Image credit: Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504 [CC0]
Wikipedia started my love affair with free knowledge and open education. Like any relationship, it can be complicated. Over the years, I felt hurt, inspired, embarrassed, hopeful, and unsafe. First in 2001, I found a new way to discover and consume information. In 2008, I received harassment on-wiki for the first time. In 2009, my graduate degree sat in limbo as the dean and I disagreed about open education. On stage in 2017, while presenting at an academic conference of thousands, the audience erupted in giggles and guffaws. I didn’t tell a joke. I simply said, “I edit Wikipedia.” These years of turbulence fed doubts I held about Wikipedia, causing me to examine the barriers and to reflect on the hopeful possibilities.
Initially, I knew nothing about the inequities in the world surrounding education. I grew up in a privileged part of the United States. My school received sufficient funding, provided special programs for academically gifted students, and ultimately quenched every student’s thirst for knowledge. I only knew my lived experience. Thankfully, that changed in 2001 when I became aquatinted with Wikipedia. With a bit of chagrin, I admit I only consumed content from Wikipedia and contributed nothing in return. That changed in 2016 when Wikipedia helped me when I needed it most. It gave me a purpose when I felt I had none. Quickly, I realized how much Wikipedia needed me too.
The complexities of my relationship with Wikipedia are not insignificant. I find comfort in working amongst my peers for knowledge equity. Yet, I loathe the way Wikipedia reflects the worst in society. The worst inflicts a replication and transference of societal bias upon a community created to provide quality free knowledge. A bit of an oxymoron, but it exists, and all because it is an encyclopedia built by humans. Humans acquire biases from their experiences and infuse them into societal structures. Those same biases permeate Wikipedia’s community, policies and practices. I love Wikipedia and have many hopes for what it can do for knowledge equity, but the barrier of bias creates an unwelcoming environment for people, knowledge, and change. Wikipedia has survived the first twenty years, but now it is time for Wikipedia to thrive. To be frank, if we fail to revise this current path we follow and continue to allow bias to negatively impact community culture, content, and experience, Wikipedia will in fact prevent the very thing it set out to change.
Wikipedia formed as a way to collect, preserve and provide free knowledge. Wikpedia disrupts in a way that has improved education, and can continue to do so, but only if we disrupt the societal challenges we humans inflict on Wikpedia. If we do this, access to quality education will increase, knowledge equity will become tangible, and ignorance will no longer be an excuse. All of this is already happening, but we can and need to do better in order to make the possibilities of Wikipedia a reality. The possibility for Wikipedia to deliver quality education seems obvious; however, creating and following a path to knowledge equity is not. There are no best practices, no guides, and no magic wands to ensure progress and prevent the progress from getting derailed.
Despite education being considered a human right,1 educational opportunities are not available to everyone,2 and certainly not equitably. Education as a human right is still a radical thought. Wikipedia is a radical project changing education. As I write this in 2019, successes using Wikipedia for education have been well-documented. Yet some academics and knowledge professionals stigmatize Wikipedia use in academic and educational environments. Studies now emphasize the propensity of academics to consult Wikipedia, and their desire to conceal their perceived intellectual infidelity from the academe, considering it departs from traditional scholarship.3 This unease of educators with Wikipedia only exaggerates the barriers to knowledge equity. If academics distrust Wikipedia, the impact at the local level means they will not utilize Wikipedia to teach information literacy, critical thinking, or writing. On a larger scale, they will not transfer their knowledge and skills into Wikipedia contributions. This stigma limits the expanse of content by individuals who possess the skills and resources to produce fully-cited, quality Wikipedia articles about potentially specialize topics. This might not seem like that big of a deal for many of you reading this. This is because opportunities for education are assumed for the part of humanity privileged enough to have access to educational resources, such as computers, books, or something many of us take for granted, like language. Even so, this education, even in privileged countries, does not mean quality education.4 Socio-economic status and family educational attainment level greatly influence educational possibilities for children. 5,6
Wikipedia can fill this gap. To some extent, Wikipedia has begun to fill the educational gap. Some examples include the Wiki Education Foundation7 and their work on improving student learning outcomes using Wikipedia,8 The Wikipedia Library9 by providing access to paywalled databases for Wikipedia contributors, and Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together10 program to strengthen the relationship between public libraries and Wikipedia. Through these educational innovations, knowledge becomes attainable, discoverable, and ultimately conceivable to those systemically excluded. By changing minds of educators and knowledge professionals about Wikipedia and providing them with the resources to educate their communities, the reach is exponential. This work to fill the gap illustrates people comprehend Wikipedia’s application potential for knowledge equity. But is potential enough?
