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Why I’m making it My Feminist Mission to End Wikipedia’s Notability Policy

Wikipedia is arguably the most important source of information on the internet today. Many people begin their research into unfamiliar topics with Wikipedia, a habit further encouraged by the fact that Wikipedia entries, where available, often come up in the top three Google results.

There is no practical alternative to using Wikipedia, as there is no other website that provides the same breadth, depth and timeliness of information. It would not be feasible to aim to set up one from scratch. It has become like the Google or Facebook of online encyclopedias. As such, Wikipedia is no mere website.

Wikipedia has become an integral part of our culture, and holds substantial power over the formulation, articulation and imagination of cultural ideas in our world.

However, Wikipedia has come under repeated criticism from a feminist and social justice point of view in recent years. Wikipedia’s content and editors are both heavily white and male biased, often failing to respectfully reflect the ideas, values and viewpoints of women and minorities.

There have been various attempts at correcting this bias, for example by encouraging women to edit Wikipedia. It has even become common to hold Wikipedia editing workshops where women will edit Wikipedia in groups, adding information about women’s achievements and ideas. However, many women have come to eagerly participate in Wikipedia with a mission to change things for the better, only for their efforts to be entirely rejected. With no recourse to complain, they simply give up.

Why is this happening?

Wikipedia has policies, many of which are either somewhat subjective or selectively applied. After all, the policies are often enforced by a majority vote. Once a decision has happened, it is usually final. It’s not like one can appeal to a higher court or something like that.

Women editing Wikipedia have found that such policies have been very vigorously, even over-zealously, applied to their edits, while they haven’t been consistently applied to other topics, perhaps because those topics are of more interest to the majority of Wikipedia’s editors (read: young, white, male, and perhaps middle class).

The most controversial of these policies is perhaps the Notability policy, which has resulted in the removal of an untold number of Wikipedia biographies, many of them female, minority, or both. Moreover, when new Wikipedia contributors hear from other editors that their ‘heroine’ is considered non-notable and therefore to be expunged from Wikipedia entirely, it can discourage further participation.

What is Notable?

Wikipedia currently requires that the subject of an article is ‘notable’, which is a concept that is vaguely defined. Notability doesn’t mean celebrity, or Wikipedia would only have biographies of celebrities, which would make it much less useful.

Anecdotally, the criteria (when it is actually enforced) seems to be three or more references from reputable sources, independent of the subject, which discuss the subject in depth. This seems like a valid and objective criteria on the surface (if you ignore the fact that it is somewhat selectively enforced).

This criteria essentially makes Wikipedia a tool of the privileged to exclude the less privileged, with important cultural consequences. We all know that those who are rich, well connected, white, male, heterosexual and cisgendered are much more likely to get substantial media coverage in mainstream press than those who are not. As a result, cultural icons and contributors who are less privileged, along with their ideas, are mostly excluded from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is using (and selectively enforcing) a policy that biases the whole project to the rich and privileged to keep the disprivileged out. They are playing a very important part in maintaining the boundaries of privilege in the otherwise open world of the internet.

Wikipedians who support the Notability policy contend that such a policy is required so that Wikipedia doesn’t have profiles about your local bus driver and his dog, defeating its purpose as an encyclopedia. But this is like opponents of marriage equality saying that marriage equality will lead to people marrying their dogs.

What About Cultural Contribution Criteria?

If the Notability criteria is abolished, it can be replaced by a Cultural Contribution criteria, where inclusion is based on contribution to the total culture of humanity, i.e. where a person has made a substantial contribution to human culture, for example defined as one book (whether traditionally published or self-published) or one music album or equivalent. Whether this contribution has been picked up by mainstream press should be irrelevant.

Even if a cultural work has only inspired a hundred (or even a dozen) people, it doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Also, with the long-tail and long term archiving properties of the internet, such a work may continue to be discovered by an endless trickle of readers decades into the future. Wouldn’t it be helpful if they could look up the author and find a brief description of her life and a list of her other works?

Why isn’t it changing?

A simple Google search will reveal that Wikipedia’s notability policy has been the subject of plenty of discontent, as far back as at least 2006. So why has no action been taken? A lot of the discontent seems to have been generated by people whose hard work, perhaps on a biography of a writer or artist who they really respect, have been removed without recourse. They take to their own blog or a discussion forum to vent their disappointment, but then feel like they just have to move on with their lives. After all, it’s not easy to take on Wikipedia’s policies.

It has been observed that those in agreement with zealously defending the policies are self-selected to remain in Wikipedia, while those who disagree often feel defeated and leave, meaning that Wikipedia’s policies, however outdated or unfair, are calcified and destined to remain intact. I agree that change solely from within is unlikely. However, in the outside world, there are many people interested in social justice, especially as it applies to the technological world and our collective future.

We need to raise awareness of this issue and work for victory in the longer term. The marriage equality movement took decades to get to where it is now, and only survived for long enough to finally thrive because activists kept raising awareness under difficult circumstances.

I have faith that if we do the same regarding this issue, we will be able to change things in the end.