Ultimately, both sides in this dispute recognize that what appears in the encyclopedia is a reflection of its editors – they simply disagree on whether the publishing community needs to change. its operation.
Just one more ten years ago I wrote an essay compare Wikipedia to a vibrant city, how it “can send you down unlikely back streets” via the many links embedded on one page: there are links to articles about other people or places mentioned; links to categories of articles on similar topics; links to articles on the same subject in different languages with unexpected illustrations, which, of course, have their own particular connections. The whole business felt like a city in that adventurous and ambitious people came together to build something lasting together, stretching from top to bottom and all around.
In my view, visiting Wikipedia was to be a flaneur, wandering unscathed from an interesting building to an interesting one. I have paid little attention to those from marginalized groups who find Wikipedia full of creepy dark alleys and abrasive characters. In 2020, I decided to travel to some of the unwanted corners of Wikipedia that I hadn’t written about a decade ago.
This is how I came across an article obsessed with exhibiting the clay feet of Benjamin Banneker, a black inventor and scientist from Colonial America. This was not the Wikipedia article on Banneker himself, which covers his long life of invention, surveying and mathematics, but a purported companion article – thousands of words, with 250 footnotes – entitled “Mythology by Benjamin Banneker. The article finds examples of praise for Banneker for building a wooden clock or for surveying the area that has become Washington, DC, and then cites accounts questioning whether the historical records support such praise. Over the years, editors have come forward to complain about the article, including we are wondering if Einstein’s article should also cite the book Einstein: the incorrigible plagiarist. But objections to this and other obscure and potentially offensive articles rarely win out unless an experienced editor or administrator can be enlisted to mount a campaign to turn the tide.
Since starting editing in 2004, Ian Ramjohn, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, has carefully followed how marginalized groups are treated within Wikipedia’s editorial body and on its pages. He has seen progress in driving out racism and sexism in articles that receive a lot of views. “The issues tend to stay on more obscure topics,” he wrote in an email. “The fewer people who have seen an article, the less likely it is that someone has done the work to push back that kind of thing. Many Wikipedians avoid conflict, so they won’t be inclined to start something. Others may not feel confident enough in their stock of social capital – I may take risks that someone who hasn’t been around as long as I haven’t been – or want to endure the stress of these fights. .
In a future version of Wikipedia that takes harassment more seriously, one can imagine an increasingly diverse team of editors empowered to oppose offensive content, even if that content is based on fact. In my travels I have also found myself at a detailed account of a children’s book produced by the Nazis that until recently linked to a neo-nazi site where an English translation was sold. A visitor left a comment wondering if every insult against Jews really needed a link to a library copy of that particular section: “We need a RS [reliable source] for claims about what the book says, not the hate propaganda book itself!
For this 2009 essay, I looked at the writings of Lewis Mumford, a historian and great city thinker who saw tolerance of outsiders as the basis of city life. “Even before the city is a fixed place of residence,” he writes, “it begins as a meeting place that people return to periodically: the magnet comes before the container, and this ability to attract non-people to it. residents for sexual relations and a spiritual stimulus not the least that commerce remains one of the essential criteria of the city, witness to its essential dynamism, as opposed to the more rigid and drawn form of the village, hostile to foreigners.
This is the challenge that plagues Wikipedia. After a period of wild and unbridled growth, it needs civilizing laws. The equivalent of a fair housing law and safety inspections to ensure it won’t exclude certain groups from its pages and allow hateful content to grow and fester. Just as it takes more than bricks to build a city, it takes more than facts to build a thriving encyclopedia.
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