Wikipedia, which turned 20 this month, is big. Really big. It’s read 8,000 times per second and visited more times per month than Netflix or Instagram. We’re so used to seeing it at the top of Google when we go to settle arguments, check facts, or educate ourselves on an unfamiliar topic that it’s easy to forget what a sprawling, miraculous, precarious thing Wikipedia really is.
“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales likes to say. But the scope of Wikipedia is too big to comprehend. If English-language Wikipedia alone was printed and bound into books, it would make up almost 3,000 volumes. I know this because I read it on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is the most massive centralized collection of knowledge in human history, a bolster against misinformation, and a free-floating library, run by an army of unseen volunteers. It is a vast and extraordinarily optimistic project, destined to be only as thorough, varied, and brilliant as the people who create it.
Right now those people are men.
Close to 90% of the editors of Wikipedia are men. The majority of those men are white. Fewer than one in five biographies on Wikipedia are about women, and those articles have been found to be significantly shorter than articles about men.
It was not supposed to be like this. Wikipedia aspired to create a totally democratic community library open to every person, comprising every piece of available knowledge. But the gender imbalance has stuck, even though the Wikimedia Foundation—the nonprofit that supports Wikipedia—has been outspoken about its attempts to fix it for years. As things stand, Wikipedia may simply replicate all the biases and narrow ideologies of history books and Western models of thinking, rendered for the internet.
But not if these women can help it.
A team of fiercely dedicated women Wikipedians is working around the clock and around the globe to write themselves into the pages of history, one edit at a time. They are journalists, doctors, librarians, academics, and scientists—a global nerd convention of women scribblers and data addicts, obsessed with the project of making Wikipedia equitable, and in making it equitable, making it accurate.
Jess Wade has written over 1,000 biographies of women for Wikipedia in between her work in the U.K. as a physicist. Her favorite is a page that belongs to Gladys West, the daughter of sharecroppers, whose work as a mathematician was later used to create GPS.
Emily Temple-Wood, a 26-year-old doctor in Chicago, has been editing Wikipedia for more than half her life. Her favorite post is “Death During Consensual Sex,” which she wrote with a group late one night at a Wikimedia conference. “There’s lots of popes and presidents and stuff,” she says.
Sandister Tei, who was Wikimedian of the Year in 2020 for her work documenting COVID’s impact in Ghana, loves a relatively simple page: the St. Barbara Catholic Church. “It was the first time I had to travel to a library to be able to create a Wikipedia page,” she says. (Yes, Wikipedia editors use books.)
The three women are volunteers, just like every editor who has contributed to Wikipedia’s 55 million articles. Anyone can edit Wikipedia. But such is the devotion of Wikipedia’s editor core, with the help of a few bots, that when Stephen Colbert advised his television audience of millions of viewers to add fake information to Wikipedia’s elephant page, changes didn’t stick for more than minutes. Wikipedia was the nemesis of every mid-2000s middle school librarian, an intellectual punchline, to be red-penned by a tutting teacher. The haters were simply wrong—just a few years after its inception, Wikipedia was only slightly less accurate than major encyclopedias, a little bit more biased, and incomparably more comprehensive and up-to-date.
“We’re in the business of impacting people with knowledge,” says Tei. A millennial, Tei became increasingly obsessed with information sharing after using the internet to help diagnose her own depression. “There’s just this thing about ignorance,” she says. “When you don’t have enough information, you’re basically living your life in a void.” As a university student, she says, “any time I heard something new in class, my question was, ‘Who else needs to know this?’”
The answer is everyone. Everyone should have free access to high-quality information. But how can Wikipedia make readers less ignorant, when it is largely limited by a Western tradition that ignored or diminished everyone who wasn’t white and male? Women experience a two-fold exclusion from history: first largely kept from participating, then kept from the records.
To the degree that Wikipedia is just a way to convey existing information, inequality is unavoidable. “We are unable to write about the totality of women on Wikipedia if women weren’t written about in history,” Katherine Maher, the CEO and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, tells Glamour. Jackie Koerner, a bias researcher and devoted Wikimedian who recently co-edited a book about the site’s 20th anniversary, puts the problem like this: “Unfortunately, Wikipedia is a reflection of society because the people contributing to Wikipedia are people of society.”
We are never going to be 50% of all Wikipedia biographies. And “no one’s looking for that,” explains Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, cofounder of WikiProjectWoman. “What we’re looking for is equity.”
