Wikipedia: Gateway Platform to More Girls in Tech?

Ever since the Wikimedia Foundation announced its goal to raise the share of female contributors to Wikipedia 25 percent by 2015, I’ve had it in my head to make sure my 11-year old niece is adding her voice to the collective knowledge of the world.

It was with this goal of lighting the next generation’s torch that I ventured over to my brother’s house to hang out with the little genius who happened to be working on a homework assignment on her computer when I arrived. The assignment was to research and write a report on an invasive species – and she had selected the “mitten crab” – a species introduced to the Chesapeake Bay in 2005 and is currently being evaluated for its impact on the native Chesapeake Blue Crab.

As she was searching and culling the internet for information, I asked if she was allowed to use Wikipedia – she said yes. Then I asked if she had ever edited Wikipedia – she said no.  That’s when I gave her her first lesson in editing Wikipedia. We had fun, for over an hour, and it went off exactly how I first learned to edit Wikipedia back in 2006 when I was an instructor for Intellipedia.

The mitten crab Wikipedia page was the perfect page to launch her learning. Why? Because the number one reason people avoid contributing to Wikipedia is the feeling that they don’t have anything or enough information to contribute (per the 2010 survey conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation).

My niece and I quickly noticed we had something to add. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center just announced it’s seeking reports of mitten crab sighting and collections. But this wasn’t mentioned anywhere in Wikipedia article – and we believed it belonged there.

To get her going I started with the basics – how to edit sections (versus the entire page), wiki-markup for things like links, bullet points, and bold text, the importance of including an edit summary. She picked it up effortlessly like the little sponge-brain she is.

In fact, her hand was on the mouse clicking “edit” faster than I could say “Whoa, Tonto!” First thing the following morning, she was reporting on the status of the page. It had been edited by a “crustacean nerd” (my niece’s words, not mine) but the bulk of our contribution was still there, including the line we added in the first sentence: named for its furry claws that look like mittens.

I don’t think doubling the number of females contributing to Wikipedia by 2015 is a difficult mark to hit. In fact, I think it should be much higher since the barriers to contributing are pretty easy to address. My experience this weekend proved just how easy it can be.

While wiki markup is just a syntax (similar to using Word), I can’t help but think that learning it could encourage girls to learn to program – as a gateway language so to speak – by showing them how fun it is to build and create something, moving them from consumers of information, to creators and builders.

If every Wikipedian took just one hour of their life to teach a girl how to contribute, the future of Wikipedia would be forever changed. Diversity is the key to survival and Wikipedia needs more of it – not simply to survive, but to thrive. Maybe there should be a pledge to sign – teach a girl to wiki. Or free classes led by Wikipedian volunteers. I don’t know, but I don’t think females aren’t contributing to Wikipedia because they lack desire or don’t have the time. I think there’s a barrier (albeit a small one) in education and awareness that once addressed will create a stronger, better Wikipedia, and in the process, perhaps will create a more technologically capable generation of women who can build the future they want to live in.

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