While Wikipedia can seem intimidating and overwhelming to new users, it is important to remember that it has only five basic rules, which are referred to as “the five pillars”. Successfully editing Wikipedia means understanding the spirit of these rules. In the second of this series of posts exploring these five pillars and what they mean to academics and to feminists in particular, I will look more closely at the second pillar:
Wikipedia’s second pillar, often referred to as “NPOV”, is that Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view. The wording of this statement is deceptive. “Neutral” does not mean that Wikipedia strives to be “fair and balanced” or to present all sides of a debate. Wikipedia aims to present the accepted published expert opinion on a given topic--it objectively presents what is in the best published sources. So, for example, if 99.9% of biologists agree that evolutionary theory is valid, then the article will reflect that. In the scientific community (who constitute the experts), there is next to no debate, so the article will not present evolutionary theory as a controversial idea. When there is debate between experts, then the article will reflect it. For example, literary scholars debate the extent to which Austen’s novels are feminist, so the article includes a variety of arguments in proportion to which they exist in the scholarship. This is the ideal of NPOV. Obviously, this is not always reached.
Looking at NPOV as a feminist, the policy has several problems. First and foremost, it replicates the patriarchal power structures that legitimize knowledge. Certain topics, such as sexuality studies or feminist studies, have a harder time gaining funding than other topics and thus there is less expert scholarship to draw on to create articles. Second, Wikipedia’s policy page on NPOV addresses the common philosophical argument that there is no such thing as objectivity by arguing that Wikipedia is “characterizing disputes”: “This is an empirical issue, not a philosophical one: can we edit articles so that all the major participants will be able to look at the resulting text, and agree that their views are presented accurately and as completely as the context permits? It may not be possible to describe all disputes with perfect objectivity, but it is an aim that thousands of editors strive towards every day.” While it is, of course, true that objectivity and NPOV are not the same thing, there is a tendency on Wikipedia and in this policy to ignore the problems that philosophers, feminists, and many others have criticized. How does one “objectively” describe the case of Chelsea Manning? In simply choosing whether or not to use “Chelsea” or “Bradley” in the article, a political stance regarding transgender rights has been taken.
Changing this problem within Wikipedia means fundamentally changing the nature of an encyclopedia, but, of course, Wikipedia has already done that. It has redefined an encyclopedia as something which can be written by anyone and updated with to-the-minute news. There is nothing saying that an encyclopedia cannot decide to take progressive political positions as well, and indeed Wikipedia already has taken a step in that direction. It is up to those of us who edit to redefine the culture of Wikipedia and point out the flaws in its current system. Feminist journals, blogs, and zines have long found ways to circumvent these problems of patriarchal knowledge production and it is up to us to bring them to bear on Wikipedia.
Be sure to join our new HASTAC group about All Things Wikipedia to learn more about the wonderful world of Wikipedia!