I find it hard to reconcile that my time as a Women in Red Wikimedia Trainer is coming to an end. The time has flown by and it seems like only yesterday I was setting up my desk with a castle-view in Argyle House. I definitely didn’t foresee myself conducting the majority of my internship work from my student bedroom! But nonetheless, working with Wikipedia and promoting diversity have given me an immense sense of pride, taught me a great deal, and given me experiences I’d never expected.
The changes pushed by COVID-19 were dramatic and unexpected. It was almost as if my internship was completed in three acts.
Act I – Imposter Syndrome
When asked in my first week how I would measure my success at my internship, the deliverables seemed daunting and intimidating for one part-time intern to accomplish. I’m just a Graphic Design student!
I knew the Women in Red project was massively important, and a fantastic initiative for creating gender parity in open content. I knew Wikipedia was a powerful platform for change, often visited and accessible to new users once the first hurdle of article creation was crossed. But I was still slightly unsure how I could make a significant dent in the systemic gender bias which many open knowledge platforms, not just Wikipedia, face.
I had a baseline understanding of systemic bias in these early weeks, but less so how that would affect event preparation. My concept of systemic bias was that, in a Wikipedia sense, it lay largely in the lack of diversity among editors and therefore the representation in the content being created was skewed. However, given that participants in our events are more often women, it became clear that there is not a lack of gender diversity among potential editors. So what would encourage diversity among senior Wikipedia editors?
It became clear to me that creating some form of sustained engagement would be key. This would not simply be about pulling in a new audience, but how we can keep experienced editors feeling supported, continue development, cover new topics and satiate their hunger to continue contributing whilst also making our events accessible to new editors.
In researching lists of suggested women and finding sources for them I found that systemic bias was far deeper than a reflection of those creating content on Wikipedia. Wikipedia relies on reliable sources to back up information. And oftentimes in fields where women and people of colour have faced barriers to entry, or their achievements devalued, this reliable secondary sourcing can be difficult to come by. We need researchers in academic sectors or publishing to continue to document these minorities, but the power we have as editors is to surface this knowledge.
Act II – Isolation(ish)
Enter Stage left Coronavirus. In a blink, my intention to create or utilise some kind of online hosting platform where attendees could support each other beyond our in-person training was cut short. Or so I’d worried…
But this radical shake up has forced people across all sectors to re-examine delivery and communication of information. The move to remote delivery was not without its challenges. There were concerns about the potential for the experience feeling more impersonal. We’d have to bring the sense of community to people’s homes.
Following suit with the new workplace normal, we needed a hosting platform on which to conduct a webinar and re-create the Women in Red edit-a-thon event conventions remotely. Not only this, but we needed supplementary resources in place of physical hand-outs, and collated lists of further readings to help participants. No more physical merch.
As a design student, my obvious route to consistency was to create a visual identity which I could use across our core resources, and in the webinar itself. I created banners for editable resources and tried to make a consistent presentation layout which I could change the colours of to suit the theme of each session. That’s not to say that no changes were made as sessions progressed – every edit-a-thon I have reflected on what went well and made changes to how we focus our training, and the whole experience has been a huge learning curve. But keeping the same overarching structure and design has, I think, helped editors feel that Women in Red is more than ‘just another WikiProject’.
Design takes away from the at times monolithic, white and greyscale interface of Wikimedia (which I am by no means critiquing). If you by any small chance are a branding nerd like me and get excited about visual communication and want to read up on why the Wikimedia Foundation follow the visual style they do, they have a style guide here. They believe that ‘Content precedes Chrome’, a kind of modern, user focused content version of modernist ‘form follows function’ philosophy.
In a Wikipedia context, the idea that the content should come first makes articles easy to navigate from a browsing standpoint. It makes it all the more easy for us fall into a click hole of Wiki links and before we know it its 3am and we’re looking at the Wikipedia article for Falling (accident) or learning what a Squonk is.
