A recent study, reported on the Wall Street Journal's blog, reveals that only 13 percent of Wikipedia's contributors are female. This information manages, somehow, to be both unsurprising -- Wikipedia feels like a guy thing, somehow -- and fascinating, for raising questions about how gender informs the largely anonymous realm of Internet discussion.
Wikipedia aims for democratic participation: Anyone can contribute, and everyone's contributions are subject to correction by other users. Its subject matter isn't implicitly gendered: It covers almost any topic that's relevant enough to warrant an entry. But, in practice, Wikipedia -- like any other established subculture, offline or on -- rewards some contributors more than others. The site, by its nature, favors people with an intense interest in detail and a high tolerance for debate. (Choosing a discussion page at random, one learns that the entry on frogs once drew critical attention for including a picture of toads. It got slightly heated.)
When asked why they contributed to Wikipedia, 73 percent of respondents answered, “I like the idea of sharing knowledge and want to contribute to it.” Which suggests that people who are ambivalent about sharing their own knowledge or unsure of their right to contribute are less likely to take part. Second only to the satisfaction of being right is the satisfaction of proving someone else wrong: 69 percent answered that they contributed because “I saw an error I wanted to fix.” And one-quarter of respondents who did not contribute said that they hadn't done so because they were “afraid of getting 'in trouble'” for erroneous contributions.
These traits -- the ability to show off one's knowledge, to argue over fine (and possibly trivial) points, to correct others publicly -- aren't inherently male or female. Still, they're often beneficial for men and socially detrimental for women. On the Internet, this shouldn't matter. No one can see you, and with the right screen name, gender is all but impossible to detect. And, of course, there are tons of women on the Web. But after a lifetime of hearing that they should be polite, non-confrontational and self-deprecating, many women may feel uncomfortable shedding that training to engage in a toad classification debate on Wikipedia.
Of course, it may also be that women just don't see the benefit of participating in this kind of detail-heavy, nitpicking discussion without pay or recognition. It's not an unreasonable point of view. Still, one wonders how much more heated the conversations could get -- and in what ways -- if more women risked getting into trouble.