The case of WAM or the Centre for Women, Ageing and Media

"exclusion' term on Wikipedia

It’s a fundamentally non notable subject

Wikipedia has become an indispensable source of online information for students and researchers because of its ease of use as well as its reputation as a user-generated encyclopaedia of shared knowledge. But is it? Our research suggests a much more complicated and twisted tale. Wikipedia is a space of negotiation, contestation and struggles over inclusion and exclusion into “encyclopedic” knowledge.

For example, age and gender intersect when we look at the data on who produces and consumes the content on Wikipedia: only 12.64% of contributors and 30% of readers are women (UNU-MERIT 2010), they are not equally represented on Wikipedia (Reagle & Rhue 2011), and women’s pages undergo “aggressive” editing (Pappas 2014). Wikipedia editors are also young: 25% are under 18 years old, 25% are between 18 and 22, another 25% are between 22 and 30, and the last 25% are between 30 and 85 years old (UNU-MERIT 2010).

Given this data on WikiProduction, the question is whether and how a diversity of voices, knowledge, or points of view might be reflected in the content. Without lapsing into age-essentialism, our research-to-date indicates that Wikipedia’s community is far more narrow than is often discussed, that this limited range of experience is reflected in the content, and that if these exclusions are not addressed that Wikipedia may contribute to the perpetuation of age-related biases. To give another example, when we established a WikiProject on ageing and culture, one editor commented that this area might only be a niche interest. While others did come to our defence, that such a broad and significant area of research could be construed as niche indicates the tacit values that are in need of proactive intellectual measures for age studies scholars.

In terms of content and perspective, an inventory of English-language entries related to ageing shows a preponderance of medical or health-related perspectives, especially in main entries such as “Ageing”, and virtually no discussion on the lived experiences of ageing, ageing and culture, or ageing and humanities. Students who may turn to Wikipedia to learn about ageing will find details about senescence and the biological basis of ageing, the prevention of ageing, and the social impacts – predominantly negative- of an ageing population on the economy and the health care system, all indicative of what Margaret Morganroth Gullette terms “decline narratives.” A multiplicity of related articles focus on themes such as gerontology, geriatrics, disengagement theory, life expectancy, elder-care, active and successful ageing, and anti-ageing. A few articles have opened a space for alternative perspectives, including the entry on “Ageism”. Given the emphasis on ageing as health, ageing as decline, or ageing as a problem to be overcome through positive and successful ageing strategies it is clear that when it comes to age and ageing studies that Wikipedia needs an overhaul so that it offers more than the current limited range of understandings and experiences of ageing.

With this in mind, we embarked on a project these past few months, ACTipedia, to try and insert age studies content into Wikipedia in English and in French.

This has furnished us with the opportunity to understand the challenges in producing content on ageing for Wikipedia that includes women and feminist contributions. One of our most interesting experience in updating how age is represented on the pages of Wikipedia has been our attempt to create an entry for the Centre for Women, Ageing and Media (WAM), a research unit housed at the University of Gloucestershire in the UK founded in 2010.

In a nutshell: our entry on WAM was nominated for deletion almost immediately when we first entered it. It was deleted, re-established, re-nominated for deletion, and finally re-deleted.  In justifying their deletion, the deleters drew upon Wikipedia’s criteria of notability, intrinsically connected to the idea of neutrality and the expectations of Wikipedia’s referencing system.

The term that has most vexed our attempts to insert this significant alternative organization by and for older women, WAM, into Wikipedia, has been the term “notability”. Notability denotes, in WikiSpeak, importance outside of narrow group interest. Of utmost importance for our case: articles have to be based on third party, non-affiliated sources, which are seen as a guarantee of neutrality. Research centres must have exposure in mainstream media or have an entire book written about them. The references we have chosen have been accused of being “blogspotty” and “tabloid,” generated by WAM researchers or about WAM members with insufficient mention of the organization itself. The sources need to mention WAM specifically, not only its members, and entries are considered valid only if they describe WAM’s work extensively.

We have attempted to restore our entry on WAM by challenging its critics and by referencing the WAM Manifesto, as well as the interventions of members of WAM into various policy realms. Not even the participation of WAM members in a 2014 commission for the House of Lords was enough. The deletion was upheld by “the community”.

We also realized in our efforts to argue for the notability of WAM is this: Wikipedia’s rules are not applied consistently throughout Wikipedia. For example, we have looked at over twenty other Wikipedia pages for research centres –including recent entries- and what is notable (pun intended) is that they have not been deleted despite their non-conformity to notability criteria. Some of the entries that have an over reliance on references to their own websites and publications and no quality external references had a banner on top of the page that asked  them to improve their referencing, while other entries showed no indication of potential problems. WAM’s page, which was said to suffer from similar referencing problems, was nominated swiftly for deletion, while a more forgiving approach was adopted by the Wikipedians reviewing these other entries. In our current system of under-representation of women in so many of our institutions, this heightened state of scrutiny of feminist organizations is troubling. This experience with WAM on Wikipedia seems to confirm to Zuleyka Zevallos findings that women’s pages undergo “aggressive” editing, referring to pages that deal with issues of interest to women (e.g. if we compare the edit history and discussions for the pages « Woman » and « Man » (Pappas 2014).

