Hacking Hetero/Normative Logics: Queer Feminist Media Praxis in Wikipedia
Editor's Note: The precise citation of sources from Wikipedia is a surprisingly complex matter–on the one hand, references such as the MLA Handbook and Wikipedia's style pages make it clear that Wikipedia should be handled like any other reference source, but on the other, in practice, use of italics vary widely from source to source and even within a given source. For the purposes of this paper, I have decided to italicize every use of Wikipedia, even in the case of pages from Wikipedia itself that do not follow the Wikimedia Foundations' own recommendations.
I have elected to do this silently, on the grounds that the use of italics or not, in and of itself, cannot deter readers from finding sources, the primary purpose of citation.
This article demonstrates queer feminist media praxis as a framework for investigating digital articulations (Johnson and Simmons, 2015) of gender in social media by unpacking heteronormativity; examining underlying epistemologies of procedural rhetoric and interface design that structure heteronormative identities; and performing a digital activist approach emphasizing a queer feminist media praxis. Such an approach allows for the enactment of a mode of praxis that engages in both critical analysis and speculative re-imagining of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, especially in terms of its cultural, sexual, and gender politics and how those politics are complicit in its adoption of Western rationalist epistemologies. In doing so, this article extends recent scholarship that critically analyzes technocultural formations of gender in digital media, including intersectional identities, and illustrates a conceptual framework of and for hacktivism.
In recent years, researchers across a diversity of fields in the humanities, social sciences, and cultural studies have acknowledged the potential of (and need for) digital activism as a method for interrogating social inequalities in technology, culture, and society. Recent “special issues” in a number of journals devoted to cultural study further exemplify this trend. In the spring of 2014, for instance, Harlot: A Revealing Look at the Arts of Persuasion published an issue focused on digital activism edited by Ben McCorkle and Jason Palmeri. In their editorial, McCorkle and Palmeri highlight the importance of praxis as an essential component of hacktivism: “Rhetoric is first and foremost a productive art. We can’t really analyze well what other digital activists are doing unless we have experience harnessing digital tools for activist purposes ourselves.” Such digital activist work is exemplified, for instance, in Jessica Ouellette’s “Blogging Borders: Transnational Feminist Rhetorics and Global Voices,” as she critiques the function of certain feminist blogging spaces to reproduce social inequalities among women and “marginalize the unique embodied perspectives and agencies of women located in the Global South.” Ouellette’s work demonstrates the necessity of a critical awareness when confronting digital spaces, including those that profess social awareness, especially when she concludes: “As writers, scholars and activists interested in the digital as a site for transnational engagement, it is imperative for us to continuously consider what is at stake when we engage in [such] practices, and how we might begin to question, push against, and revise those practices.”
The emergent movement towards activism as a mode of academic production might be understood through the increased presence of activism in online spaces by nonacademics. The continued role of social media and hacktivism in popular culture (think, for instance, of Anonymous’ commitment to progressive social politics or of the role social media played in the Arab Spring) has made it obvious that such activism can allow for progressive social change. The opportunities for such change have also made it clear that researchers can further adapt critical scholarship in public culture to take critical action and effect change. While some scholars have proposed a range of approaches for digital activism (Earl and Kimport), others have considered queer feminist theory as a hacktivist praxis (Hesse-Biber) to “explore a range of themes around mediation and gender/sexuality activism—and particularly how digital technologies, art and social media can present possibilities or impossibilities for social equality” (Fotoupolou and O'Riordan, 2014). Such work, as articulated by Aristea Fotoupolou and Kate O’Riordan in a recent special issue of Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, has opened up a working space for what they term “queer feminist media praxis”—the subject their special issue centers around. In Marxist and Arendtian terms, praxis “brings together theory, philosophy and political action into the realm of the everyday.” A queer feminist media praxis (QFMP), furthermore, involves “‘making and theorising of media towards stated projects of world and self-changing’, and can be a vital component of feminist and/or queer political action” (Fotoupolou and O'Riordan, 2014).
Additional queer feminist approaches to digital hacktivism also question heteronormative identities in digital spaces. In the summer of 2014, Critical Studies in Media Communication (CSMC) called for a special issue on “Queer Technologies in Communication” (published Spring 2016). A recent volume of Technoculture itself focused on “the ways in which various technologies can be used for oppression and liberation” (Dorwick, 2014), including social media and activist objects. This work demonstrates how a queer feminist approach to media praxis opens up possibilities for a targeted digital activism confronting the heterosexism and heteronormativity of digital cultures and technologies. A queer approach, in contrast to mainstream digital activism approaches, is likely to be more focused on bodies, identities, genders, and/or sexualities, but can also interrogate the intersectionality of such subjects with reality, ontology, or in the case of the current work, epistemology.
In this article, we attempt to draw attention to scholar-activists already undertaking queer feminist media praxis, and to push this community into new directions as we demonstrate and theorize new modes of activism in digital spaces, using the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a particularly productive case study. Following this movement and the recent special section in Technoculture, “On Gender and Sexuality” (vol. 4, 2014), we demonstrate queer feminist media praxis as a framework for investigating digital articulations (Johnson and Simmons, 2015) of gender in social media by unpacking heteronormativity; examining underlying epistemologies of procedural rhetoric and interface design that structure heteronormative identities; and performing a digital activist approach emphasizing a queer feminist media praxis. Such an approach allows for the enactment of a mode of praxis that engages in both critical analysis and speculative re-imagining of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, especially in terms of its cultural, sexual, and gender politics and how those politics are complicit in its adoption of Western rationalist epistemologies. In doing so, this article extends recent scholarship that critically analyzes technocultural formations of gender in digital media, including intersectional identities, and illustrates a conceptual framework of and for hacktivism.
First, we introduce previous approaches to engage and interrogate Wikipedia’s troubled politics in order to highlight its major exclusionary functions. Second, we review recent literature on digital hacktivism and interventions that re-vision heteronormative identities, paying particular attention to the tradition of cyberfeminism as a precursor to queer feminist media praxis. Given these approaches, this article then proposes queer feminist media praxis as a mode of digital hacktivism, and identifies three methods through which queer feminist media praxis accomplishes digital hacktivism: critical analysis, assimilationist intervention, and speculative media praxis. Such methods are not asserted as exhaustive conclusions to the possibilities of QFMP, but rather as an initial exploration of where such theorization can take us. Finally, we also see this project as calling for more theorization, conceptualization, and investigation of queer feminist media praxis’ capability for examinations of digital articulations of intersectional identities, and (more broadly) the interrogation of epistemology and ideology within digital cultures.
Our recognition that this approach is an especially productive one through which to examine Wikipedia’s politics of access and representation emerges from the critical realization that the encyclopedia’s overwhelmingly male editor base brings about massive disparities in representation of already marginalized gender and sexual identities. Furthermore, while we acknowledge that our interrogation of Wikipedia represents only one way to employ hacktivism as a queer-feminist praxis, we also view the encyclopedia as a significant subject of study because of its dominance in this post-Britannica moment.
In the last few years, many projects have emerged to address Wikipedia’s gender gap. “Edit-a-Thons” devoted to enlarging the encyclopedia’s representation of women artists, for instance (“Eyebeam”), and initiatives within the encyclopedia itself, such as Wikiproject LGBT,1 discussed further in this article, have begun to tackle the androcentric and heteronormative coverage of topics in Wikipedia. Due to their limited focus, however, these projects do not acknowledge that Wikipedia’s gender gap is only one symptom of a larger systemic failure to both represent and give access to the multicultural, multi-vocal demographic the encyclopedia envisions in its global rhetoric. Collecting “the sum of all human knowledge” has, so far, been a project taken on by predominantly young, white, western males.
In “Wiki Space: Palimpsests and the Politics of Exclusion,” Mark Graham acknowledges the exclusionary functions of Wikipedia beyond the gender gap as it represents, and fails to represent, global geographies. Recognizing the dominance of Wikipedia as “de facto global reference of dynamic knowledge,” Graham argues that the site’s construction of geographic knowledge, how places are represented, “has a potentially immense bearing on the ways that people interact with those same places culturally, economically, and politically (269). Using the encyclopedia’s own system of geo-tagging articles, Graham’s analysis of Wikipedia illustrates the massive disparities in representation between Western geographies and the Global South. Even more troubling, Graham’s findings also show how, when non-Western locations are represented, they are often written about from an outsider (Westerner) perspective. In other words, a place’s people have no voice in that place’s representation. Graham uses the term “uneven” to characterize the information politics of the encyclopedia and to challenge the accepted notion that it is unbiased, claiming: “Wikipedia is characterized by uneven geographies, uneven directions, and uneven politics influencing the palimpsests of place” (271).
Such unevenness is further evident when it comes to the encyclopedia's representation of queer and LGBTQ subjects, issues, and identities. As a global reference source that is edited primarily by white western males, the encyclopedia’s treatment and coverage of topics related to women’s and LGBTQ identities is more than “uneven,” as Graham has called Wikipedia’s representation of the Global South. In many cases, entries are underdeveloped or even completely absent. Such marginalization through absence highlights the inescapable irony of the Wikipedia project. As an encyclopedia, it is dedicated to and draws from the Enlightenment features of the genre: “gathering the sum of all human knowledge and distributing it freely to every person on the planet” (Wales). Yet such a project is limited in that it neglects a number of already marginalized identities and subjects. As Noopur Raval has written in “The Encyclopedia Must Fail! -- Notes on Queering Wikipedia,”
This was perhaps my first encounter with the absolute paradox of open: making a platform open access does not automatically translate to equality of participation, ease of access, or cultural acceptance of the medium. The question remains: where does one start? Does one wait for these thousands of un-become (those who cannot participate and cannot be recognized) digital citizens standing in the shadows to gradually emerge and adopt new technologies or does one rework the project’s imagination to make space for various stakeholders who may not speak/write and document in the same way? (Raval, n. pag.)
Like Graham, Raval attends to citizens of the Global South, whose access to digital technologies is not readily available. Yet she also realizes the intersectionalities apparent in their treatment and the encyclopedia’s silencing of queer and women’s voices as a result of its homogenous editor base. Through a realization of the systemic nature of these problems, Raval also acknowledges that they cannot be overcome easily, which is perhaps immediately recognizable in the “failure” of her title. Ultimately, Wikipedia’s employment of enlightenment rhetoric, “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” obscures its own ideological inconsistencies and failures to represent a broader swathe of human knowledge. Such inconsistencies become even more conspicuous when examined through the lens of queer and feminist theories of technologies, as applied in the following section.
From Cyberfeminism to Queer Feminist Media Praxis
Researchers have drawn upon cyberfeminism as a resource for digital hacktivism “to reflect on the possibilities and obstacles for making and sustaining feminist knowledge in digital media, a context in which feminist knowledge production can be vulnerable and easily erased” (Fotoupolou and O’Riordan). Such engagements represent a diverse range of approaches, as Jessie Daniels acknowledges in “Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s): Race, Gender, and Embodiment,”
Cyberfeminism is neither a single theory nor a feminist movement with a clearly articulated political agenda. Rather, ‘cyberfeminism’ refers to a range of theories, debates, and practices about the relationship between gender and digital culture….Cyberfeminist practices involve experimentation and engagement with various Internet technologies by self-identified women across several domains….While there is no consistent feminist political project associated with cyberfeminist practices, within a culture in which Internet technology is so pervasively coded as ‘masculine,’ there is something at least potentially transgressive in such practices. (102-103)
However diverse, cyberfeminism has more recently been shown to consistently engage feminism and technology across specific intersections of identity, gender and sexuality. In Webbing Cyberfeminist Practice, feminism and new media intersect at three critical junctures: (1) sharing stories as a mode of social action; (2) reconsidering academic borders; and (3) engaging in technology to resist gender hierarchies. Similar literature also demonstrates a consistent impulse to imagine a form of digital activism that resists typical stereotypes about traditional “hacker” identities. In “Hacking the Label: Hacktivism, Race, and Gender,” an interview with members of the hacktivist collective Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), Leonie Tanczer shines a light on the diversity of hacktivists and their political causes. When describing their project, “Hacking the Black/White Binary” EDT member Carmin Karasic explains: “there is a need to create this body of examples of people who are not fulfilling the stereotype of the straight, white, male hacker” (Tanczer, n. pag.) Such an impulse is also consistent with examinations into considerations of access and privilege, such as Rachel Hileman explores in “Defining Feminism in a Digital Age” as she claims, “this latest version of Feminism is buoyed by the popularity of technology, divided at times by the privilege of those who have access to the technology and information, and that through technology women are able to subvert the normative social gender roles” (3).
Feminist and queer poststructuralist theorists (Butler, 1999; Munoz, 1999; Sedgwick, 2008; Halberstam, 2011) have identified the violence of heteropatriarchy and made the deconstruction of gender and sexual identity a commonplace within cultural rhetorics, literary studies and communication, among other fields. Within these disciplines, and following these poststructuralist advances, feminist scholars and writers are increasingly illustrating the interventionist potential of queer theory for investigating the gendered logics of social media (Gantz, 2013; Tekobbe, 2013; Raval, 2014; Vetter, 2014) and media praxis (Alexander and Rhodes, 2012; Raval, 2014). Technoculture itself, for instance, has published a number of works dealing with gender in digital spaces. In “Playing with Masculinity: Gender Bending in Second Life,” for instance, Kaitlin Clinnin examines the potential of the avatar, in such online virtual communities as Second Life, for “identity performances that are freed from bodily constraints with regards to gender, race, ability, and other identity markers.” Bradley Bond’s “GLOing Depictions of Sexual Minorities: Sex and Sexuality in Gay- and Lesbian-Oriented Media,” furthermore, demonstrates the growing corpus of media created and marketed especially for LGBTQ identities, and the possibilities for more diverse gender expression they allow. Although such projects focus on different articulations of gender, sexuality, and intersectionality, cyberfeminism is a common thread that binds these interventions.
Cyberfeminism might also be seen as the locus of and precursor to a queer feminist media praxis centered on “different modes of political action for social justice, enabled by digital technologies and social media, including theory, art, activism or pedagogy” that can address issues related to gender, digital media and technology (Fotoupolou and O’Riordan). In this article, we argue that queer feminist media praxis, following the work of cyberfeminism, can uncover the capacity of digital interfaces and communities to create and disallow possibilities of (gender) identity, knowledge, and culture, and can push us towards investigations of how such functions emerge. Furthermore, we view QFMP as enabling possibilities for re-imagining digital relationships, bodies, and identities. Working in this tradition in the following sections, we identify three methods for queer feminist media praxis that provide inventive possibilities of digital hacktivism: critical analysis, assimilationist intervention, and speculative praxis.
Wikipedia’s Success; Wikipedia’s Failure
In attempting to articulate a coherent notion of queer feminist media praxis, we acknowledge the necessity of critical analysis as a central element of that praxis. Critical analysis grounded in feminist and queer theory allows for the discovery of the ideological functions of digital networks and other communicative technologies, especially of the ways in which these entities perpetuate and extend hegemonies of gender and sexuality. The realization that critical analysis must not be separated from digital hacktivist practices is also the realization that without analysis, digital hacktivitism cannot be guided toward productive action. It is through the act of critical analysis that we can fully understand and enact QFMP as a disruptive intervention that both exposes the heteronormative logics of Wikipedia—its complicity in rational, logocentric culture—and provides inventive possibilities for digital activism that can interrogate and challenge such heteronormativity. Our analysis of the encyclopedia, accordingly, is represented throughout this article, in previous examinations of approaches to Wikipedia’s gender gap, in the following discussion of Wikipedia’s success and failures, and in subsequent sections as we apply specific modes of queer feminist media praxis.
Once considered grossly inaccurate and undependable, Wikipedia began to gain credibility in 2005, when a study conducted by scientific journal Nature found the encyclopedia to be only slightly less accurate than the print Encyclopedia Britannica. According to this research, “the average science entry in Wikipedia contained four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three” (Giles, n. pag.). In 2017, in its sixteenth year, it is becoming clearer to many that, as a cultural touchstone and public source of information, Wikipedia can no longer be ignored. As of spring 2017, the English edition contains over five million articles (“Wikipedia: Size”). The entire encyclopedia, which includes 295 editions (“List of Wikipedias”), includes over 30 million articles (“History of Wikipedia”). Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website on the Internet and receives “over 85 million monthly unique visitors from the US alone” (“History of Wikipedia”). The “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” Wikipedia is arguably one of the most successful collaborative writing projects to date. In a little over 16 years, it appears that the encyclopedia has already come to occupy a permanent place in global public knowledge culture.
The encyclopedia’s “success” is due, in large part, to its revolutionary use of a social internet technology, the wiki, which has allowed for a new mode of dispersed production: commons-based peer production (CBPP) (Benkler). CBPP and wikinomics (the influence of wiki software on economic structures) has radically transformed the capacity of the Internet for large-scale, digital collaboration. Wikipedia, as perhaps the most well-known manifestation of Web 2.0, remains the most famous example of this transformation. Furthermore, Wikipedia’s open-access mission, evident in its policies and practices, is often praised as inclusive and democratic. The community’s ambition to “collect the sum of all human knowledge and distribute it freely to every person on the planet,” articulated by co-founder Jimmy Wales (Roblimo), further describes an ethic of accessibility and universality.
Yet such success relies largely on heteronormative and capitalist notions of achievement and progress. Most notably, Wikipedia has faltered to encourage participation beyond its mostly white, male editor base. In the most prominent study to date, the editor base of the (English) encyclopedia was identified as 87% male and only 13% female (Cohen; Glott, Schmidt, and Ghosh).2 Such a demographic is problematic on a number of levels, but the way it surfaces most visibly is in the gaps of representation that emerge in actual content coverage. It becomes very difficult to discuss these issues without relying on stereotypes and overgeneralizations. But the fact remains that many subjects which male-identified readers might care more about—pop culture, videogames, athletics—are simply better represented in the encyclopedia. Not only are articles devoted to these subjects better developed and more mature, but there also exists more articles on these topics. Subjects that may matter more to female or transgender-identified readers, however, are often missing or underdeveloped. Noam Cohen, writing for the New York Times in 2011, describes the gap by focusing on how it often manifests in terms of emphasis of coverage:
With so many subjects represented—most everything has an article on Wikipedia—the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject. (para. 7)
Despite the somewhat heteronormative and stereotypical presentation, Cohen’s focus on the representation disparities revolving around gender represents a productive way to begin the conversation on social and cultural hierarchies of knowledge in Wikipedia. What Cohen does not realize, however, is the reductive and limiting function of viewing the gender gap as an isolated problem of the encyclopedia. In actuality, Wikipedia’s mission to gather and make accessible “the sum of all human knowledge” forwards an Enlightenment narrative that fails to value identities and epistemologies outside of a western, logocentric, and heteronormative paradigm. This failure occurs in two ways. First, the erasure of non-normative gender and sexual identities emerges as a condition of the dominant and homogenous editor base, as more males edit and thus control the content that is valued on the encyclopedia. Second, in its adherence to Western print culture (itself also an accompanying feature of Western Enlightenment), Wikipedia also marginalizes the knowledge-making practices of cultures with limited access to print sources. These epistemological conditions are further explored in the following sections, which outline particular methods for intervention and speculative praxis as queer feminist media praxis, and which, through continued analysis, attempt to further recognize the intersectionality of problems related to the gender gap and other issues arising from and in conjunction with the encyclopedia’s editor demographic.
Realizations concerning the gender gap, and related problems of intersectionality and epistemology, provided by the critical analysis of Wikipedia should mobilize us toward direct praxis, which can be accomplished through both assimilationist intervention and/or speculative praxis. Assimilationist intervention ‘hacks heteronormativity’ in social media by “playing by the rules” of existing policies and guidelines, yet working directly with/in the community to challenge, subvert, and/or call attention to epistemological and ideological tensions and failures. We define assimilationist intervention as a praxis intended to work directly with or within an interface’s community to alter the interface’s ideological landscape. In Wikipedia, assimilationist efforts to provide more representation of marginalized topics or identities are often accomplished through Wikiprojects. 3
Wikiprojects serve as task forces, dedicated to improving a specific topic area in the encyclopedia. Wikiproject LGBT, as such, represents a productive space for re/writing the inclusion and representation of LGBTQ culture into Wikipedia mainspace. The queer potential of Wikiprojects is especially evident in the way these communities collaboratively build and maintain task lists for the organization of labor towards a common goal (See Figures 1 and 2). These act as “to-do” lists for editors interested in improving representation of LGBTQ topics.
Figure 1: WikiProject LGBT Studies
Figure 2: WikiProject LGBT task list
Interested individuals use this Wikiproject to share resources and build agency to effect change by working within the encyclopedia’s existing policies rather than overtly subverting them. In doing so, contributors to Wikiprojects collaborate to effect changes in representation and coverage of marginalized topics in Wikipedia: in the case of Wikiproject LGBT, queer topics and people.
As a type of queer feminist media praxis, assimilationist interventions can directly confront issues of marginalization, representation, and access in Wikipedia. However, because such methods work within existing policies and guidelines, their ability to subvert or challenge the epistemologies that create such problems is limited. In the following section, we explore the possibilities created through a third type of queer feminist media praxis, speculative media praxis, by demonstrating how such a method can interrogate intersectionalities of gender, sex, identity, culture, and epistemology.
Speculative Media Praxis and Epistemology
Speculative media praxis has been defined as enabling imaginative or revisionary functions of media for the purpose of liberatory, political actions. Furthermore, speculative praxis has also proven to be an effective queer agent. In “Speculative Praxis Towards a Queer Feminist Digital Archive,” for instance, T. L. Cowan, Dayna McLeod and Jasmine Rault draw upon Johanna’s Drucker’s concept of speculative praxis (Drucker, 2009) as a way of “rethinking the logic of computational design and reshaping the existing architectures of digital space in order to accommodate and enable the intra-active knowledges, feelings, social lives, politics and cultural productions that trans-feminists and queers value” (Cowan, McLeod, and Rault, 2014). Similarly, in “An Introduction to The Affect Machine,” Karin Hansson demonstrates a theoretically-informed speculative media praxis based on the affect machine, “a materialisation of the literal claims of digital culture [which] re-visions Facebook as a form of communism or ideal Marxism” (Fotoupolou and O'Riordan, 2014). These queer appropriations of speculative media praxis inform and support our employment of QFMP as a definitive method of digital activism and further contextualize our application of speculative media praxis to Wikipedia.
Despite how much Wikipedia has pushed the boundaries of the encyclopedic genre, opening it up, for instance, to all kinds of previously marginalized types of knowledge, mainspace articles (the content most users actually interact with) maintain an objectivist, detached and “factual” linguistic register that perpetuates rather than challenges Enlightenment claims to “truth.” This register upholds hegemonic and western phallocentric notions of truth, reality, and knowledge that have yet to be adequately challenged from a queer or feminist stance.
As a tertiary source, mainspace article discourse in Wikipedia is regulated by the sources used to verify knowledge claims through the encyclopedia’s policy of verifiability (“Wikipedia: Verifiability”). “Verifiability,” furthermore, is typically expected to emerge through the condition of a claim to fact being readily accessible in a published/print book. On a systemic level, such a policy immediately marginalizes cultures with less access to printing technologies, especially cultures where (indigenous) knowledge is maintained orally rather than textually. But what does the marginalization of indigenous knowledge cultures have to do with Wikipedia’s gender gap? The policy of verifiability, and its implications and effects as part of a larger print-centric epistemology, ensures that existing hegemonies of discourse and identity will continue. It is the combined result of a system that is at once logocentric, rational, and androcentric. Because it can only base knowledge claims on existing published work, Wikipedia mirrors western culture’s existing hegemonies of gender and sexuality through its insistence on the possibility of a rational encyclopedia project based primarily on a single epistemological method: print verifiability.
What is perhaps most striking about this condition, furthermore, is the tension that emerges between the insistence of such a project and the ideological and epistemological possibilities of the wiki technology. Wikipedia’s “History” function demonstrates an epistemology that is at once comfortable with the postmodern condition of a knowledge production that is constant, in-flux, and revisionary. Article histories track a record of knowledge making, and in doing so, reveal the very complex, disparate and incoherent processes behind the ongoing genesis of the encyclopedia. It is this visible process that allows for the deconstruction of the ideal encyclopedic project (the curation of all human knowledge) as a rational and possible endeavor. Attending to process, more than anything, allows us to see that it is not only the principle of verifiability that determines coverage and representation, but the individual contributions, the identities of specific editors, and their selections of sources that make up our largest reference database for “factual” information.
Wikipedia’s adherence to print culture limits epistemological diversity because it fails to recognize diverse knowledge-making practices beyond its policies for “verifiability.” Speculative media praxis opens up opportunities to challenge these policies through an interrogation of dominant knowledge-making practices. In the following case studies, we model two modes of speculative media praxis, two public edits that go beyond assimilationist intervention to disrupt epistemological practices. The first edit seeks to subvert dominant citation policies, while also analyzing the problem of Wikipedia’s devotion to print-centric epistemologies. The second edit challenges the objectivist language register common in Wikipedia articles, while problematizing Wikipedian notions of consensus and imagining, or speculating, how a feminist mode of collaboration might alter the encyclopedia’s knowledge-making practices.
Wikipedia’s Politics of Citation
Due to guidelines laid out in the “Verifiability” policy (“Wikipedia: Verifiability”), citation practices in Wikipedia tend to value print-centric, secondary sources. Such policies work against the encyclopedia’s open-access goals because they limit the types of knowledge that can be shared (especially among cultures that have long traditions of oral knowledge). These dominant citation practices may be subverted, however, by inserting alternative epistemological methods in articles strategically chosen for their subject and editor culture.
In our first example of speculative media praxis (see Figure 3), the edits, which include both a revision to a mainspace article and an explanation of that revision on the article’s Talk page, focus on the article “Surr,” a traditional Indian game which is poorly represented in print sources. The selection of this article was based on its history of attempts by Wikipedian Achal Prabhala to use oral sources for its development.
Prabhala’s efforts to include oral/folk knowledge in this article was part of a larger initiative to expand Wikipedia’s dominant knowledge-making practices so that it might better represent indigenous knowledge cultures with strong oral traditions. Prabhala’s oral citation project asserts that, because of its policy of verifiability, the encyclopedia neglects to represent wide swathes of human knowledge. Cultures that value and have long histories of oral knowledge, such as India, are especially neglected by Wikipedia’s insistence on print culture (“Oral Citations”). While Prahbala did receive support from the Wikimedia Foundation for his project, oral citations are still largely rejected by the Wikipedia community. The “Surr” article represents a prime example of this, as Prabhala’s original inclusion of an oral citation was quickly reverted (deleted) from the article. In this edit, accordingly, we revert the deletion of Prabhala’s oral citation (Figure 3) and leave a message on the article’s Talk page (Figure 4), explaining the need for validation of oral citations. This moment of praxis, whether or not it remains on the current version of the article, serves as a public disruption of traditional epistemologies in Wikipedia that omit indigenous knowledge cultures.
Figure 3. Edit History for “Surr” article displaying praxis hack.
Figure 4. Accompanying commentary to praxis hack on article "Talk" page
The marginalization of specific indigenous knowledge making practices, such as the oral knowledge traditions of India and other cultures, demonstrates Wikipedia’s inability, as an encyclopedia rooted in Western epistemological practices, to enable global collaboration, as is demonstrated in the example of the “Surr” article. Of course, the wiki itself was originally designed to allow for productive modes of collaboration (Cunningham and Leuf). In its relatively short history, furthermore, Wikipedia has enabled large-scale collaboration that is virtually unsurpassed, especially in the history of encyclopedic projects. The encyclopedia’s collaborative model has not, however, completely achieved the truly polyvocal and heteroglossic participation envisioned in this and other free and open source software (FOSS) initiatives. This is in large part due to its homogenous editor base. If collaboration is to achieve a mode of production in which traditional social hierarchies of race, class and gender are disrupted and replaced, collaboration must be invoked from a queer or feminist perspective. This perspective acknowledges that collaboration among a homogenous group of dominant social groups can never achieve the radical aim of empowering and giving voice to those oppressed and silenced.
Consensus, Collaboration, and Dissensus: Disrupting Objectivism
If we are to imagine Wikipedia as a truly open access and globally representative project, we must also recognize the value of collaboration as a feminist mode of production that includes and invites a diverse demographic of writers. Collaboration among white, western males cannot achieve polyvocal participation that would allow the encyclopedia to more fully accomplish its ambitions for “collecting the sum of all human knowledge” (Roblimo, emphasis ours). Accordingly, we invoke collaboration here as a feminist endeavor precisely because any legitimate collaborative practice must displace androcentric and heteronormative discourses to allow marginalized gender and sexual identities to take part in language use and the construction of knowledge. As a queer feminist mode of writing, collaboration strives toward diversity and inclusion as central motivations, while subverting the notion of the single-authored text. In Wikipedia, often praised as a model for collaborative knowledge building, consensus, rather than collaboration, remains a primary epistemology. Consensus, according to the encyclopedia,
refers to the primary way decisions are made on Wikipedia, and it is accepted as the best method to achieve our goals. Consensus on Wikipedia does not mean unanimity (which, although an ideal result, is not always achievable); nor is it the result of a vote. Decision-making involves an effort to incorporate all editors' legitimate concerns, while respecting Wikipedia's policies and guidelines. (“Wikipedia: Consensus”)
Consensus is notably different from collaboration in that it works within a majority framework while following established policies. While we might imagine collaboration as inclusive and diverse, as an ideal formation of a text that incorporates multiple stakeholders and a multiplicity of viewpoints, consensus represents the more pragmatic method of achieving a product in line with a community’s majority of stakeholders and established practices. Consensus as a mode of negotiation becomes problematic in Wikipedia precisely because of its homogenous editorial base. Consensus cannot (always) achieve a collaboration that includes a diverse range of identities and viewpoints. To challenge the problematic effect of consensus and reflect on the (im)possibilities of collaboration, we describe a method of praxis in the following in which the wiki’s Talk function is identified as a means to bring dissensus, the disagreements that are elided in mainspace through the process of consensus, into an article’s mainspace (the main article that most readers access). The edit hack in question was deployed in the article on gender theorist and author Kate Bornstein. To perform this praxis, we created a new section in Bornstein’s main article (Figure 5) that summarized material from the article’s Talk page, specifically the controversy over other editors’ disagreement on what pronouns should be used to identify Bornstein. The act of bringing in material from the Talk page attempts to expose the epistemological debate between those who argue for adherence to the Wikipedia Manual of Style (which insists on cisgender pronouns she/he) and editors that advocate for using Bornstein’s preferred gender pronouns of ze and hir.
Figure 5. Edit hack to article mainspace
Furthermore, the insertion of this section, which describes the ongoing negotiation over the use of gender-neutral versus cisgender pronouns, draws attention to the objectivist façade presented in mainspace articles. By referencing and summarizing the discussion happening in the article’s Talk page, this edit-hack attempts to highlight the ways in which ideological and epistemological conflicts are often “hidden” beneath mainspace articles, confined to the less-trafficked Talk pages which are typically viewed only by interested editors, rather than general readers.
Speculating Queer Possibilities: Implications and Future Research
Despite paradoxes of heteronormativity in social media, this article illustrates that these sociotechnical systems provide pathways for disrupting social inequalities and the foreclosure of identity in digital spaces. Susana Loza (2014) demonstrates this point in her article on “Hashtag Feminism, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and the Other #FemFuture.” Furthermore, while a number of scholars and practitioners have sought to redesign Wikipedia (Graham; Kvasnikov; Raval), this project subverts Wikipedia's heteronormativity and logocentrism by engaging in critical analysis of the encyclopedia’s gendered and rationalist epistemologies and through queer feminist media praxis “hacks” that disrupt Wikipedia spaces in order to expose and challenge these epistemologies. The methods of QFMP demonstrated in this article answers calls for more experiments needed “to be repeated if [queer feminist] knowledge is to be produced through them” (Fotoupolou and O'Riordan, 2014). More specifically, it is our intent that a method of hacktivism that includes both criticality and praxis is one that could be repeated in further applications of queer feminist media praxis.
The specific methods of praxis discussed in the previous sections illustrate particular ways of hacking mainstream epistemologies in Wikipedia, epistemologies that, in their emphasis on logocentric and enlightenment ideologies, too often forward a heteronormative model of knowledge production at the expense of identities and methods already marginalized in Western cultures. The inclusion of alternative citation practices allows us to re-imagine the West’s grip on legitimate knowledge claims through a print-centric epistemology that omits indigenous practices. Imagining the insertion of contentious discourse via the addition of Talk page discussion into the article mainspace, furthermore, interrogates the ways in which consensus can only always represent a majority of viewpoints and identities in line with existing policies and practice. The addition of Talk page content that demonstrates the dissensus around issues related to gender identity explicitly shows existing disagreements within an article’s formation and, accordingly, allows for a more inclusive form of collaboration. In deploying these methods of praxis, we realize they are perhaps both permanent and impermanent in the culture of Wikipedia. Edits are easily reverted in the encyclopedia, and dominant policies and practices of consensus frequently prevail in these spaces. At the same time, Wikipedia also retains every edit through its History function. Our hacks, accordingly can never be completely undone, only hidden in the back pages of the encyclopedia’s history.
