Wikipedia's page about itself defines it as a "multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on a model of openly editable content"6. Wikipedia aims to make knowledge accessible to all - both as contributors and as consumers. India, with its size and diversity of several kinds7, still lacks the kind of coverage that more developed countries do on Wikipedia or its sister projects. The coverage that exists may not compass all of our country's rich diversity and depth. Sometimes, the narrative that does exist may not be written from our point of view, using our voice. Understanding the relationship between the narrative and the narrator is important in order to be truly inclusive.

In general, we have consistently seen that the average Wikipedia contributor is a white, English-speaking cisgendered man. The vast majority of content on Wikipedia written about most African countries is written by (primarily male) editors in Europe or North America8. Similarly, pre-dominance of men on the platform has meant that Wikipedia suffers from a gender gap, which is a widely documented problem. Women are under-represented on Wikipedia. Is the situation any different in India? Let's find out!

According to a report released in 2017, 59% of internet users in urban area and 64% internet users in rural areas are men9. The ratio is even more skewed on Wikipedia. For instance, according to the 2011 survey for every 100 Wikipedia editors, only 9 percent are women.10 How is that important? We will answer this question with the help of two Wikipedia pages of two public figures in India. India has two international cricket teams - men's and women's. Virat Kohli is the captain of Indian men's cricket team, while Mithila Raj is the captain of Indian women's cricket team. When we look at their respective Wikipedia pages11, it is very obvious that the page of the former has much more information, references and photos and is better documented in general than the latter's. It is interesting to note that Mithila Raj made her debut much before Virat Kohli, yet the content in her page is much less detailed than Virat Kohli's. The situation is worse for trans persons. For instance, let's look at the page of A. Revathi, a revolutionary writer and activist who wrote a book on her lif12. Her page barely has any information about her, and is tagged as "needs additional citations" by "reliable sources". This phenomenon has not escaped the attention of the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. He acknowledges that the biographies of famous women are inadequate.13

What about other identities such as language, caste and sexuality? Let's look at them one at a time. We know that India has 22 official languages. There are about 19,500 dialects in India!14 Most articles are written in English, and Wikipedia represents 24 Indian languages15, of which the oldest turned 16 this year [June 2018].16 This pattern in representation of languages clearly demonstrates inequity. As far as caste is concerned, we have all seen what happened to page on Bhanwari Devi.17 Bhanwari Devi is a social worker from Rajasthan. She received the Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award in 1994, and she was invited to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Her case led to the legislation of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi had accused upper-caste men of gang raping her in response to her efforts to fight child-marriage in her area. 27 years after the crime, her case is still in the courts as she waits for justice.18 Until June 20, 2014, the Wikipedia page on Bhanwari Devi was full of incorrect information with incorrectly ascribed citations. Apart from incorrect information on process and protocols followed in the investigation, the page described Bhanwari Devi as a "young, illiterate potter woman", "village slut", "a professional prostitute who felt cheated by life and exploited by men" and described the accused as "poor; illiterate and knowing nothing about court procedures or media management". The entries in the page blatantly violated Wikipedia’s content policies, and highlighted the need for feminist editors in the community.

Why are some topics grossly underrepresented? Well, mostly because of systemic bias19. There are measures being taken to ensure that such discrimination gaps are bridged. For example, Wikimedians and Wikimedia communities have been organising edit-a-thons with various groups in different parts of the world20. These editathons are explicitly designed to create a more inclusive environment for marginalized contributors and encourage creation of underrepresented content.21 For instance, there are edit-a-thons for Indian Women in Science22, women in art history23, Dalit history24, Black history25 etc. While such efforts are helpful, it is helpful even during such events to keep a check on our inherent biases by asking ourselves:

Do you only see people from similar backgrounds like you in your local Wikimedia community/ communities?
Do you know where other Wikimedians in your country reside?
How many Indian languages are represented?
How many male and female Wikimedians do you know?

Thinking about these questions will be helpful because all these factors have a direct impact on how knowledge is produced and consumed by all of us. This is the first step in making our community more diverse. Being a contributor from a minority group cannot always be easy. In order to retain diversity, we need to help provide them with safe and conducive space to be a productive contributor. Only when they can write without fear of harassment and threats, can true diversity within open knowledge communities flourish. It will ensure that all subjects, and people from diverse backgrounds are equally and respectfully represented.

