There has been a heated debate these past two weeks on the English Wikipedia (and many other Wikipedia language editions as well) over what to call the article that is about Chelsea Manning, the army private who sent bushels of documents to Wikileaks, who was convicted to a very long sentence for doing so, and who, a couple of weeks ago, announced that her name henceforth was Chelsea.
Originally, Wikipedia editors seemed to be doing the right thing in response to this latest announcement; the article was almost immediately moved to a new title and the feminine pronoun adopted. An enormous, sprawling debate ensued, full of policy interpretation, investigation into other news sources, and editors exploring questions of gender. Many of the comments, to our community’s shame, were transphobic, though many others were not. The debate was split, and it was closed with a move back to the original name — the name that Manning has asked the world to stop using. Many of us, including me, found this outrageous and horrifying, and the debate rages on.
In a post published today, Adrianne Wadewitz and I tried to analyze and break down the debate on the English Wikipedia, as much as a 300-page debate can be quickly analyzed. We both felt that it was important to try to show the inside of the sausage factory, while there was public interest in this discussion. I think, with my Wikipedia researcher hat on, that it’s a fascinating and historic debate, one that will be written about for some time to come, and one that shows off the strengths and flaws in our community. The post is here, and I hope that especially if you are unfamiliar with Wikipedia’s talk page culture, or if you haven’t followed the debate, or if you simply don’t have time to wade through the discussion, that it proves enlightening:
As a researcher, and long-time explainer of Wikipedia to the public, I am fascinated. But let me be clear: as a human being, as a long-time Wikipedia editor, and as a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation, I am saddened and shocked that our community made what I consider to be the wrong decision on a matter of human rights. I have faith that the debate will come around, that we will work our way kb by kb to the right answer — which is that Chelsea Manning’s name and gender is a matter for her to declare, no one else, and that as a reporter of what is reported to be true in the world, Wikipedia must reflect this choice.
I have been in many discussions in my ten year career on Wikipedia about epistomology and sourcing, about the role of an encyclopedia and what neutrality entails. These questions are not — or should not be — up for debate here, though. This week, we stumbled.