Defining knowledge equity is complicated. It is one of those concepts easier to frame in stating what it is not rather than what it is. Thus far, Wikipedia has not operated wholly in pursuit of knowledge equity. Starting in 2017, the Wikimedia movement’s Strategic Direction, Wikimedia 2030, published a commitment to knowledge equity. It states:
As a social movement, we will focus our efforts on the knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege. We will welcome people from every background to build strong and diverse communities. We will break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge.11
Initiatives to impact access to information and knowledge equity with Wikipedia have taken various forms. All of these projects include scholars, activists, and enthusiasts focused on knowledge preservation for the sake of humans. The quantifiable impact of these initiatives vary, but the message is clear. The world needs a way to share in knowledge without boundaries imposed by society. So far, in these first two decades, Wikipedia cannot even claim to be that, and if someone suggests it, they are gravely mistaken. Regards to the commitment to knowledge equity from above, Wikipedia has failed to address structures of power and privilege in their community thus far. This commitment serves as a guide on what Wikipedia plans to do to achieve knowledge equity, but they have not yet said how. That is on us. Wikipedia is the platform to support knowledge equity, and, of course, a provider of free knowledge should practice knowledge equity. Of the above statement, social barriers growing from structures of power and privilege will be the hardest to overcome.
Bias in traditionally developed content
Educational material is often developed in a skewed process, as it is developed by a select group of people following their perception of importance and topical perspective. This means educational content is developed using a biased anthropological lens. To impact this educational inequity, we need to change the way knowledge curation and dissemination of static information occurs. The thought of garnering information from an “encyclopedia anyone can edit” violates an ingrained code of academics to only trust quality sources. But really, what is a quality source? Who gets to decide that? Shown over the years of Wikipedia policy development, the policies and practices largely follow Western practices of knowledge sharing and information publishing. This sends the message that quality means Western. This provides an unobtainable standard for the rest of the world to achieve, as not all cultures follow Western traditions and perspectives. Sadly, representing content in a way that deviates from the Western publishing practices is an ongoing challenge for Wikipedia. When will we stop being so bold as to assume our ways in the West are the best?
The difficulty with this is the content used to develop Wikipedia provides only a partial picture, one developed and interpreted by someone potentially outside of the culture and community from which the information came. Information developed in this way is flawed. This is the same static and biased information some educators provide to their students and many scholars use in their work. Wikipedia failed to recognize and deviate from this practice early in policy development, and values and use similarly biased content to build its content, while excluding diverse sources of information. Content on Wikipedia can always be edited, and allows for more information to be infused, as there can be any number of editors on an article, so while this may be the current and prior state of Wikipedia, this does not have to be the future. The difficulty Wikipedia faces is contributors shedding the preconceived notions about education, quality content and reliable sources.
This problem of preconceived notions about education is not new. Membership into the educated class has been one marked with tradition and scholarship. Education has been marketed as a commodity, and it still is today. When Harvard was founded in 1636, it was a university founded to educate an elite class of White men. Universities during that time were considered the last stop along an aristocratic youth’s journey to adulthood. The true intentions of universities of that time were not rooted in education for the sake of knowledge, but rather a badge of honor for wealthy white men. Standardization of education, quality controls and educational rights came much later, and in some ways, are still in progress.
These biased traditional notions about education, quality content and reliable sources are barriers for Wikipedia to become the sum of all human knowledge. As long as contributors rely on Western content, we humans supply the complications for Wikipedia. If sources of reliable content must fit certain forms, which are generally published secondary sources, we are replicating and magnifying the bias already depicted by such published secondary sources. A broad swath of published secondary sources depicts this bias. The information deemed valuable and worthy of publication follows societal practices dominated by white, cisgender male perspectives and what they find important. This is what the first 20 years of Wikipedia has been, but that does not mean the future is following a set trajectory.
Bias in content on Wikipedia
Wikipedia has a bias problem. No doubt, Wikipedia is an incredible source of knowledge. But, the honest truth is this in itself does not make Wikipedia incredible. The truly incredible part about Wikipedia remains the possibilities it introduces for human rights. Education is a human right, but for much of the world, it remains a privilege. Unfortunately, like humans do, we block our own way and hold on to barriers previously established. This paradox clearly shows in the way Wikipedia was built in the early 2000s. Wikipedia materialized through predominantly Western cisgender male voices, opinions, and societal inflections. Through this materialization, exacting policies, practices, and community norms developed. The awareness in the community, at that time, illustrated a rather singular point-of-view. Certainly, people cannot be faulted for ignorance itself, but people can be faulted when they choose to remain ignorant, when information abounds to demonstrate their limited perspective on the issue. Let me simplify this: bias exists. It needs to change. By infusing homogenous points-of-view into the content, polices and practices of a community, a disservice is being done. We need to all participate in the inclusion of all people and all human knowledge on Wikipedia. This change will move us away from the complications we have caused for Wikipedia and move us that much closer to knowledge equity.
