The Cost of Being a Prominent Woman on Wikipedia – and Online
“People have been harassing me since the first vandal figured out I was a lady,” Emily told Wired earlier this year. “Which was within a month or so of my joining the site.” She has turned that abuse into motivation, increasing the quantity and quality of women’s biographies on Wikipedia, through efforts like WikiProject Women Scientists.
On this episode, we talk about the abuse Emily has received, and how it has changed over the years, along with her methods of dealing with it. Plus:
- The incredible contribution of teenagers to online communities and collaborative platforms
- Why Wikipedia spoke to pre-teen Emily
- Is there more that Wikipedia should be doing?
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If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Higher Logic.
“It’s okay for you to feel upset and bothered when someone says vile, vile things to you. That’s a normal human response. It’s because you’re an empathetic normal human. It’s what you do with those feelings that counts. If you’re upset and you need to, I don’t know, throw a pillow and snuggle a cat and go for a walk or go for a run or cry or whatever, that’s all a very normal way of dealing with things. In the long run, when you find a way to do something productive with these really heady emotions, that’s how you survive it for the long haul.” -@keilanawiki
“Not only do I get inspiration from these women, and I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, absolutely, in every way, I’m also getting to share these stories and get knowledge out there about women who have been kind of neglected and forgotten. That work will stand the test of time. [The abuse I receive] won’t. So, I’m playing the long game.” -@keilanawiki
“I was on Wikipedia at age 12… for me at first, participating in this online community, where I was respected for my contributions, was really important to me because I felt like I was a valued member of a community – when I wasn’t that offline.” -@keilanawiki
“I think a more productive way of approaching the [online abuse] conversation, at least right now, is not say, ‘How can we engineer our way out of this? How can we create technology to get us out of this?’ It’s encouraging communities to grow healthy patterns and healthy ways and encouraging resilience among more marginalized members of communities who are marginalized for discriminatory type reasons, not because they should be marginalized because they’re terrible.” –@keilanawiki
About Emily Temple-Wood
Emily Temple-Wood is an American Wikipedia editor who goes by the name of Keilana on the site. She is known for her efforts to counter the effects and causes of gender bias on Wikipedia, particularly through the creation of articles about women in science. She was declared a joint recipient of the Wikipedian of the Year award by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania in 2016.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Emily’s website
- Wikipedia page for Wikipedian of the Year, which Emily was a joint recipient of in 2016
- WikiProject Women Scientists, which Emily helped create
- Emily’s Wikipedia user page
- “One Woman’s Brilliant ‘F*** You’ to Wikipedia Trolls” by Andrew McMillen for Backchannel on Wired
- “How a Feminist Stood Up to Trolls and Measurably Changed Wikipedia’s Coverage of Women Scientists” by Jeff Elder and Ed Erhart for Wikimedia Foundation, about the “Keilana effect”
- Ada Lovelace Day
- Fellows of the Royal Society
- The Women Writers, Women Artists, and Women in Red WikiProjects
- Emily’s friend and fellow Wikipedia editor, Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight
- R.I.P. IMDb Message Boards, 2001-2017
- Wikipedia Arbitration Committee
- Emily on Twitter
[00:00:04] Speaker: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:20] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, this is Community Signal and I appreciate you hitting the play button on this episode with Emily Temple-Wood, 2016 Wikipedian of the Year and creator of WikiProject Women Scientists, about the abuse she deals with as a prominent woman on Wikipedia and the incredible contributions teenagers make to online communities and collaborative platforms.
Thank you, as always, to our amazing group of supporters on Patreon including Serena Snoad, Carol Benovic-Bradley and Rachel Medanic. If our independent program helps you in your work, please consider joining them at communitysignal.com/innercircle. Emily Temple-Wood is an American Wikipedia editor who goes by the name Keilana on the site. She is known for her efforts to counter the effects and causes of gender bias on Wikipedia, particularly through the creation of articles about women in science.
She was declared a joint recipient of the Wikipedian of the Year award, by Jimmy Wales, at Wikimania in 2016. Emily, welcome to the program.
[00:01:14] Emily Temple-Wood: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:01:16] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure to have you. Our topics today are going to range from not pleasurable to maybe humorous, but it’s so good to have you on.
[00:01:24] Emily Temple-Wood: Thank you so much.
