group called Art+Feminism, which began organizing Wikipedia edit-a-thons last year, creating real-life spaces where one like-minded community — in this case artists and feminists — meets, plays, and becomes another: Wikipedians. The group hosted their second annual event last weekend on the occasion of International Women’s Day, with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) serving as the flagship location and over 75 satellite events taking place across the globe, from Russia to New Zealand. Over the course of the weekend, 334 new articles were added to Wikipedia, with edits and additions to countless others.
On Saturday, every horizontal surface in MoMA’s education center was covered with a laptop, each one brought by the more than 200 people who devoted their time to the project for the day. Though there were snacks and the occasional distraction of the free childcare programming, the look and feel was that of a college library during finals, though the crowd represented a much a wider age range. On Sunday, Babycastles, an indie video game collective with a DIY venue on 14th Street, provided a sharp contrast to the view overlooking MoMA’s snow-covered sculpture garden; there the setup was more informal, with tables arranged around Aram Bartholl’s photogenic, disorienting sculptures of oversized hands holding iPhone-shaped frames. Comfortably at capacity throughout the day, each folding chair was vacated at the same rate it was filled, all amid handmade arcade machines.
“I think it’s important for consciousness-raising,” said Siân Evans, a co-founder of Art+Feminism. “There’s a feeling here of solidarity, and that’s the way in which this is like an activist project. That kind of momentum does require to some degree in-person.”
Another Art+Feminism co-founder, Jacqueline Mabey, took a moment out from checking in participants to explain the urgency of the event’s focus: “Wikipedia is a site of contestation because it appears in the top five Google search results, and because it has creative commons licensing its content gets pulled into other places. So absences there are going to matter because they get multiplied across the internet.”
Indeed, it’s not just among Wikipedia’s editors that women are underrepresented; the content on the site reflects the same disparity. At MoMA the previous day, volunteer Jason Smith had noted how deeply skewed Wikipedia’s measures of importance are. “There is an article on every single submarine ever built. There is a full article on every single plane ever built. There’s an article on every single porn actress who ever won anything, but a children’s book author — that will get marked for deletion because it’s not considered important.”
Ari Spool, who organized the Babycastles event, explained, “I don’t know a lot of people who actively edit Wikipedia or are involved in the Wikipedia community, but I do know a lot of researchers and artists. I think artists are natural archivists of work they’re interested in. So extracting their knowledge base from their heads can fill in a lot of holes.”
Despite varying demographics, what seemed to bind both the MoMA and Babycastles groups (beyond wifi) was that everyone I spoke with was an amateur, having just made a Wikipedia user account for the event. At the museum, basic trainings were being held every half hour in a lecture room, and volunteers roamed the tables to offer individualized advice. First-time-editor Lucy Drummond was excited to create a page for artist Camille Henrot, while Karen Landman was “beefing up” Elaine de Kooning’s entry. Participants at Babycastles were encouraged to work on articles about women scientists as well as artists, and a list of female Japanese video game music composers had been added to the tasks for the day.
Beth Gollnick, who is writing a dissertation on women in Light and Space art, was adding to an already-existing page on Mary Corse when I stopped to talk to her. As a scholar, she sees Wikipedia as an important gateway for research. “I’m already trying to make sure these artists are getting recognition for the work that they did,” she said, “In some ways it is recuperative, the information is there, but what information is easily accessible determines who gets worked on, who gets attention.”
In a sense, that’s the reverse of Wikpedia’s goal. Given that everyone I met was a self-professed feminist, the consciousness-raising at the event had less to do with politics than navigating the site’s rules and regulations, which struck many as unintuitive. Reading through those pillars with a more critical eye, lines like, “We strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view” supported by “reliable, authoritative sources,” as well as the convoluted notability and conflict-of-interest guidelines, are strikingly contradictory to a feminist perspective. Feminism has historically valued the networks and personal, lived experiences that give underprivileged members of society a voice. If objectivity and neutrality are the goals, a feminist initiative will casually undermine that along the way. Many of the participants who attend these events may be viewed on the site as amateurs, but are experts offline in a way as yet unrecognized by Wikipedia guidelines, and by proxy, by the dominant culture. (Ironically, MoMA has been shown to have an abysmal gender gap in its collection, but if Gollnick’s thinking is correct, the Wikipedia additions could convince art institutions to make parity the priority it clearly isn’t today.)
“One of Wikipedia’s rules is that there are no hard and fast rules,” said Marcea Decker, a volunteering Wikipedian and a member of the organization FemTechNet. “It’s dynamic and ever-changing, and especially because it tries to be a democratic platform that mediates decisions through discussion, there’s a lot of room to challenge these pillars that do have structurally biased flaws within them. I think that these efforts, maybe not explicitly but indirectly, put those pillars to the test. Are these really the best practices for Wikipedia?”
At MoMA the graffiti artist Lady K Fever was at work writing her own page (she had been listed as one of the artists to be added for the day.) Though that might set off conflict-of-interest alarms for Wikipedians, a lightbulb was turning on for her. “As women we are always thinking about our place in history,” she said. “What do we have to do to be legendary, to be written into the history or the herstory of the world? Knowing that you have to have references to be notable, it makes me want to accomplish more.” A younger woman shyly chimed in from across the table, “And you don’t just want to be important for being ‘good for a girl.’” The whole table was listening now, nodding. “I had to work hard to get outside the all-female graffiti world,” said Lady K Fever. “The society would like us to only paint with each other.” But when I asked if they felt titling the event “Art+Feminism” pigeonholed them as women rather than simply artists, they all agreed: “No, that feels good.”
The Art+Feminism 2015 Wikipedia Edit-a-thons took place at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown East, Manhattan) on March 7, 11am–5pm, at Babycastles (127 W 14th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) on March 8, 1–7pm, and at other venues around the world throughout the weekend.