Acknowledging this point-of-view problem is not gratuitous. Wikipedia grapples with bias. Certainly, there has been considerable growth in addressing issues with content, collaboration, and vandalism, but Wikipedia is a reflection of society. Sometimes this reflection magnifies the distortion or outright exclusion of history. For example, if there is no source deemed quality to the Wikipedia community, no article can be written, and yet again, that information is excluded from history. The rather homogenous composition of the contributor pool, the partisan policies they created, and the inconsistent way in which the policies are practiced often leads to some festering imbalances. There is hope. Wikipedia is just turning twenty. This is only the beginning with an undefined trajectory ahead.
The mission of Wikipedia speaks to this. The mission is to freely share in the sum of all human knowledge. What Wikipedia did wrong here was not specifically defining inclusion and equity in the sum of all human knowledge. If not specifically listed, communities remain excluded. Although societal groups with power possess the privileges to address ignorance, the responsibility for abolishing ignorance unfairly lies with the excluded or oppressed. This emotional labor taxes an already overtaxed individual and community. If Wikipedia hopes to be inclusive, this must change.
Many seem to think, the word ‘change’ complicates everything. Perhaps the word evokes pain and humans learned to avoid it. I say this with a bit of tongue-and-cheek humor. Without change we continue to inflict and deepen wounds opened by oppression, exclusion, and continued ignorance. Always change and equity are imagined by the privileged groups in ways where things are “taken away”. Why not think about what can be gained? More content. More education. More coverage of the sum of all human knowledge. There will still be room for Wikipedia pages about Pokémon.12 I promise. We need to adopt a “yes, and” philosophy. For example: Yes, we should be concerned about quality sources, and we need to listen to what quality sources mean across the world. Yes, we should volunteer, and we should make space at the table for more people to volunteer too. There is not a limited amount of equity. Did you know that? Equity comes from actions people take against oppressive and imbalanced policies and practices in society. We can change the world if we choose to enact equitable policies and practices on Wikipedia, and refuse to weaponize listening as a tool to squash diverse perspectives. That change is not scary, but actually rather impressive.
The way in which the community, however, continues to react to challenges of the bound policies, practices, and community norms infuses toxicity into an already saturated environment. The Wikipedia we need to impact education and equity on a human rights scale must eliminate narrow policies, practices and elevate the culture to become inclusive. Western thought focuses on examining phenomena through an anthropological lens, as if we are the ones bestowed with the authority to define the meaning of an object, practice, or the human experience. The trouble with this is, as the majority of the contributors in the Wikipedia community are Western, Westerners are terrible as deciphering injustice, as we are so keen on justice.13 Frankly, if we are not reaching the people who need our service, we are practicing inequity. Until we begin pushing the community to see outside of the practice of analyzing for justice, we cannot be impactful on a global scale.
The developing awareness regarding the abuse of technology to spread misinformation illustrates a potential for increased interest in Wikipedia.14 Wikipedia has a community wanting to do better because we see Wikipedia as a potential equalizer. Education serves as the great tool for social mobility and stability. Wikipedia paints an illustration of daily acts of human decency. We witnessed tech companies position their products for company gains. Here the Wikipedia community works tirelessly for societal good via an unmatched source of human knowledge. Unfortunately, this picture is marred by the constant weight of bias on Wikipedia. The aim for neutrality in content is applied in a way that removes anything varied or diverse. Instead we should aim for balance in content, providing different viewpoints. Wikipedia provides educational content where there may have been little previously, but this content is incomplete and flawed. While still in process, Wikipedia already provides us the opportunity to share a wealth of instantaneous free knowledge. This shows Wikipedia contains the potential to be a great equalizer for free knowledge, but Wikipedia carries the burden of a point-of-view problem that impacts this potential.
Humans will be humans
“Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains, some of them will take patience, and all of them will have to be wrested with like an alligator in the swamp.”