[00:01:25] Patrick O’Keefe: I learned of your story, probably like a lot of people did, through the interesting Wired Backchannel piece that Andrew McMillen did about you and the abuse that you receive being a high profile woman on Wikipedia. And in that article you said that, “People have been harassing me since the first vandal figured out I was a lady, which was within a month or so of my joining the site.” And you were 12. So, you’ve been taking these abuse for 10 years, since you were 12.
[00:01:53] Emily Temple-Wood: 10 years.
[00:01:54] Patrick O’Keefe: With the attention you receive in being named Wikipedian of the Year last year and being covered in this piece and probably others, I’m going to go out on a limb here and just say, based on my experience, I’m going to ask the question, has that abuse only become more frequent due to that attention?
[00:02:09] Emily Temple-Wood: Actually, it’s changed in tenor more than it’s changed in frequency or in volume. When I first started working on the Internet and being a part of the Wikimedia community, a lot of the abuse that I got was very generic. It was people who were mad at Wikipedia or mad at the system and noticed that I was female and used gendered insults to make things worse.
Whereas in the past couple of years, I don’t get the same volume, partially because I don’t engage in like anti-vandalism efforts as much anymore. But the tenor of the things I get is much more personal, much more aggressive and much more focused on my work and like my life’s work. It’s interesting to notice that I don’t get a lot of drive-by abuse anymore. It’s a lot more aggressive and targeted and designed to hurt me on a more personal level.
[00:03:05] Patrick O’Keefe: Less quantity but scarier, it sounds like. I’ve had police officers on the show before. I’ve had different types of groups and I’m just getting into the kind of worst of it, talk to suicide prevention experts and people who have to deal with all sorts of awful stuff online. Just weighing the notion of, when do I call the authorities? When you have to deal with a volume of abuse, what is actionable? What is so personal that it feels like this is something that has to be reported?
So, even though the quantity is less, you’re getting a more stalkerish type vibe? I don’t even know how to describe it.
[00:03:36] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes, it’s complicated because I do make an effort to protect myself. I have learned over the years that seeking out people saying abusive things about you is a weird impulse, but it’s very, very common. Almost every woman on the internet and every guy on the internet I know who gets abused like this has felt the urge to see what people are saying about you, kind of a morbid curiosity. I’ve learned not to do that.
So, I don’t read the comments on anything I write. Sometimes organizations I’m a part of get messages or emails about me and I’ve asked them to not tell me about them unless they’re nice. I’ve put some layers around myself. Articles about me, on whatever website, will get sometimes hundreds of comments, many of which are awful, depending on how good the moderation is.
But it is a difficult thing. Like when do I call my mom and tell her that she needs to watch out for something? I’ve had to do that a couple of times and it’s really unsettling. When do I have to talk to my partner and say, “Hey, honey, don’t answer any strange Facebook messages. This person is saying bad things about you.” That’s a hard thing to have to do, and it’s hard to decide, how much of that do I bring my partner and my family and my friends into?
[00:04:43] Patrick O’Keefe: I was going to ask you how you deal with it, because 10 years in, you have obviously an unfortunate level of experience with it. But it sounds like, in a way, it’s changing where you’re having to develop new mechanisms for how you decide how to handle it personally and then in your own life.
[00:05:01] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes. And there’s different aspects to handling internet abuse and harassment. It depends on what you’ve done that’s engendering the harassment, what coping resources you have at your disposal, what your real life is like. I’m a medical student and my school is very, very supportive of me. There are certain things that would be very threatening for others, like, “I’m going to call your Dean.” That I’m not bothered by. Because if they call my Dean, she’ll tell them, “Yes, she’s cool. Leave us alone.”
My old lab boss, I would tell her, “Hey, someone’s threatening to call you and say that I’m on Wikipedia while I’m in the lab. That’s cool, right?” She would be like, “Yeah, I’ll tell them to go away.” I’ve had the luxury of being in environments where I am not threatened by those kinds of things. My partner knows that if he were to get emails detailing my fake sexual exploits, or a phone call in the middle of the night saying that I had slept with someone or whatever, that this is not true. That is a thing that’s happened.
I’ve gotten a phone call in the middle of the night saying, “I’m going to tell your boyfriend that you slept with me.” Which was very irritating mostly because it was the middle of the night. That’s one aspect is like triage. But there’s the other aspect of how to handle these things emotionally. Because even after 10 years, there are still things that get to you. I’m not going to lie and say that nothing bothers me. Not only is that disingenuous, but that’s also doing a disservice to everyone else who experiences harassment, whether it’s on the internet or in real life.
