Diversity and Inclusion in Online Platforms: The Case of Wikipedia

Inclusion and diversity are some of the democratic values that Internet developers,  entrepreneurs, researchers, and technologists have tried to foster since its early origins. Allowing anybody to access knowledge and information, and expand her communication capabilities, independent of any gender, racial, or socioeconomic markers, has been embedded in the discourse of Internet tools and platforms. From the World Wide Web to Facebook, from Wikipedia to Google, democratic values have been used both by for-profit and commercial enterprises for promoting their projects. Those values are at the center of the discourse of Information Communication Technologies for good, and although have not always been totally implemented, have become a driving force in the global adoption and spread of these technologies.

While the concept of inclusion refers to the idea that anybody can participate in decision, production, and communication processes; diversity is related to the variety genders, races, classes, and other identities people can belong. Both values are interdependent and need to be fostered at the same time in order to be effective. Their sustainability depends not only on a series of policies and governance structures, but also of sociocultural practices and norms that need to be actively promoted and cultivated.

Among all the platforms that have emerged on the Internet in the past two decades Wikipedia is one of the projects that more radically has tried to embrace the democratic values, in relation to the production and consumption of knowledge. Built collaboratively with the basic principle that “anyone” with Internet access can write and make changes to articles, as well access to any content, Wikipedia has grown into a massive multilingual project (298 encyclopedias in different languages) with thousands of articles, and millions of contributors distributed globally.

“The problem with Wikipedia,” as many members of the community say, “is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.” Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has rapidly grown into one of the most popular sites on the Internet, attracting millions of visitors, and cultivating a global community of millions of volunteers, also known as Wikipedians, that collaborate in the production of a vast repository of human knowledge.

Strategies and Best Practices

Although in practice, Wikipedia has worked as a collaborative, free, and open encyclopedia, its attempts to foster inclusion and diversity, and truly allow “anyone” to participate have not totally been successful. Research has revealed that gender, racial, geographic, and socioeconomic biases exist in Wikipedia not only at the level of the contributors, but also in the content that is published. Wikipedia editors are majority white, male, college educated, and from countries in the global north.

Geography of Wikipedia edits

Despite trying to foster inclusion and diversity, Wikipedia, as many other Internet platforms and communities, has struggled with the challenge of an environment that is shaped by real world structural and systemic inequalities, in which power dynamics tend to exclude certain groups from fully participating in society, economy, and culture. That challenge is not only a matter of the Internet world, but in fact, is a major problem in contemporary democracies. Structural inequalities among genders, races/ethnicities, social classes, and other groups, that exist in the off-line world shape the processes and dynamics that take place online. Power dynamics among social groups are reproduced in virtual spaces.

A study of gender bias in Wikipedia published in 2016 and based in a comprehensive survey conducted in 2008, for instance, found that only 13% contributors are women. The study revealed that women editors felt less confident about their expertise, less comfortable with the conflict that involves editing others’ entries, and reacted more negatively to critical feedback than men. Participating in Wikipedia as an editor requires interacting with other volunteers, deleting and changing each other content. This kind of interaction sometimes ends in an hostile environment of “editing wars” characterized by harassment and trolling, in which women feel less comfortable and in a position of disadvantage to male. Researchers concluded that the anonymous environment of Wikipedia was shaped by masculine norms for behavior that lead to different psychological experiences for women and men, and explained gender differences in contributions.

Like other online platforms and communities, Wikipedia is not exempt of the uncivil behavior, trolling, and harassment that emerges online. These problems have become pervasive on the Internet and directly undermine the values of inclusion and diversity. Virtual environments are not welcoming for minorities and people from underrepresented groups by default. In order to create a safer and positive environment, fight uncivil behavior, and promote inclusion and diversity, online communities and platforms need to actively deploy governance strategies and policies, moderation schemes, and cultivate positive cultures that follow basic social norms and guidelines. As I have written in the analysis of youth-oriented online platforms like Scratch, and DIY.org, when the size of the platforms scales up, such strategies become even more important and determine the sustainability of the communities over time.

Wikipedia has deployed several strategies in order to minimize the incidence of uncivil behavior on the platform. Some of them are at the technical layer of the platform itself, such as using automated bots for detecting and removing spam and vandalism in the articles very fast. Other strategies are deployed at the community layer and focus on offering social and educational support to newcommers. Programs such as the Edit-a-thon and the Teahouse have been implemented to support learning and socialization among new members of the community, emphasizing diversity, and particularly, designing interventions that foster the participation of underrepresented groups such as women and people of color.

Flyer for Wikipedia Editathon on Indian Women Writers

One of the biggest challenges for Wikipedia has been to retain diverse new editors. Particularly after 2007 when the community scaled up to millions of contributors globally and the implementation of automated bots started to be used to reduce vandalism, the number of new editors started to decrease. Bots did not provide social support nor helped newcomers to learn the norms of Wikipedia, but focused on just enforcing the rules, and as a consequence, new editors did not feel welcomed in the community. Essential for any kind of community of practice is to allow new members to socialize and feel welcomed even with their small contributions. That is why programs such as the Edit-a-thon and Teahouse focus on creating a safe and welcoming space, and supporting peer learning and mentorship, particularly among minority groups. Collaboration and cooperation do not happen by default, but they need to be cultivated, and require certain kind of skills and practices among community members.

A Fundamental Flaw?

The case of Wikipedia reveals the challenges of fostering diversity and inclusion in online platforms. Even though a collective and democratic project such as Wikipedia has worked in practice and grew to a global massive scale, it still struggles to fullfill the vision of supporting diversity and inclusion. That vision, is in fact an ongoing project that requires multiple efforts, across multiple technical, cultural, and social layers, and should involve multiple stake-holders beyond the online world. For instance, involving knowledge and cultural institutions such as museums, schools, and libraries in educational programs that encourage diverse people to participate in Wikipedia seems to be crucial.

So far, the attempt to create an open and free repository of all human knowledge looks still pretty biased, and not as inclusive and diverse as the world actually is. As Katherine Maher, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, told us in a recent event I have the opportunity to participate, the “biases of the world are the biases of Wikipedia.” Although it is impressive that the Wikipedia community has been able to create the most comprehensive encyclopedia online, and to achieve good levels of credibility, the knowledge production has been “by large a global north project.”

What is the world that Wikipedia represent? What kind of knowledge is the one that is being considered neutral? Who is producing this knowledge?

Power dynamics and structural inequalities have shaped the open knowledge of Wikipedia. Although that knowledge is in fact more democratic and participatory than the one generated by previous encyclopedias from the print era, it is still biased. The future of Wikipedia as a diverse and inclusive space relies in the ability of the community to foster broader participation and support the creation of a space that is safe, positive, and welcoming of different knowledges, cultures, and minorities. As mentioned before, a crucial strategy is to focus on supporting the socialization and learning processes among underrepresented groups, and particularly, include younger generations in the production of knowledge. So far, youth has not fully been included in the peer production processes of Wikipedia, and it will be key for the sustainability of the project to create programs and support spaces where younger generations can familiarize with the community practices and become members of it.

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