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The Women of Wikipedia Are Writing Themselves Into History

The urgency of spreading good information seems to be the engine that powers Wikipedia women through years of harassment, eye strain, and correcting grammar on articles about a Kentucky town that has only ever had dogs for mayors. I described this feeling to Koerner as a kind of high, but she set me straight. “We don’t get any sort of high out of contributing,” she says. “We’re dedicated to providing access to a human right—knowledge.”

“The need for a scientifically literate population is at the highest it’s ever been,” adds Wade. “We need people to understand about aerosol transmission. We need them to look at a graph and be able to interpret really big numbers. We need them to think about masks.”

Ironically, for all the hand-wringing in its early years, Wikipedia excels at proliferating straightforward facts. The site simply doesn’t tolerate misinformation, wiping it clean by the second, unlike its similarly popular internet peers, like Facebook and YouTube. Where did the World Health Organization turn to get COVID information out quickly and cleanly? They collaborated with Wikipedia. Good thing, too. Wikipedia dominates the Google search algorithm, is popular on both sides of the partisan divide, is regularly used by doctors, and has been embraced even in high-minded libraries like at MIT. 

“The reality is, Wikipedia is one of the first resources patrons come across in their independent research journey,” says Diamond Newman, a librarian in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes, I use Wikipedia in my work as a research building block. But, as with any resource, I consume, share, and reference it critically. And I commit to researching beyond the page.” Every Wikipedian I spoke to pointed out the same thing—Wikipedia, like all encyclopedias, shouldn’t be treated as a source itself. “If you’re going to get on our butts about reliability and good sourcing, then you should know you should never cite an encyclopedia,” says Temple-Wood, making a fart noise.

The women behind Wikipedia believe it will continue to be a force for good, despite all they have weathered as its custodians. Maher sees Wikipedia as tasked with “ensuring that the general public has access to a baseline of context and information to be able to interpret the day’s events.” Right now, Americans have a general skepticism, not just of the media but of any kind of authority, she points out. Wikipedia, for all of the pedantry and nerd-outs that go on during late night edit-a-thons, isn’t pretentious. “It’s very open about the fact that it’s a best understanding of the world as we know it, and we make mistakes,” she says.

Before Wikipedia, encyclopedias like Encarta and Britannica were so bulky and expensive only libraries and the wealthy could own them and keep them updated. Breaking news and analysis is often hidden behind paywalls, and scholarly journals that publish research breakthroughs require paid subscriptions, even though in America, tax dollars fund that research. Wikipedia—readable, constantly updated, and shockingly accurate—is accessible.

“Money doesn’t determine who knows what,” says Tei, of Wikipedia. “If knowledge is really that important—if for lack of knowledge we perish—I don’t think ignorance should be determined by whether or not you have money.” Unlike the other sites that join Wikipedia as the most trafficked in the world—Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among them—Wikipedia does not use ads, collect user data, or incur subscription fees. It leaves millions of dollars on the table for the pleasure of being beholden to internet-dwelling science nerds instead of corporate greed.

But there are rich personal rewards to finding intimacy between the lines of Wikipedia’s vast library. Temple-Wood survived on Wikipedia, from her tween days, to her “Fuck you” project, and beyond. At her wedding last fall, there was a whole table of Wikipedians.

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