It’s okay for you to feel upset and bothered when someone says vile, vile things to you. That’s a normal human response. It’s because you’re an empathetic normal human. It’s what you do with those feelings that counts. If you’re upset and you need to, I don’t know, throw a pillow and snuggle a cat and go for a walk or go for a run or cry or whatever, that’s all a very normal way of dealing with things. In the long run, when you find a way to do something productive with these really heady emotions, that’s how you survive it for the long haul. So, it’s a lot and it’s a lot of emotional intelligence, but that’s kind of how I’ve conceptualized it.
[00:07:10] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s almost like our conversation is a Wikipedia page that you’re editing, because I was going to ask you next about self-care but you covered it.
[00:07:18] Emily Temple-Wood: Self-care’s so important.
[00:07:19] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. It’s super important. I think you’ve covered it there. You mentioned something else about what you do with those feelings. Because the crux of that Wired piece was that you’ve turned this abuse into a positive. Tell me about the moment that you decided to do WikiProject Women Scientists.
[00:07:37] Emily Temple-Wood: The Genesis of WikiProject Women Scientists came about five years ago. Then the Genesis of the “Fuck You” article project about a year and a half ago. Those were kind of different situations. WikiProject Women Scientists was born out of a more societal anger. I was celebrating Ada Lovelace Day, which is a celebration of women in science. So, basically, a national holiday for me, or it should be. I noticed that a lot of women who were fellows of the Royal Society didn’t have Wikipedia articles.
Fellows of the Royal Society are the best in their field. They’re acclaimed scientists who have done incredible work throughout their careers and are recognized as such by their peers. Naturally, I was a little bit frustrated by this and I stayed up all night writing about some scientists. I’m a Wikipedian and my impulse when something needs work is to start a project. There’s thousands and thousands of Wiki projects. It was a natural thing to do. With the help of some of my incredible, incredible Wikipedia colleagues, we started this project and it’s taken off. It’s inspired the growth of some other projects.
Women Writers is in the same vein and Women In Red is really the flagship project. That’s run by my colleague Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight. She’s just the coolest. They focus on women’s works broadly construed.
The Genesis of the “Fuck You” articles project was a more personal frustration. I was getting some really heavy trolling that was really emotionally difficult because it was very deep personal trolling. I was really frustrated. I was hanging out with my friends in a chat room and just decided that I was going to be productive with my rage instead of losing it emotionally.
Not that that’s not a valid response, I had just been doing that for far too long. I think I told Andrew McMillen, or someone told him, about how at Wikimania 2015 I was getting a bunch of harassment and I got one email that sent me over the edge. I threw my phone at Jake. I missed. Sorry, Jake. But that was kind of the epitome of visceral reaction to harassment. You want to throw stuff. You’re pissed. Because it’s not kind and it’s not fair and it makes you feel like garbage.
So, Instead of throwing things and letting your emotions take you to a place of destruction, I’ve worked very, very hard to cultivate a productive channel for my emotions. The more I do it, the more satisfied I am. Because when you take someone’s hate and someone’s garbage about, “You only got to where you are because you’ve had sex with everyone.” That kind of stuff. That’s like the most common thing I get, is that I haven’t earned anything I’ve gotten.
When I write about a woman who fought for everything she had and earned everything she got and dealt with much worse crap than that, I feel so much better. Because not only do I get inspiration from these women and I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, absolutely, in every way. I’m also getting to share these stories and get knowledge out there about women who have been kind of neglected and forgotten. That work will stand the test of time. Their abuse won’t. So, I’m playing the long game. Sorry, I’m kind of just like ranting at you about this.
[00:10:41] Patrick O’Keefe: No, no, not at all. It’s not a rant at all. I love it, I think it’s-
[00:10:43] Emily Temple-Wood: I have a lot of thoughts.
[00:10:44] Patrick O’Keefe: – it’s a beautiful thing. I think the article said it’s like every time this happened, you’d go out and do an article.
[00:10:50] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes, that was kind of what I was up to, and then medical school happened. So, now–
[00:10:56] Patrick O’Keefe: Get in line, everybody. [laughs]
[00:10:59] Emily Temple-Wood: Pretty much. It’s like, “You need to get in line behind the entire pathology textbook I need to put in my head by Monday.” That said, I do try and take the time. Whenever I have a minute, I try to write something. So, I’m a lot less productive than I was because of the little doctorate thing I’m trying to get. But that said, I try. And when I’m feeling really upset about really anything in my life, my instinct is to write. And I think that’s a really positive instinct.
