The Wikipedia page for American gospel and folk singer Bessie Jones is disappointingly sparse. Despite being one of the most influential artists of her time—she even sang at Jimmy Carter's inauguration—Jones's page is limited to a condensed biography and a partial discography. So this weekend, at the second annual Art + Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon, Samantha Sunne, a 24 year old journalist in New York, was working to expand it.
"She was actually a hugely influential folk music and blues singer in the early 20th century," Sunne explained. "I'm kind of a music geek so I know a lot about her from other sources. The Library of Congress has a lot of her recordings. I'm trying to fill this out a little more and there's also mistakes here, so I'm correcting those."
The edit-a-thon is a global event that brings together volunteers to beef up the entries on women, feminism, and the arts. The flagship event was hosted at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, but more than 70 satellite sites hosted the event across 11 countries, with participants ranging from experienced editors to first-timers.
Art + Feminism is a collective of editors and volunteers who seek to increase the coverage of women and the arts on the mammoth resource. Wikipedia has reported that only 13 percent of its editors are women and while they make efforts to balance the coverage, research has shown that the Wikipedia pages about women are very different from the Wikipedia pages about men (women's pages, for example, were more likely to focus on their personal relationships than their accomplishments).
The Wikimedia Foundation (the head organization that oversees Wikipedia), has tried to increase its number of women editors, but for one reason or another, women aren't participating as much in the cultivation of the site.
The initial barriers to entry are both technical and social.
"The initial barriers to entry are both technical and social," Jacqueline Mabey, an artist and one of the founders of Art + Feminism, told me. "It's a social platform. It has all these rules and regulations that are not immediately apparent. So the training we have developed is for beginner editors to show them how to jump in, get involved, start small, and build to something bigger."
The first edit-a-thon took place last year on a smaller scale but attracted a positive reception. This year, the Wikimedia Foundation awarded Art + Feminism a $14,175 grant to expand the event, allowing it to provide refreshments, child care, and more training for the participants. MoMA also donated the use of the space and the group had support from other organizations like the Professional Organization for Women in the Arts.
On Saturday, volunteers showed up at a steady pace throughout the day and could participate in the training sessions (Art + Feminism also hosted a few classes in advance of the event) before jumping in to put their fingerprints on the site. Those with specialized knowledge could build entirely new entries, while beginners might contribute by copy editing, adding citations to existing articles, or uploading photography to the Wikimedia Commons site.
Mabey said the motivation behind the event was to open the door for women, artists, and feminists to carve out their own space on the site. Wikipedia has long struggled to maintain diverse coverage and while many people are quick to criticize, they're hesitant to do something. Mabey pointed specifically to the outrage swirling around the decision to categorize American women novelists as separate from their male counterparts.
"There was a lot of talk about it on social media with people saying 'how can Wikipedia do this?' But you can make Wikipedia. You can change it," she said. "As an important part of our digital commons and an encyclopedia that we all share and participate in, it should look like the world and reflect the work of women and others. This event is both an intervention as feminists and women but also as artists. We're claiming a stake for the arts."
While they hope to make an impact throughout the weekend, the real goal is to have a ripple effect: to train and encourage new editors to continue their work in the months and years to come in order to gradually make Wikipedia a more accurate reflection of the world.
"It's everybody's responsibility to try to even things out," Sunne told me before getting back to editing Jones's page. "The end goal is just more accurate information and more information period. It's one small way to rectify the lack of representation that these groups have had for centuries."