Sunday, March 06, 2011

Why women and wikis do mix...

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Over the last few months there has been a discussion surrounding the fact that only 13% of Wikipedia's contributors are female. The study that discovered this statistic is the catalyst for Sue Gardner's new initiative to involve more women in Wikipedia and to increase their contribution rate to 25% by 2015.

After reading the debate in the New York Times, something that seemed obvious to me just didn't seem to really pop out from any of the debaters. Or perhaps it is obvious and other women just wouldn't say it? Women like things that look pretty..I know that a lot of people might jump out at me for over simplifying the problem and being patronising. But I really don't think that it's something that people should feel shameful about.

Men and women find different aspects of sites, cars, clothing or food appealing for whatever reason. For a lot of women something that looks down right gorgeous is more appealing and they may be more likely to form an attachment to and want to use. I'm not at all a techie, nor am I an expert in design (I'm a trained econometrician). But I am a founder and dedicated user of a wiki that has a contributor base of 94% women-in fact many are fashion bloggers who are not usually described as geeks.

This statistic is not something that I set out to achieve, quite the contrary, I wanted to make sure that just as many men as women used my wiki. But this just hasn't happened. If you take the time to look at my wiki you might see why. It's more than a little pretty, but don't just take my word for it- quora agrees with me. When I say pretty, I mean aesthetically but also it's user friendly. It's less cluttered and a little less overwhelming than traditional wikis have been- très girl friendly.

Another argument as to why it has such a high female contributor rate is the content-fashion. Many might argue that this topic is not something that appeals to many men and they may very well be correct. But a key thread that appeared throughout many of the articles I've read on this topic is that women are disinterested in technology and prefer to use social sites such as facebook or twitter. I think it's this notion that women just don't like technology that is the most damaging. Although a lot of our users who have first used the site found the syntax confusing, many of them persevered and learned how to use mediawiki effectively.

Consequently many would contact me or report that they loved using it once they got the hang of it and would then feel a form of ownership over the pages they were creating. This would be the same intrinsic motivator that causes many of the men who contribute to Wikipedia, to continue to do so. For anyone who remembers their first edit on Wikipedia and is not a programmer themselves, they may remember it as being a little daunting. It takes time and effort to learn how to contribute properly. Something that editors on Wikipedia may not be so encouraging or forgiving of?

What I've unintentionally highlighted with my own site is not that women don't like wikis or are willing to contribute to them (wikipedia's study on the site's usage revealed that 31% of their readers are women), but that they perhaps don't find the site all that intuitive or appealing to edit, ergo Wikipedia you're that really smart nerd in high school that all the cool girls secretly wanted to date but wouldn't dare.

Although the site has made strides in it's appearance lately, with a new redesign and the introduction of mediawiki v16 came an easier editing system, I think it will take a little more than that to attract women to the site. Perhaps make the help sections a little more understandable for the average non-techie and introduce some mechanisms for a more encouraging environment for learning the syntax (this would also prove helpful for new male editors)? Of course being easier on the eye wouldn't go astray.


  1. Excellent reflective piece lady!

    Without sounding deeming you've put forward some strong points: Women do love something that's eye catching and yes we find things in life confusing including technology. But don't we all! I am guessing that if a person (male or female) loves something enough they will persevere with it until it's just right.

    One can not like technology but go ahead with trying to figure it out - because the result is so rewarding. I think Wikifashion is a huge testament to that!

    Viva la Wikifashion!!! And viva la women behind it!!!

  2. Thanks merowyn! I was a little worried that people would find it offensive, but have thrown caution to the wind :)

  3. You've written a piece that could come across as opinionated/offensive in an educated, open minded and mature way.

    I throw caution to the wind all the time, what's life without taking risks!

  4. thanks lovely! that's the best kind of offensive haha :)

  5. This is fascinating! Thanks so much for stopping by my blog. You've given me a lot to think about. I think you ought to send this post to Sue Gardner if you haven't already.