[00:11:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s pause right here to talk about our great sponsor, Higher Logic. Higher Logic is the community platform for community managers with over 25 million engaged users in more than 200,000 communities. Organizations worldwide use Higher Logic to bring like-minded people together by giving their community a home where they can meet, share ideas and stay connected. The platform’s granular permissions and powerful tools, including automated workflows and consolidated email digests, empower users to create their own interest-based communities, schedule and manage events, and participate in volunteer and mentoring programs. Tap into the power your community can generate for you. Higher Logic, all together.
The project is incredible and-
[00:12:04] Emily Temple-Wood: Thank you.
[00:12:05] Patrick O’Keefe: – has contributed to the creation and refinement of, I looked at the tally on the page, more than 6,000 Wikipedia pages. Either starting pages, finished pages, top quality pages, just 6,000 plus pages dedicated to women scientists. Which is amazing. Now, is there anything about the project that has– and I know it’s tough because it’s a big project and probably a lot of different moments, but what jumps out to you that might have surprised or delighted you in an unexpected way?
[00:12:29] Emily Temple-Wood: Honestly, it was the first time someone clued me in to the data that showed that we had really made an impact on Wikipedia. Now, I’m going to emphasize this, it is not just me. There’s 90 members of the project, and more people who contribute to Women Scientists who have not signed up for the project for whatever reason.
But about six months ago, Aaron Halfaker, who is a researcher with the Wikimedia Foundation, shared some data that he had uncovered using a new analysis tool that showed that Women Scientists’ articles that had been lagging behind the quality of the rest of the encyclopedia had suddenly and dramatically increased in quality around the time that the project started. And that was so vindicating to me.
Since then, he’s run numbers on other areas and it’s showed that the Women Artists Project and the Women Writers Project and Women in Red have had a similar substantial improvement, such that articles about women scientists and several other areas are now better than the average article in the encyclopedia, when before they were substantially worse. And that is a huge motivation because we’ve had success. We’ve done it. We can do it.
[00:13:39] Patrick O’Keefe: And you’ve got an effect named after you. So that’s pretty great.
[00:13:41] Emily Temple-Wood: I did. I did. That’s really trippy, not going to lie. This is not in the life plan. But yes, it’s really cool to see that organized effort in a topic area like this can make a huge difference. And I hope that we get more data back showing what other quality issues we might have and how we can fix them in a similar targeted way. And we’re so not done. When I started the project, I gave my first talk about it I think in 2013 in Hong Kong at Wikimania, and I estimated then that we had maybe 2,000 or 3,000 articles left to write. That was super wrong, and I’m so glad to have been wrong about that.
I don’t know how many more thousands there are left to write, but there’s so much work to do, and that’s not a defeatist thing to say. It’s a very satisfying thing to say, because again, I’m a Wikipedian. We look at a big list of things to do, and that’s exciting.
[00:14:33] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ll link to the data and the Keilana Effect in the show notes. So, I wanted to kind of split this episode up. On one hand, I wanted to talk about the terrible abuse you have to deal with, how you’ve channeled that abuse, the abuse you deal with, just for being a woman. And then the other half, I wanted to talk a little bit about being a teenage contributor. Because the Backchannel article rightly focused on the abuse you receive for being a woman. And again, I recommend people to read it, we’re going to link to it.
But also, your story is such a great example of the monumental contribution that teenagers and even preteens, in your case, make to online community and collaborative spaces online that are then enjoyed by people of all ages. Older people often summarily dismiss the contributions of teenagers to these spaces. I’ve seen this myself because I started moderating online communities when I was 13 and I started managing my own at 15.
As a teenager, I launched communities that connected tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people. I contributed to other online communities and made posts and wrote articles that were read by a lot of people. I was told so often, and I’m sure you heard this a bunch too, but when they found out my age, how they often thought, “I thought you were older. I thought you were an older person.” Of course, people would insult me when I did something they didn’t like, like removing a post on a community. They would say I was on a power trip or living in my mother’s basement, that one day I would grow up and see how immature I was, that I needed a girlfriend or more colorful things that we’ll keep off-air. But that didn’t deter me. We’re here right now. The fact that we’re both here right now means that it didn’t deter you either from the far, far worse things that you had to deal with. Because you were writing and contributing to Wikipedia articles, who knows, read and appreciated, I can’t even fathom numbers. Millions? Billions?
