Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon: A Q&A with Alexandra Oliver

by    /  February 24, 2016  / 1 Comment

Image via: Art + Feminism

Image via: Art + Feminism

At 10 am Saturday March 5, 2016, Art + Feminism will be hosting an online edit-a-thon at the University of Pittsburgh’s Frick Fine Arts Library. The event requires a free registration and will be open to the public. The Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon seeks to encourage more women to contribute to and correct the bias resulting from an overwhelming lack of female participation in the Wikipedia editing process. By bringing together a diverse range of representatives, Art + Feminism aims to create and improve Wikipedia articles regarding women’s’ contributions to the arts.

In this interview, conducted over email, Alexandra Oliver, local art critic, Wikipedian, and co-organizer of the event, corresponded with Sampsonia Way about the organization and its impact on social media, the artistic sphere, and the larger Pittsburgh community.

Why is it important to recognize the influence of women in art? What was the origin of the edit-a-thons?

Recognizing women’s achievements in every field is important. Without them, history remains fundamentally incomplete.

Wikipedia edit-a-thons are community events that bring together people to edit Wikipedia, usually with a particular thematic focus. Art + Feminism edit-a-thons focus on women in the arts. The first was organized by New York-based Siân Evans, Jacqueline Mabey, Michael Mandiberg and Laurel Ptak in 2014, in collaboration with a number of artists, scholars, curators, librarians, and Wikipedians.

How does Art + Feminism’s non-hierarchical structure play out in the organization of these events?

Art + Feminism is often described as a “rhizomatic” campaign. That means that no one “owns” it and anyone can participate. It also means that decision-making is consensus-driven and self-serving interests are subordinated to larger community goals. In our case, instead of managing everything ourselves, Vicky Clark and I created a framework that allows others to self-organize instead. For example, Sabren Khadim has begun organizing a group of Arabic-language writers to address problems specific to Arabic-language Wikipedia, which would have been impossible for us on our own. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it. Which leads me to another point: non-hierarchical organizing also carves out space for a diversity of voices to be heard.

What does the local feminist community offer these Edit-a-Thons that is unique to Pittsburgh?

We have a rich feminist tradition in the Allegheny region. One of the best parts of this process was seeing older and younger generations of feminists come together. An early proposal for this event came from Elana Schlenker, founder of the 76<100 pop-up shops, which last year drew attention to the gender wage gap. Another driving force has been Vicky Clark, a curator and long-time feminist. Elana is young; Vicky recently retired. I’m not sure if this bridging of generations is unique to Pittsburgh, but it does strike me as distinct and powerful.

Despite all of the writers, does Art + Feminism have a single, unifying philosophy, or do the editors work with their own motives in mind?

Both. The mission of Art + Feminism is to close the gender gap on Wikipedia. So it is guided both by principles of feminist organizing and by the “pillars” of Wikipedia. These include, for example, “neutral point of view” and “notability”—the content has to be free of bias and significant enough to warrant inclusion in an encyclopedia. Otherwise, local editors respond to their own contexts. For example, one of my personal goals is to expose the community to important resources for editing: Frick Fine Arts Library, which is closed stacks, but open to the public, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which is joining us as a partner in this event, and bringing some of their own books with them.

What do you hope the edit-a-thons will accomplish, in the short term and the long term?

What I love about this event is the impact is immediate: at the end of the day, we tally the Wikipedia articles we created or improved, and celebrate. I’m a super impatient person so this is irresistible to me. Longer term, we hope to “train up” a younger generation of women Wikipedians. Over time, greater female participation will make the resource more gender-equal.

Many consider Wikipedia to be an unreliable source of information to begin with. Why then, does Art + Feminism place a strong focus on the website?

