Southern Spaces, #TooFEW, and Wikipedia

Emory University
Published April 12, 2013
Sarita Alami, THATCamp Feminisms South participants edit wikipedia pages for TooFEW, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, March 15, 2013.
Sarita Alami, THATCamp Feminisms South participants edit wikipedia pages for TooFEW, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, March 15, 2013.

Southern Spaces has had a long and sometimes sordid relationship with Wikipedia.

Southern Spaces uses Wikipedia pages as hyperlinks in our articles. While we favor scholarly open-access materials or well-curated collections of primary documents for our links, we often end up choosing Wikipedia links because of the kind of coverage and access they offer. Wikipedia entries are frequently more complete than individual pages, particularly when it comes to biographies or major historical events. They provide our readers with references to additional resources, allowing them to learn more. An additional advantage is that Wikipedia is not behind a pay-wall. Sadly, many good sources accessible through university libraries are not accessible to readers outside the academy. Finally, Wikipedia links are stable, unlike many links to open-access pages produced by individuals and organizations.

Just as our site often directs readers to Wikipedia pages, thousands of visitors a year come to our site by following links on Wikipedia pages which cite our pieces as sources. Even more significantly, people who come from Wikipedia clock enough time on our site that they seem to be reading—they don’t just click-and-leave. I hope this reflects two things: first, that at least a percentage of Wikipedia users attend to references and are invested in the topics they research, and second, that the links from Southern Spaces are helpful and add to the public knowledge base that people access through Wikipedia.

Here, though, has been the rub. We believe that our authors provide information and ideas that build new and significant knowledge, and as an open-access journal, we'd like to share that knowledge with a wide audience. So, for a long time, when we published a piece, we also went onto Wikipedia and updated articles related to the publication. Then we told that we were self-promoting and should stop; also some of our contributions were removed.

As the managing editor at Southern Spaces, I am invested in making our journal better and in promoting open-access knowledge, so I spend time thinking about Wikipedia. On my to-do list for a while has been to rethink our approach to Wikipedia and to train some of our newer editorial associates in best-practices. Then, in the middle of March, I got to be part of a really great wiki-edit-a-thon.

In my other position at Emory, as a fellow in the Digital Scholarship Commons, I worked with Moya Bailey and Sarita Alami to coordinate THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) Feminisms South. On the first day of our unconference we edited and wrote Wikipedia articles along with others across the United States, particularly at THATCamp Feminisms West at Scripps and THATCamp Feminisms East at Barnard. The initiative, called Feminists Engage Wikipedia (#tooFEW), was planned in order to help flesh out women's representation as subjects and editors on Wikipedia, which is ninety percent male-edited.

To prepare for the wiki-edit-a-thon, we talked with editors, watched a tutorial by Adrianne Wadewitz, and learned about the methods and protocols of Wikipedia editing. We learned about the importance of secondary sources and how Wikipedians interpret ideas like "neutrality." Then we spent four hours together creating and improving articles while trying to uphold the five pillars of Wikipedia. (We also discussed, at length, the ways these pillars, which can seem impartial and good, are interpreted to constrict knowledge production and replicate racist, classist, and sexist hierarchies.)

Screen capture of Wikipedia's five pillars, April 10, 2013.
Screen capture of Wikipedia's five pillars, April 10, 2013.

The preparation for the event and the four hours of collective editing and discussion helped me better understand Southern Spaces' relationship to Wikipedia and has better equipped us to engage with Wikipedia.

Through Feminists Engage Wikipedia, I learned some of the reasons that Wikipedia pages can seem like good sources to us at Southern Spaces. I knew that we gravitated toward them because of stability, accessibility, and breadth. However, one of the key reasons we use them is also institutionalized in their code of conduct: they require citations. Their references and recommended resources sections aggregate online materials, provding users with a range of further reading. They also seem to be working within scholarly modes of knowledge production. (Of course, the structures of evaluation and review are different at Wikipedia, which is why we evaluate the any Wikipedia page before we link it.)

I also, and perhaps more importantly, realized that a few easy steps may have helped us present ourselves better to the Wikipedia editors as we've worked to add material to this massive, open, online encyclopedia. First, we should have created accounts. While on the one hand, this may have made it more obvious that we were overwhelmingly adding materials from Southern Spaces, it may also be have been a way to present a track record of real engagement, rather than looking like we were self-promoting. (We are pretty selective in the articles to which we contribute.) It also would have provided us a space to present who we are, as people working for a non-profit cultural-sector institution, invested in knowledge production and sharing. Second, we should have made sure to amend articles instead of simply adding to their recommended resources—in part because doing so would be a better investment for readers. Finally, we should have described our edits. All of these practices seem pretty easy. In the next couple of months, we are going to work on improving our Wikipedia contribution practices and also improving Wikipedia.

As we make changes here at the journal, I wanted to encourage our readership to think about contributing to Wikipedia. When you read an essay, engage with a project, or watch a film here or elsewhere in your research, consider adding some of that knowledge to Wikipedia articles, which you can edit anonymously or when signed-in with a user name. If we all took a few scholarly moments to share our knowledge of secondary resources1, more Wikipedia users (read: almost everybody online) will have access to high quality information and ideas. At the same time, it is important to remember and consider the structures and shortfalls of the Wikipedia model.

  • 1. No original research, and with that an aversion to primary sources, is a core part of Wikipedia’s policy.

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