However, for our new editors, it can seem daunting to be faced with such a design. Visual cues and links can seem hard to differentiate at first, and the pace of our sessions requires that we go through the basic user interface stuff reasonably quickly so users can get on with editing. The Visual Editor tool is a massive help for this, is extremely useable and works much like a word processor with which most of us have some degree of familiarity. But, especially when the site is so ubiquitous, I think there can still be a kind of editing anxiety.
This is where the kind of repetitive, kinaesthetic learning of creating your own article can give confidence. There’s a sense of cradle to grave achievement in creating a biography from scratch and hitting that final ‘Publish’ button that can instil confidence for future editing.
Act III – Time for positiviTea!
During our in-person sessions, there’s usually a tea and coffee where attendees can have a wee chat and get to know each other. The challenge as we move forward in this changing climate is how we continue to facilitate a community atmosphere. In the webinars, we usually encourage editors to introduce themselves at the beginning of the session both so I can gauge experience and Wiki literacy but also to bring a face to the names in the chat panel. I hope that this gives users more confidence in asking questions and being bold.
Promoting a Women in Red community in which our participants feel welcomed and supported is an in-road into the wider global Wikipedia community. One of the barriers to individual editors’ contribution to open source is that participation is both self-guided and self-sustaining. But this doesn’t have to be isolating, even when we’re self-isolating.
What does the future hold for the sharing of knowledge in the post-COVID world?
We seem increasingly likely to turn to the internet as our primary source of reliable information. It is therefore up to us to construct and contribute to repositories with verifiable information.
The democratisation of knowledge through open access platforms may seem like a utopian ideal, but if the recent pandemic has highlighted one thing it is that such alternatives to physical resources are becoming increasingly important to the functioning of our society as a whole. Archives that opened access to their collections during lockdown prove this is achievable.
Sharing and communication is key. Information is and always has been free, it is the medium by which it is shared that can create barriers to access. The huge community effort which we’ve witnessed on social media in creating resources to support the Black Live Matter movement has been a testament to this. If we all work to give a platform to minority voices in our own way, we can ensure that traditionally overlooked pockets of knowledge are given representation. We can make way for cross-community discussion and enable discouraged potential voices to come to the forefront.
Over the course of my internship, I saw more than 60 attendees learn to edit Wikipedia and hone their newfound editing skills. There are now 57 new biographical articles about women and 12 new articles about queer books, authors, artists, bookshops and publications. We’ve run some wonderfully diverse, intersectional events and had attendees from all over the UK thanks to our ability to host the sessions online. Whilst I may not have planned to run events in this way, this pandemic and the subsequent move to online delivery has made our materials more accessible to a broader audience. I hope that this outreach will continue to inspire editors to continue Women in Red work, or any editing in the name of diversity and open knowledge. To help keep this momentum going now that my post is coming to an end, I’ve created a resource which synthesises all the essential information about editing and creating biographical articles, and how to deliver your own Women in Red online editathon.
If you’re curious exactly what we’ve been up to, these are some of my personal stand-out articles created by our editors, although this list is by no means exhaustive:
- Mountaineer and rock climber who co-founded the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club, Jane Inglis Clark.
- Doctor and former captain of the Afghanistan national women’s football team, Hajar Abulfazl.
- Advocate for Women’s football who created the first professional women’s football team in Mexico, Marbella Ibarra.
- 22 year old Filipino climate activist Marinel Sumook Ubaldo.
- Ugandan climate and environmental rights activist Hilda Flavia Nakabuye.
- ECA alumni and botanical artist Olga Stewart.
- Scottish botanist and teacher Mary Pirie.
- Edinburgh midwife who kept a casebook of 1,296 labours which she assisted, Margaret Bethune
- Diabetes researcher who created the Metabolic Unit at the Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, Joyce Baird. A new ‘Baird Family Hospital’ is due to open in Aberdeen in 2021, named for her and her family’s contributions to the field of medicine.
- And of course Lavender Menace Lesbian & Gay Community Bookshop, a pioneering LGBT+ space in Edinburgh in the 1980s, whose founders are still doing fab things today in the name of archiving queer literature.