Stepping back and considering various perspectives proves challenging for humans. We only know what we have experienced and we act based upon our beliefs. Bias is our default setting. When threatened, scared, or particularly passionate about something, we fall back to our default setting. Bias takes root in childhood and grows through individual perception of experiences. Humans are not bad for having bias. We all have biases. Biases impact our thoughts, beliefs, relationships and even our work. This includes the work on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia’s challenge with bias is perpetuated by people refusing to acknowledge concerns and issues. Stepping back and examining one’s own bias is difficult: we have to work to think about our biases, and it is painful work. Humans do not like admitting fault. We hear the issue, we refuse to acknowledge that it is an issue considering, from our perspective, it is not an issue. Some of us have become accustomed to active listening and examining our biases, but some Wikipedia contributors refuse and resist this personal work. Within the Wikipedia community, this is worse than ignorance. People resist acknowledging varied perspectives. In discussions, this plays out like any number of logical fallacies. People choose to refute and extinguish the opportunity for growth. An example of this occurred during a session about bias’ impact on Wikipedia that I presented at Wikimania 2017 in Montréal.15 I completed my session agenda and asked for questions. One person stood up, and asked how you tell someone they are wrong when they tell you that you acted in a biased manner? To my great delight, the room filled with murmurs and chatter. I invited people from the audience to answer the question. Even after very thoughtful responses, encouragement, and honest vulnerability, the person refused the possibility that they themselves could be biased. This frustrated the person so terribly they followed me around the remainder of the multi-day event attempting to convince me of my error. This resistance to addressing personal bias still haunts the contributor, as they posted about the interaction nearly two years later:
I have asked a similar question at Wikimania 2017 in Montreal, about how you could go around telling someone from a minority group you are wrong about something, without causing them to hear I know better because I’m a member of the social majority, especially when members of that minority group may not be as versed/skilled in the art of encyclopedia writing due to a difference in background, or want to promote/rectify a situation, when we are required to be neutral. We need to find a way on how to do that, but sadly my question was dismissed as too silly to be worth addressing, and a lot of people in the audience reacted in a sadly predictable “look at the white man thinking he’s better than us” way.
I hoped this fellow Wikipedia contributor would have instead listened and reflected on the beautiful vulnerability being given that day in the crowded room. Our approach was gentle and full of kindness. We knew this contributor meant no ill-will, but they are stuck viewing the world through their individual perspective. If they had reflected, what they would have taken away from this interaction would have been very different. Perhaps they would instead see how, while not meaning to do so, they were applying their biased perspective on the situation and telling others in the community how things should be done. We are all victims of the stories we tell ourselves. Here I feel the contributor was telling themselves the story of, “This is the policy. They are not following the policy. I will educate them about this policy.” The response in situations like this should not be holding our policies so tightly that we cannot figure out how to listen to concerns and adapt our policies to a more inclusive and equitable world. These policies and practices functionally got us to where we are now, but for the next chapter in Wikipedia’s life, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of inclusion when our perspectives and biases are challenged. Regardless of the intention, this narrow and inflexible behavior functions within the Wikipedia community repeatedly to oppress and exclude. Simply because experience and history has been traditionally told from a white, cisgender male perspective, these voices and perspectives within society are taken as fact when often they are opinions or interpretations. We all experience life from our lived experiences; the Wikipedia community is no different.16,17
Just like other communities on the Internet, Wikipedia has a problem with a cabal of users. These users generally band together to attempt to dismantle any discussion or Request for Comment with which they disagree. The difficulty is, this group seems powerful due to their use of unfettered time and abuse of policy. People attribute high qualities to themselves or boast about qualities the community has defined to signal expertise (i.e. edit count) and use that testimonial injustice to wield power, impact perception, and control discussions. It is used in place of expertise. The length of contributor tenure can be used to solidify their power position in a discussion. For example, when discussing information gatekeeping as a worrisome practice, another contributor disagreed with me. Instead of engaging in a respectful manner on the discussion, they chose to “read all 48 pages” of my personal website and post a message on my talk page about being “great enemies” if I disagree with him. The person justified this behavior by mentioning the countless hours and thousands of dollars they contributed to Wikpedia. This uncomfortable experience was mild compared to that of others, but they all have the same intentions: to silence diverse voices. The rampantly unchecked power dynamics within the community continue to attempt to silence the voices capable of addressing bias in content and policy on Wikipedia. These diverse voices aim to ensure Wikipedia’s success for the next twenty years. This can only happen with appropriate disruption of the power and privilege dynamics Wikipedia adopted from society.
In the Wikipedia community, people are not listening to each other. Collaboration devolves into combative discourse. Notable people cannot be documented because nothing about them exists in an acceptable published format.18 Information is discredited, even when quoted from the subject on an oral history.19 Scientists suddenly become notable because of their Nobel prize, instead of their work in the field, while their male colleagues had Wikipedia articles well before any such acknowledgement.20 Many of the discussions surrounding knowledge equity, reliability, verifiability and neutrality draw their energy from bias. These discussions tend to follow a defensive thought process instead of responsive one. A defensive mind is closed to new experiences. In order to get beyond the challenges we face as humans writing an encyclopedia, we must truly hear one another.
