Local edit-a-thon events aim to inject diversity into Wikipedia entries

Wikipedia editors are overwhelmingly young men, but edit-a-thons aim to engage more diverse individuals to bring their perspective to the site.

When Emily Puckett Rodgers moved from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti three years ago, she was excited to learn about her new city. However, in the course of indulging her curiosity, Rodgers noticed that information about the city was missing from a very important knowledge-sharing platform: Wikipedia.


"I know that Ypsi is a really vibrant artist community and that there is a lot of support for the queer and Black communities here. But what I was seeing in town was not represented on Wiki," she says. "There was mostly information about the automotive industry, but the city obviously has a richer history."

Emily Puckett Rodgers.

Rodgers, who is a space, design, and assessment librarian at the University of Michigan (U-M), decided to take action to remedy Ypsilanti's anemic Wikipedia page. She reached out to the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) about hosting a Wikipedia edit-a-thon.


Wikipedia edit-a-thons have become increasingly popular at the national level over the past five years, and various organizers have now held several in Washtenaw County. The events are a way for people to edit Wikipedia content with other members of their community. No experience is necessary and training is usually provided at the event. But the often-themed events share the common goal of addressing shortcomings in the online encyclopedia's entries.


Thanks to Rodgers' request to pump up Ypsilanti's Wikipedia presence, YDL and U-M will be co-hosting such an event. The week-long virtual event starts on Oct. 14 and concludes on Oct. 21. It will kick off with a training session, progress to a mid-week check-in, and conclude with a discussion and celebration.


For Rodgers, the excitement is palpable.


"This is an incredible opportunity for community members to learn from each other and to enrich the Ypsi page to include more voices and perspectives," she says.


Correcting information imbalances


Diversifying Wikipedia content is incredibly important, says Anne Cong-Huyen, a digital scholarship strategist at U-M. She points to information released by the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia.


"Surveys on who edits Wiki found that about 90% of the editors are men. A large majority are educated, under the age of 40, and they live in the cold North," she says. "This gives us a sense of the kinds of background these editors have, and also the biases they might bring when creating and editing content."


Biases and scanty information on Wikipedia are issues that Cong-Huyen has been working to address prior to joining U-M. While living in Los Angeles, she had participated in several Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thons. These events are part of a global campaign to improve representation of cis and transgender women, feminism, and the arts on Wikipedia.


With Cong-Huyen as the driving force, U-M hosted an Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon in February at Stamps Gallery in Ann Arbor. Featuring a guest speaker, a DJ, and refreshments, the event was attended by roughly 40 people, 20 of whom stayed for the entire event and took part in editing.


"What we tried to do is create space for women and non-cisgender men to edit Wikipedia," Cong-Huyen says. "A lot of the time women just don't have the time to edit Wiki, so we created that space for them to do so socially."


While it’s hard to truly measure the impact of edit-a-thons, Cong-Huyen believes that there is great potential for participants to continue to create change outside of the construct of a formal edit-a-thon.


"If they come across something on Wikipedia that's incorrect, they might be more likely to take action to make an edit rather than get upset about it," she explains.


Empowering change and compassion


Equipping students to be able to contribute to Wikipedia is something that Christine Hume, a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), is passionate about.


"It's important to acknowledge that Wikipedia exists within American patriarchy and white supremacy, and the majority of editors are white heterosexual men," she says. "I want to empower my students to be able to balance that."

Christine Hume.

To that end, in January she organized a Wikipedia edit-a-thon focused on decolonizing Wikipedia. Students were invited to update Wikipedia entries on subjects related to their major.


"The department is merging most of its majors into one English major with various concentrations, so it seemed like a fun event to promote the variety of disciplines we represent," she says. "The idea was to have representatives of all programs working together, sharing ideas, and getting excited about what we do in our individual programs."


Regardless of students' disciplines, Hume wanted each of them to leave the event feeling capable as "knowledge producers."


Pamela Mohar, a creative writing graduate student at EMU, was one of about 60 people who attended the event. She was sold on the importance of edit-a-thons while taking a course that Hume taught about art and community activism. She says it was "really refreshing" for her to create material about women, transgender people, and people of color that "puts those other profiles to shame."


Mohar is looking forward to participating in more edit-a-thons in the future.


"We live in a period of civil unrest. Capitalism has exploded on the heads of the working class, corporations are out of control, and Black and brown people are being killed and arrested by police at an unfathomable rate," she says.


Mohar says editing Wikipedia isn't going to solve any of these issues, but society still has a lot to gain.


"It gives a voice to people who don't experience the privilege that the media affords to white men," she says. "When you get to know these [marginalized] voices, it becomes someone that you can relate to – a person, capable of experiencing warmth, depth, and compassion."


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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