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“Untitled”Courtesy of Jacqueline Mabey

Fighting the Wikipedia boys’ club

Radical groups like Art+Feminism are calling on girls to reclaim the wiki-verse for themselves – here’s why editing your gender is the new activism

Artist Doris Porter Caesar chose sculpture for her medium because “it’s big and fights against you all the time.” She could have been talking about the patriarchal presence on allegedly unbiased knowledge source, Wikipedia. The mid-century sculptor’s own presence on the world’s most-visited encyclopaedia only came into being a year ago; before 1 February, 2014, her female nudes were mere blips waving at art history from under university archives and phonebook entries. That day, around 100 female artists got new Wikipedia entries. The intruders behind the takeover were feminist group Art+Feminism, whose global Edit-a-thon saw sessions across six countries involving more than 600 participants.

One year later, and Wikipedia’s highest court has ruled this week on the actions of some editors during the GamerGate controversy: the result, which is still pending a final vote, includes 11 total topic bans for editors on either side of the dispute, along with a broad ban on censured editors working on gender-related articles. For some, the ruling has dealt a fresh blow in the battle to gender neutralise the wiki world, with Wiki editor Mark Bernstein dubbing the result as “a blunder that threatens to disgrace the internet.” In a year that has seen a series of all-woman Edit-a-thons put finger to keypad, whether we are any closer to infiltrating the Wikipedia boys’ club still hangs in the balance. Instagram photo edits notwithstanding, should editing history be high on the feminist agenda in 2015?

Wikipedia’s troubled record on gender bias is an open secret. A 2011 survey from the Wikimedia Foundation demonstrated that less than 10 per cent of the site’s contributors identify as female. More troubling still, another paper in the same year found evidence of an editing culture actively resistant to female participation, with women more likely to experience adversity in the peer review process. This is contrary to participation in other social media sites, where the gender balance is pretty much equal, or even skewed feminine.

Art+Feminism is the go-at-‘em girl gang that hopes to change all that. The group, headed up by Sian Evans, Jacqueline Mabey, Dorothy Howard, and Michael Mandiberg, believe that there’s been some improvement since their own Edit-a-thon and the activities of other gender gap projects since. But, equally, it’s not enough. Wikipedia is the Lodestar of the digital commons, not only for its authority on knowledge, but, as the group points out, because it is also where the APIs of many other popular sites pull their content: “Absences there are ones that really matter.”

“The principles on which Wikipedia is founded assumes everyone is acting in good faith, and seems unprepared for the Men’s Rights Activism spawned from reddit, 4chan, and 8chan” – Art+Feminism

The sustained internal conflict around the edits of Wikipedia’s GamerGate pages has thrown up the exact issues that feminist Wiki projects like these are meant to counter. For Art+Feminism, the latest decision to topic-ban certain editors is representative of a wider conflict. “It’s a complicated situation that pits two competing visions of collaboration against each other”, they explain. “The principles on which Wikipedia is founded assumes everyone is acting in good faith, and seems unprepared for the Men’s Rights Activism spawned from reddit, 4chan, and 8chan.” Anonymous message boards, operating under an entirely different social contract to Wikipedia’s, have unleashed chauvinist abuse into the wiki-verse. For Art+Feminism’s founders, referencing Astra ‘not on Facebook’ Taylor, it’s clear to see that “‘open’ in no way means ‘equal’” on today’s web.

Despite the encyclopedia being under more pressure than ever to survive, Art+Feminism think we’re far from the end of the wiki way. The next Edit-a-thon, taking place over International Women’s Day weekend (7-8 March), plans to be even more disruptive than the last. What’s more, the Wikimedia Foundation is on board: +Feminism, a new infrastructure designed to allow the wider project to grow, is in the pipeline. For these wiki-stormers, activism can be about the short view as well as the long: from spending half an hour adding citations to articles on women and their work, to finding specific, targeted ways to contribute. If you’re in New York, San Francisco or L.A., you can even do an in-person training session. “It’s important to remember that Wikipedia is both an encyclopedia and a community,” they say. “So readers who want to help out should spend some time learning about both the nuts and bolts of editing and the open peer review process.” What’s more, unlike the long path to change already well trodden by feminists, the results are immediate.

For now, the best approach to reclaiming the Web’s ultimate source of knowledge might be to forget what you think you already know. You can forget (never forgive) the slap in the face of Rupert Murdoch’s about-turn on “No More Page 3”; you can certainly forget the buzz surrounding ‘protest app-tivism’, cyborg-love and/or Miley Cyrus’s credentials as a feminist. Why not while away hours playing a new kind of ‘Wikipedia Game’, instead? Because if girls don’t get busy on the wiki-verse soon, we’ll never tip the scale.

This article was amended on 2 February 2015 to reflect statements issued by ArbCom and the Wikimedia foundation on the sanctions made. The earlier version suggested that only the actions of feminist editors were targeted