Now, I’d guess that a substantial number of those people wouldn’t have even thought they were reading the words written by a teenager. Then to their own ignorance and detriment, if the page had said on it, “Written by a teenager,” they probably would have just disregarded it. Teenage contribution system is just such a fun thing online because they’re so influential and yet people don’t really talk about it or think about it. It’s like a secret not secret to those of us who run these spaces.
[00:16:48] Emily Temple-Wood: Oh, my gosh. I have so many thoughts about this. The first thing I want to address is the dichotomy of participating in an online community as a young teen and a preteen while also being bullied in the real world. As you can imagine, I was a weird kid. That I was on Wikipedia at age 12, you really can extrapolate from there. For me at first, participating in this online community where I was respected for my contributions was really important to me because I felt like I was a valued member of a community when I wasn’t that offline.
There’s an element of that, is that online communities can be a place for young people to flourish and grow. Not quite be themselves, because you’re not able to completely be yourself, but be contributory. Be a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s not just your school or your peer group. But it comes with– the flip side is this, when these people figure out how old you are, you get– a thing that gets thrown around on Wikipedia a lot is “kiddie admins”.
[00:17:50] Patrick O’Keefe: Of which you were one. [laughs]
[00:17:52] Emily Temple-Wood: I totally was. But it would get thrown around a lot, strangely enough mostly in adults. Those of us who were actually 12 and 13 and 14 and administrators didn’t get slammed under that as much, I think because we were naturally cognizant of our age and our need to prove ourselves beyond that age. People were really, they did not expect me to be a 13-year-old girl because I was 13 when it came to light that I was a 13-year-old girl.
It also has brought me, now at 23 and then, intergenerational friendships that could have gone very wrong. You hear a lot of horror stories about young women on the internet and pedophiles and everything unsavory. But for me, it was a chance to connect with, first of all, other teenagers who were in a similar position to me, but also older women who have become mentors and friends, and who’ve been a part of my life for a really long time.
It’s interesting because, slight tangent, in school, our professors often, they’ll either take stuff from Wikipedia or they’ll rant about it. It’s one or the other. There’s a lot of, “This is written by teenagers, therefore, it is garbage.” I haven’t yet gotten up and been like, “Hey. So, hi, you’re insulting me. Can you please not do that? I was 13 when I wrote this and I stand by it.” Did I make immature decisions when I was 13? Absolutely. Who doesn’t? Anyone who was on the internet at age 13 said some stupid stuff, but I stand by my work. I stand by the things that I wrote and that I collaborated on.
In that situation, I feel like the only thing that hindered me in my work was my inability to drive to the local college library. I had to get my mom to drive me.
[00:19:38] Patrick O’Keefe: I would love to be in the room when someone criticizes an article that you wrote as a teenager and you’re there. [laughs] I would just love to be there. So, if that’s scheduled to happen at some point, just send out a Facebook invite or something. Just give me an invite. I want to RSVP. I want to be there, because that would be funny.
[00:19:57] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes. It’s actually only happened in a good way. I was sitting in a class and an undergrad was talking about a scientist and hold up the Wikipedia article. I was like, “Oh, I wrote that. Oh, I’m glad I’m in the back.” I’m turning purple. Okay. They were like, “Do you know who Barbara McClintock was?” I was like, “Yes, I’m her most read biographer.” I’m just sitting in the back like, “Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me.”
[00:20:22] Patrick O’Keefe: At least, you can get it right. You’d nail it.
[00:20:27] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes, I see these things that are like, “Can you name 10 women scientists?” I’m like, “I can name a hundred.” Like, “Try me.”
[00:20:34] Patrick O’Keefe: You said that teenagers can easily be themselves. I mentioned about how they’re not in their peer group. I think that’s a great way to put it. It’s not about being yourself or being fake or whatever, it’s just that if you’re a teen or you look a certain way, I mean, it happens no matter however you can categorize human beings by different demographics, but you see a teenager, you want to group them with other teenagers. Automatically just put them in that group. Where online you have the opportunity– there’s an old saying on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.
[00:21:02] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes, absolutely.
[00:21:03] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s been around for a long time. You have the opportunity to go into different groups and then if you can hold your own, and it doesn’t mean being an expert necessarily, it doesn’t mean being the person with the most posts or the most knowledge or the most experience, but if you can hold your own in a conversation, ask the right questions, show a passion for this topic, then you’ll be accepted like anyone else. I totally relate to you, what you said about friendships. Honestly, all of my best friends, but I keep a relatively small group, but all of them, let’s say eight, I met like half of them in online communities.
