SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In the beginning, there was the word. Then came the encyclopedia. And now, Wikipedia. Though it's often criticized for being nonauthoritative, Wikipedia's peer-edited pages are the first place many people turn for answers. According to Wikipedia - who else? - there are now over 31 million entries. And overwhelmingly, for one reason or another, they are written by men.
As part of its Women's History Month celebrations, the Smithsonian Institution will hold a Wikipedia edit-a-thon tomorrow. The event is focused on teaching women to write and edit Wikipedia entries, though anybody with a laptop is welcome. Sara Snyder, who works in media and technology at the Smithsonian, is running tomorrow's event, and she joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
SARA SNYDER: Thank you.
SIMON: So, what's your explanation for the gender gap? Only one in 10 people contribute to Wikipedia.
SNYDER: My own sense is that editing the most popular encyclopedia in the world takes a whole lot of confidence. And in the world at-large, we don't always see that women are able or willing to stand up and share their views, their expertise, their opinions in public forums with the same prevalence as men do. And we see this in Congress and the op-ed page, as well as on Wikipedia.
SIMON: I've never been to an edit-a-thon. How many people? Who shows up? Are there doughnuts?
SNYDER: Absolutely. Or sandwiches, at least. We usually invite anywhere from, you know, 20 to 40 people. They bring their laptops. We give them all the food and caffeine that they need to keep fueled up and then everybody sits down and starts working. I don't know if you've ever tried editing Wikipedia, but it can be a little - you should. I encourage you to try. You just click edit and you are given an interface where you can make updates yourself. And it can be a little intimidating at times.
SIMON: And you can make up yourself too, right? That's...
SNYDER: You could.
SIMON: ...one of the drawbacks.
SNYDER: You could. Although it's not really surprising to me how difficult it is to get away with that anymore.
SIMON: Do you ever worry about an edit-a-thon being taken over by an interest group or subset of people with something to - you're nodding your head yes.
SNYDER: Well, it's an encyclopedia. It's not a soapbox. It's not a vanity press. So, it's really important that people understand the norms and rules of what an encyclopedia article is supposed to be before they start contributing. And it certainly can be an issue where someone has a conflict of interest or a point of view or an agenda that they want to push. And if people do violate those policies, they'll just see their edits reverted. I mean, everything on Wikipedia can be rolled back with the push of a button.
SIMON: Does Smithsonian now have Wikipedians in residence?
SNYDER: We've had several Wikipedians in residence over the last three years. The idea is that, much like an artist in residence, a Wikipedian in residence just hangs around answering questions and contributing their knowledge. You know, you see now around the world an increasing number of cultural institutions will have Wikipedians on their staff. And those folks can give advice on these issues of how you use the encyclopedia to share the valuable knowledge that's locked up in our cultural institutions with a broader audience, while at the same time respecting the online community and the norms and policies of the encyclopedia.
SIMON: It sounds as if - and I don't know whether you speak for the Smithsonian in this corporately - but you've gotten beyond the reservations a lot of professionals have about Wikipedia to the conclusion that if you want to reach people, this is a stream in which you much swim.
SNYDER: Right. You think about a person has a question and likely, they're going to turn to the Internet for an answer. And one of the top results they'll get in their searches is going to be a Wikipedia article. So if the Smithsonian American Art Museum wants to forward understanding and enjoyment of American art, the best place for us to do that online is where the people already are.
SIMON: Sara Snyder is with the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. She will run tomorrow's Wikipedia-thon at the National Museum of Women and the Arts in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much for being with us.
SNYDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.