Says Who? The Power and Struggles of Using Wikipedia in Shaping Collective Knowledge

Sydney Warshaw

Just under a year ago, Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee (“ArbCom”, made up of thirteen men and one woman), perhaps unwittingly, took a stand in the ongoing antifeminist controversy and culture war that is GamerGate.1 The committee made the decision to sanction a number of editors, including five anti-GamerGate feminists. These prominent editors, while not outright banned from editing Wikipedia, were forbidden from contributing to any pages pertaining to GamerGate, as well as articles relating to “gender or sexuality, broadly constructed.”2 According to Wikipedia editor Mark Bernstein, “every feminist active in the area [was] sanctioned… No sanctions at all were proposed against any of GamerGate’s warriors, save for a few disposable accounts created specifically for the purpose of being sanctioned.”3

The ArbCom decision represented a fascinating convergence of discussions around the representation of women in technology and video games, women’s presence on Wikipedia, and the power of Wikipedia in the collective shaping of knowledge. Perhaps because Wikipedia can be written and edited by anyone with access to a computer and the internet, it has the power to present a more diverse collection of knowledge than traditional encyclopedic texts that are largely produced by hegemonic publishing companies. This knowledge-shaping, however, is political. Different social groups, genders, classes, and races are liable to have different impressions and understanding of events, figures, and movements, which can result in heated disagreements over how they should be documented. The best way to ensure that stories are being told as effectively as possible is to ensure that there is a multiplicity of voices represented in Wikipedia’s editors. If the editing community is diverse, ideas can be put forward in a context where they are representative as opposed to marginalized, and there is less of a likelihood that they will appear radical and subject to censorship.

GamerGate, for those who are not yet acquainted, is a reactionary “social movement” that started almost two years ago. In August 2014, the internet-based game distribution site Steam published Zoe Quinn’s game Depression Quest, which is a choose-your-own-adventure game about her struggles with mental illness. The game received critical acclaim but angered many male gamers who did not feel it deserved the attention it was getting.4 Shortly after its Steam release, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni published a 10,000-word diatribe detailing their failed relationship and claiming that Quinn had cheated on him with multiple men, including a prominent video-game reviewer, in order to get good reviews for Depression Quest. This opened up floodgates of harassment and death threats directed at Quinn as well as her family members, and any other members of the video game industry who dared to vouch for her.5 Quinn’s home address, phone number, and the phone numbers of her family were posted online, a practice known as doxxing, and she was ultimately driven from her home for fear of her life.6 In the midst of all this, the movement coined and began using the hashtag “gamergate,” which was purportedly meant to be about “ethics in gaming journalism,” but was actually about chasing women and anyone who supported them out of the gaming industry on the basis of their gender. In the years since, the movement has grown and many prominent women in the games industry, as well as anyone who dares to speak out against GamerGate, have been doxxed, have received death threats, and have been mercilessly harassed. The primary fear for GamerGate supporters is that as women, specifically feminists, enter the games industry, they will “ruin games” by lobbying the industry to produce content that is more diverse in terms of the characters, narratives, and messages. GamerGate supporters see video games as a protected space, and the threat of feminists or other SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) encroaching on this space is terrifying.7

Video games, like Wikipedia, and many other cultural products linked to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines are overwhelmingly male dominated. Only 11.5% of games industry jobs are filled by women, and among these women, the vast majority find themselves in marketing, public relations, and publishing positions as opposed to jobs that involve working directly on video game content. Women hold only 10-12% of design and artist jobs, and only 5% of programming jobs. Game writers, of which 30% are women, are the only partial exception to the rule. In addition, the salaries of women working in the games industry are on average $9000/year lower than those of their male counterparts, even when they have been working in the industry for the same amount of time.8

Wikipedia’s statistics are similarly unequal. As one of the top ten most visited websites, and the top visited encyclopedia, Wikipedia plays a huge role in shaping collective knowledge. Unfortunately, however, over 80% of its editors are white and male, which has led to systemic racial and gender biases in articles that get published.9 It is unsurprising, given these statistics, that ArbCom chose to censure the feminist editors. For the committee, the “incivility” demonstrated by these editors would appear problematic and anomalous in a context where they are the minority opposing voice.10 GamerGate demonstrates the violent backlash that can occur in the face of social change, but it also shows that things are changing. Slowly, the video game industry and the makeup of Wikipedia’s editors are becoming more diverse. While this means a period of tension, the result can be one where cultural products are not associated with a single gender, and where all people feel welcome in a context in which they can shape society and knowledge.

As jurists and feminists, we can participate in this push. The legal profession and scholarship have been largely shaped by hegemonic values, and this, too, is represented in Wikipedia articles. We can learn to edit Wikipedia and contribute in meaningful and concrete ways to changing the story. We can also serve as advocates for marginalised voices, pushing male-dominated spaces to listen to diverse narratives, and helping those who have been oppressed to find creative means to share their perspective.11

 

Notes
(1) Andy Cush, “Wikipedia Purged a Group of Feminist Editors Because of Gamergate”, Gawker (23 January 2015), online: <www.gawker.com>.
(2) Mark Bernstein, “Infamous” (20 January 2015), MarkBernstein.org (blog), online: < http://www.markbernstein.org/>.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Jay Hathaway, “What is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks”, Gawker (10 October 2014), online: <www.gawker.com> [Hathaway].
(5) Zoe Quinn, “5 Things I Learned as the Internet’s Most Hated Person”, Cracked (16 September 2014), online: <www.cracked.com>.
(6) Hathaway, supra note 4.
(7) Thomas Anderson, “Why Feminists Want To Destroy Gaming”, ReturnofKings (24 October 2015), online: <www.returnofkings.com/>.
(8) Traci Fullerton et al, “Getting Girls into the Game: Toward a “Virtuous Cycle” in Yasmin B Kafai et al, eds, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011) 161 at 164.
(9) “Wikipedia: Wikipedians” in Wikipedia, (8 December 2015), online: < en.wikipedia.org/>.
(10) Adi Robertson, “Wikipedia denies ‘purging’ feminist editors over Gamergate debate”, The Verge (28 January 2015), online: < http://www.theverge.com/>.
(11) Sections of this piece come from two other papers: one submitted as a final paper for Foundations, and a Term Paper completed in summer 2015 with Professor Moyse.

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