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Looking at the five pillars of Wikipedia as a feminist, part 1

Looking at the five pillars of Wikipedia as a feminist, part 1

While Wikipedia can seem intimidating and overwhelming to new users, it is important to remember that it has only five basic rules: “the five pillars”. Successfully editing Wikipedia means understanding the spirit of these rules. In this series of posts, I’m going to delve into the five pillars, explaining some of the ways academics are tripped up by them and how feminist theory can inform our understanding of their limitations.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia” and “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view

Wikipedia is fundamentally conservative. It reflects the published scholarship on an issue. While it is, of course, obvious to academics that an encyclopedia should not be a place where corporations can advertise their products, it is not always obvious how scholarship can be used on the site. In the case of the humanities, for example, while you may read and interpret primary sources in your daily life as a scholar, this should be done with extreme caution on Wikipedia. Wikipedia summarizes previously published work - it is not a place where debate over primary sources or interpretation of primary sources takes place. Original research of the kind that academics value and are given tenure for is not what Wikipedia publishes - it is a tertiary source. Sometimes primary sources are used to cite common knowledge or non-debatable facts, such as measurements or dates, but controversies are cited to secondary sources. If this weren’t done, editors would be arguing over the “truth” of information (such as whether or not Jesus really is the Messiah), which would lead to constant wars on the articles. Instead, editors argue over the reliability of sources and the verifiability of statements - “verifiability, not truth” is the maxim on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not the place to publish your personal scholarship or to emphasize it and therefore increase the number of citations you receive.

While it is all well and good to say that Wikipedians strive to avoid interpretation of primary sources, such interpretation is, of course, inevitable. Nowhere is this clearer than in the plot summary sections of literature and film articles. Plot summaries are often provided by Wikipedians without reference to any source, since, it is argued, the plot is obvious and non-controversial. However, as one begins to dig into any plot summary, it becomes clear that this is far from the case. The article about the 18th-century novella “Fantomina” provides an excellent case in point. This novella tells the story of a young woman who decides that she wants to explore the world and thus pretends to be a prostitute in order to do so (it was one of the few roles in which a woman could circulate freely about society at the time). Her first encounter with a customer is fraught and the language in the novella is itself somewhat ambiguous:

“Supper being over, which was intermixed with a vast deal of amorous Conversation, he began to explain himself more than he had done; and both by his Words and Behaviour let her know, he would not be denied that Happiness the Freedoms she allow'd had made him hope. — It was in vain; she would have retracted the Encouragement she had given: — In vain she endeavoured to delay, till the next Meeting, the fulfilling of his Wishes: — She had now gone too far to retreat: — He was bold; — he was resolute: She fearful, — confus'd, altogether unprepar'd to resist in such Encounters, and rendered more so, by the extreme Liking she had to him. — Shock'd, however, at the Apprehension of really losing her Honour, she struggled all she could, and was just going to reveal the whole Secret of her Name and Quality, when the Thoughts of the Liberty he had taken with her, and those he still continued to prosecute, prevented her, with representing the Danger of being expos'd, and the whole Affair made a Theme for publick Ridicule. — Thus much, indeed, she told him, that she was a Virgin, and had assumed this Manner of Behaviour only to engage him. But that he little regarded, or if he had, would have been far from obliging him to desist; — nay, in the present burning Eagerness of Desire, 'tis probable, that had he been acquainted both with who and what she really was, the Knowledge of her Birth would not have influenc'd him with Respect sufficient to have curb'd the wild Exuberance of his luxurious Wishes, or made him in that longing, — that impatient Moment, change the Form of his Addresses. In fine, she was undone; and he gain'd a Victory, so highly rapturous, that had he known over whom, scarce could he have triumphed more. Her Tears, however, and the Destraction she appeared in, after the ruinous Extasy was past, as it heighten'd his Wonder, so it abated his Satisfaction: — He could not imagine for what Reason a Woman, who, if she intended not to be a Mistress, had counterfeited the Part of one, and taken so much Pains to engage him, should lament a Consequence which she could not but expect, and till the last Test, seem'd inclinable to grant; and was both surpris'd and troubled at the Mystery.” - “Fantomina”, Eliza Haywood (1725)

The first summary of this encounter on the the Wikipedia article, written by myself, was:

They go to the house and although the narrator suddenly realizes that Beauplaisir wants to have sex with her and resists him, he rapes her.

However, another Wikipedia editor read the same passage differently and changed the plot summary:

They go to the house and although she realizes that Beauplaisir wants to have sex and resists him at first, she succumbs to her desires.

Clearly these are different interpretations of the story. Neither is right or wrong - both can be supported by the original text and scholars have argued for both of them. What is most striking about this change is that the tone of the story is changed - in the first, there is more violence and fault on the part of the male character. In the second, the female character has no control over her emotions and is at their mercy. These are fundamentally different understandings of what is happening in the story and to the characters. However, the plot summary must choose one interpretation over the other - it cannot have both. It is a crucial but non-obvious point in the plot that must be represented in an obvious way because of the structure and policies of Wikipedia. This also illustrates the larger point that who writes Wikipedia matters. If those of us who read “Fantomina” as a story about rape edit this article, it will reflect that interpretation. If we do not edit the article, the "succumbs to her desires" interpretation will be the one that proliferates across the internet. Readers who are confused by the 18th-century language of "Fantomina" will read the Wikipedia article looking for help and clarification and what they will find will be a plot summary that argues that the heroine was overtaken by her out-of-control sexuality rather than a plot summary explaining she was raped. This is but one example across the millions of articles on Wikipedia that illustrates how seemingly "obvious" facts are disputable and the importance of editing them.

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1 comment

Great post. I tend to skip plot summaries for fear of spoilers so haven't experienced anything as significant as this, but I have no doubt contentious interpretations under the guise of neutral plot summaries are pervasive. Great example. Have you come across others that you remember?

Plot summaries do often have citations, and sources can be requested for interpretation if you show it deviates from the actual text of the book. As you point out primary sources can be used for uncontroversial information, but if it becomes controversial something better is needed. A stark change in meaning like moving from rape to "succumbing to her desires" is the sort of thing I would hope would raise eyebrows and get other editors to require a source or otherwise undo it.  But, of course, these things can be subtle if you're not looking for it and so happen constantly. 

To me the change looks to be in bad faith, and indeed the user who changed it back in 2011, Jblaze0, has several other interesting contributions. e.g. "Hypocritically, despite fornicating with hundreds of men, she has never filmed an <ref>interracial scene</ref>" (at ); the user removed line about "welfare kings" at the Welfare queens article which indeed should've been removed as original research, but the rationale of "weasel words" shows he was just looking to remove it for some reason; and over at the article on Women's roles in world wars, the user removed words about women being involved in infantry, calling it vandalism (even if inaccurate, it's obviously not vandalism).