Ultimately, both sides in this dispute recognize that what appears in the encyclopedia is a reflection of its editors—they just disagree about whether the community of editors needs to change how it operates.
More than a decade ago, I wrote an essay comparing Wikipedia to a vibrant city, how it “can send you down unlikely alleyways” via the many links embedded on a single page: There are the links to articles about other people or places mentioned; links to categories of articles on similar topics; links to articles on the same topic in different languages with unexpected illustrations, which, of course, have their own peculiar connections. The entire enterprise was city-like in that adventurous, ambitious people had gathered to build something lasting together, expanding up and down and all around.
In my conception, to visit Wikipedia was to be a flaneur, wandering unharmed from interesting edifice to interesting edifice. I paid little attention to those in marginalized groups who find Wikipedia full of frightening dark alleys and abrasive characters. In 2020, I decided to travel to some of the unwelcome corners of Wikipedia that I didn’t write about a decade ago.
That’s how I came across an article obsessed with exposing the clay feet of Benjamin Banneker, a Black inventor and scientist in colonial America. This was not the Wikipedia article about Banneker himself, which covers his long life in inventing, surveying, and mathematics, but a purported companion piece— thousands of words long, with 250 footnotes—entitled “Mythology of Benjamin Banneker.” The article finds examples of praise for Banneker for building a wooden clock or surveying the area that became Washington, DC, and then quotes accounts questioning whether the historical record supports such praise. Over the years, editors have shown up to complain about the article, including one wondering whether the Einstein article should, similarly, quote from the book Einstein: The Incorrigible Plagiarist. But objections to this and other obscure, potentially offensive articles rarely carry the day unless an experienced editor or administrator can be enlisted to mount a campaign to reverse course.
Since he began editing in 2004, Ian Ramjohn, who is from Trinidad and Tobago, has carefully tracked how marginalized groups are treated within Wikipedia’s editing corps and on its pages. He’s seen progress in driving out racism and sexism in articles that receive a lot of views. “Problems tend to remain in more obscure topics,” he wrote in an email. “The fewer people who have seen an article, the less likely it is that someone will have done the work to push back against this kind of thing. A lot of Wikipedians avoid conflict, so they won’t be inclined to start something. Others may not feel confident enough in their stock of social capital—I can take risks that someone who hasn’t been around as long as me might not—or want to endure the stress of these fights.”
In some future version of Wikipedia that takes harassment more seriously, one can imagine an increasingly diverse crew of editors empowered to oppose offensive content, even if that content is fact-based. In my travels, I also wound up at a detailed account of a Nazi-produced children’s book that, until recently, linked to a neo-Nazi’s site where an English translation was sold. One visitor left a comment wondering if every slur against Jews really needed a link to a library’s copy of that particular section: “We need a RS [reliable source] for the claims about what the book says, not the hateful propaganda book itself!”
For that 2009 essay, I had looked to the writings of Lewis Mumford, a historian and great thinker of cities who saw tolerance for outsiders as at the root of urban life. “Even before the city is a place of fixed residence,” he wrote, “it begins as a meeting place to which people periodically return: The magnet comes before the container, and this ability to attract nonresidents to it for intercourse and spiritual stimulus no less than trade remains one of the essential criteria of the city, a witness to its essential dynamism, as opposed to the more fixed and indrawn form of the village, hostile to the outsider.”
This is the gnawing challenge for Wikipedia. After a period of wild, unrestrained growth, it needs some civilizing laws. The equivalent of a fair housing act and safety inspections to ensure it won’t exclude certain groups from its pages and allow hateful material to grow and fester. Just as it takes more than bricks to build a city, it takes more than facts to build a thriving encyclopedia.
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