The Diverse Information Needs and Behaviors of Wikipedians

At the core of its mission the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit group that hosts Wikipedia, along with other free knowledge projects, is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally(“Wikimedia Foundation Mission,” 2018). The Foundation recognizes that there is a lack of diversity across its projects and is working with various movements, chapters, user groups, and partners to support the development of a greater global representation of the peoples their mission aims to support. 

Wikipedia has a diversity problem. But this is a people-driven organization, and that means it is up to the underserved communities to advocate for their position within the pages of Wikipedia. Enter the edit-a-thon. In his Wired article Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet, Richard Cooke points out that the tech world is notoriously gender imbalanced, and there is a history of harassment towards women and nonbinary contributors. Despite the Wikimedia Foundation’s commitment to rectifying this problem, Cooke says “the means to fix Wikipedia’s shortcomings, in terms of both culture and coverage, are already in place: Witness the rise of feminist edit-athons(Cooke, 2020)

These sessions provide training and outreach to communities that are under-represented within the Wikipedia pages. The events are hosted in libraries, museums, community centers, and most recently, online. One such group working to bridge this gap is Black Lunch Table, an oral history archiving project that hosts Wikipedia edit-a-thons. According to their website, 91% of the writers identify as White and 77% identify as men (Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons – Black Lunch Table, n.d.).

The majority of Wikipedians, the 90% who identify as white males, tend to contribute to the platform as a leisure activity (Cooke, 2020). Founded in the traditions of the white male-dominated field of academia, the origins of Wikipedia, as an online freely accessible encyclopedia, might be the very reason for this lack of diversity. 

Research points to two parallel movements that are working to rectify this gap in representation. Both Black and Feminist Wikipedian groups appear to be more mission-driven than their predecessors. They seek to advocate for a greater representation of their communities within the pages of Wikipedia. These groups sponsor outreach to their communities in an effort to train members as contributors to this crowdsourced site. Their information seeking behaviors and needs seem to come from a sense of commitment and a call to duty. Now that the disparities have been acknowledged, the information needs, as described by Naumer & Fisher, “are not isolated but are connected to a larger context” and it is the methods that will now facilitate changes needed to become an information community within itself (Naumer & Fisher, p. 2117, 2017)

The racial disparities are being addressed by crowdsourcing groups such as AfroCROWD and Black Lunch Table. AfroCROWD partners with the Schomburg Center for Black Culture and NYU professors who aim to recruit contributors who will create and edit multilingual Black History Wikipedia pages. Similarly, Black Lunch Table’s focus is on improving the representation of Black artists on the crowdsourced site.

Feminist groups such as Art+Feminism (A+F) promote events to balance the gender inequities on Wikipedia. These events are “part-demonstration, part work-date” where like-minded “people sit together at museums or libraries to write and edit Wikipedia articles(Knecht, 2020). Gender and racial imbalances have led to social marginalization. “The idea of acknowledging privilege is to raise awareness of those without the same advantages” (N. Cooke, 2016). Perhaps in recognizing that they have a position of privilege, libraries and museums are answering this call for cultural competence. They are stepping up to help facilitate these edit-a-thons with outreach, training, and providing a place to gather. There is still a long way to go, but at least the disparities have been acknowledged and the efforts to repair them have become an information community unto itself. 

This work has proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic using remote edit-a-thons as a means to reach new participants. In August of 2020, The National Museum of Women in the Arts and Wikimedia D.C., partnered with A+F to host a virtual edit-a-thon that “brought more volunteers than any of the previous 6 edit-a-thons hosted by NMWAthe focus of this event was to add and edit pages featuring “Black women artists and BIPOC leaders” (Knecht, 2020). 

Fiber artist Mary Jackson, whose Wikipedia page was updated during this year’s edit-a-thon (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The Web 2.0 technologies have delivered us social media platforms which have become an extension of our everyday life information seeking (ELIS). User-generated content forums such as twitter, blogs, and even Wikipedia are “used to support everyday problem solving and decision making(Savolainen, p. 1508, 2017). The black twitter hashtag is used as a means of sending out culturally relevant information to its followers (Stewart & Ju, 2020). Twitter is now a go-to medium for leveraging information sharing and creating spaces for resistance. This activity generates interest in social movements and calls for a following and driven by community building and social awareness. However, in their 2020 study on the Motivations of Black Wikipedians, Stewart and Ju, concluded that they seem to be driven by the mission of representation. They are turning to their work out of an effort to expand the presence of Black culture on the internet.  

Though the Black Wikipedians’ motivations may stem from altruism and self-interest, they are driven by diverse information needs. In the chapter authored by Heather O’Brien and Devon Greyson, in Information Services Today, this need for diversity stems from the recognition that there is an information gap. The problem is the lack of Black culture, history, and representation on Wikipedia. Individuals seeking information on the internet, may not look for this information, but “not all information acquisitions are needs driven; for example, casual information encounters (e.g., via channel surfing, checking social media) do not have an imperative need for information(O’Brien & Greyson, p. 41, 2018). Thus Black and Feminist Wikipedians are motivated by the need to ensure the information is available when it is sought out. 

 

References

Cooke, R. (2020, February 17). Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/wikipedia-online-encyclopedia-best-place-internet/

Knecht, L. (2020, September 2). The Internet’s Public Square Is Mostly White and Male. These Groups Are Changing That. Next City. https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/internets-public-square-mostly-white-and-male-these-groups-changing-that

Naumer, C. M., & Fisher, K. E. (2017). Information Needs. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences (pp. 2115–2121). CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1081/E-ELIS4-120043243

O’Brien, H., & Greyson, D. (2018). Diverse Information Needs. In Information Services Today: An Introduction (pp. 40–51). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sjsu/detail.action?docID=5295158

Schomburg Center (2016). Black life matters Wikipedia edit-a-thon 2016 edition [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd6biduoA-k

Savolainen, R. (2017). Everyday Life Information Seeking. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences (pp. 1506–1515). CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1081/E-ELIS4-120053403

Stewart, B., & Ju, B. (2020). On Black Wikipedians: Motivations behind content contribution. Information Processing & Management, 57(3), 102134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ipm.2019.102134

Wikimedia Foundation Mission. (2018, May 31). Wikimedia Foundation. https://wikimediafoundation.org/about/mission/

Wikipedia Edit-a-thons – Black Lunch Table. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2020, from https://blacklunchtable.com/wikipedia/

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