Love and Drama at the Wikipedia Conference

By

According to Wikipedia, there are nearly 22,000,000* registered “Wikipedians”: contributors to the online encyclopedia's treasure trove of content, responsible for writing and editing everything from entries on the Presidents of the United States to the List of Fictional Raccoons. Of those users, “Only a minority are regular contributors,” according to the site. “And only a minority of those users interact in discussions about the community.”

Last weekend the latter minority came together at Wikiconference USA, a series of panel discussions about the state of Wikipedia held at New York Law School’s Tribeca campus. But really, according to some attendees, it was actually a minority of the minority of the minority. “Some hardcore Wikipedians, you never see,” says Kevin Rutherford, a braces-wearing 23-year-old whose badge identifies him as a volunteer with the New England Wikimedians. “Some are very antisocial,” he says, nodding at a group of people spilling out of a panel titled The State of Wikidata. “Even some of the ones who are here. You’ll recognize them. They have like the pizza-stained shirts. We’re the well-dressed, chill ones,” he continued, gesturing to the small group he was sitting with on a leather couches, which included Frank Schulenburg, the head of the Wiki Education Foundation, and Alex Stinson, a graduate student at Kansas State University.

“Like any internet community, you draw introverts, and you draw introverts like us who know how to talk to people,” says Stinson, whose thick-lensed John Lennon glasses magnify his eyes to Avatar proportions.

“So we're basically extroverts, relatively speaking,” says Rutherford. “The life of the party.”

Rutherford and Stinson both started working on Wikipedia as teenagers.

“I first made edits back in '05,” says Stinson. “I was 15.”

“October 2007,” says Rutherford, who was 16 at the time.*

Now they consider themselves “deep users,” Stinson says.

“Ha-ha,” says Rutherford. “I call it hardcore.”

“Yeah, hardcore, deep,” says Stinson. Maintenance of the site has become a responsibility. “When the guy shot up the Holocaust Museum in D.C., I was one of the first people to get it on Wikipedia,” he says.

“Malaysia Flight 370 I kinda helped start,” counters Rutherford. “And then it took on a life of its own.”

When Frank Schulenburg, who is older, discovered Wikipedia around the same time in 2005, the concept “hit me like lightning,” he said. A historian turned software developer, he started by contributing articles about 18th-century mapmakers. “At the time, no one was writing about these things,” he says. More recently he's written an entry on the history of straight razors, and is particularly proud of a section he added on straight razors in movies. “You wouldn't believe how many times people like John Wayne used them,” he says. His next plan is to write an article about forks. “There already is one,” he notes. “But I think it can be improved.”

Writing what to many people will be the definitive text on something is a heady experience. “It gets addictive,” says Rutherford.

But more appealing is the grand, utopic vision the founders have for Wikipedia: a vast melting pot of knowledge, contributed to by people from everywhere, accessible to everyone. “We’re organization-obsessive, and knowledge-obsessive,” says Alex Stinson. “Like, this is the truth about this thing. That's how a lot of people get their kicks when they first join: This is the truth about this thing.

As with all all grand utopic visions, human nature has intervened. The truth is: Having thousands of quasi-socialized know-it-alls all working on a project where second-guessing and correcting each other’s work is the process creates tension, and the tension within the Wikipedia community is legendary. Over the years there have been power struggles, schisms, defections, accusations of abuse, censorship, libel, and just plain-old bickering. At this year’s conference, one former Wikipedian who had asked to give a talk critical of its processes was disinvited from attendingStill, the site’s fractiousness dominated nearly every discussion. “The Wikipedia movement privileges liberty way over hospitality,” Wikimedia Foundation’s Sumana Harihareswara said in the Friday morning keynote address. “For many people in the Wikipedia movement, free speech is, as John Scalzi put it, the ability to be a dick in every possible circumstance.”

Panels addressed such issues as “new user socialization,” “diversity training,” and “the gender gap.” In  her speech, Harihareswara spoke to what it is like to often be “the only woman in the room,” quoting the web comic XKCD. “A guy makes a mistake at math and it's a mistake,” she said. “A woman makes the same mistake and it's, Wow, Girls suck at math. I feel that way a fair amount in the Wikimedia world."

In a talk called "Gender Gap", an older female Wikipedia discussed how the dearth of female editors has led to a scarcity of information in female-focused entries, like the one on menopause. “The culture can be a little confrontational,” she told the room. “Why did you do this and what are you doing? You have to be a little bit less polite. A little bit less affirming. If you stay on Wikipedia long enough, you will see head-butting. You’ll have to get used to that.”

In the past few years, Wikipedia has gone out of its way to create a more diverse editing base. Still, it remains dominated by a certain type of individual. “We're really the typical demographic, actually,” says Alex Stinson, back on the leather couches.

“White, male techies with college degrees,” agrees Kevin Rutherford. “Not you, though,” he says, squinting at a young woman who has silently joined the group, pale with dyed black hair and a skeptical, Daria-like expression. “Are you a contributor?”

“Yes,” she says, her eyes narrowing.

“Do you have a college degree?” Kevin asks.

Yes,” she says, a bit harder.

“So you're like, completely out there,” he says, flustered. “In that you're not like us, but you have a college degree,” he adds hastily. “I mean, you are like us, but you’re not.” He sputters on for a few minutes.

Even amid the awkwardness and strife, moments of genuine connection occur. “Some of my former girlfriends were Wikipedians,” says Schulenburg. “Many couples have met at these conferences. At some point, I believe someone had the first Wikipedia baby.”

“The first generation,” Rutherford affirms. “They're actively producing the next generation of Wikipedians.” Is there a Wikipedia article about Wikipedia babies? “No,” he says. “I tried creating one, and they reverted me.”

Schulenburg shakes his head. “So you see?” he says. “There's love, and there’s drama, on Wikipedia.”

* This post originally stated that there were 22,000 registered "Wikipedians." It has since been corrected. It has also been corrected to show that Kevin Rutherford was 16 and Alex Stinson was 15 when they started working on Wikipedia, not the reverse.