The Battle Over Wikispace

Recently I was made aware, through a listserv I am on, of a contest that was taking place over a new entry on Wikipedia. Although anyone can add an entry to Wikipedia, likewise anyone can nominate it for deletion. Both entry writers and would-be entry deleters are supposed to follow Wikipedia’s guidelines for what constitutes a worthwhile article and not either add or delete items randomly or at whim. Of course, this is not necessarily what actually happens where the avatar meets the interface…

What I found interesting about this particular contest was that it highlights the phenomenon of editorial bias, which has been somewhat obscured on Wikipedia because of its “anyone can write for us” policy. I’m not talking about the problem of bias in individual entries (which has been much commented on) so much as the problem of imbalance in topics and categories—what you might call the categorical topology of Wikipedia—which in turn directly reflects the interests of Wikipedia’s self-defined pool of contributors. It hasn’t escaped my notice, for instance, that just about every U.S.-produced computer game ever released, no matter how obscure, has its own entry, while very significant international artists, especially women and people of color are completely absent. And that’s just to point to two areas I happen to be interested in; I’m sure there are many others. A rather funny article on the Something Awful blog shows up what it terms the “nerd bias” of Wikipedia (I would categorize it differently myself) by comparing the length and professionalism of generally useful entries to loosely related but silly entries—modern warfare vs. light saber combat, for example.

Wikipedia has recognized the problem and is trying to remedy it through what it’s calling the WikiProject: “Wikipedia project suffers systemic bias that naturally grows from its contributors’ demographic groups, manifesting as imbalanced coverage of a subject. This project aims to control and (possibly) eliminate the cultural perspective gaps made by the systemic bias, consciously focusing upon subjects and point of view neglected by the encyclopedia as a whole.” A creditable goal—though I notice that the light saber page is “part of WikiProject Star Wars, which aims to build an encyclopedic guide to the Star Wars saga on Wikipedia”– hardly a neglected topic on Wikipedia! In any case, I think the problem runs deeper and can’t be entirely fixed in this straightforward fashion.

Which brings me to the article in question, which was an entry on “cyberformance,” a term coined by a new media artist and theoretician named Helen Varley Jamieson to talk about a particular form of online performance practice. (Disclosure: I know Helen, and one of my essays is listed under “Further reading” for this entry, probably because I am one of the people who have picked up her term and started using it.) Reading the “Articles for deletion” page where the discussion for and against deleting the cyberformance entry took place, the first thing that struck me was how ludicrous the rationale by the would-be deleter was:

“I’m not going to call Neologism on this one, despite all the sources being self references to Second Life culture… however not every word has a topic associated with it that can be considered encyclopedic. There’s no acedemic [sic] view on “Cyberformances” and more importantly there is little to say on the matter that makes it any different from an extremely sad (POV) form of Real Performance.”

By my count (and leaving aside idiosyncrasies of punctuation and capitalization), that two-sentence comment by “Jimmi Hugh” contains one misspelling, at least two factual errors, and a total absence of reasoned argument. As a subsequent post by the entry’s original writer pointed out:

“Jimmi Hugh’s initial comment that the sources all reference Second Life is just plain wrong and implies a rather careless initial reading. In addition, to make a flippant passing judgment that this kind of work is “extremely sad” seems to me not in keeping with Wikipedia standards of discourse, especially when it is not backed up with an informed analysis of the current state of performance practice.”

My purpose here is not to argue for or against the cyberformance entry itself—indeed, those Wikipedians who took the trouble to discuss the matter in an informed manner were divided on whether it should be kept or deleted, and as of this writing the decision is ‘no consensus’ (which in Wikipedian jargon means the entry stays for the time being). My point has to do with the way in which it was nominated for deletion in the first place. It’s remotely possible that Jimmi Hugh targeted the cyberformance entry through some obscure logic of his own, perhaps as part of a personal campaign to delete entries beginning with the letter c. But given the tenor of his comment, I can’t help thinking that his attempt to have it deleted is a reflection of virulent assumptions about who and what is worthy—assumptions that I suspect are not just individual to Jimmi Hugh but actually underpin the systemic topical bias of Wikipedia. Certain topics, like games, are in effect pre-validated on Wikipedia; and although I have only the evidence of my own casual browsing of entry histories, I seriously doubt that individual entries pertaining to those topics have to meet much, if any, scrutiny of their right to exist. The bar to entry is set low. Other topics—like, say, an unusual form of performance significantly associated with female practitioners—are forced to fight for initial validation. Fighting to be at the table, so that you can then fight to be heard in the discussion—sound familiar?

WikiProject can encourage people to write entries on missing topics—but it can’t keep the next Jimmi Hugh from reflexively pushing the delete button.

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2 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    A couple of thoughts.

    One, the whole premise of WikiProject to eliminate systematic bias by compensating to create a “balanced perspective” implies that such a perpspective is ever achievable. But do I have a better solution? not so much. Random, scattershot bias? Constant accumulation of articles from any and all?

    One partial alternative might be to actually focus on demonstrating and naming biases as things to reflect on in the communities that discuss inclusion and deletion.

    Second, the problem of bias, at least against feminized themes and likely others, has bugged me for a long time. Check out danah boyd’s notes on being notable in wikipedia. I’ve seen far less notable (male) researchers in Wikipedia with their own, uncontested page.

    I have a dream project that I’d like to do when the time is available and the collaborators with time and skills present themselves which is trying to see if gender bias can be discerned in the contestations and deletions of wikipedia articles. Yes, gender is only one category and I can’t presume it is always consequential. But call it a hunch that in this cyberlocation it is. I’m imagining some way of classifying, say, bio pages by gender and then plotting change maps the way Viegas did at media lab, or even coming up with a simple deletion statistic to make the point (if the point is true).

  2. zelda says:

    Danah’s piece is interesting for highlighting one especially absurd aspect of Wikipedia rules: that it’s not ok to post your own bio, but it is ok to correct it if someone else posts it. In a world where the kind of people who post on Wikipedia are trained to spend vast amounts of time blowing their own horns, suddenly it’s virtuous to be modest? (Or is it only good to be modest if you’re female?) I think there’s a good deal more that could be said on this subject…

    Cheers to your gender bias project– the suspicions I voiced on this subject are obviously only at the anecdotal level, and it would be very good to have real data on this.

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