The struggle over gender on Wikipedia: the case of Chelsea Manning
One of Wikipedia’s strengths is that it can be changed by anyone at anytime -- this means that its information is rarely outdated because the second or the minute that an event happens, anyone can change or create the Wikipedia article about it. No formal review process is necessary. This does not mean, however, that there is not extensive discussion on Wikipedia about changes that editors make. And those discussions reveal much about how Wikipedia works and how knowledge is produced on the site. And knowledge is definitely made and constructed on Wikipedia -- often through a very messy process.
Take the recent case of the Chelsea Manning article. On August 22, 2013, Chelsea Manning announced in a press release “I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. ... I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.” On the English-language Wikipedia, the “Bradley Manning” article was renamed “Chelsea Manning” and the pronouns in the article were changed to “she” less than an hour after her announcement. Several hours later, Slate published a piece “Wikipedia Beats Major News Organizations, Perfectly Reflects Chelsea Manning’s New Gender,” announcing “As many newsrooms struggled to appropriately reflect Chelsea Manning’s gender transition announcement this morning, Wikipedia editors swiftly rewrote the Army private’s page to reflect her new name and gender—with remarkably little controversy.” Even though the Slate article was later corrected to indicate that there was indeed quite a bit of controversy, the article does not convey the scale of that controversy, which was enormous even by Wikipedia standards. Over a five-day period between August 22 and August 27, after the article was moved to the new title, there were:
Over 3,000 edits to the article’s “talk page” (a separate page meant for discussion of the article’s content) made by 507 editors. (Thank you to Brian Keegan for this figure.)
Over 1.25 megabytes of discussion added to the talk page -- between 200 and 300 pages worth, if printed out (the size of a fairly hefty novel) -- and more was added in the next few days.
Over 300 comments made (many of which generated their own threads of discussion) in an open survey on moving the article from “Chelsea Manning” back to “Bradley Manning”; these comments were split between those in support of the move and those opposed to it, with a slight majority in favor of the move back, but no clear consensus on either side.
The talk page discussion on Manning’s gender and related issues was so extensive that a FAQ was created addressing common questions of editors coming across the page, and a neutral group of administrators offered to monitor the discussion and survey. The page became so long it had to be split into sub-pages, or “archives,” four times over the week simply to remain technically editable. The discussion was mainly located on the article’s talk page, but did spill into other community discussion forums as well, making the true extent of the discussion difficult to estimate.
The article on Manning was a hot topic during this time period -- the 11th most viewed article on all of the English Wikipedia, viewed over half a million times in August. But the talk page of the article became heavily viewed in its own right, viewed over 60,000 times during August -- an astonishing number for a talk page that the month before had been viewed just 367 times.
Threaded throughout this extensive discussion about whether or not to rename the “Bradley Manning” article “Chelsea Manning” are some consistent ideas about how knowledge should be reported, saved, communicated, and changed on Wikipedia. Since Wikipedia is the fifth-largest website in the world and the largest reference work in the world, it is worth understanding how its community understands its role in creating “the sum of all human knowledge”. We are not going to summarize all of the arguments made, but rather those that highlight how Wikipedia operates at a fundamental level.
Follow the rules. Rather than taking an overt ethical or political position on the point, many Wikipedians invoked particular Wikipedia rules, such as the Manual of Style’s rules about naming. To these editors, the rules of Wikipedia were of paramount importance and many claimed to be “avoiding politics” or “remaining neutral” by doing this. However, Wikipedia’s rules themselves are political, of course. In this case, the Manual of Style indicated that Chelsea should be referred to by her chosen name and gender. If the Manual had said otherwise, would these editors have argued to change the manual? Some did, but many did not. Because so many editors relied on the rules rather than arguments about morality or ethics, it is clear how important Wikipedia’s rules really are. They may seem arcane, but they are the battleground for feminism, LBGTQ rights, postcolonialism, accessibility, and other such issues.
Reflect existing sources. One of the most central rules on Wikipedia is “Neutral point of view”, which means that Wikipedia reflects what has been published on a topic -- it does not provide a venue for original research or for publishing one’s own opinion. Thus, many Wikipedians argued that until many major news outlets began referring to Chelsea as a woman, Wikipedia should not do so. Of course, many news sources began shifting their usage to “Chelsea” almost immediately, meaning that the reliable sources that Wikipedia policy relies on were themselves changing as the debate on Wikipedia was ongoing. Recognizing this, editors began compiling lists of news outlets and their usage, and some editors changed their votes in the survey as more and more news outlets began using the feminine name; other editors argued that since the bulk of past coverage referred to Manning as “Bradley” that this was still by far the best-known and most common name and should continue to be used. Finally, the fact that Wikipedia had itself changed how it represented Manning may have influenced news sources.
Community discussion. There was also a very strong thread of Wikipedians questioning whether or not Chelsea was “really” a woman or claiming that she was “actually” a man. Long and detailed conversations about what makes a person a man or a woman ensued, with discussions about genitals, hormones, legal names, sexual reassignment surgery, and more, with many arguing that until she crossed a particular boundary (a legal name change, for instance) she was still a man. Many people were clearly introduced to the difference between sex and gender for the first time during this debate. Many more people were being introduced to trans issues for the first time. The principle of coming to the right answer through discussion, reflection and consensus-building is a core part of how Wikipedia works, and was on display in this discussion. Unfortunately, not all of it was tolerant.
Be bold. The original move of the page took place without much discussion. An editor saw the need and did it. Once the article was moved it was more difficult (though it was later proved not impossible) to gain consensus to “move it back.” This may be the single most important part of the incident - this single editor had a huge impact on Wikipedia and perhaps on other news outlets.
On August 31st, slightly over a week after the article was first moved to “Chelsea Manning,” the article was moved back to “Bradley Manning,” with the reasoning that as there was no clear consensus to move the article in the first place, the original title was therefore default. The administrator who decided the outcome of the discussion about the name change also provided a detailed and somewhat legalistic analysis of the (sometimes contradictory) policies involved, with a focus on the “common names” policy -- that is, the policy that the most commonly-used and publicly-known name should be used in articles (as a public figure, Manning had acknowledged in her original statement that the old name would likely continue to be used). The closing statement also noted that the article could well be moved back once more after a period of time, as usage of the name evolved. There was little acknowledgement, however, of the human rights issues that were raised in the discussion.
The uncertainty over how best to refer to Manning is reflected in the article itself, which acknowledges both names but as of the time of the move back lists the female name first, though this too is now under debate. Though the article is titled “Bradley Manning,” as of September 3rd the first sentence of the article read:
Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (born Bradley Edward Manning; December 17, 1987) is a United States Army soldier who was convicted in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses, after releasing the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public. She[note 1] was sentenced to 35 years in prison…
Female pronouns continue to be used throughout the article; this follows the section of the Wikipedia Manual of Style that directs articles about trans women to use female pronouns. There is also, as there has been for some time, a section discussing her gender. It remains to be seen how the text of the article -- and its title -- will evolve over time.
Wikipedia’s policies are constructed to try to ensure editorial consistency under the broad umbrella of a few guiding principles (neutrality, factualness) -- but they are constructed over time, by editors, working through back-and-forth discussions and case by case on articles. And like all Wikipedia articles, these policies are a work in progress, shaped by the editors who come to the table. The Chelsea Manning discussion serves as a snapshot of what the public debate over gender looks like in 2013, but it is also a reflection of who contributes to Wikipedia. Contribute to these discussions to make a difference in them.