Who Writes … Wikipedia?

It’s 2015 and I’m a college student. Naturally, the first place I go with any question on the signatories of the Treaty of Westphalia, a quick biography of Robert De Niro or a quick history of Tesla Motors is Wikipedia. wikipedialogo

Indeed, in writing this post, the first place I went to for information on Wikipedia was Wikipedia itself. The second place? Google, of course.

Given the dominating presence of wikipedia in my own life, epistemological questions about who writes, or perhaps who edits, are of significant concern.

Wikipedia is huge. in 2014, The New York Times reported that “With 18 billion page views and nearly 500 million unique visitors a month, according to the ratings firm comScore, Wikipedia trails just Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and Google, the largest with 1.2 billion unique visitors.” Wikipedia then, has become a central source of information for huge numbers of people worldwide. Google’s statistics indicate 1.2 billion unique visitors searching for anything; Wikipedia has nearly half as many unique visitors a month searching specifically the encyclopedia-esque content available on the site.

What’s more, Wikipedia has significant repeat visitors. Wikipedia’s own metadata from 2011 indicates that nearly half of those 500 million unique monthly visitors revisit at least 5 more times that month.  So for 250 million people a month, Wikipedia is a primary source of information, which they visit at roughly half the rate they Google search. For anything.

All of this means that Wikipedia’s impact on knowledge, who has access to that knowledge, and especially the quality of that knowledge is massive.

Wikipedia's editorship has resembled an
Wikipedia’s editorship has resembled an “S” shaped curve

A bit of background on the way encyclopedias function: In their early stages, and this is especially true of an online crowdsourced encyclopedia that started from nothing, the growth is similar to a sigmoid function. When the site starts, edits happen slowly at first, then rapidly as the pages are added to create a corpus of information until a climax point is reached, at which point essentially everything worth creating has been created, aside for new pages whose necessity emerges over time.

This understanding was confirmed by Wikipedia’s most prolific editor, Justin Knapp: “The number of editors as such is not necessarily a problem — eventually, the content of the encyclopedia will become more-or-less complete and what’s required is curation and maintenance. By the time you get to 4 million articles in one language, it’s close to done in terms of adding new articles.”

Still, this only answers questions about the statistical patterns in editorship. What of the people who are doing the editing?

In the last two years, there have been three episodes in particular that have called into question the biases of Wikipedia.

The first, an op-ed posted by New York Times writer Amanda Filipacchi entitled “Wikipedia’s Sexism Towards Female Novelists,” pointed out the flaws in Wikipedia’s list-based organizational system. The second big issue was the “Gamergate” controversy, centered around sexism and “gamer” identity in the video game community. Finally, the NYPD’s edits of Eric Garner’s page was met with some serious criticism.

In the first two instances, Wikipedia’s gender bias is of primary concern. Wikipedia itself has admitted to being composed of anywhere from 87-90% male editors, which have led to claims of systemic male bias on the site. Wikipedia has identified the issue, and notes it on its own “Criticism of Wikipedia” page.

Two major publications have taken on the issue of gender bias on Wikipedia, and what the Wikimedia Foundation and the Arbitration Committee, as well as outside groups, have done to try to remedy the issue. I could summarize the process, but instead I recommend checking out these two excellent pieces:  The Atlantic on the issue. MIT Technology Review on the issue.

The MIT Technology Review, in particular, points out the problems with the democratic ideals that spurred Wikipedia’s creation. Unfortunately, Simonite claims, closing the gender gap has been complicated by “The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, [which] operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.”

Throughout my academic life, when teachers and professors advised me against using Wikipedia as a source, these issues of systemic bias and the complications they have to the question of “Who Speaks?” never crossed my mind. Instead, I was instilled with a hesitation to take Wikipedia as fact. Ultimately, I have found, the issues with editorship on Wikipedia are not of accuracy, but of equality and government intervention.

Fiction in the Internet Age?

Here’s a little snippet that got me started on this idea:

If you didn’t take the time out of your day to watch that short video, you should go back now! But if not, here’s a synopsis of what Mr. Wallace had to say. He is generally wondering about fiction and its ever evolving state, specifically in relationship to the Information Age. Interestingly, though, the modern world has in some sense moved out of the Information Age into the Internet Age.

Of course, “Internet Age” and “Information Age” are really very little more than arbitrary names that describe general trends of the time. However, the distinction between these two starts to develop more significance when we think of how much the world has changed in the last 75 years, even the last 40. Here Wallace, one of the premier figures in modern fiction, is speaking in 1996, right at the genesis of The Internet Age, and his primary reference point is television. For him growing up, information was transmitted via television. As he points out though, television exceeded its initial utilitarian, information spreading purposes and found itself somewhere in the grey space between what is art and what is not. He muses “I was raised to view television as more or less my main artistic snorkel to the universe, and I think television, which is a commercial art, that’s a lot of fun, that requires very little of the recipient of the art, I think effects what people are looking for in various kinds of art.” dfw

OK, whoa.

The gist of what Wallace is saying isn’t all that new. The Information Age has clearly shaped the way people consume art and related content. This is even apparent at the macro level: TV replaced newspapers, and now Online media is challenging TV. Wallace’s question, though, ends up being more about the state of literature in relationship to these changes than popular media.

In his place as a bestselling, popular fiction writer, Wallace wonders at the way his style has responded to the information age, especially as it relates to the mass consumption mechanism of television. “What’s interesting to me is that the very phenomenon that demographically perhaps cuts into our audience is a big part of what’s going on in the country that I think fiction writers are trying to capture in some way.”

So the programming that is keeping people glued to the television and away from books is what Wallace cites as the inspiration for the density of his work, arguably the feature that makes them most enjoyable.

Fast forward a few years, it is worthwhile to start looking at the type of writing that has become popular since Wallace’s interview, since the Internet Age has really taken hold.

Here’s another clip, this one from another fiction writer, George Saunders, whose collection “Tenth of December” was published in 2013.


Ironically, the clip is from Saunder’s visit to Google, that company which by now has come to distinguish itself as the symbol of the Internet’s role in our lives.

After listening to the first few minutes, where he talks about his own cultural touchstones and begins reading from his own story “Escape from Spiderhead,” I can’t help but wonder if “Spiderhead” doesn’t bear some sort of resemblance to a symbolic representation of Google headquarters.

ENGL 340 for me so far has been much more a game of letting technology respond to literature. Here I attempted to begin a discussion of the question on the other side: how has modern fiction been responding to The Internet?