Memria Musings: Closing the Biography Diversity Gap
Is there someone you know or admire who does not have a biography in Wikipedia, but probably should?
You probably do. There are only two million biographical entries on Wikipedia. The population of the world is approaching 8 billion. This means that only 0.025% of the world's population is represented on that platform in the form of a biography. Only 18% of biographies on the English Wikipedia are about women, with a disproportionately low number of articles about people of color or other historically marginalized groups.
The advent of generative AI (like ChatGPT) makes these absences even more salient. According to the Washington Post’s article “Inside the secret list of websites that make AI like ChatGPT sound smart”, Wikipedia is the second most dominant source in Google’s C4 data set.
But there are many more people the world should know about. Consider a changemaker who is important in your community, an influential historical figure that is less well-known, or your grandmother, or a valued mentor, or perhaps yourself. Some of these people might never make it to Wikipedia, which has a reasonable barrier to entry around the verified “notability” of possible entries.
The invisibility (on the internet) of historically marginalized communities exacerbates that invisibility. Could your organization benefit by being more visible to the world through internet search? Are the heroes and sheroes and partners that you support or represent less visible than they should be? Do you want journalists, policymakers, donors, scholars, producers, students, and colleagues to discover your biographical content? These are problems that many of us are confronting daily.
In short, there are two gaps here. The first is the well-documented lacunae in Wikipedia itself which, to its credit, Wikipedia takes some steps to correct. And the second is the underrepresentation of people who should be represented by online biographies but might not make it, for whatever reason, into the world’s largest encyclopedia.
There are projects aimed at addressing the first gap -- noteworthy individuals who are missing from Wikipedia’s pages. For example, Wikipedia’s WikiProject Biography has almost 300 editors, many of whom are dedicated to adding underrepresented groups to the platform. Additionally, there are numerous projects aimed at increasing the number of women represented on Wikipedia. For example, Amnesty International’s Global Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon partnered with Wikipedia to mobilize hundreds of online activists from over 20 countries to upload biographies of women human rights defenders in order “to shine a spotlight on extraordinary unsung women human rights defenders who have devoted their lives to fighting injustice”. And the organization 500 Women Scientists has helped to create and edit more than 3,000 new biographical pages highlighting the contributions of women and people from gender minorities leading in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). Others include Art+Feminism: A global project to improve coverage of women, feminism, and the arts on Wikipedia, and the WikiProject Women in Red: A project aimed at increasing the number of biographies about women on Wikipedia.
The way to fill the second gap is by creating alternative content, outside of Wikipedia. Many of the projects highlighted by The Speaky Wheel, for example, are augmenting the available content for search engines and chatbots to discover. One example I like is the NYC Trans Oral History Project, which adds vitally important content about NYC history. Another example is the Overlooked project by The New York Times. Launched in 2018, it aims to acknowledge the lives of remarkable individuals who were left out of the newspaper's obituary section, primarily because of their gender, race, or social status. Many of these "overlooked" individuals have made significant contributions to society, but their stories have gone untold.
Memria is considering launching a new Biographies initiative to join with these kinds of projects to help add new biographical content. By linking biographies with stories, our bread and butter, we think we can help to create more discoverable content about interesting and noteworthy people who might not be considered sufficiently “noteworthy” by Wikipedia for inclusion on that platform.
Stay tuned. Keep your eyes open for Biografika! The Beta version of our website will soon be available, and we will be looking for founding community members -- partners to help us move this initiative forward.