That’s true! Several people mentioned this to me. It’s funny because Vicky, Angela and I are all involved in higher education, which is especially sensitive to this problem. I don’t want to speak for Art + Feminism as a whole, since I think there are many ways to answer this, but for myself, I feel Wikipedia is important for three reasons: first, it’s too big to ignore. It’s the seventh most popular website in the world, and people often take it as fact. If women are absent on Wikipedia, readers may assume they are absent from history itself. Second, as a part of our event, we take participants “behind the scenes” to demonstrate how editing actually takes place, its rules, protocols, and problems, which will hopefully get people to look at it more critically—in any context. Finally, I think digital culture represents the final frontier for Western feminism. The sexism, harassment and hostility that exists online and in tech fields is pervasive, intense and treated as “normal”, which would never been acceptable in other contexts. Recently, Twitter ruled that rape threats targeting women did not violate their harassment policy, even though the policy explicitly states that threats against a person on the basis of gender does constitute such a violation. On Wikipedia, specifically, men may vandalize feminist articles, harass or ban female editors, and often resist feminist perspectives because they feel a “feminist agenda” violates Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality. Obviously this completely overlooks the central issue, which is ongoing structural oppression.

How does Art + Feminism ensure that the changes made during the edit-a-thons are accurate and reliable?

Great question. Wikipedia is governed by principles of neutrality and verifiability, which I mentioned earlier. For example, editors frown upon citing material produced by the subject of the article (for example, if I’m editing the article on the Warhol Museum, I can’t use the Warhol Museum’s website). I also can’t edit material about my employer or friends, for obvious reasons. At edit-a-thons, newcomers are offered tutorials that explain these rules and how to follow them, plus resources to help with research. Otherwise, their additions could be challenged or even deleted.

Have you ever had any concerns about the reliability of the editors?

Definitely. In addition to the dominance of white men, there’s also no requirement for credentialed expertise in the field you’re editing. At the same time, I’ve also been inspired by editors’ diligence and passion. Wikipedia editors do tremendous work, unpaid.

What does the public stand to gain from edit-a-thons such as this one?
Well, long-term, the public will get a more accurate and gender-equal resource. Short term they’ll also have a chance to learn more about women’s cultural achievements, discover how Wikipedia actually works, and network with diverse folks (artists, techies, feminist organizers, librarians, and other people who don’t really cross paths too often—but should). Participants also get free food and childcare. Our event also features special presentations by guest artists, so it’s a great chance to learn more about the talent in our own back yard.

What would you say have been the effects so far?
The Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon is now in their third year and growing. Last year 1500 people participated at 75 locations all around the world. They improved 500 articles about women in the arts and created 400 new ones. Locally, our organizing efforts have produced much greater awareness about Wikipedia’s sexism. We’ve also held two pre-event trainings with teens at CAPA and the Homestead Library, in an attempt to get younger women excited about wikis. A few just signed up to join the event.

What do you enjoy most about working with Art + Feminism?

I love how we’re tackling serious issues, but doing it in a fun, positive way. Also, as someone who did a Ph.D. in art history and but decided not to pursue an academic career, editing Wikipedia in areas of my research expertise allows me to keep a connection to art scholarship in a radically different fashion.

Is there anything you wish more people knew or understood about Art + Feminism, and the edit-a-thons?

Editing is actually really easy, much like using a word processor or email. And you don’t need specialized knowledge of art or feminism—just an open mind. We’ll have tutorials, resources, and facilitators on hand to help you create an account and get started.

What can we expect to see from Art + Feminism in the future?

This event is global, and it’s growing. Locally, I think Vicky and I would like to use the momentum generated so far to continue to hold evens throughout the year. For other questions, you’d have to ask the New York organizers.

What kinds of responses have you seen from the community about these events?

First, people are like, “That’s so cool!” Then they’re like, “But… what exactly is it?” People love the concept but because the event is new to Pittsburgh, they have trouble picturing themselves at it. Still, based on the registration numbers so far, everyone’s excited to dive in. We’ve also had strong, positive responses from our supporters, including the Sprout Fund, Frick Fine Arts Library, Google, BOOM Concepts, Open Pittsburgh, CAPA school, City of Asylum, the Allegheny County Library Association and so many more.

If people are unable to attend one of your events, what are other ways that they can get involved?

If you want to join us but can’t get to Pittsburgh, you can check out the dozens of similar events around the country and around the world, or join us by Skype. Art + Feminism has running task lists—stuff that needs to be edited—and you can work on those any time. To get started, check out their resources and to do list. WikiProject Feminism also has open tasks, as does WikiProject Women Artists. And, if you have ideas for future events, contact us through our website:

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