It’s a surprisingly big ask. Perhaps because of their nature as editors, no one is more eager to point out problems with Wikipedia than Wikipedians. “My first introduction to Wikipedia was, ‘By the way it’s quite racist and sexist,’” says Wade. “The first people who contributed to Wikipedia were the kind of white tech bros.”
In fact, in its early years Jimmy Wales financed Wikipedia through his search engine Bomis, which featured the Bomis Babe Report and The Babe Engine, bringing in advertising revenue by furnishing internet users with sexy pictures of women. That bro culture persisted despite the site’s high-minded ideals, manifesting in subtle but insidious ways. Wikipedia’s commitment to conveying information from a neutral point of view, for example, is sacred to its editors. That works well in articles like “Communism” and “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.” But in other cases, the desire to be “neutral” is itself a bias. In one movie synopsis, a plot point was described as “[he] has sex with her while she is semi-conscious.” That's rape, not sex. But the term rape wasn’t deemed “neutral” enough by the editors.
It’s not just about the content that appears on Wikipedia. It’s also about the culture. There aren’t enough quick-thinking editors in the world to combat the persistent harassment problems and male-dominated atmosphere among Wikipedians as a group, as Wikipedians themselves acknowledge. “Women and people of color, just dealing with just everyday life—we might not have the patience left in our bucket at the end of the day to deal with aggressions and harassment online,” say Koerner, the bias researcher. Other popular theories about Wikipedia’s gender problems: Women generally have less leisure time to spare and are less likely to assert themselves as experts.
Temple-Wood has been active on Wikipedia since she was 12 and has made tens of thousands of edits to the site. But Wikipedia has left its mark on her too. Over Zoom screen share, she scrolls down old Wikipedia editing histories, showing me where internet strangers harassed her, as a teenage girl. “They really hate autistic people, which is great,” she says rolling her eyes. Temple-Wood is autistic, an asset, she says, on Wikipedia, a place where people who love obscure information and focusing on challenging tasks can flourish.
During her freshman year of college, Temple-Wood started writing biographies of women scientists. She would mess around with her friends, formatting pages and joking around. The more women she introduced to Wikipedia’s pages, the more the harassment increased. Finally it was one rape threat too many—she needed, somehow, to strike back.
She resolved that for every emailed threat, she would write a Wikipedia entry on one woman scientist. She would take books out of the library and sit in her dorm room hallway, sometimes tipsy, writing late into the hours of the early morning about Aspasia, ancient Athenian ob-gyn, and Caroline Still Anderson, who became a doctor in 1878, just years after other Black Americans had been enslaved. She called it the Fuck You Project, which became the Women Scientists WikiProject. It now has a list of 17,118 women scientist biographies that are either completed, under construction, or yet to be written for Wikipedia.
Her project links up with Women in Red, an initiative that seeks to create an article for each of the women on Wikipedia whose names are hyperlinked in red, indicating that they lack their own page. To create these women’s biographies, Stephenson-Goodknight leads volunteers in edit-athons and months-long events, targeting specific categories of missing biographies—a Black Lives Matter project, a women’s suffrage project, a women in Asia project. When she completes a new biography of a woman, she also inserts links to that woman’s page into the page for her hometown, her alma mater, her profession, making sure that the woman is inscribed across the webpages of history, harder to erase. She writes articles about men too. (“It’s low-hanging fruit,” she says. “It’s so easy.”)
The Wikipedia women work nights, weekends, and on holidays. Stephenson-Goodknight, who is retired, estimates that she volunteers about 40 hours a week for Wikipedia. Wade will write half a dozen articles on an international flight to a science conference, or will edit at night in the lab, as she stays up observing data. But the percentage growth of women’s biographies is slow, and the percentage of women editors is stagnant.
The Wikimedia foundation and Wikipedia community have been eager to condemn harassment and inequity but slow-moving on action plans. The community recently completed a two-year strategizing project, which resulted in a new plan for dealing with harassment, including better protocols for reporting harassment, recommendations to create an infrastructure of resources for people who experience harassment, and a new code of conduct for the entire movement.
Wade and Tei both say that if they had joined the Wikipedia community in the early days of rampant harassment when Temple-Wood did, they probably would have left. When Wade does get harassed for writing as a woman, it feels like being punched. But ultimately, she says, “I realized that the people who are benefitting from these pages being written, both the scientists and the general public, far outnumber these kinds of little idiots.”
