Wikipedia's Sexism Debacle and Metadata

Amy Sterling Casil has a very useful commentary on Wikipedia's feminist flub, first documented in the NYT. It's possible that allowing nonexperts to carry equal weight as content auditors can lead to these sorts of issues. But that could be perceived by some as an extremely classist opinion. I'm also not sure it's a complete explanation, and I don't believe it's worth revoking Wikipedia's trusted brand because one person messed up and had his changes reverted the next day. (If, however, Wikipedia refused to make revisions in response to this uproar by the user community, I'd revoke without compunction.)

This issue seems to result in part from an overly hierarchical scheme for sorting and classifying content. Labels are always tricky. Minorities never have complete control over what labels they're given. But there are ways of adding metadata to content that do not shuttle that content into ever-more-reductive categories. In the common parlance we would call many of these technologies tagging. Tags are not mutually exclusive. I can have the tags 'female', 'queer', 'writer', and 'programmer' without throwing the universe (or said PHP application) into chaos. I can have both the tag 'male' and the tag 'Native American'. Tags are messy, but in a way that better reflects our actual lives. And tags are great for searching. On a system which supported tags, you wouldn't need to move female novelists out of the American Novelist category and into the American Woman Novelist category. You could just give them a tag. Or five.

Wikipedia does seem to use tagging, but only to track and manage editorial status of content on the back-end. Overt sexism isn't cool. But it's also all too easy to start thinking in the reductive modes our technology provides, and follow that thinking through to bad ends. This looks to me like an example of the latter, not the former.

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