Wikipedia: This is a man's world

Wikipedia: it’s comprehensive, democratic...and dominated by blokes. Does this bias matter? Not if your interests are rolling stock, Black Ops and loo roll, says Michael Bywater

Ten years old and it’s just like school: competitive, pedantic, occasionally remarkably churlish, more than occasionally deliberately misleading, and, above all, all the boys are playing together. Doing boy stuff. Boasting. Telling each other off. Jockeying for position. Throwing their weight around. ’Tis, ’tisn’t, ’tis, ’tisn’t, ’tis, ’tis, ’tis horse stuff in the road and NO RETURNS.

Wikipedia, of course.

Actually, technology, of course. Actually actually, epistemology, of course. Find a group of people arguing about what exactly goes in what sub-sub-category and the chances are it would be about 85 per cent male. It’s what we do. I’d guess (we do a lot of guessing, we males, and we will then defend our guesses – God, politics, hedge funds, sport, whether or not Wagner actually intended a momentary pause before the final restatement of the “Redemption through Love” leitmotif in Götterdämmerung) unto death.

It is not, of course, essential that these guesses are made up. Sometimes, they are true. It’s not so much fun – only the other day, I had a tremendous row with a man about Heidegger, even though neither of us really knew what Heidegger had said, and even though there was a professional philosopher in the next room whom we could have asked but didn’t – but we can live with it. We can live, for example, with the study of Wikipedia by the United Nations University which revealed that 86.73 per cent of contributors to the reference work – the people who actually write the stuff – are male and only 12.64 per cent are female, leaving some 0.63 per cent, or 338 individuals, who describe themselves as “Other”, presumably Klingon, and each of whom is presumably contributing his or her labours jupoypu’na’wI’vaD – “for my beloved true friends”, as defined in, of course, a Wikipedia article on the Klingon language (“There are three noun classes, two levels of deixis, and a possession and syntactic function”, in case you were wondering).

But the central point remains clear: Wikipedia is an exercise in argumentative, pedantic and often cantankerous ontology and encyclopediaphilia, which, by its very nature, is essentially male. Vide ut supra, it’s what we do. Just like we say things such as “vide ut supra” when we could equally well say “as I said before” or equally well say nothing at all, on the grounds that the reader is not stupid… except the assumption that the reader is stupid is another thing we do. Another male thing. An even more male thing is making the assumption that the writer is making the assumption that the reader is stupid, whereas actually it’s the writer who is stupid… and once you’ve added in the other assumption – that the reader whom the (stupid) writer is assuming to be stupid is actually us, then you are, if not already male, beginning to see the secret of the male brain. And if you are male, you are beginning to compose, in your head, an insulting email to me accusing me of thinking you’re stupid: an email which will, subtextually, contain both crucial elements of male-to-male communication, as follows:

(1) “Are you calling me a ****?”

and

(2) “You are a ****.”

This may seem a long way from the predominantly male authorship of Wikipedia, but it isn’t, any more than attempts to redress the balance of contributors have much of a chance of succeeding, whether it be by encouraging more women to contribute to Wikipedia and other “public thought-leadership forums”, revealed by the New York OpEd Project to be a similar 85 per cent-to-15 per cent imbalance, or by trying to encourage greater contributions from, for example, India.

Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, provides a revealing example. The novelist Pat Barker rates about 1,200 words in Wikipedia – about the length of this piece. Niko Bellic, in contrast, gets more than three times as much coverage and many hundreds of revisions. Bellic, of course, is male. Bellic is a former soldier. Bellic is an urban warrior. And Bellic doesn’t actually exist. He’s a character in Grand Theft Auto; and the skew isn’t pure chance. Noam Cohen, writing in last week’s New York Times, points out the disparity between the “yeah right, so?” coverage of Sex and the City compared with the meticulous character analyses and plot-line coverage of The Sopranos (or, indeed, The Simpsons).

Suggestions as to why this should be so are legion. Women may feel intimidated, culturally, from asserting themselves in a geekily obsessional community such as Wikipedia. There’s a combative approach to edits, with the project’s strictures on courtesy being not always entirely honourably observed. Vendettas are pursued behind the scenes in a way which few women might want to be part of. One discreditable episode I recall involved some sort of “legal intern” calling himself SWATJester, and advertising himself with a picture of a sniper in full military kit – it’s at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Swatjester/Userpage, if you’re interested – trying to take down an entry because the company it referred to used to employ a woman who is an important (and therefore controversial) figure in the fantasy and science fiction world who had somehow apparently aroused his ire; and in the course of expressing that ire, SWATJester was asked if he actually knew anything about the subject. With majestic and hideous truculence, he coined a phrase which one might hope would be flashed up onscreen whenever anyone looked anything up on Wikipedia: “I do not need to. No special knowledge is needed to edit Wikipedia.”