And all my friends, really, I met online first. One of my closest friends lives in Georgia. He’s a few years older than me, so we’re not that far apart in age. But we get together a few times a year. I know his family, I know his wife. He’s truly one of my best friends. I have another friend who’s a mutual friend of ours, who’s like six years older than both of us, who we get together with and who’s in the same community and had the same type of knowledge and experience. We get on, like we get together and hang out and do all the things that– we’re actually friends, I guess is what I’m saying. We’re actually friends. So, I totally relate.
[00:22:10] Emily Temple-Wood: Well, there’s this idea, I think it’s not particularly prevalent now anymore than it has been, it just makes itself obvious on the internet in new and exciting ways, that we’re putting age silos and going outside of that is seen as transgressive or weird. I found a lot of these relationships to be really fulfilling, both with my peers and with people of different generations.
When I first started editing Wikipedia, I somehow found the other people my age. We kind of just coalesced and we collaborated. It was a really gratifying experience to think that not only were there other people like me out there, we could work together and do something that you would not expect a bunch of dingbat teenagers to be able to do. When I first met some of these guys in real life for the first time, it was like, “Oh, you know, I’ve known you my whole life,” because I had.
One of my best friends lives across the country and she and I met through Wikipedia. My partner and I will go and sleep on her couch and play with her cats. Well, that kind of thing. I also have really close friends who could be my own mom or, at this point, could be my grandma. And that’s-
[00:23:23] Patrick O’Keefe: I like that arrangement. You keep getting younger, they keep getting older. [laughs]
[00:23:26] Emily Temple-Wood: They do. They do.
[00:23:27] Patrick O’Keefe: At one point, they could have been your mother. Now, they’re your grandmother but you’re still you. I like that. [laughs]
[00:23:31] Emily Temple-Wood: I’m still me. I’m trying the math in my head like– but I guess if they were kind of young, you could be a– whatever. One of my best friends is Rosie. She’s 40 years older than me. That’s not a likely friendship, but it’s so valuable. I’m finding, now that I’m in my 20s and I have a little bit of wisdom, certainly more than I did when I was 13, that I can start to pay that forward and mentor young women who are in the similar position.
God, I met an 11-year-old girl who edits Wikipedia this year at Wikimania. I definitely burst into tears and definitely had to leave because I was like, “You’re me except young and–” She was like, “Who’s this weird lady crying?” And I just left because I couldn’t not be weird about it. It’s heartening to see that other people can do this, too.
[00:24:17] Patrick O’Keefe: You said you were a weird kid. I don’t know, that’s your words. But you started editing Wikipedia at 12 years old. There are a lot of ways to spend your time online. There were a lot of ways to spend your time online in 2007, despite what anyone currently might think about the internet back in ’07. Why Wikipedia?
[00:24:34] Emily Temple-Wood: Hey, Neopets was a thing. Neopets and LiveJournal and Zynga, remember?
[00:24:38] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, there was plenty of things. I mean, I was managing communities in 2000. We had good stuff. That’s [chuckles] crazy, people, that just got discovered whatever– Snapchat. There was stuff.
[00:24:47] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes, there was stuff to do.
[00:24:49] Patrick O’Keefe: But why Wikipedia? What was it about Wikipedia that spoke to you as a 12-year-old? You talked a little bit about being in a place where you could be accepted for your knowledge and build credibility at a young age and kind of feel a part of a group. I don’t know. I know in the story you said your first edit was a prank on your sister. [laughs]
[00:25:05] Emily Temple-Wood: It was.
[00:25:06] Patrick O’Keefe: Why did you stick around? What was it about Wikipedia?
[00:25:08] Emily Temple-Wood: There’s a couple of essays floating around in the Wikipedia community that talk about how it’s the honeypot. It’s like a trap for nerds. It really is. Not that it’s a bad kind of trap, it’s a great trap. I stay completely ensnared in it. I’ve always loved knowledge. I’ve always loved organizing. I got my first encyclopedia when I was five. Not only did I read it cover to cover, I made a new cross-referenced index system because their’s was garbage. Yes, my mom still has it. It’s great.
I’ve always been drawn to ontologies and collections of information. I loved the concept of the encyclopedia in the Foundation novels. That kind of monument to human knowledge. I’ve always had this sense, even before Wikipedia, that if we collect it, it’s safe, and the need to preserve and collect and retain and organize everything. It’s a very attractive idea for me and it still is.