WAM’s notability was identified almost immediately as suspect, we suspect, because it is a feminist organization that is actively challenging the representations of older women in the media, rather than being an organization that has sought media attention. As stated by the Wikipedian nominating it for deletion, from their point of view, WAM is a fundamentally non notable subject.” This same Wikipedian, upon further research, has admitted to a keen interest in MRM, the Men’s Rights Movement. When confronted with this potential conflict of interest as a bias, we were dismissed and ordered to “assume good faith” and avoid personal attacks (one of the 5 pillars of Wikipedia).

The deletion of WAM’s entry is in itself notable. While Wikipedia may be the first go-to place for many of our students, take heed. Truth and expertise are evaluated according to a very different logic than they are in academia. Our case study shows that “truth” about notability emerges from references that are open to editorial scrutiny, but this scrutiny is not necessarily academic. Instead, what is replaced is media visibility, which points to the question of Wikipedia’s inadvertent participation in a culture of promotion and celebrity. Example: every member of our beloved hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, including recently acquired rookies, have Wikipedia entries. Getting into the media is important, not whether what you do is of import and has a history. Mickey Mouse is more real than an organization like WAM in WikiTerms. Entry into the media, being the subject of a secondary source makes you notable. Saying you are a feminist organization may make you notable in a completely different way- notable for deletion. This brings us back to Foucault’s still relevant insights into the nexus between power, knowledge and truth.

WikiTruth is grounded in rules that contributors are encouraged to follow and that become reified into a kind of common sense that is like a case study in hegemony and its operations. While the rules are supposedly achieved by consensus and are up for discussion, in the case of WAM they were applied as strict rules and applied à la lettre. This truth is held up by WikiExperts. One of the aspects of Wikipedia is the expertise that one needs to acquire to become a member of “the community.” Abbreviations and terms abound that must be mastered so that one can gain acceptance and entry into the WikiCommunity, and eventually exert power in the higher sphere of policies and guidelines. The WikiExpert is able to use acronyms and abbreviations with aplomb in arguments for inclusion. This expertise determines what is “true” – but not because they are a scholar specialising in a particular topic. An expert is an anonymous person who knows the rules very well. These criteria may allow topics, organizations and individuals who cannot have their notability verified, according to these rules, to be ripe for either exclusion or deletion.

Alternative perspectives on women and ageing struggle to be notable if they do not become hungry to achieve notability within mainstream media or seek exposure and discussion. For the moment, WAM has been deemed “not notable enough” despite our concerted attempts to furnish evidence to the contrary, including our discussion of the import of the WAM Manifesto. What our struggle to resist the deletion of the entry indicates is how the notability criteria can be used to eliminate constituencies who are already marginalized—or do not seek or are unable to gain media attention—from Wikipedia. It indicates how ageing and culture outside of the dominant discourses is understood too readily as “a niche” or “narrow” interest. This is ironic given the limited demographics of the average Wikipedian and the limited range of discourses on ageing found on the site.

In offering an entry on an organization that critically challenges the three or four dominant narratives on ageing in Wikipedia (ageing as equivalent to health; ageing as decline; anti/positive ageing scenarios; and ageing as an economic burden, what Stephen Katz calls “alarmist demographics”) we meant to widen the scope to include ageing as a cultural and political phenomena. WAM’s deletion is doubly ironic, as one of the goals of their manifesto is the call to end the invisibility of and discrimination against older women in the media. What the deletion means is that Wikipedia’s representations of age and ageing may continue to echo the relative invisibility of feminist issues in mainstream media. This foray into the world of Wikipedia indicates the work to be done to produce alternatives images, discourses, and understandings of the experience of ageing. We remain committed to this cause.

Call to action:

It is as imperative that strategies are developed to foster the inclusion of smaller local research centres on age and ageing, the contributions of women to the age studies agenda, and the diversity of work and perspectives on ageing in culture in this powerful space of public discourse.

We encourage all of you to mention the organizations that you support in your articles and papers, in your interviews with the media, and in your public policy statements. Otherwise future students and citizens who consult Wikipedia will continue to live in a cyber-universe that perpetuates a very limited range of imaginative depictions and possibilities for women and girls- and for how we understand ageing.

Following this adventure, we set up a WikiProject with the aim of encouraging editors, especially people with knowledge in the field of ageing studies, to collaborate on a collection of pages around the specific topic of ageing. You can sign up as a participant here. It is VITALLY important that we gather as many participants as possible. Directions are available on the page.

Remember this: there are doubts about whether such a subject is valid at all. We do not want to prove them right. We want to prove that Wikipedia can respond, can be inclusive, can change, and make them live up to their aspirational discourse of being an open community. Indeed, it is worth noting that our efforts to set up entries on organizations like WAM in the French version of Wikipedia (which has specific criteria for research centres) have been successful. The battle, and it does seem like a battle at times, is within the English-language world. So far.


About the Project:

The ACTipedia project is both a research project that is teaching us about the inner logics and workings of Wikipedia and an activist project to rectify representations of ageing within Wikipedia. At first, our desire was to redress the absence of writing on ageing from an ageing studies perspective in French. Our mission has expanded since then. Since beginning the ACTipedia project, we have created and modified close to twenty entries in French and English. Many are listed under “open tasks” on the WikiProject page.