[Gendergap] Thinking about Solutions
bharris at wikimedia.org
Wed Feb 9 18:54:36 UTC 2011
This is a long-winded email. I have broken up my thoughts into
multiple mails for ease-of-threading; this mail is a larger "overview"
and I'm going to include my actual "forward thinking" solutions in a
reply to it so that we can discuss those separately from this.
I am interested in opening a discussion about things that we can do to
help alleviate the gender gap (as well as encourage further
participation across the board). I alluded earlier to the fact that I
have several ideas about this, and I want to open a dialog here (and am
planning to have a broader conversation on-wiki).
First, I suppose I should really introduce myself.
My name is Brandon Harris, though most people seem to know me as "jorm"
or some variant of that (my staff account is "Jorm (WMF)"). I am an
employee of the Foundation - a designer. For the past several months I
have been tasked on-and-off with redesigning LiquidThreads (LQT), which
is a next-generation discussion system.
Originally, I approached the problems of LQT from a position of "how do
I make what is there better." I have since come to the conclusion that
this approach was incorrect, and refocused my thinking to a more
holistic approach to the larger problem of editor participation,
retention, and ease-of-collaboration.
Unfortunately, the "big problem" of editor attraction, retention, and
drop-off is a "death from a thousand cuts." If there were a single
point of failure, we could easily identify it and suture it closed.
That doesn't mean that we can't solve it, however. It just takes a
If I were to define the single largest knife, however, I would have to
say that it is social in nature. This is very specifically highlighted
in the "gender gap" problem. Many of the largest communities on the web
have fairly equal gender balances. It is my assessment that a large
part of this is because they have a strong social bend - a bend that
I do not believe that WYSIWYG editing is the silver bullet and I think
it is a mistake to focus on that. The "editor hump" is not specific and
it's not that difficult: many, many people write blogs or make websites
with even cruder tools. Once you learn to edit, it's not a problem.
The biggest barrier to editing is one of motivation: people will edit
if they want to edit and it doesn't matter how easy it is to edit if
they don't want to.
We have several barriers here, most of which are social in nature:
* People are not actually aware that they *can* edit
* People do not feel that they have the *right* to edit
* People do not feel that their edits will remain
* People do not wish to deal with the social bureaucracy
* People do not feel that they have anything worth contributing
First, I think that we have to stop thinking about "how to we increase
the number of *editors*" and instead ask "how do we increase the number
of *participants*." This is a subtle but important distinction.
Whenever I sit down to make a product more usable, I think about
several persons in my life who represent typical problems. When
thinking about Wikipedia, I use three personas:
* My father, who knows nearly everything about James Bond and baseball,
and is eager to share that knowledge, but would *never* be an editor;
* My mother, who has advanced degrees in mathematics and English, and
who would probably love to be an editor, but would be horrified by the
* My girlfriend's father, a retired engineer who used to work at
Lawrence Berkeley, who would probably be an editor. He would not be
horrified by the culture but would find it tedious and its rules overly
All three of them could be rather easily transformed into participants
(and possibly editors, given enough time). For instance, my father
would want to be able to easily discuss facts or statements in the
articles, so giving him obvious tools to do that would transform him
into a participant.
(One way to help do this would be to place a [discuss] link next to the
 link on a page section. With LiquidThreads, we could key that
link to open immediately to an existing discussion about the section (or
create a new one if one wasn't there). Bam! Now he's involved.)
However, the biggest problem (by far) is not "widening the funnel" of
participation on-ramp but rather providing a solid social structure to
ensure that new people in the participant funnel can actually
*participate*. That is the the subject of my next email.
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