Furthest Right

Overthinking Wikipedia

When I was a kid, it used to freak me out to hear “established” media sources talk about technology. They always got it wrong: a modem was a radio, hackers stole phone cards, ankhs were symbols of Satanism.

A day or so ago, a report came out pointing out the absolutely obvious: 85% of the contributions to Wikipedia have come from males. Where are the women? they ask. As usual, the stuffed heads get it all wrong.

About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University.

But because of its early contributors Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd, says Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. This includes an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women. – NYT

With an obliviousness verging on mental retardation, the established media are somehow missing the obvious: “he average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s” and it appeals to a computerish, nerdy, and socially awkward crowd.

Who — whether on World of Warcraft, Dungeons and Dragons, the local Linux fan group, LARPers, videogamers, or even internet forums — makes up this crowd? Mostly young men. Lots of them. The lack of women on Wikipedia is not about gender, or IQ. It’s about how our society produces alienated and isolated young men who detach from the social process.

Even so, Wikipedia’s contributors are a tiny minority among the male population. The Wikipedia volunteer list will I suspect mirror that for most open-source software: underemployed males in entry-level technical jobs, basement-dwelling graduate school dropouts, and people incapacitated by mental or physical health.

Our established media treats Wikipedia as if it were an outpouring of all of humanity, but in reality, it’s not only the product of a lonely group of nerds, but it’s a business instrument of Google, Inc. Google reached a point where it could not refine its search results further to remove crap; language is intensely context-sensitive, so a typed phrase often creates ambiguous results and is open to forgery. Google wanted to ensure that its top link at least returned basic information and a links list, and it couldn’t do that through automation. Instead, Google funded a free public initiative whose goal was to use legions of alienated people to clone existing encyclopedias.

Most of this was done through plagiarism. On any given Google search, you will get a few pages of links in which 2-3 links give you most of what you need to know about the topic. The Wikipedia drones took these, compiled them and changed the wording, and hit publish. They also cloned information from their textbooks, from government sources and from out of print books. The problem got so bad that Wikipedia demanded a source for every cited fact, and constant “is this source notable?” discussions split the community.

Like the Mozilla Foundation, to whom Google is the biggest giver, Wikipedia serves a purpose for Google that Google cannot undertake directly without running afoul of anti-monopoly laws. And like Mozilla, it’s a “people’s project” that is cloning an established product (in Mozilla’s case, the Internet Explorer and Opera browsers). Its volunteers see it as a kind of revolution against the old media and corporate power structure.

When you need to staff such a project, you want unpaid volunteers who are fanatical. That rules out anyone who is happy with their lives. You want people who crave the self-esteem boost of identifying with a revolutionary mob. In effect, you want people who are defined by their need for an identity and an in-group/out-group conflict.

If you have ever dealt with Wikipedians, you will note that they are many things, but “professional” is not one of them. They bicker. They backstab. They engage in lengthy political battles. They don’t mind wasting the time because they plan to do this forever, since it’s what gives their life meaning, not their jobs or lowly social status. They flare up when their dignity is insulted and go ballistic over simple disagreements.

Normally this behavior would cause us to put them in asylums, but since they’re using computers, we assume the computers are to blame. What makes more sense is that this audience self-selects by their opposition to society at large, and as a result of that find computers as a medium where they feel comfortable. No actual interaction, you see, so no criticism for who they are or how disorganized, chaotic and/or pointless their lives are.

How many Wikipedians have gone on to achieve success in areas other than Wikipedia? Your average Wikipedian is drawn to Wikipedia for the same reason that police academies have rigorous psychological screening: damaged people seek power so they feel better about themselves. Wikipedia gives them a chance to look intelligent to their peers. It makes them feel better about the dingy basement piled with books from their last academic failure, or the tech support job.

Let me hazard a guess as to why relatively few women (about 13 percent of the total) contribute to Wikipedia. They are not interested. Wikipedia writing is impersonal and anonymous. It is a solitary activity and women are less solitary than men. – The Thinking Housewife

I believe this explanation makes the most sense: women adapt where men rage. Part of that raging includes dropping out and giving society the finger, joining one Revolution or another, and wasting a decade on liberal ideas of “progress.” This process in turn creates more of the social instability that creates its members, so it grows like a cancer. Wikipedia is merely a subset of this.

Our media insist on treating the internet like a recently-discovered planet. What do the creatures there do? What is the culture? The answers are in front of their noses: the internet is not a culture, anymore than “telephone lines” are a culture. It’s a gathering place. Most of the people who gather there are the ones that life has failed, or who have failed at life.

Wikipedia’s gender balance is not about gender. It’s about who’s out of options, and the pointless activities they chose to compensate for that sorry state.

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