Lessons learned and how we can get better
“Wisdom begins in wonder.”
My personal story might sound familiar to many of you, but it might also be different in many ways. I encourage everyone to share their own experience. By listening to each other’s lived experiences, we learn, grow and change. We can improve the trajectory for Wikipedia. The community must learn to be open, and not only accept what they find acceptable for themselves, but accept what is needed for knowledge equity.21 Wikipedia’s first twenty years were a good start, but we need to do more, particularly regarding our biases, if there is any hope we will build an encyclopedia that is really the sum of all human knowledge.
This decision for how to initiate this change is for no one person, or homogenous group, to undertake. The curation of knowledge, development of policies, and denial of change decided in such groups stunts the growth of Wikipedia. It serves no purpose or benefit to the longevity or growth of Wikipedia. Continuing to accept community consensus developed through homogenous groups will keep Wikipedia in a perpetually sophomoric existence.
“We can’t be generous with other people without boundaries.”
Wikipedia as a community needs to set some boundaries. Many of us in the first twenty years have joined the Wikipedia community, found what we were dealing with, and left at one time or another. This could be for any number of reasons, but my theory is the frustration leading to attrition stems from the barriers and challenges built by bias and societal power structures and maintained within Wikipedia’s community. The sum of all human knowledge cannot be built under these conditions where designing logic out of the illogical reigns king. As a community, we must refuse to tolerate incivility and harassment. A Code of Conduct could greatly improve the situation in the Wikipedia community.22 This would signal a culture change within the community. In this change, we should refuse to ignore bad behavior in lieu of contributions, encourage policy updates to be more inclusive and responsive for the sake of knowledge equity, and examine our individual biases and accept feedback. Fear exists about standing up for certain standards in our community. The fear is people will leave and the encyclopedia will lose contributors. I would rather lose thousands of contributors than work in a community allowing inequity and incivility to continue unchecked.
As demonstrated above, Wikipedia’s progress free knowledge is evident, yet in order to impact education, knowledge equity, and even make a good attempt at creating the sum of all human knowledge, there is much that needs to change. Access to education is a human right, but it is not always a reality. The unknowns and the challenges of bias and knowledge equity serve to reduce the effectiveness of Wikipedia. This emboldens the critics, who end up expressing doubt in the face of other’s certainty.23 This also serves to embolden the believers too. The unknowns are an amazing demonstration of the potential of the platform. For centuries, humans conceived the amazing out of the unknown. Why get discouraged now? Although unfinished, rather progressive in some circles, and a little rough around the edges, even at twenty, Wikipedia is the experimental equalizer to the education gap and the solution to knowledge equity.
In addressing knowledge equity, and implementing these changes to reduce the impact of societal challenges on Wikipedia, we must proceed with care. Some areas need more support than others, like with managing bad behavior and enforcing a Code of Conduct. This support must remain in place until other community methods are capable of managing and handling the situations, without perpetuating the abuse cycle already acceptable within the Wikipedia community. Shifting the support too quickly away from a community will inevitably exacerbate inequalities, and deplete the finite resources equity advocates expend through emotional labor. Additionally, in community interactions, we must encourage growth through methods of listening, witnessing, and advocating. Growth this way can change the possibilities for Wikipedia and knowledge equity. Advocating and providing support is much more important than building the solution.
Wikipedia has accomplished some amazing things in the first twenty years of its life. As humans, we learned what it means to come together for a common goal. Much information developed about online communities, online collaboration, and information sharing. Educators and knowledge professionals began using Wikipedia to teach information literacy, regardless of the concerns and issues colleagues expressed. The Wikipedia community has come so far, but there is so much more to be done. If there is any hope for truly achieving the sum of all human knowledge, the next chapter in Wikipedia’s life needs to meaningfully address the inequities perpetuated by societal structures of power and privilege.
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15. Jackie Koerner, Birth of Bias: Implicit Bias’ Permanence on Wikipedia, Wikimania 2017, accessed on June 10, 2019 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koerner_Implicit_Bias_Wikimania_2017.pdf
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17. Amanda Menking, “‘People Who Can Take It’: How Women Wikipedians Negotiate & Navigate Safety, Medium, accessed June 10, 2019 https://medium.com/acm-chi/people-who-can-take-it-how-women-wikipedians-negotiate-navigate-safety-322077463ae1
18. Notability is geared towards the white male perspective, Notability Policy talk page, English Wikipedia, accessed June 10, 2019 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Notability/Archive_63
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