Over the past week, I’ve had the chance to play at being a journalist — and an activitist, and a person-who-kind-of-knows-how-to-use-technology. I’ve been participating in Amnesty International’s Feminist Wikipedia Takeover.
What we are doing is ensuring that Wikipedia is providing adequate representation of women. There are ample statistics about the extent to which the management and editing of Wikipedia is male dominated, and this is an attempt to remedy the inevitable bias that comes with that. Some people are adding new pages about notable women who are not yet represented. Others are editing existing biographies.
In the editing, we are looking at two main things. We are adding content, especially when the page fails to mention the political aspect of the subject’s career. However, we are also looking at the traditional editing concerns, writing errors and especially citation problems. This is not just me being an English teacher — it’s really important that the statements be cited, and that the sources be reliable, or the page runs the risk of being deemed a stub and deleted. So, as I want to say to my students, citations are important, kids: be sure you back up what you’re saying, or Wikipedia will erase you as a human being.
It’s been, like many important things, wildly exciting and intensely boring at the same time. It is an amazing feeling to be able to control the narrative of what is perhaps the most powerful disseminator of information on earth. At the same time, though, the process is meticulous and eye-strain-y, especially when you don’t check the instructions and end up with a screen full of code.*
The research itself is difficult, precisely because it excludes Wikipedia itself, which is where we go for our basic information, whether we like to admit it or not. The other top source of information on a subject is often their own website, which is also off limits. This means a lot of digging through archives, photocopies of print versions of newspaper articles, and stray mentions found through library searches..
I drifted through the suggested sites, making a few copy edits, but generally feeling daunted by the scope of what I didn’t know. Finally, I fastened on a familiar name, the folk singer Faith Nolan.
My task was to strengthen the citations and enhance the coverage of Faith’s activist contributions. It was tough going; her work in the 90s was just not that well documented because, well, no social media. In a world where my cats have Instagram hashtags**, it’s hard to remember a time when “pics or it didn’t happen” means that much was lost, or consigned to oral tradition, which is difficult to document. I found a few stronger sources to fill out the citations, and I caught one new fact, about a band that Faith had performed with in her early days, but I still don’t feel done.
So, Faith, if you’re out there and you’ve got any leads, get in touch. Together we can tell your story — your way.***
*an excellent example of this tension between the mundane and the momentous is a discussion I found on the MMIW talk page. Determining whether the number of women is 500 or 4000 is of vital importance, but it’s hard to stay with the minutiae of the back and forth discussion as it unfolds over multiple exchanges.
** this is a serious post, so no, no matter how hard you beg, I am not going to link to their pictures, but it’s pretty easy to find me on IG…
*** I even wrote you a thank you note.