Anthropology That Anyone Can Edit: Wikipedia and Public Anthropology

Ken Mick UMass Senior History Major, Anthropology Minor

Ken Mick
UMass Senior
History Major, Anthropology Minor

By Kenneth M. Mick III

UMass Public Anthropology Course | Anthro 397D

Spring 2014

It is hard to overestimate the influence of Wikipedia in modern society. Nearly anyone with an internet connection can access its millions of articles on almost every conceivable topic, from biology to physics, medicine, history, popular culture and anthropology. And with its tagline “Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” Wikipedia prides itself as a project of full public collaboration in which everyone is heard and to which everyone can contribute. I am an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, majoring in History with a minor in Anthropology, and I am also a prolific Wikipedia editor, operating under the user name 3family6. This spring term (my last undergraduate semester!) I am enrolled in Prof. Sonya Atalay’s Public Anthropology course, which discusses how to engage a range of public audiences and communities in anthropology. As a Wikipedia editor, I thought that it would be interesting to look at how Wikipedia can help communities and anthropologists engage and collaborate in research and publication of research findings. Can the encyclopedia that anyone can edit provide a space for anthropology that anyone can participate in? For public and engaged anthropology, this seems like a dream come true: a free, interdisciplinary project where everyone can voice their thoughts on what they want researched, how it should be researched, and how it should be presented, available to the public 24/7. But does the project live up to its name, and is it an ideal platform for public and engaged anthropology? Does it truly listen to all voices? Can anyone really contribute? How is the project used in anthropology? And what limitations are there to the project?

Currently, seven users are categorized as anthropologists on Wikipedia. User:Maunus, User:Vidyadhara, User:ZMatskevich, User:Sub specie aeternitatis, User:Thecfed, User:Phlyming, and User:Bagulescu. One of these — User:Sub specie aeternitatis — proclaims on their user page that they are an archaeology professor at Mount Allison University, and that they have their students edit and create Wikipedia articles. I tried to get in touch with this user to discuss how they integrate Wikipedia with anthropology, but was unable to reach them. In addition to these seven users, there are undoubtedly many more anthropologists who do not categorize or advertise themselves as such, but still edit Wikipedia as registered users or unregistered anonymous contributors working under the IP address of whatever machine they accessed Wikipedia with.

Anthropologists working on Wikipedia certainly helps anthropological knowledge reach the public, but the remarkable feature of Wikipedia is that everyone, anthropologist or not, can edit and create content. Theoretically, everyone has a voice. But is this the reality, or is there an imbalance in the contributor base? Numerous studies consider this question. The Wikipedia essay “Wikipedia:Systemic Bias” outlines nine major imbalances in its contributor base: “The average Wikipedian on the English Wikipedia is (1) a male, (2) technically inclined, (3) formally educated, (4) an English speaker (native or non-native), (5) aged 15–49, (6) from a majority-Christian country, (7) from a developed nation, (8) from the Northern Hemisphere, and (9) likely employed as a white-collar worker or enrolled as a student rather than employed as a blue-collar worker”. And inherent mechanisms within the community operation of Wikipedia make changes in approach difficult. In a review of Dariusz Jemielniak’s (2014) ethnographic book on Wikipedia, Common Knowledge: An Ethnography of Wikipedia, Wikipedia contributor Piotr Konieczny comments that Jemielnak’s discussion on conflict resolution reveals that “despite Wikipedia:Consensus claim to the contrary, established consensus is nearly impossible to change. Organizations (and people in general) are inimical to change, and on Wikipedia experienced Wikipedians who have already discussed a topic once are rarely fond of returning to it, thus they are likely to torpedo any attempt to reignite a discussion. This in effect disfranchises new editors of the right to change the existing status quo, and ensures that Wikipedia’s bureaucratic environment continues to fossilize in the current state” (Konieczny 2014).

The New York Times addressed the issue of a gender gap on Wikipedia in a January 2011 article by Noam Cohn. It cites a joint study published in 2010 by United Nations University and Maastricht University which found that in 2008, women made up barely 13 percent of Wikipedia’s global editor base, and that the average age of contributors was 20 (Cohen 2011). While a 2008 Pew Research study found a modestly higher global number of over 16 percent women contributors, this still falls far short of equal representation (Yasseri et al. 2013). Another concern raised recently is that on other language Wikipedias where the language has gender-specific forms of the word “user,” such as German (Benutzer vs. Benutzerin), a female user might be listed as male, or be considered male in an invite message for new users (Haeb 2011b).

Allowing for indigenous knowledge and oral traditions to be heard is another major critique of Wikipedia, particularly the English language version. Indian Wikimedian Achal Prabhala in the documentary “People Are Knowledge” examines how Wikipedia’s preference for written material as reliable sources poses problems for indigenous knowledge. For instance, an article on Cherokee woman Lisa Christiansen, birth name Gi-Dee-Thlo-Ah-Ee, was deleted because the biographical work which the article cited was published by the Cherokee Nation and deemed an unreliable source (Konieczny et al. 2013). The case of Makmende, a fictional Kenyan superhero and internet meme whose article was deleted three times on the English Wikipedia (though as of this writing he now has an active page), has also been cited as an example of difficulties with Wikipedia’s current system, however this particular example has been challenged as the first two versions of the article were of very poor quality (Konieczny et al. 2013; Zuckerman 2010; Haeb 2011a). South African Heather Ford, a former member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s advisory board, noted in 2011 that “interestingly, Makmende does not exist in the Swahili version of Wikipedia … There seems to be a disconnect between where ordinary Kenyans want their cultural narratives to live, and where outsiders imagine it” (Haeb 2011a; Ford 2011).

