9 out of 10 male. Average age 26. How can Wikipedia attract a more diverse set of editors?

Sue Gardner wikimedia foundation

Sue Gardner wikimedia foundation

I heard Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, on Radio 4 this week talking about Wikipedia’s problem in attracting a more diverse set of editors. Typically post-graduates, nine in ten of its 36,000 volunteer contributors are male and the average age is 26. This lack of variety means the content is not as ‘culturally rich’ as it could be, she said. This isn’t to imply that if there were only more women editing Wikipedia we could have more articles about shopping and ponies, but that the organisation wants to avoid developing a skewed perspective – and having the content of an encyclopaedia written by an elite is exactly the opposite of what Wikipedia set out to do when it launched in 2001.

The need for greater diversity in its editors has been mentioned for some time now. Founder Jimmy Wales told The Independent recently, “The main thing is to bring in people of all different backgrounds. If you do that, you increase the knowledge base of the site, which can only be a good thing. At the moment, we are relatively poor in a few areas; for example, biographies of famous women through history and issues surrounding early childcare.”

Gardner’s post Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (in their own words) found that some women are put off by the editorial in-fighting or note that the information they add is frequently found to be ‘insufficiently significant.’ Or some are find the overall atmosphere misogynist, for example guidelines encouraging the phrase ‘rape scene’ to be changed to ‘sex scene’.

But what strikes me as much as the gender split is the narrow age bracket. Just think of that wealth of knowledge we’re missing out on.

And it makes me think that while the ‘office culture’ is a problem, the biggest obstacle is the unnecessary complexity of the process. Personally I’m not put off from editing Wikipedia because I’m a woman. I’m put off by because I’m a human being. A human being who is computer literate and used to taking tackling new content management systems and adapting quickly to new editorial guidelines to boot.

So if I struggle with understanding what was going on, what about people who aren’t in the business of producing web content?

Editing an existing entry is just about doable for the novice. But creating a new one takes a steely determination, as you go round in circles trying to find the right help information about, say, the correct mark-up to use or how to submit your article.

The information you get back is unnecessarily wordy, with no clear hierarchy to the page, so you find yourself squinting at the screen trying to make sense of what’s going on. And then just when you’ve had enough of robotic messages you realise that – bliss! – you can have a live chat with a real live editor about your query, you enter this weird chatroom where twenty people are talking at once.

So here’s two suggestions:

Step one: Get a usability expert in

An organisation with as much worldwide clout as Wikipedia? There must be companies out there willing to give their time for free to help with this. Make the interface easy to understand through better design and intuitive navigation. And why not make the help content more succinct while you’re at it.

This doesn’t all mean the gates will be opened to crazed Justin Bieber fans who want to edit themselves into his life story. Simply that making the editing process more welcoming means that people born without the geek gene will be able to contribute.

Step two: Offer training

How about linking up with the University of the Third Age and similar organisations around the world to train people in editing Wikipedia? Why should it be something that you just learn to do yourself? Many people won’t even know that everyone is allowed to edit this thing. So if Wikipedia want to encourage more people to be editors it’s time they got out there and showed people how.

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Show him how to edit Wikipedia, and he’ll update the section on Chinese proverbs for you.

First published on The Wall Blog.