Obviously practically, there are a lot of issues with the execution, but that being said, I still very much believe in what we call the capital M –– Mission to procure and make available the sum of all human knowledge. So once I realized that I had the skills to participate, that I could do basic Wiki markup and that people didn’t immediately jump down my throat and tell me I was an idiot, I was sold. There’s no getting me away from it.
[00:26:32] Patrick O’Keefe: If we collect it, it can’t go away. I love that because we have conversations on the show about people are like Amazon, for example, just deleted the IMDb message boards after like 19 years and it’s like, well, yes. There’s some bad stuff there.
[00:26:44] Emily Temple-Wood: There’s a lot of bad stuff.
[00:26:45] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s some bad stuff on Wikipedia.
[00:26:47] Emily Temple-Wood: There’s some real bad stuff on Wikipedia.
[00:26:48] Patrick O’Keefe: Should we just nuke the whole site? This is where a lot of movie criticism, if you look at the history of like movie criticism, IMDb has a place in that if you care about that. To simply nuke it all, yes, I don’t like it.
[00:27:01] Emily Temple-Wood: Internet Archive. My savior.
[00:27:03] Patrick O’Keefe: Exactly, Internet Archive.
[00:27:04] Emily Temple-Wood: All hail.
[00:27:04] Patrick O’Keefe: You got on Wikipedia at 12 but you were also an admin at 12, right?
[00:27:08] Emily Temple-Wood: I was elected an admin at 13. It was like seven or eight months after I joined the site. I joined April 29th, 2007 and then I turned 13 a month later in May. I was only 12 and on Wikipedia for about a month. I was 13 when I was elected an admin. I remember very weirdly my run for administrator. It’s a pretty intense process. It wasn’t as intense in 2007, but it’s still– it’s crazy now, but it was still fairly intense. It simply does community scrutiny over everything you’ve done.
My age got brought up in a much better way than most of the times that people’s age got brought up. It was mostly a positive. Then I remember going to school that Monday and getting bullied. I was like, “I’m powerful on the internet.” It was a very tense thing for me to experience.
[00:27:55] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s interesting. I was going to ask you that, if your age was known. It was known, it was brought up, it was part of the process.
[00:28:01] Emily Temple-Wood: I think it came up during the process, actually.
[00:28:03] Patrick O’Keefe: Oh, wow.
[00:28:04] Emily Temple-Wood: Someone said to me like, “Oh, I heard you’re in school.” I was like, “Yes. I’m in eighth grade.” They were like, “What?”
[00:28:09] Patrick O’Keefe: You were honest.
[00:28:10] Emily Temple-Wood: Yes. I was-
[00:28:11] Patrick O’Keefe: You were honest, which is a credit for you. You could have said, “I’m working on my PhD.” [laughs] “Yes, I’m in school. I’m in school all right.” [laughs]
[00:28:16] Emily Temple-Wood: I could have. I’ve been getting pegged for 25 on the internet for 10 years. Still not 25, it’s cool. I don’t have the page in front of me so I apologize if I make a mistake, but I remember someone saying, “Normally, I would oppose a 13-year-old no matter what, but she’s mature enough that I can’t do that.” That was really gratifying for me that even if I was occasionally a dumb ass, which I was, not going to lie about that either, the fact that people who really, really did not support straight up children having positions of authority on this website were willing to give me a shot. That was really, really gratifying.
[00:28:49] Patrick O’Keefe: Have you turned that around? Obviously, you’ve probably had a voice in other people becoming administrators. I don’t know if any of them were young. Maybe not as young as you, you might be historically young, I don’t know, but 15, 16?
[00:29:00] Emily Temple-Wood: No. Yes, 11 is the youngest. 11 and 12, I think.
[00:29:03] Patrick O’Keefe: 11 is the youngest, but have you been able to turn that around as sort of the elder statesman and say, “Here’s a young person that I think we should add. I think their age or his age or their age is not a problem.”
[00:29:13] Emily Temple-Wood: I haven’t because I have stepped away from a lot of the administrative side of things. I’m nearing the end of my term in the arbitration committee, which is kind of Wikipedia’s last stand of dispute resolution. Coming to the end of my term, I’m stepping away from that. I’ve purposefully withdrawn from a lot of those elements of the community just because I have such limited time, I would rather spend it writing and not dealing with the back end of things, but that’s more of a personal choice.