The urgency of spreading good information seems to be the engine that powers Wikipedia women through years of harassment, eye strain, and correcting grammar on articles about a Kentucky town that has only ever had dogs for mayors. I described this feeling to Koerner as a kind of high, but she set me straight. “We don’t get any sort of high out of contributing,” she says. “We’re dedicated to providing access to a human right—knowledge.”
“The need for a scientifically literate population is at the highest it’s ever been,” adds Wade. “We need people to understand about aerosol transmission. We need them to look at a graph and be able to interpret really big numbers. We need them to think about masks.”
Ironically, for all the hand-wringing in its early years, Wikipedia excels at proliferating straightforward facts. The site simply doesn’t tolerate misinformation, wiping it clean by the second, unlike its similarly popular internet peers, like Facebook and YouTube. Where did the World Health Organization turn to get COVID information out quickly and cleanly? They collaborated with Wikipedia. Good thing, too. Wikipedia dominates the Google search algorithm, is popular on both sides of the partisan divide, is regularly used by doctors, and has been embraced even in high-minded libraries like at MIT.
“The reality is, Wikipedia is one of the first resources patrons come across in their independent research journey,” says Diamond Newman, a librarian in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes I use Wikipedia in my work as a research building block. But, as with any resource, I consume, share, and reference it critically. And I commit to researching beyond the page.” Every Wikipedian I spoke to pointed out the same thing—Wikipedia, like all encyclopedias, shouldn’t be treated as a source itself. “If you’re going to get on our butts about reliability and good sourcing, then you should know you should never cite an encyclopedia,” says Temple-Wood, making a fart noise.
The women behind Wikipedia believe it will continue to be a force for good, despite all they have weathered as its custodians. Maher sees Wikipedia as tasked with “ensuring that the general public has access to a baseline of context and information to be able to interpret the day’s events.” Right now, Americans have a general skepticism, not just of the media but of any kind of authority, she points out. Wikipedia, for all of the pedantry and nerd-outs that go on during late night edit-a-thons, isn’t pretentious. “It’s very open about the fact that it’s a best understanding of the world as we know it, and we make mistakes,” she says.
Before Wikipedia, encyclopedias like Encarta and Britannica were so bulky and expensive that only libraries and the wealthy could own them and keep them updated. Breaking news and analysis is often hidden behind paywalls, and scholarly journals that publish research breakthroughs require paid subscriptions, even though in America, tax dollars fund that research. Wikipedia—readable, constantly updated, and shockingly accurate—is accessible.
“Money doesn’t determine who knows what,” says Tei of Wikipedia. “If knowledge is really that important—if for lack of knowledge we perish—I don’t think ignorance should be determined by whether or not you have money.” Unlike the other sites that join Wikipedia as the most trafficked in the world—Google, Facebook, and Amazon among them—Wikipedia does not use ads, collect user data, or incur subscription fees. It leaves millions of dollars on the table for the pleasure of being beholden to internet-dwelling science nerds instead of corporate greed.
But there are rich personal rewards to finding intimacy between the lines of Wikipedia’s vast library. Temple-Wood survived on Wikipedia, from her tween days, to her Fuck You Project, and beyond. At her wedding last fall, there was a whole table of Wikipedians.
Wikipedia’s founder wanted us to imagine an information repository big enough to hold all the knowledge in the world. But our minds simply cannot fathom the sheer quantity of black-and-blue facts scrolling down 1.5 billion devices every month—the “karaoke” page and the “Quantum Mechanics” page, the “kissing” page and the “COVID” page, and the page about “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116.” (It’s pronounced “Albin.”)
There’s an intimacy in this vastness. Stephenson-Goodknight cries when speaking about writing her favorite biography—Eunice Gibbs Allyn, who in 19th-century Iowa found an opportunity to make her mark on history by writing under a pen name after her family had discouraged her from her unladylike teaching ambitions. As a child, Stephenson-Goodknight had hoped to become an anthropologist, but her father insisted she focus on being a wife and mother.
“But that little girl, that anthropologist, she was always in here,” Stephenson-Goodknight says, with emotion. “And with Wikipedia, I got to be that person.” On the occasion of her thousandth article appearing on the main page of English-language Wikipedia, it was about Gouribari, an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, the kind of place she would have studied as an anthropologist. She dedicated the article to little girls with impractical dreams.
“They don’t have to be impractical,” she says. “Maybe you can’t do it today but don’t give up on it, because maybe you can do it some other day. With Wikipedia, I got to do it my way.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour