Culture

If an Asian American author doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, do they exist?

Kundiman and the Asian American Writers Workshop are trying to chip away at the website’s blind spots, one page at a time.
Culture

If an Asian American author doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, do they exist?

Kundiman and the Asian American Writers Workshop are trying to chip away at the website’s blind spots, one page at a time.

Wikipedia, the free, anyone-can-edit, online encyclopedia is a resource consulted by millions of people every day. But if a topic or person isn’t on the website, how much is the world missing from that gap in information?

This was the real question posed by a recent Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) focused on adding and updating information on more than 50 Asian American writers and organizations. Edit-a-thons are events designed to teach more people how to add or edit entries on the open-source, multi-lingual online encyclopedia that is currently the fifth-most popular website in the world and aims to be “the sum of all human knowledge.”

“It is massively important because it's the first thing that people go to,” organizer Kyle Lucia Wu told The Outline. “I think especially in New York we have all these resources and all these places that we can go to see writers of color or to feel that writers of color are supported. But if you think outside of like this urban center, [Wikipedia] is the resource that people might use when they may not know of any other resources.”

On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, about two dozen people filled AAWW’s sixth floor main space in Manhattan for the three-hour event, co-presented by the Workshop, the Asian American national literature non-profit Kundiman, PEN America, and Wikimedia NYC. Wu, who had never edited Wikipedia before, kicked things off by explaining how the Edit-a-Thon came up during her first week of working at Kundiman, where she is the programs and communications manager. “I immediately loved this idea even though I had no idea how to do it, because if I think about who I read, I read pretty much all writers of color,” she said. “But as a kid growing up in a majority white suburb, I had never read a book by anyone who looked like me, which means Asian-American, mixed-race, [or] child of an immigrant. I was never assigned a writer of color until college and I just had to try find myself in books by white men as a lot of us do when we grow up in places outside of New York. As a kid I would have never known how to find Kundiman or Asian American Writers’ Workshop, but I did know Wikipedia.”

Kyle Lucia Wu addresses the room for her opening remarks.

Kyle Lucia Wu addresses the room for her opening remarks.

Wu, who is also a Margins fellow at the Workshop, acknowledged Wikipedia can sometimes be problematic, but that its universal adoption and ease of use make it an ideal platform to help change. “This is what people look to when they don't know of a more specific, more comprehensive resources available to them,” said Wu. “By being here today, by increasing the visibility and accuracy of pages of Asian American literature and writers, we're making those writers and that literature instantly more accessible and just proactively making a change. It’s going to be really important to people who don’t know about this great place, the Asian Americans Writers’ Workshop.”

The idea for this event came five months ago, when Wu looked at the page for Asian American writers and realized it only had 240 names, as well as a “very problematic” introduction and set of categories. “For reference, Kundiman has hosted about a little over 200 writers in 15 years at our pretty small retreat. Some 240 names on the page of Asian American writers is drastically small. We were like ‘This has got to change.’”

“Everything we do is political, everything that we choose to represent is political and editing Wikipedia is political in and of itself.”
Megan Wacha, Wikmedia NYC president

Over the last few years, Wikipedia’s community of editors have also been frequently criticized for systemic bias due to its population of predominantly English-speaking, white men, leading to large gaps in topics like black history and sexism. Wikipedia also relies on existing scholarly research, newspaper articles, books, and other media as citations and sources for its entries, which can reinforce existing biases. The Edit-a-Thon at AAWW is part of a much wider ongoing movement, including funding and resources from the Wikimedia Foundation itself, to correct the website’s blind spots and foster a community of new editors who continue to contribute long after the initial event.

“We hold these Edit-A-Thons to try and come together and address those gaps,” said Wikimedia NYC president Megan Wacha, who led the technical training during the Edit-a-Thon. And while Wacha says entries on Wikipedia aim to represent a neutral point of view, she acknowledged "that is not actually a thing we can do in this world. Everything we do is political, everything that we choose to represent is political and editing Wikipedia is political in and of itself.”

