Royal wedding dress sets Wikipedia a-flutter

Wikipedia has 22 million articles and counting. But when someone added a page on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, editors said it was too trivial and should be cut. Does Wiki have a girl problem?

Eleven years ago, a pair of web entrepreneurs had a revolutionary idea: to use the internet to build an encyclopaedia that anyone could edit. They called it Wikipedia.

No one thought it would take off. The point of an encyclopaedia was to be a source of knowledge and authoritative, definite facts. Encyclopaedias were meant to be written and edited by recognised experts, not by random surfers on the world wide web.

Skip forward to today and those doubters have been decisively proved wrong. At the annual ‘Wikimania’ conference last weekend, fanatical Wikipedians gathered to hear founder Jimmy Wales deliver his yearly update on the state of the Wiki universe.

The news – as usual – is amazingly good. Wikipedia has 35 million users contributing to 22 million articles in 285 different languages, covering subjects from comic books to cosmology, from ancient philosophy to agriculture. The ambition is extraordinary: to create a free online summary of all the human knowledge in the world.

But there is, Wales confessed, one problem: women. Of the approximately 80,000 active Wikipedia editors in a single month, only 8.5% will be female. Although there are editors from all backgrounds, a vastly disproportionate number are young, technologically inclined, middle-class, male, university graduates from Western Europe or the USA.

Although the quality of the entries these editors produce is generally good, the gender imbalance creates an important distortion: it affects which subjects are judged worthy of entries in the first place. There is as much on Wikipedia on Star Wars as there is on Shakespeare. One article on the fictional universe of the Metroid game series stretches to over 30,000 words – longer than one of Shakespeare’s plays.

So when, after the wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William last year, fashion watchers created a Wikipedia entry for the royal wedding dress, furious editors quickly began campaigning for the article to be deleted. One user called the page ‘tripe’. Another, ‘totally absurd.’ A third was so angry he even threatened to quit the site in protest.

Girl trouble

Jimmy Wales, in his speech, picked out the wedding dress debate as an example of precisely the sort of gender-imbalanced thinking that Wikipedians need to fix. The encyclopaedia has millions of articles on geeky subjects, he pointed out, but the most important dress of 2011 nearly gets cut? That must be sexism at work.

In the end, most editors agreed, and the article stayed. But a few dissenting voices turned the accusation of sexism on its head. Why, ask the critics, do people assume that being interested in fashion is ‘girly’, or that only men can be science geeks? A wedding dress is not girly – just dull.

You Decide

  1. Is Wikipedia trustworthy? Why / why not?
  2. Do you think women and men are naturally interested in different things? If so, why?

Activities

  1. List three things Jimmy Wales could do to make Wikipedia more appealing to female editors.
  2. Go and edit a Wikipedia page! Use proper research skills to find some new information you can add on a topic. Remember, if your edit is helpful, your words will become a permanent part of the biggest encyclopaedia of all time.

Some People Say...

“Fashion is a subject for glossy magazines, not encyclopaedias.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So, if I wanted, I could just go and edit Wikipedia?
Exactly. It is amazingly easy to do. Just find an open article and click the ‘edit’ tab in the top right hand corner.
And I can write anything I like?
Yes. That’s one reason why you shouldn’t generally rely on Wikipedia for academic research. You never know who actually wrote the article.
I might go and write rude things!
You could – but there are so many editors online that your vandalism wouldn’t last for long. Some malicious edits get corrected in a matter of seconds.

Word Watch

Wikipedia
The name Wikipedia is a compound from encyclopaedia (which itself comes from the Greek paideia, meaning education) and wiki, a Hawaiian word meaning ‘quick’.
285 different languages
The list of languages includes minority languages like Welsh and Catalan, dead languages like Latin and Anglo-Saxon, and even made up languages like Esperanto (the Klingon Wikipedia, using a language from the Star Trek television series, has been deleted).
Geeky subjects
For example, Wikipedia has more than a hundred articles about different versions of the little used Linux operating system.
Most important dress
Created by British designer Sarah Burton out of French and English lace, Kate Middleton’s wedding dress is thought to have cost more than a hundred thousand pounds. It is expected that it will influence wedding fashion for years to come.

Subjects

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