  6. Hi Mo, thank you- that's lovely of you to say. I haven't sent it to Sue, only linked on her blog post. Feel free to send it though :)

  7. Just so you know, this is scheduled to be part of this week's Wikipedia Signpost 'In the News' section. Prepare for the onslaught of Wikipedians!

    I certainly think that Wikipedia could be redesigned: maybe not to be more like Wikifashion but potentially to be more bookish. Currently, Wikipedia just looks like Wikipedia, in a sort of class of it's own. When I was involved with the Citizendium project, I always felt that we could have moved towards a single-column layout with wide margins and lots more whitespace, but as a non-designer, I never quite felt empowered to go for it.

    One thing it would be interesting to know is whether the women whose first wiki editing experience is Wikifashion cross-over and edit at Wikipedia? Do they get involved in fashion-related editing at Wikipedia? Is there any culture shock or negative experiences moving from a primarily female environment to one that is so dominated by men?

  8. I think this analogy falls apart because you talk about design and then provide no examples. Quora agrees with you, but your sample could be completely skewed. Can you look at the percentage of female users on:
    * Quora
    * MySpace (historically and at the present)
    * Facebook
    * FanFiction.Net
    * AnArchiveOfOurOwn.Org
    * LiveJournal

    Can you explain what design elements help contribute to the percentage of female contributors and visitors they have? Can you walk us through the design elements that turn off female contributors? Beyond that, can you explore the research that talks about designing for women?

    This doesn't sound well thought out. It sounds like it plays to stereotypes. There doesn't appear to be any substance here other than: I have an idea! And it is so shiny and pretty and women like shiny and pretty.

    Because women contribute to a lot of poorly designed sites. They make a huge of audience on many poorly designed sites. Your premise of pretty gets more women seems to fail against that test.

  9. Sure you make good points and perhaps you are right. I'm just going with what has worked with my wiki :) I don't have access to the stats on other sites and I think that would be very interesting.

    I'm just pointing out the difference between Wikipedia vs Wikifashion and why this may have happened. We also don't have any talk pages which I think contributes to a better culture. No disparaging comments can be left on pages, which I know is one of the reasons some women list as to why they don't feel comfortable contributing to wikipedia.

    In terms of design elements I'm referring to the overly fussy layout, it's not intuitive. Jimmy Wales himself has said that he thinks this is a reason for many women not to contribute.

    Sorry if I have offended you with my article, I agree that my numbers could be skewed (we don't have a huge member base) I simply thought it was interesting that our numbers are so heavily female oriented at this point and tried to look at to the best of the resources available to me why this was so.

  10. Hi Laura,

    I will try to address some of the design elements you are referring to. But first you must realise that MediaWiki was created by a community that loves information. This is why MediaWiki looks and functions as to does. And for the most part this is good. As a tool to maintain a wiki it is very capable.

    However to users who do not place such a high value on information, MediaWiki by default is overload.

    Lets look at the category pages on both Wikipedia and Wikifashion. By no means are our category pages perfect I think we have a long way to go before they truly fit our users base but IMO we get part of the way there by simply stripping out some of the superfluous information.

    Now you will probably be thinking, there is nothing wrong with Wikipedia's category page and that it's much better than Wikifashion's as you can find the information you are after quicker. Well I do agree, in that Wikipedian's contributors would find Wikipedia's category page much more useful than Wikifashion's. Wikipedia and Wikifashion do not have the same audience though and reasons for this are the issues we are discussing.

    The signal to noise ratio on on Wikipedia's category page is quite low. For example users generally do not go to category pages to find out how many sub categories are in that category, they go there to find a list of pages that belong to that category. Even the bullet points add to the noise.

    I wont go into further analysis of other features as I do not have the time but you may want to look at the following differences between Wikipedia and Wikifashion.

    - Image pages. Similarly to the category page we stripped out information though our images pages are ugly and need some prettifying.

    - Personal tool bar when logged in. We have a drop down instead of many links.

    - Over abundance of lines, dots and boxes on Wikipedia. Things like underscoring headers, extra boxes around gallery images, etc. All this stuff adds noise without contributing anything useful.