And there, in a sense, one has it. Wikipedia has amassed more than 3.5 million articles in its English language edition alone. It exists in more than 250 languages. Some 42 per cent of American adults looked stuff up on it, as of May 2010; that, Noam Cohen points out, is well over half of all adults using the internet.Just to remind you: no special knowledge is needed to edit Wikipedia.

Nor, if we are going to be realistic, should it be. Because Wikipedia, whatever it thinks it’s about, isn’t about knowledge or epistemology or what we might pedantically call actual stuff. Nor is it even about porn stars (who get remarkable, and remarkably revealing of the contributor demographic, coverage) or television series or science or cosmology or comparative religion or the dozens of disambiguations of the meaning of “legion” (vide ut supra, again) or anything else you might think it’s about.

What Wikipedia really is is an unholy admixture of the two founding principles of Guinness World Records (“the best-selling copyrighted book series of all time” – Wikipedia), started by the McWhirter brothers as a means of settling arguments in pubs. Men would be on the point of fisticuffs over where the world’s largest pipe organ was, or what the biggest snake was, and so (the idea went) another man – perhaps the landlord – would produce the Guinness Book of Records (as it was originally called) and read out the answer. Hands would be shaken, conciliatory pints pulled, and peace reign again.

Wikipedia combined the argument with the resolution into one, live, universal-access pub brawl. It’s as if there’s a second room, beyond the public bar: a room behind a green baize door marked “[Edit]”. The door is soundproofed. All the drinkers can hear is their own conversation, until voices in the corner by the dartboard are heard raised in increasing anger. The public bar falls slowly silent as it dawns on the clientele that two men are having a terrible row about the angel Metatron. Lapels are gripped. The men’s faces are no more than two centimetres apart, and red. They are shouting “Yeah?” at each other. “Yeah?” “Yeah!” “Oh yeah?” Then the landlord steps out from behind the bar. He opens the green baize door. Briefly, a scene of terrible struggle is revealed: men in Pendleton shirts, men in spectacles, men with beards and tablet computers, men with notebooks and photographs and lists; men struggling and shouting and trading blows; men rolling about on the floor shouting; here and there, the odd woman, trying to make herself heard.

Then the noise abruptly stops. The men stand up, brush themselves down, assume the lineaments of civility. The last man to speak steps forward. “Metatron?” he murmurs politely; “Primarily a medieval Judaic mystical concept, though there are occasional references in the Talmud…”

Peace settles. The green baize door is closed but as the latch clicks shut, a momentary surge of resuming battle is heard…

This is what we do. This is what men use information for. We build competing ontologies around it. We disagree about its components. We insert “onion” as a component in the definition of fougère perfumes. And then we fight. It is men who make lists, men who deploy spreadsheets of railway rolling stock, men who buy cameras (women take photographs), men who compare cars, men who have 281 performances of the same piece on CD. Men, in short, who suffer not from the hunger for understanding (that’s a female predisposition) but the urge for control and the desire to kick the other guy’s butt. The Mk XVII revision 3.1.66 made in the Wirral? I think not. I think you’ll find it was after they had moved to Penge. Ha! Bastard! I AM CALLING YOU A ****!

The slightest acquaintance with Wikipedia – or indeed if you can’t get on the Tubes, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia of AD79 will do – should convince you that I’m right, which is of course the only thing I want to be. Not accurate. Not reasonable. Just RIGHT. But look: at random, nobody not in the grip of some delusion yet unknown to psychiatry could possibly believe that the Wikipedia entry on how to hang a bog roll – look for “toilet paper orientation” – is an exercise in helpful epistemology. It’s not. It’s obviously a casus belli. Hanging end in or hanging end out? It’s a Big-Ender vs Little-Enders war for our times in the smallest room. Nobody, too, could imagine that women had kicked this off, or maintained it; nor be surprised that editing is “disabled for new or unregistered users”. Contentious stuff, bumph, and as a generator of contentious bumph, Wikipedia stands majestically head and shoulders above most of the interwebs.

Most of what appears on the Tubes is individuals shouting “bugger off” from behind the parapet in a darkened room; shout it on Wikipedia and hundreds of other men will appear to demand that your shout be retracted as you didn’t mean “bugger” – it’s offensive to Bulgarians – “off” is the wrong preposition, “off” isn’t actually a preposition in that context, bugger Bulgarians, it’s the gay/lesbian/transgendered community who would be offended and anything else you could shake a stick at. And the same sort of thing applies to entries on addition, burning money, Ammassalik wooden maps, sfumatura, mixed nuts, water landing, the rusty tussock moth, cocktail garnishes, porcelain, Dudleya traskiae, ninja rocks, noble rhubarb. All Wikipedia articles in which the contributor (“Melchoir”, “an intentional bastardisation of Melchior”) who started the toilet paper business has had a hand.

And another one from Melchoir, too: causes of war. There you have it. That’s what we do. Most of us. And 12.64 per cent of women. And those few hundred Klingons. You think I’m wrong? You think I’m sexist? Tough. Editing is disabled.

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