Grants:Project/Chinmayisk/Community toolkit for Greater Diversity/Literature survey

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By Shobha S.V.

This literature survey is a living document and will be updated as the project progresses.

Wikipedia as a public sphere[edit]

Jürgen Habermas has defined the public sphere as a domain of social life in which public opinion could be formed out of rational public debate (Habermas, 1991). His idea of the public sphere stems from an 18th-century bourgeois society where private individuals met at salons, cafes and public squares as equals and discussed the power of the state in a rational manner. Subsequently, he extended his idea of the public sphere to media such as newspapers and journals.

Public communication lies at the heart of democratic process (Garhnam, 1990). Because the Internet facilitates information dissemination, global political mobilisation and participation of people in the cyberspace many researchers have drawn upon the idea of the Internet as a public sphere. The virtual public sphere brought along with it the collapse of the conventional public/ private divide because participation in public life no longer required direct physical access to public institutions, thereby increasing political participation and paving the way for a “democratic utopia” (Papacharissi, 2002). The global nature of the medium of Internet has an advantage of geographical limitations not being an impediment to democratic participation. Extending this argument, Yochai Benkler introduces the concept of the networked public sphere and brings the social media under its ambit. The online social media facilitate easy and effective communication in the public sphere, allowing individuals to reorient themselves from passive readers and listeners to potential speakers and participants in a conversation. Benkler also observes that the Internet is a democratizing space because everyone in a networked information environment is free to observe, report, question, and debate, not only in principle but in practice. The readers need not restrict their opinions to private conversations and can take the lead in actual public conversations. Zizi Papacharissi describes the emergence of a “virtual sphere 2.0”, in which citizen-consumers participate and express “dissent with a public agenda”.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where knowledge is created collaboratively. However, it is also a public sphere because its contributors discuss and debate various issues, ultimately leading to knowledge production. The processes of debate and discussion are intrinsic to the knowledge production process. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere faced feminist criticism. Nancy Frazer emphasized that the bourgeois public sphere systematically excluded women and other marginalised groups and that, by no means, could they take part in the public sphere as equals. Frazer critiqued the notion of open access embedded within the notion of the public sphere and emphasized that exclusions pertaining to gender and class were built into the idea of the bourgeois public sphere. She also argued how that it did not factor in the structural inequalities that prevent women and other marginalised groups from accessing public spaces.

The recursive problem of the gender gap[edit]

Frazer’s critical observations about the public sphere apply to Wikipedia too. Wikipedia has a gender problem and it is a well documented one. In 2010, a study conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation and United Nations University at Maastricht found that only 13% of Wikipedia’s contributor base was female. The reasons for the low numbers have been analysed from multiple perspectives.

Several researchers have opined that the Internet is like a street and the harassment that women face on the Internet is no different from the street sexual harassment that is regularly experienced by women. The public-private divide attributed to men and women respectively also prevents women from accessing the streets that are predominantly understood to be a masculine domain. The presence of fewer women in public spaces leads to violence, safety issues and harassment of women as they are minority. Online platforms reflect a similar reality. Wikipedia’s gender gap has emerged as a problem following a miniscule percentage of women editing it.

Some of the general reasons preventing female participation on Wikipedia have ranged from women's general dislike of critical environments, inherent aversion to conflict-prone spaces, and lack of confidence citing other people’s work. To take it all at face value would be essentializing women. Women’s aversion to conflict can be ascribed to constantly living up to the demands of the patriarchal society. Constantly faced with micro-aggressions, it is little wonder that women choose their battles and prefer to avoid spaces ridden with ‘conflict’. It is important to understand the larger social contexts and structures that prevent adequate representation of marginalised groups on Wikipedia rather than blame the groups for their own minimal participation. One of the many reasons for the lack of female participation is also the masculine model of participation on Wikipedia. This quote from Sue Gardner’s blog post titled "Nine Reasons Why Women Don't Edit Wikipedia (in their own words)" (2011) puts it succinctly[1]:

“Although I mostly avoid editing wikipedia because of the rampant jerkwad factor, and partially because I can’t be bothered to learn the markup to my meticulous satisfaction, a large part of my reason for not contributing my highly esoteric knowledge is that I’m busy contributing elsewhere. Fandom stuff keeps me really busy – we have our own ways of archiving and record keeping and spreading knowledge, and it’s all very skewed towards female. The few times I’ve touched wikipedia, I’ve been struck by how isolating it can feel. It’s a very fend for yourself kind of place for me. Anywhere else online, my first impulse is to put out feelers. I make friends, ask for links to FAQs and guides, and inevitably someone takes me under their wing and shows me the ropes of whatever niche culture I’m obsessed with that month. It’s very collaborative, and prioritizes friendships and enjoyment of pre-existing work over results. Wikipedia isn’t like that, as far as I’ve experienced. There’s no reciprocal culture; to just plunge oneself into the thick of things and start adding information can be highly intimidating, and there’s no structure set up to find like-minded people to assist one’s first attempts. Instead I just find lots and lots of links to lots of information-dense pages.”

Ford and Wajcman (2016)[2] have pointed out how the infrastructure on which Wikipedia has been built systematically excludes women and what constitutes women’s knowledge. In their paper they also point out how gender bias on Wikipedia mirrors the low participation of women in science and technology fields. “Wikipedia’s identity as an encyclopedia for facts is still governed by historically conservative (male) scientific understandings of expertise and authority. Secondly, viewed as an infrastructure, Wikipedia requires highly technical expertise, expertise that is traditionally gendered”.

The effect of this imbalance can have multiple effects on the way knowledge is represented on Wikipedia. A study of men and women’s biographies on Wikipedia brought out interesting findings including presence of marriage related content on women’s biographical articles, focus on sex related content[3]on women’s biographical articles as opposed to the cognition related focus on men’s biographies and a biased linking patterns resulting into making men’s articles more central than the articles of women. This may result in lower visibility of women on social networks since it was also found that women’s autobiographical articles linked to more articles about men as compared to women. Also, search engines normalize assumptions about the world. This, coupled with high visibility of Wikipedia entries in an Internet search, it becomes doubly important for public online spaces to have more content about women. This in principle can be extended to content about other marginalized groups as well. This will help influence suggestions that search engines throw up while users search for information.

While several aspects of the gender gap has been researched and written about, most of them come from a western perspective. However, the same problems find an echo in the Indian context as well. Dalits have historically been one of the most socially, culturally, economically and politically oppressed communities in India. A Dalit group organised a Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Dalit History Month in 2017 after which the members of the group found many of their entries and edits deleted or reverted. In their words, they also faced attacks from right-wing trolls on their edits.

Noopur Raval, a researcher, sheds some light on addressing these attempts at deletion[4]. When Raval created an article on the famous Tamil Dalit writer Bama, it was immediately nominated for deletion:

“Once, I created article on Wikipedia about an Indian, female writer named Bama. She is from the lowest caste community called Dalits in India; and while the author is a celebrated writer of stories on the subject of double oppression (which is oppression of women by people of higher castes and oppression by men within their own communities), Wikipedia almost naturally had no record of her work. Sadly, within minutes of my creation of her article it was nominated for deletion. I then quickly added more references while simultaneously starting a discussion about why it should not be deleted. At that point, another Indian editor jumped in and helped with the explanation; the next day the deletion tag was removed.”


Standpoint theory as introduced by Sandra Harding talks about marginalized groups possessing an understanding of social reality that the privileged are not privy to, and hence, are unaware of it. The oppression faced by the former lends them a vantage point to knowledge, which cannot be shared by everyone, especially the privileged. Standpoint theory, hence, advocates privileging of knowledge generated by socially subordinated groups. Corpie (2016) used the standpoint theory as a starting point to understand women’s experiences on Wikipedia and to promote more women editors on the encyclopedia[5]. Similarly, we need to understand the experiences of marginalised groups, and have more members of marginalised communities edit Wikipedia because only then will everyone collectively stand to benefit from collaborative knowledge.


  2. Ford, Heather and Wajcman, Judy (2016) ‘Anyone can edit’, not everyone does: Wikipedia and the gender gap. Social Studies of Science
  3. Wagnerm Garcia, Jadidi, Strohmaier (2015) ‘It’s a Man’s Wikipedia? Assessing Gender Inequality in an Online Encyclopedia. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (
  5. Corple, Danielle J., "Beyond the Gender Gap: Understanding Women's Participation in Wikipedia" (2016). Open Access. 936.