Wikipedia Editing Project

Photo credit: Talia’s Tidbits

My present is informed by my past. Then again, whose isn’t?

For my Wikipedia project, I decided to allow my past to inform my editing decisions, as well. For this to fully make sense, I need to tell a story:

Pearl had no way of knowing that in 24 years, her daughter (now just in the midst of her teenage years) would also have a daughter, nor had she any way of knowing that this girl–her granddaughter–would come to admire every fabric of her being. At that moment, in 1971, all Pearl knew was that her journalistic instincts had led her to an interview with the jazz musician Thelonious Monk. When the article was finished, it would be published in Downbeat magazine. But to think of that now was to get too far ahead of herself. Pearl resigned herself to her beauty rituals–lipstick, of course, dominated this sacred tradition. This was step one. Step two was going to meet Thelonious Monk. The interview would be the third step, and it would guide all others.

I am that “yet to be known” granddaughter, and it is no work of fiction that I have a great amount of admiration for my grandma. Of course, I admired the grand-maternal elements of her character–the hugs, the laughs, the inside jokes and games. However, I was lucky enough to be able to admire her as a person, too. Before I came along, she was a freelance journalist. She was one of those adventurous spirits who would go wherever the wind blew her. It is no work of fiction, either, that the wind blew my grandma to an interview with Thelonious Monk in 1971. Not only was this published in Downbeat magazine, but it was compiled in a 2001 Oxford University Press book entitled The Thelonious Monk Reader. This past, then, informed my present project of editing his Wikipedia page.

Although I initially chose to edit the Thelonious Monk Wikipedia page because researching a subject my grandma had once interviewed made me feel connected to her, I had different reasons for making the specific edit that I did. After reading the introduction of the aforementioned book, I realized that information was missing in the “late years” section of his page. His wife Nellie was nowhere to be mentioned, even though she was a primary companion throughout his life. Driven by the knowledge that women are often marginalized in this online community, I was in disbelief that someone so important in his life had failed to even garner a mention, let alone any kind of acknowledgement of her role. Thus, my edit served to add the second sentence of this paragraph:

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Amazingly, my edit has stuck so far. Although it may seem like an insignificant tidbit of information, it feels like a small victory. Going into this project, I was intimidated to enter the Wikipedia community because of what I read in Sue Gardner’s blog post “Nine Reason Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (in their own words).” She lists as reason #5: “Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because the information they bring to Wikipedia is too likely to be reverted or deleted.” Immediately, I began to worry that my gender would be an obstacle that could potentially make any attempts at editing fruitless endeavors.

I began by coming up with a list of three potential editing ideas and then whittled it down to one: Thelonious Monk’s page. When I discovered that Nellie had been a constant companion in his later years but had received no mention, the feminist in me went on high alert. This was a person with whom Thelonious Monk had one of his closest relationships, and yet she did not receive any acknowledgment of her importance. My mission then became to create an edit that would appease my inner feminist by giving Nellie a mention, while not ruffling the feathers of any other Wikipedia editors. I had to be cognizant of the wording I used; I tried to craft a sentence in which I could introduce Nellie without trying to suddenly make the article about her or revealing my personal feelings. I made sure to include a citation for The Thelonious Monk Reader so that no one could argue that my claim was unfounded.

When I think back on this process, it amazes me how much stress was attached to adding  a single sentence to this online community. In Tom Simonite’s article “The Decline of Wikipedia,” he writes, “The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.” As one of those newcomers, I found the process not only intimidating, but also not one that I was likely to engage with again any time soon.

Personally, I would rather devote my time to writing an essay on the misogynistic online culture that enables people like Nellie to go entirely without mention than exert my effort to write a single, unbiased sentence that still has only a marginal chance of permanence. I’m not saying that Wikipedia doesn’t have value and purpose, because it does. However, I enjoy being academically assertive, and this just isn’t the forum for that kind of engagement.

While my edit might be short, sweet, and to the point, I spent a great deal of time ensuring that it would reflect my personal values in an undetectable way that would not be read as biased. In some regards, I almost feel like it is better to produce one simple edit that sticks than attempt to make a profound edit that doesn’t ever get the opportunity to be seen. I may have only played the tiniest of roles in attempting to balance the gender representation in the Wikipedia community, but I hope that my future scholastic endeavors beyond this online forum help to remove these systemic barriers.


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