    Different strokes for different folks

  11. To be honest, I'm looking at Wikifashion at the emphasis on galleries reminds me a bit of EncyclopediaDramatica.

    I'm looking at a page like and it all looks like a bunch of random images. I have no idea what they are of. The thing appears to heavily discriminate against people with screen readers, because it doesn't provide alternative text. Frankly, I'd take the images on Wikipedia over WikiFashion for that last reason alone. Lots of women rely on screenreaders, etc. because of disabilities and your suggestions seem to keep them out.

    I don't get the feeling that I'm being encouraged to edit FashionWiki. There doesn't appear to be any sense of community that I can plug into. This really isn't helped by the fact that the footer for the page looks like it came straight out a WordPress blog. That says to me: This is about the owner doing content creation. This is less about community ownership of the content.

    I'm looking at and and I'm not entirely certain of your point with this comparison. The absence of knowing if a category has subcategories or not is really confusing. It makes navigation feel less intuitive for me. If you accidentally scroll too far down, it makes the articles in the magazine section seem secondary to the huge ass footer.

    I don't find your response particularly compelling as it pertains to changing the format to encouraging editing because when I looked at yours? It doesn't. Do you think that FanFiction.Net, AnArchiveOfOurOwn.Org and LiveJournal do a better job than WikiFashion and Wikipedia in terms of actually meeting those ideals you speak of?

  12. Hi Laura,

    Agreed about the lack of community. At the moment our contributors are a bunch of lone wolfs. We are currently working on a tightly integrated forum with talk pages as threads. Re community ownership i assume you are referring to our copyright licensing. You can read our response to this at quora:

    Understandably Wikifashion isn't very enticing to you as you are not our target audience. We are after the same crowd who use, chicktopic etc, particularly fashion bloggers.


  13. Hello,

    My name is Nicole Willson and I have edited wikiHow for five years. I have also created an account on wikiFashion and made a few edits, but more on that later.

    wikiHow has a very clean interface and it is easy to read. Also, for the admins that we know the gender for, half are female. But there was a stronger female admin presence on wikiHow even before the clean white design and back when it had a yellow background. The higher level of active female wikiHow editors may have occured because wikiHow was designed for hobbyists and not coders. Part of what drew me to wikiHow was that there was a clear list of ways to contribute on the front page when I got there. I didn't have to read through tons of manuals.

    I will say though that "pretty" can backfire. tried the "search engine for soccer Moms" idea a few years ago, complete with pink backgrounds. Now, they are laying more people off, closing offices and switching back to the Ask Jeeves format.

    One last thing: The reason I do not edit wikiFashion more is because it is copyrighted. I love the idea behind wikiFashion and the look and feel of the site but as a volunteer licensing matters to me. Since I'm not a fashion blogger, however, I may not be considered part of your target audience. I have asked about why wikiFashion is copyrighted on Quora, but I have never received an answer.

  14. Coen, when I refer to lack of community, I talk about the keywords and the interface. The whole interface doesn't feel very wiki like to me. As I said above, to me, wikiFashion looks like it uses a WordPress skin. It doesn't look like MediaWiki, Wikia, Wagn or OddMuse (which powers Community Wiki). WordPress's back end is pretty much a wiki at this point, but the culture around WordPress is not that of allowing anyone to edit, having people identify as working together towards a greater good.

    Wikifashion? Become a contributor. <-- That seems like an invitation to come a blogger. Looking at the main page of Wikifashion, I wouldn't have had a clue I could edit it. I don't see any invitation to edit a page, get get content on the front page, to improve an article.

    You might have "cleaned up" and prettified Mediawiki's skin, but you don't appear to have integrated a sense of community in. Why should I edit your wiki? How will get a sense of ownership over it? Why edit Wikifashion (which gets probably 2,000 unique visitors a month and has a lower Alexa ranking than my site) at all? Wikipedia makes clear its invitation to contribute. It offers a clear chance to make the front page. It has templates where you can ask people for help. It has projects where you can contribute. It has IRC chat rooms and other community tools that you can easily to connect to the community. Wikifashion has none of that. I don't get a sense of community. And I don't understand why I'd want to edit Wikifashion.

