Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 15th, 2018

The difference engine

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Earlier this month, within the space of less than a day, two significant events occurred in the life of Donna Strickland, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and she finally got her own Wikipedia page. As the biologist and Wikipedia activist Dawn Bazely writes in an excellent opinion piece for the Washington Post:

The long delay was not for lack of trying. Last May, an editor had rejected a submitted entry on Strickland, saying the subject did not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirement. Strickland’s biography went up shortly after her award was announced. If you click on the “history” tab to view the page’s edits, you can replay the process of a woman scientist finally gaining widespread recognition, in real time.

And it isn’t an isolated problem, as Bazely points out: “According to the Wikimedia Foundation, as of 2016, only 17 percent of the reference project’s biographies were about women.” When Bazely asked some of her students to create articles on women in ecology or the sciences, she found that their efforts frequently ran headlong into Wikipedia’s editing culture: “Many of their contributions got reversed almost immediately, in what is known as a ‘drive-by deletion’…I made an entry for Kathy Martin, current president of the American Ornithological Society and a global authority on arctic and alpine grouse. Almost immediately after her page went live, a flag appeared over the top page: ‘Is this person notable enough?’”

Strickland’s case is an unusually glaring example, but it reflects a widespread issue that extends far beyond Wikipedia itself. In a blog post about the incident, Ed Erhart, a senior editorial associate at the Wikimedia foundation, notes that the original article on Strickland was rejected by an editor who stated that it lacked “published, reliable, secondary sources that are independent of the subject.” But he also raises a good point about the guidelines used to establish academic notability: “Academics may be writing many of the sources volunteer Wikipedia editors use to verify the information on Wikipedia, but they are only infrequently the subject of those same sources. And when it does occur, they usually feature men from developed nations—not women or other under-represented groups.” Bazely makes a similar observation:

We live in a world where women’s accomplishments are routinely discounted and dismissed. This occurs at every point in the academic pipeline…Across disciplines, men cite their own research more often than women do. Men give twice as many academic talks as women—engagements which give scholars a chance to publicize their work, find collaborators and build their resumes for potential promotions and job offers. Female academics tend to get less credit than males for their work on a team. Outside of academia, news outlets quote more male voices than female ones—another key venue for proving “notability” among Wikipedia editors. These structural biases have a ripple effect on our crowdsourced encyclopedia.

And this leads to an undeniable feedback effect, in which the existing sources used to establish notability are used to create Wikipedia articles, when serve as evidence of notability in the future.

Bazely argues that articles on male subjects don’t seem to be held to the same high standards as those for women, which reflects the implicit biases of its editors, the vast majority of whom are men. She’s right, but I also think that there’s a subtle historical element at play. Back during the wild west days of Wikipedia, when the community was still defining itself, the demographics of its most prolific editors were probably even less diverse than they are now. During those formative years, thousands of pages were generated under a looser set of standards, and much of that material has been grandfathered into the version that exists today. I should know, because I was a part of it. While I may not have been a member of the very first generation of Wikipedia editors—one of my friends still takes pride in the fact that he created the page for “knife”—I was there early enough to originate a number of articles that I thought were necessary. I created pages for such people as Darin Morgan and Julee Cruise, and when I realized that there wasn’t an entry for “mix tape,” I spent the better part of two days at work putting one together. By the standards of the time, I was diligent and conscientious, but very little of what I did would pass muster today. My citations were erratic, I included my own subjective commentary and evaluations along with verifiable facts, and I indulged in original research, which the site rightly discourages. Multiply this by a thousand, and you get a sense of the extent to which the foundations of Wikipedia were laid by exactly the kind of editor in his early twenties for whom writing a cultural history of the mix tape took priority over countless other deserving subjects. (It isn’t an accident that I had started thinking about mix tapes again because of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which provides a scathing portrait of a certain personality type, not unlike my own, that I took for years at face value.)

And I don’t even think that I was wrong. Wikipedia is naturally skewed in favor of the enthusiasms of its users, and articles that are fun to research, write, and discuss will inevitably get more attention. But the appeal of a subject to a minority of active editors isn’t synonymous with notability, and it takes a conscious effort to correct the result, especially when it comes to the older strata of contributions. While much of what I wrote fifteen years ago has been removed or revised by other hands, a lot of it still persists, because it’s easier to monitor new edits than to systematically check pages that have been around for years. And it leaves behind a residue of the same kinds of unconscious assumptions that I’ve identified elsewhere in other forms of canonization. Wikipedia is part of our cultural background now, invisible and omnipresent, and we tend to take it for granted. (Like Google, it can be hard to research it online because its name has become a synonym for information itself. Googling “Google,” or keywords associated with it, is a real headache, and looking for information about Wikipedia—as opposed to information presented in a Wikipedia article—presents many of the same challenges.) And nudging such a huge enterprise back on course, even by a few degrees, doesn’t happen by accident. One way is through the “edit-a-thons” that often occur on Ada Lovelace Day, which is named after the mathematician whose posthumous career incidentally illustrates how historical reputations can be shaped by whoever happens to be telling the story.  We think of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on the difference engine, as a feminist hero, but as recently as the early sixties, one writer could cite her as an example of genetic mediocrity: “Lord Byron’s surviving daughter, Ada, what did she produce in maturity? A system for betting on horse races that was a failure, and she died at thirty-six, shattered and deranged.” The writer was the popular novelist Irving Wallace, who is now deservedly forgotten. And the book was a bestseller about the Nobel Prize.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2018 at 9:04 am

Quote of the Day

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In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.

Aleister Crowley, Liber O

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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