Although this project focuses primarily on the politics of gender and sexuality (and their intersection with epistemology) in Wikipedia, there remains a need for further understanding of intersectionalities of social inequalities in other social media platforms from a queer feminist media praxis perspective. Jessie Daniels, in “Rethinking Cyberfeminisms: Race, Gender, and Embodiment,” urges “those of us who hope that our work can and should speak to audiences beyond the academy to follow the lead of critical cyberfeminists and “hollaback” by engaging the Internet as a discursive space and a site of political struggle” (118). Other scholarship might move towards a speculative imperative that eschews instrumental or intentional changes in favor of provoking debates on the importance or failures of theoretical and methodological models. For instance, recent investigations of the gendered logics of Pinterest (Gantz; Vetter) could be extended by a queer feminist media praxis approach that allows for a revision of technocultural practices in light of critical theories and concepts of queer feminist theory, especially Halberstam’s notion of “queer failure” as it exposes intersectionalities of class, race, and gender.
As we have attempted to demonstrate, queer feminist media praxis can uncover the capacity of digital interfaces and communities to create and disallow possibilities of (gender) identity, knowledge, and culture, and can push us towards investigations of how such functions emerge. We do not, however, claim our project as the definitive approach. There remains a need for further exploration concerning the range of approaches and applications that might be adopted. For instance, prototyping serves as a speculative mode of critique, as well as a form to be either critiqued and/or implemented. The former represents a form of QFMP that continues to open up possibilities for further debate and discussion, while the latter represents an instrumental view of implementing feminist and queer media strategies. Using prototyping as a speculative approach for queer feminist media praxis also opens possibilities for extending and moving beyond assimilationist approaches to digital hacktivitism. In the case of Wikipedia’s editorial processes, prototyping might open queer possibilities for hacking heteronormativity by re-visioning the mainspace to include recent discussion from an article’s Talk page (as was attempted in the second case study). Because these pages are normally “hidden” beneath the article mainspace, users rarely have the opportunity to experience knowledge production as a contested and ongoing discourse that privileges certain identities and cultural hegemonies and marginalizes others. Re-visioning the mainspace to include this section disrupts the objectivist facade of fact by revealing its messy and ideological production (Figure 6.). Wikipedia’s heteronormative processes might be prototyped using the current user interface, policies, and guidelines or re-visioned by using critical analysis informed by queer feminist media theory to develop an alternative reality of social media.
Figure 6. Speculative prototype as queer feminist media praxis
In our application of queer feminist media praxis to the politics of gender, sexuality, and epistemology in digital spaces, we hope to have opened up a critical dialogue on Wikipedia’s gender politics, demonstrated possibilities for challenging and subverting social inequalities in digital spaces, and finally, encouraged others to take on similar challenges. Additional research and application of queer feminist media praxis might demonstrate the potential for this kind of practice to ignite social action and social change. For instance, research on digital activists groups such as Anonymous or methods employed in specific digital activism campaigns, could also benefit from a QFMP approach. Demonstration of these types of queer feminist media praxis are meant, more than anything, to open up new modes for an activ(ist) praxis of critique, one that allows for a vision of new impossibilities in digital spaces.
- 1. Wikiprojects are task force groups devoted to expanding and developing specific content areas in the encyclopedia. They share common goals and help each other to improve the encyclopedia’s representation of a particular topic.
- 2. The “opt-in” survey methods of this study were challenged by Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw in a 2013 article "The Wikipedia Gender Gap Revisited: Characterizing Survey Response Bias with Propensity Score Estimation."
- 3. Edit-a-thons, such as the Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon described in the introduction are also representative of assimilationist intervention in Wikipedia.
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Matthew A. Vetter is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he is affiliate faculty in the Composition and Applied Linguistics Ph.D. program. His research asks questions related to technology, writing, and pedagogy, with a specific interest in investigations of the ideological and epistemological functions of digital communities. Vetter has published critical work in Composition Studies, Computers and Composition Online, the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, Harlot, and publications sponsored by the Wiki Education Foundation. An Associate Editor at Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Vetter also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University.
Keon Mandell Pettiway, M.F.A., Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Eastern Michigan University. His research focuses on the relationship between rhetoric, intersectional identities, and design, particularly the affordances and constraints of public and digital spaces for rhetorical agency and civic transformation. Additionally, his work examines participatory design approaches for risk communication campaigns such as HIV/AIDS and climate change. He is the co-principal investigator of the Virtual Martin Luther King Project at North Carolina State University.
© 2017 Matthew A. Vetter and Keon Mandell Pettiway, used by permission