These are just some case examples of the problems with the Wikipedia community as it now stands. So how do we change it? With regard to the gender discrepancy, Sue Gardner, at the time executive director for the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia, started an email list in 2011 called “Gendergap,” an attempt to “share research and information and tactics for making Wikipedia more attractive to women editors.” She stated that “We want women to contribute to Wikipedia because we want Wikipedia to contain the sum of all human knowledge, not just the stuff that men know” (Haeb 2011b; Gardner 2011). Cohen quotes Gardner as saying “that for now she was trying to use subtle persuasion and outreach through her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies like recruitment or quotas” (Cohen 2011). Policy analyst Kat Walsh, a longtime Wikipedia contributor who was elected to the Wikimedia board, agreed that indirect initiatives might cause less unease among the Wikipedia community, but acknowledged that “The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally — trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change” (Cohen 2011). The Royal Society in Britain has held “edit-a-thons” in 2012, 2013, and 2014 in an attempt to boost the number of female editors (Hern 2014). In regard to building greater diversity as a whole, the Wikimedia Foundation held a “Diversity Conference” in Berlin in November 2013 (Wikimedia Diversity Conference).

Despite these efforts, much remains to be done. How can Wikipedia expand to include a more diverse contributor base? And how can anthropologists play a hand in sparking this change? I think that dialogue is the first and biggest step. Once we acknowledge the problem and start asking questions, only then can solutions be proposed. Efforts to lessen the gender divide on Wikipedia have begun in recent years, and the concerns related to devaluing of oral traditions and other forms of indigenous knowledge have begun to circulate. Wikipedia could be on the threshold of achieving its proclaimed goal – a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. But it is up to us, every day people, anthropologists or not, to make that happen.


Cohen, Noam. “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.” The New York Times. January 30, 2011.

Ford, Heather. “The Missing Wikipedians.” February 16, 2011.

Gardner, Sue. “[Gendergap] Wikipedia’s gender gap: discussion on Metafilter.” February 3, 2011.

Haeb. “Egyptian revolution and Wikimania 2008; Jimmy Wales’ move to the UK; Africa and systemic bias; brief news.” The Signpost. Wikipedia. February 21, 2011. Accessed March 13, 2014.

_____. “Widespread Discussions about the Low Participation of Women in Wikipedia.” The Signpost. Wikipedia. February 7, 2011. Accessed March 13, 2014.

Hern, Alex. “Wikipedia ‘Edit-a-Thon’ Seeks to Boost Number of Women Editors.” The Guardian. March 4, 2014.

Konieczny, Piotr. “Common Knowledge: An Ethnography of Wikipedia.” The Signpost. Wikipedia. January 1, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2014.

Konieczny, Piotr, Brian Keegan, Nicolas Jullien, Amir E. Aharoni, Henrique Andrade, Tilman Bayer, Daniel Mietchen, Giovanni L. Ciampaglia, Dario Taraborelli and Aaron Halfaker. “Does ‘Cultural Imperialism’ Prevent the Incorporation of Indigenous Knowledge on Wikipedia?” The Signpost. Wikipedia. December 4, 2013. Accessed March 6, 2014.

Sub specie aeternitatis. “User:Sub specie aeternitatis.” Last updated February 18, 2012. Accessed March 13, 2014.

“Wikimedia Diversity Conference.” Accessed March 13, 2014.

Wikipedia contributors. “Wikipedia:Systemic Bias.” Wikipedia. Accessed March 13, 2014.

Yasseri, Taha, Han-Teng Liao, Piotr Konieczny, Jonathan Morgan and Tilman Bayer. “Survey Participation Bias Analysis: More Wikipedia Editors are Female, Married Or Parents than Previously Assumed.” The Signpost. Wikipedia. July 31, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2014.

Zuckerman, Ethan. “Makmende’s so Huge, He can’t Fit in Wikipedia.” Ethen Last updated March 24, 2010. Accessed March 13, 2014.

One thought on “Anthropology That Anyone Can Edit: Wikipedia and Public Anthropology

  1. I really liked your blog post Ken! I was wondering about the role of Wikipedia in spreading misinformation or biased information. Obviously, its important to include non -dominant narratives (like oral traditions or indigenous knowledge) to challenge and resist hegemonic discourses. But what happens if people on Wikipedia (which does happen) post blatantly wrong facts (I’m kind of thinking about the way to common claim of Obama being a Muslim or a foreigner) which are based on political or ideologically motivated messages. Do we accept that as part of working with publics and communities or we do have to also engage in selective editing so that historically true (decided by who?) facts are presented with room for discussion about opinions?


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