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Polis and Oikos online

All contributors to this debate (at the New York Times) argue that the reason women are underrepresented among Wikipedia editors (according to a recent survey) because the community is unwelcoming to women in subtle ways. This seems to me a surprising conclusion to draw for a couple of reasons.

First, how do we know it is so unwelcoming? The data in the survey doesn't directly support that, and the debaters don't give any new evidence that it is so. (I wouldn't be shocked to see such evidence, but I haven't yet.) Some of the characterizations seem downright wrong to me: Joseph Reagle says, "a culture of hacker elitism can be unappealing to those unable or unwilling to hew to the stereotypical features of the hacker." Is Wikipedia a culture of hacker elitism? Maybe twenty years ago, any "online community" had some of that hacker flavor, even if it centered on, say, recipe sharing. But now that the web is so mainstream, I don't believe this is always true. If the space is unwelcoming, it's not for this precise reason.

Second, and more importantly, what about the fact that identity is—at least ostensibly—so easy to cloak on the internet? Wikipedia is a place of handles and obscure user pages. What percent of Wikipedia editors have a recognizable gender on the site? Is it hostile to editors who are actually seen as women? Or only because the activity in discussion pages is somehow untenable for women's participation—even when so cloaked?

I wouldn't want Wikipedia's women to rely on such cloaking, but still I'm surprised that more women aren't participating under such cover, or at least that the Times' debaters aren't more interested in the question of how gender is represented and enforced on Wikipedia, if that is the claim. For example, one debater, Anna North, says, "I suspect ... one factor [leading fewer women to contribute] may be that solitarily editing an article on an online encyclopedia may be seen as antisocial." But, seen as antisocial by whom? Who's doing this policing?

A very interesting point comes from Susan Herring, who has studied online gender dynamics from mailing lists forward:

Wikipedia ... is public. Men ... tend to feel a greater sense of entitlement to occupy public space. This is reflected in my finding that men regularly post longer messages to online discussion forums than women do, and they rarely apologize for message length, even when they go on for 20 screens, whereas women apologize even for short messages. Some women may lack the confidence to contribute to Wikipedia or feel that it would be presumptuous of them to do so.

Elsewhere, it's been reported that online discussions can be "intimidating" to women—but the above quote gives some color to the sort of intimidation we're talking about: not threats as such, or even nasty remarks necessarily. Sometimes it's just weight

Herring also notes the relatively higher participation of women in blogs and on Facebook, which might be seen as "private" spaces. This seems a more compelling mechanism for the gender gap: this entitlement that men feel toward public places, as well as the importance they place on fighting over it. There is only one "Egypt" article on Wikipedia—who gets to affect it? Perhaps men will feel a willingness, if not a compulsion, to work for that space, while women may simply feel it's "not worth it" to engage in the flame wars (even if not especially bitter or gender-biased in their content).

To me, it is that "feeling of presumptuousness" in modifying a central public space (a forum, a polis) that is most telling—not to mention the genuine presumptousness of someone who'd ramble on linguistics for twenty screenfuls, taking the right to fill that space, and perhaps fight over it.

Much more research needs to be done on this!


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