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Who tells your story on Wikipedia

Growing up, my father was the storyteller of our family. He would use stories to encourage me, to remind me of how important it was to be proud of who I am, to teach me about our family history, and to make me laugh.

Before I knew enough to ask questions, I was soaking up the stories of my father and his brothers who were popular doo-wop recording artists, hearing him talk about how he met and married my mother, and how he and his siblings grew up in the South and moved north during the Great Migration.

This was history, but it had never been written down. Instead, it was weaved into family tales and songs, and then passed along from generation to generation. As I grew up, I learned that our family tradition of storytelling was part of our cultural legacy as Black Americans. We grew up telling stories because many of our great grandparents and great great grandparents weren’t able to or allowed to read. Our stories were our way of passing down our history, cementing our legacy, sharing knowledge and bridging our past to our present.

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The power of storytelling hasn’t changed, even if storytelling platforms have evolved in a more digitally-connected world. Numerous cultures around the world, from Native American Indians to African communities on the Continent and beyond, continue to share knowledge through oral storytelling. Stories are how we share information. And information shapes how we perceive everything around us.

The rise of open technology and mobile connectivity has made information even more accessible across the globe. This year, as Wikipedia celebrates its 20th birthday, there is no clearer example of the power of open knowledge for all than the free encyclopedia that has become one of the most visited websites in the world. For many of us, Wikipedia is our first stop when we want to learn about the world. It is often a top search result when you look for information, and it drives the responses you hear when you ask your voice assistant a question.

As I write this piece, Wikipedia has over 55 million articles in 300 languages — created by a global network of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. English Wikipedia, our first and largest language Wikipedia, recently recorded its billionth edit. Last year, as countries around the world went on lockdown in March and April, we saw week after week of record-breaking numbers of people visiting Wikipedia to learn more about COVID-19 in 188 languages. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris’s Wikipedia article was viewed nearly 8.6 million times in the 48 hours after she was announced as the pick for vice president of the United States. All of this content is driven by the work of volunteer contributors around the world, who give their time and their expertise to share knowledge with the world. Amazing.

But Wikipedia is only as powerful as the people who participate. It’s not just about the knowledge recorded on Wikipedia’s pages, but about who writes it. To paraphrase from my favorite musical, who tells your story matters.

By design, we have limited demographic information about who edits Wikipedia, because we take the privacy of our readers and contributors very seriously. However, our research does show that most editors to Wikipedia come from the United States and Western Europe. And, as of 2020, our survey data indicate that fewer than 1% of Wikipedia’s editor base in the U.S. identify as Black or African American. Considering these data, we can say with certainty that we are missing important perspectives from the world that Wikipedia strives to serve.

When the information on Wikipedia does not represent the full diversity of our knowledge, when the contributors to Wikipedia do not reflect the world that we live in, we all miss out.

The gaps on Wikipedia also highlight a larger issue across the information ecosystem. After all, Wikipedia is a tertiary source, powered by other reliable sources. If major media outlets aren’t giving equal coverage to topics such as women in STEM, or to milestones in Black history, for example, then there will be no Wikipedia article on those topics, because there will be no citations to build from.

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I believe this challenge is also an opportunity, particularly as we see increasing awareness about the disparity in diverse voices across our society. This is a chance to drive real, sustainable change.

We can do this by building intentional practices of openness and equity into our work. As platforms and organizations, we need to make sure that we are not upholding unequal structures of power. The technology we build needs to be founded on values of participation and access for all.

Within the Wikimedia movement, we are focused on knowledge equity — the just and equal representation of knowledge and people — as part of our work to decide the future of our movement. Knowledge equity means that we will work to address historical gaps and provide support to our communities to create a more thriving movement, one that is a better reflection of our world.

As the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia and 12 other free knowledge projects, we’ve also started adding equity measurements to our work. When our different departments report out on their OKRs — their objectives and key results, which is how we track the work we do — we are evaluating equity in our products, the experiences we’re creating, the organizations we choose to partner with, and the stories we tell.  For equity to matter, it needs to be more than a declaration — it needs to be a measurement.

I am passionate about changing the stories we hear, about creating a future where the stories we share are more representative of the world we live in. After all, Black history is an essential facet of our collective history.  This is the promise of Wikipedia, but we’re not there yet.

I invite you all to join us, to contribute your knowledge to Wikipedia to build our global history, together. Follow us on social media all month to learn about important milestones in Black history and heroes that celebrate the Black experience. Share your own ideas using #WikiBlackHistory. Or join an edit-a-thon this month to contribute your knowledge to Wikipedia.  But please don’t stop there. Stay in touch: follow me on Twitter at @janeenuzzell, and let’s continue to expand the content on Wikipedia. Who tells your story matters. It’s time for us to tell ours.

Janeen Uzzell is the Chief Operating Officer for the Wikimedia Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter at @janeenuzzell.

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Jasmina El Bouamraoui and Karabo Poppy Moletsane

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