Industry Viewpoints
Social Media Riddle: Why Are Wikipedia Contributors Mostly Male?

Wikipedia, the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," has more than 3.5 million articles in English covering nearly every subject under the sun. Yet despite the site's openness, surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of Wikipedia's contributors are women. The Wikipedia Foundation has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015. What accounts for this imbalance? Is there something about Wikipedia's format and purpose that attracts more male contributors (other sites like Flickr and Yelp do not appear to have this gender gap)? Susan C. Herring, a professor of information science and linguistics at Indiana University, says YES: women and men engage with social media very differently.

According to Herring’s research, women are less comfortable with antagonistic exchanges or contentious content on the web. On Wikipedia’s “talk” pages, where the process of article creation is hashed out, one’s contributions are often challenged, and some contributors, anonymous and otherwise, use rude and haranguing language. Such environments are — if not outright intimidating — unappealing to many women. Men, on the other hand, find the “slings and arrows” that list members post “entertaining”.

Furthermore, women prefer to phrase their informational messages less assertively than men. A man’s “facts” can be a woman’s “suggestions.” Wikipedia enforces a “neutral point of view” policy that focuses on objective facts, which favors a more assertive, masculine style of communication. Finally, Herring believes that women prefer more control over their online communication. Wikipedia is in the public domain and provides no means of filtration. Women prefer blogs and social sites like Facebook where they can control who reads and contributes to their content.

Herring concludes by stating that Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, recently declared that the future of knowledge sharing on the Internet is social recommendation — people will trust information more if someone they know and like is associated with it. “If this is so, the Wikipedia model of neutral facts concentrated in a single site may some day be superseded by knowledge-sharing environments with women as the primary contributors… But I’m not holding my breath” says Herring.

Source: NY Times, 2/2/11

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