It may not seem like a big deal that entries on authors such as Whiting Award winner Alice Sola Kim, author Weike Wang, or novelist R.F. Kuang were added during AAWW’s event, but participants like Sandra Chen said events like the Edit-A-Thon highlight how our understanding of what literature — and specifically American literature — is “very iterative.” “I learned that there is so much knowledge that is not being captured,” she said. “We all have so much information and knowledge in ourselves and it is so important to record that.”

Publicist Jessica Yu was thinking of how confusion in Asian-American literature can have serious consequences — specifically, the experience of poet Jenny Xie, whose new book was recently reviewed in The New Yorker, but featured an illustration of another woman with the same name. “I figured creating Wikipedia pages for them and making it easier for people to understand their distinct bodies of work would be helpful.” Yu noted that in the public consciousness, existing on Wikipedia can be an additional marker of legitimacy for an author as well as an easy way to see their total body of work. “I think our attention spans are really short. I think if someone finds them on a Wikipedia page you can get a much better sense of who [an author is] right away. That’s really important as a consumer and reader.” Other entries created or edited at the Workshop’s Edit-A-Thon included Tanwi Nandini Islam, Sarah Gambito, Kaya Press, and Asian American Literary Review.

Still, there are greater challenges to making sure participants like Katy Miller and Lili Hadsell continue to use their new editing skills, and help fulfill Wikipedia’s goal of diversifying its content. “I think the editing part isn’t intimidating, it’s the coming-after-you part and decide it’s not up to a standard that’s mildly stressful,” said Miller. And despite her training at the event, Hadsell didn’t believe she would continue editing Wikipedia after observing a family member’s experience with becoming really involved in its community. “I know that as soon as you get more invested and your work becomes more prolific you’re more likely to get outside scrutiny and in her case — it can get contentious,” she said. “I feel like my life is pretty dramatic and I don’t need extra drama.”

As I sat with Wu on a persimmon-colored vinyl couch, it struck me how we were surrounded by bookcases filled with hundreds of books by Asian American writers — and yet so many of those authors didn't have a detailed entry or even a stub on Wikipedia, despite winning awards and contracts with prestigious publishing companies. I found it odd learning how easy it was to sign up for a Wikipedia account, and why I never considered doing it before. But I related to what Hadsell said about scrutiny, especially as a woman of color who frequently publishes work online.

Wikimedia NYC vice-president Richard Knipel instructs participants Katy Miller (left) and Lili Hadsell.

Wikimedia NYC vice-president Richard Knipel instructs participants Katy Miller (left) and Lili Hadsell.

According to Wikipedia, Hadsell and I are far from alone in our hesitation. There are currently more than 33.6 million registered English user accounts, but only 134,155 of those are active, meaning less than 0.004 percent have done something like edited or created an entry in the last 30 days. This is a significant problem for Wikipedia, especially as other companies like YouTube start utilizing its information to combat “fake news.” Recently, Facebook announced Wikipedia entries of publishers and authors would be featured as an additional informational tool to help users assess the credibility of sources in their News Feed, following extensive reporting on the social media website’s ability to spread misinformation and shortly before CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. But if massive blind spots exist on the platform, it can only be so helpful.

In the spirit of also building connections and a stronger community through the event, I exchanged contact information with a woman named Julie, who had recently transferred to Columbia’s MFA program. The turnout of the event and the positive interactions among participants made Wu enthusiastic and optimistic about Kundiman’s plans for its second bring-your-own-laptop Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at the Ace Hotel on May 27th. “White men already make so many decisions in our society without our choice but Wikipedia actually is like fairly democratic in that we could go in and change it if we wanted to,” Wu said. “This is just a small way of taking the power back online.”

Karen K. Ho is a Canadian writer and reporter based in New York City. Her work on business, culture, and the media has appeared in The Columbia Journalism Review, GQ.com, The Globe and Mail, and Toronto Life.
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