    And damnit, Wikipedia has an invitation for people who are visually impaired to join the community by making it culturally imperative at the higher content levels to make pages accessible to them. That one still bothers me. "We love women. Wait. Except those that need screen readers. We've prettified the skin to exclude you."

    Oh, and I don't use Quora. Not a fan of it. It doesn't work for me as a tool. It is too complicated, too messy, too hard too find and it sends me too much spam mail. I've not heard much about it being a great community with a huge number of women. (I mostly hear about it from men in tech circles.)

  15. What a refreshing article to read. I completely agree with you. One thing i would also like to mention though is that woman lack the testosterone-y ( just made that word up, obviously) competitiveness to "get there first". I'm refferring to my local scene obviously, where here men seem to have an ongoing competition as to who can wiki something before anyone else does, therefore starting the first article about it before it becomes known to the masses. I honestly think that women just don't give a damn about that kind of stuff, competition isn't a huge motivator.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Elocina I agree we definitely need to make it clearer how to edit/have better guides for our contributors- that's something that we're working on :) Also we did give an answer on Quora a month ago-

    Laura-We're not trying to cater to wikipedians or other wiki users- that's the point, our contributor base are mainly fashion bloggers, girls who would never even think to contribute to wikipedia. So it's fitting that we don't look like other wikis :)

    As I said to Elocina, we are working on ways to make it clearer for people to edit/contribute. This I agree needs work. Your 2,000 uniques per month is completely inaccurate and irrelevant to the point I'm trying to make. In regards to all of the features you list that wikipedia has, I think that is fantastic. When we have the resources available to us we will be implementing things that will allow us to have a stronger sense of community. At this stage we are completely self-funded and only have one programmer (working part-time) in contrast to mediawiki's team.

    Your comment about excluding visually impaired people again goes back to my last comment. This is not intended, nor have I said that I would ever want to exclude people. The entire premise for Wikifashion is to involve those who have previously been excluded from the fashion industry. Unfortunately until we have the funds/resources to implement these features we will not be able to cater for everyone. This is not to be nasty, we can only do as much as a two person team can do :)

    I didn't mention Quora to illustrate my point about women and wikis (I was simply trying to be comical). But I am actually a member of their fashion section and really enjoy contributing to it. The fact that there aren't many women has never put me off this. If you are receiving too much spam, perhaps considering changing your account settings, that's what I did?

    Nicci thank you for your lovely comment, it made my day! Your comment about competition being a motivator never occurred to me but it makes sense.

  18. Your post is simply amazing! Loves it! I'm now subscribing to your blog on my google reader!

    Please check out my blog when you get a chance.
    a fashion lawyer by day, fashion police by night...I play at red carpet events, shop all over town, and live life in the fab lane in LA!

  19. Thanks for the blog comment!
    Personally, I think some women just don't see the point as to why they should add to wikipedia, as it is not a viable source of information, nor is it always reliable. I think that's changing, though, so it will be interesting to see how the pattern changes over the next few years.

  20. To respond to your comment: Yes, and I have the bag! I will be writing a post about the events in the day or so. Promise to upload a photo of the bag!

  21. wow
    loving you blog
    its so lovelyyy

  22. I think it is a combination of all the reasons mentioned above: tech-savyness, content, design, and motivation. But there are also deeper reasons reflecting the current state of society (eduction & socialization), which account for most of the differences between men and women in my opinion.

  23. I think some women just don't see the point as to why they should add to wikipedia, as it is not a viable source of information, nor is it always reliable.I think that is fantastic. When we have the resources available to us we will be implementing things that will allow us to have a stronger sense of community.

  24. This statistic is not something that I set out to achieve, quite the contrary, I wanted to make sure that just as many men as women used my wiki. But this just hasn't happened.

  25. I think that's changing, though, so it will be interesting to see how the pattern changes over the next few years. I wanted to make sure that just as many men as women used my wiki.

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