If someone asked me about the credibility of the young people, I would absolutely go to bat for them if they were actually worth it.
[00:29:46] Patrick O’Keefe: Just like anyone else, right? If they were actually worth it-
[00:29:47] Emily Temple-Wood: Right, yes.
[00:29:48] Patrick O’Keefe: – they’re worth it.
[00:29:49] Emily Temple-Wood: I have seen people in their 70s and 80s be way more immature and way more terrible in a variety of exciting ways than some of the 12 and 13-year-olds I’ve worked with.
[00:30:00] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, I think all of us in community have stories about the 13-year-olds who are just awesome mature contributors, and then the 60-year-olds who are just terrible. There are some straight up awful 50, 60, 70-year-olds that I’ve dealt with online in managing communities that have their own problems as far as being entitled to maybe certain things because of age.
[00:30:18] Emily Temple-Wood: I will not comment on that beyond agreeing with you, but the idea of the meritocracy is not always feasible, but when it is, it’s really nice. I’ve seen 13-year-olds doing stupid things on Wikipedia too. This is one of those situations where I feel like it really is an individual merit and that we shouldn’t just allow young people to contribute, we should encourage it. Because my writing skills and my research skills, I got them from Wikipedia and they have helped me out of so many tight spots in school and in life.
[00:30:48] Patrick O’Keefe: When your age became known, was there an impact in how you were treated? Did you receive abuse that was tied to now, “Oh, now you’re a woman but you’re also too young to be here”? Did anything change as far as how you were treated or the type of receptions you received?
[00:31:02] Emily Temple-Wood: It’s been long enough that I don’t particularly recall. Sometimes people would not take me seriously which was par for the course. Some of the gross abuse I got sounded way more sinister when you realized it was directed at a 13-year-old girl and not an adult. Not that that makes it less bad, but it makes it slightly less horrifying. I can’t put my finger on anything specific.
[00:31:28] Patrick O’Keefe: This abuse you received, there’s problems abound, right? There’s cultural problems, internet in general problems. As someone who has this incredible unique depth of experience with Wikipedia, is it also a Wikipedia problem? Like are there clear steps that Wikipedia could and should be taking that would make a dent in this type of behavior?
[00:31:49] Emily Temple-Wood: That’s the million dollar question, right? Every platform has it’s issues with abuse and harassment, and I think that that is not an internet-specific problem. People will tend to point at specific platforms, Twitter, Wikipedia, Facebook, whatever, as the problem, when really it’s people that are the problem. People will find ways to be terrible no matter what you give them, and this applies to pretty much everything in life. Wikipedia has some more specific problems that I think center around certain specific community elements in each individual community. There are problem people, there are problem patterns.
English Wikipedia at least has a very weird system of governance that’s born of anarchy, and I think that contributes to it. As it turns out, complete anarchy on the internet leads to the most labyrinthian bureaucracy you’ve ever seen, which I find that very interesting, but also leads to its own set of social engineering problems. People often ask me, “What’s the tech solution to this?” And besides, “Let me ban the people I don’t like,” that’s not a thing that you can do. There are going to be toxic elements in any community.
I think a more productive way of approaching the conversation, at least right now, is not say, “how can we engineer our way out of this? How can we create technology to get us out of this?” It’s encouraging communities to grow healthy patterns and healthy ways and encouraging resilience among more marginalized members of communities who are marginalized for discriminatory type reasons, not because they should be marginalized because they’re terrible.
The things that I have found, and everyone is different, but having groups of women who I’m friends with, who can give me emotional support and who give me a sense of really important camaraderie, that’s done more for me staying on Wikipedia than any other solution that anyone has ever put forth. I think you’ll find that’s true for a lot of people in a lot of different communities.
[00:33:54] Patrick O’Keefe: Emily, thank you so much for coming on the show, it’s been a pleasure to have you on. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.
[00:33:59] Emily Temple-Wood: Thank you so much for having me. It’s so great to talk to you.
[00:34:01] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Emily Temple-Wood, Wikipedia editor, creator of WikiProject Women Scientists and joint recipient of the 2016 Wikipedian of the Year Award. Visit her website at Emilytemplewood.com and follow her on Twitter @keilanawiki. That’s K-E-I-L-A-N-A wiki. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we’ve mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Thank you to my girlfriend Kara Rozansky for her input into this episode. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. We’ll be back next week
[00:34:41] [END OF AUDIO]
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