Women and the Web: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What Wikipedia Can Learn

Posted on April 30, 2008. Filed under: Personal Blog |

I want to tell you a story about how the internet changed. It used to be the case that most content on the world wide web was created by rich white English-speaking men. The web was created by one: Tim Berners-Lee. The leading online commentators of the 90s – people like John Dvorak – fit this profile as well. But it’s not the case anymore.

  • Today, the most popular blog on the web is Arianna Huffington’s (top of the technorati 100).
  • Most blogs are written by women (35% of online teen girls blog compared to 20% of guys).
  • Teens from families earning less than $50,000 are almost twice as likely to blog as are teens from richer families. (source)

Tim Berners-LeeRight ArrowHuffington Post(er Girl)

And that gender and income gap is growing. Why weren’t women contributing to the web as much before? It wasn’t because they lacked access. 90% of US teens can access the Internet from their home today and that’s about the same percentage as in the year 2000. Instead, people weren’t contributing content to the web because they found it too difficult.

  • Women are far more likely to say that they would “need to ask a friend for help” in order to upload a file to a web site than are men
  • Men have long been far more likely to share video and photos online than women, but when broadband internet and social networking sites like facebook made it really easy to share these files, the gender balance flipped and women became the primary sharers of media online

In a nutshell, social networking, blogs, and other web 2.0 technologies were what finally got a lot of otherwise disenfranchised people to contribute to the web. And this was a tremendously positive development, not least because it meant that about half the American population, a whole lot of females, and poorer people became truly included in the netscape and it amplified the voice of proud islamists, book authors and new associations.

My contention is that wikipedia is in their equivalent of the pre-blog era. Most wikipedia users today are male, rich, urban, and young. For example, three-quarters of internet-using seniors have never been to the wikipedia site, whereas most college grads have. And when wikipedia draws on such a subset of the population, we all lose out because areas of human knowledge are under-represented and under-developed in the encyclopedia.

Let’s find our wikipedia-equivalent of the Proud Islamist, a new voice brought to prominence because of enabling technology. Just as the likes of blogs induced women to contribute content online (even though homepage creation sites like geocities had been available for years), my prediction is that introducing WYSIWYG editing in wikipedia, creating a workable discussion and messaging system, and generally focusing on usability would have a similar effect, changing the gender, income, and age of the typical wikipedia contributor. What changes might we expect? Surely, the interesting changes will be the ones that I can’t easily predict.

  • Women disproportionately use the internet to look for information about religion, health, and personal problems, so I’d bet on those areas of wikipedia flourishing (Source)
  • Teenage girls are far more likely to upload photos to the web than are teenage boys; if more wikipedia contributors were female I would expect to see more visuals on the site
  • Females are significantly more likely to use the internet for communication (instant messaging, writing on a facebook wall, using an online chat room) than are males; I’d expect to see the discussion pages flourish

Jimmy WalesRight Arrow


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