Whose knowledge gets represented and whose gets left out?

We also have to understand that there are some communities whose experience has been documented for centuries. Likewise, there are some communities whose experience is only beginning to get documented because they never had access to resources to document their history. In some cases, more powerful or better-resourced groups have documented the stories of groups that were oppressed or less powerful or less moneyed. Hence, the latter group may not have the necessary references to cite in order to support their version of the story.

At this point, it is important to reflect on "What is knowledge?" Who determines what sources are reliable or what are not? On what basis are those rules made? Are these rules inclusive? These rules impact the kind of material that gets narrated in public spaces, curated, and preserved and valued as knowledge. It determines the story that is dominant as opposed to the story that is discarded. The preservation of information becomes inaccessible for some groups when we deem only that information documented in books and journals as valid, and people's experiences as invalid. When we value one over the other, we create a barrier for people who cannot access academic spaces or avenues of privilege. Such spaces are accessible to only a handful of the world's population. And thus we contribute to those people's stories being forgotten.

Recommended reading
Whose Knowledge is a great global campaign to follow in order to understand how inequities of knowledge in terms of representation persist in the cyberspace.

Points to Ponder

  1. How will you feel if you were to find that most of the articles on Wikipedia about your country, state, province, region were written by people from a different continent who have never lived in the same place as you?
  2. What would be your response if articles about your religion, caste, culture, food, language, politics or history were written by people who have no lived experience of the same.
  3. Do we believe that everyone irrespective of their background should have access to different kinds of knowledge?

How does class play a role in the production of open knowledge?

Let's do an exercise. Please answer the following questions.

  • As a child did you ever worry if you will get your next meal?
  • When in school, did you ever worry if your parents/guardian would be able to afford the new book assigned?
  • Have you ever had any constraints in accessing a library or course books?
  • Have you ever needed to cancel your admission for a course because you were short of a few thousand rupees from the necessary fees?
  • Do you have proper electricity supply at home?
  • Do you have an internet connection at home?
  • Have you ever experienced difficulties in accessing a personal computer, laptop, mobile phone or the internet?

If you answered the above questions in the negative, you belong to a economically upper class.

Why are we asking these questions?

Well, to be a regular contributor to Wikipedia or its sister projects, it is important to have the interest, willingness, and enthusiasm to volunteer one’s time and efforts and do so without any remuneration. At the same time, it is important to have time and digital literacy to contribute. People who work long hours to fend for themselves and their families may have the willingness and interest to contribute to the exciting world of free and open knowledge but not necessarily have the time or opportunity to do so. Furthermore, contributing regularly to Wikipedia and/ or its sister projects requires one to have reliable access to some basic resources such as electricity, computer or mobile device, and a stable internet connection.

Access to information and knowledge
Let's do an exercise!

Which of the following do you think one needs in order to be a contributor to Wikipedia or its sister projects? Tick all the options you think are applicable:

  •  Electricity
  •  Library
  •  Encyclopedia
  •  Computer/ Laptop/ Mobile Phone
  •  Internet connection
  •  Education
  •  Camera
  •  Transportation

Based on your answer to the previous question, what happens when a Wikimedian does not have access to the infrastructure she/he/they need to contribute freely:

  • Electricity
  • Library (Physical or online)
  • Encyclopedia (Print, web audio-video or in Braille)
  • Computer/ Laptop/ Internet-enabled mobile phone
  • Internet connection
  • Education
  • Camera
  • Transportation

Many places in India are still unelectrified or have irregular or limited electricity supply. Libraries are inaccessible to many. While the government is in the process of furthering its ambitious Digital India program, many people do not have access to computers, which makes it nearly impossible for a large section of the country to contribute. In other words, the only people who can contribute to free and open knowledge are those who have electricity connections, internet connections, and access to technology and knowledge. That costs money! And people from certain classes have more money than others, which they can spend on pursuits they are passionate or enthusiastic about. As a result, people from certain classes end up being the majority contributors to knowledge and information.

In our subsequent modules, we will have a detailed look at how various factors including caste, disability and other aspects have an impact on how open knowledge is produced and consumed in India.

next: footnotes