Wikipedia expert Sean Lamb helps Rhea Ewing learn how to edit and create content for the site.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Rhea Ewing is hanging out in a sandbox. No, not a children’s play area. It’s the Wikipedia Sandbox, a virtual space where users can play around and learn to make changes to the free, collaborative online encyclopedia.
“I’m new to starting fresh pages, but I’ve tried to make edits to articles before,” says Ewing, a 28-year-old artist. “It’s a little intimidating and not very intuitive.”
Ewing and about a dozen others are gathered in the Bubbler at Madison Central Library, where they’re working on laptops, clicking through tutorials and trying to get a feel for the back-end building blocks of one of the most popular websites on the internet. The workshop, put on by Madison’s ArtWrite Collective, is branded as an Art + Feminism Edit-a-Thon, part of a national movement aimed at improving diversity among Wikipedia editors and the content they create.
“We’re trying to fix who gets represented,” says Alaura Seidl, founding director of ArtWrite Collective. Wikipedia aims to be the encyclopedia of everything, but it’s not necessarily the encyclopedia of everyone. The vast majority of articles are written and edited by men — a 2011 internal survey showed that less than 10 percent of Wikipedia editors are female; another study from the same year found that only 6 percent of contributors with more than 500 edits are women. Unsurprisingly, the gender disparity has led to glaring omissions when it comes to articles about the achievements and contributions of women.
“Men are terrible,” jokes Brett Schlough, a 24-year-old engineer and avid Wikipedia user. He was at the workshop to brush up on his editing skills and learn how he can do his part to help correct the gender imbalance on the site. He feels most qualified to write about technical topics like engineering and architecture and plans to make an effort to highlight work by women in the field. “It’s something I’ll keep in the back of my mind going forward,” he says.
In addition to editing existing articles, workshop participants are also encouraged to create articles about notable figures in art, feminism and the LGBTQ community — people who deserve Wikipedia pages, but don’t have them yet. Rita Mae Reese, a local poet, is working on a page about Melissa Sweet, a children’s author and illustrator who has written more than 100 books and has won the prestigious Caldecott Medal, yet there’s no mention of her on Wikipedia. “She’s one of [my children’s] favorites,” says Reese. Funnily enough, Reese actually has her own Wikipedia page — something she didn’t even realize until a friend pointed it out. “It’s like, how do I have one but [Sweet] doesn’t?”
Before the workshop, Ewing attempted to edit a Wikipedia page about ancient Viking funerals, which describes a sacrifice of a female thrall, a Scandinavian slave or serf. The ritual involved “sexual rites” to symbolize the slave girl’s role as a “vessel for the transmission of life force to the deceased chieftain.” Ewing took issue with the language. “Sexual assault was being called sex,” Ewing says.
After correcting the article, Ewing noticed something happening on the article’s “talk page,” an administrative tab attached to every Wikipedia entry where users can discuss and debate how to improve articles. “People started talking [about my edit] and debating neutrality of language,” Ewing says. Eventually, other users overruled the edit and changed “sexual assault” to “sexual intercourse.”
“I wasn’t necessarily satisfied, but I didn’t feel like I had the ability to challenge,” Ewing says. But thanks to the training and support from the workshop, Ewing now feels empowered to do so. “It makes a big difference when you have the confidence.”
Average number of page views Wikipedia gets each month: 18 billion
Number of articles added each month: more than 20,000
Percentage of 1,445,021 Wikipedia biographies (as of January 2015) that are of women: 15.5 percent
Total edits made at the Central Library’s sandbox: 21
Number of articles edited: 3
Words added to Wikipedia: 295
Ian’s pizzas eaten: 3
Progress toward equality: Incalculable, but significant!