Research:Communicating on Wikipedia while female

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Research:Communicating on Wikipedia while female

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This page in a nutshell: Through the use of a discursive analysis, use of the word cunt on English Wikipedia user talk pages was found to be problematic. Current attitudes support current problematic usage. Solutions are not easy.
Research project
Communicating on Wikipedia while female, A discursive analysis of the use of the word cunt on English Wikipedia user talk pages
Main contact
Laura Hale
no affiliation
Start 2014-11-2014-11
End 2014-11-2014-11
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Fields sociology
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linguistics
Open access This project has open access publications
WMF support
Wikimedia research projects Wikimedia research projects

Communicating on Wikipedia while femaleA discursive analysis of the use of the word cunt on English Wikipedia user talk pagesNovember 2014Laura Hale

Introduction

Cunt and other gendered insults contribute to a climate that makes Wikipedia less desirable for female participation. The problem now going forward is discovering how to make changes. Jimmy Wales’s relatively radical proposal at Wikimania 2014 of encouraging those who frequently engage in this type of behavior to leave the project resulted in community defense of these individuals. There was no community change that took place. Anecdotal evidence in the past year suggests women were more willing to voice their concerns on ANI, the Dispute Resolution noticeboard[1] and to the Arbitration Committee,[2] address sexism that is directed at them, but that they are not being taken seriously and are leaving the community. Confrontation does not appear to be a solution that is working for women.
The purpose of this analysis to quantify how prevalent the use of the word cunt is within the English Wikipedia community, provide one idea for potential analysis for others to replicate in similar research, and to encourage others to help take steps to deter this damaging trend.

Reddit[3] and video gaming communities have had recent discussions about their gender gap problems. Gendered base harassment coupled with explicit, gendered terminology and threats of death, violence and rape have been in the news for them.
To a much smaller degree, English Wikipedia has faced similar problems as a result of its gender gap. There is an ongoing narrative that Wikipedia is not a welcoming community for women, and that they face hostility in participation. Some of these problems identified inside the community have centered on the use of gender specific pejoratives and other types of female specific harassment. As part of these issues, there have been extended conversations on English Wikipedia about how cunt is an acceptable word to use because while the word is offensive in the United States, it is not offensive in the United Kingdom or Australia. Beyond this cultural specific acceptable usage, defenders of the word have offered other excuses including that male gendered insults are allows, that some women on Wikipedia have no problems with the word, that there is other more problematic forms of harassment should be dealt with first before NPA enforcement using gendered wording is enforces, and that Wikipedia users should not be censored in communicating with other users.
A sizeable group of editors who support editors who have called others cunts argue that content creation matters, and content creators should be allowed tremendous leeway in their communication style. A smaller minority has argued that while additional content about women is desirable, attracting new and new female editors to English Wikipedia is not. In effect, there have been a number of rationalizations to maintain the status quo, even if the status quo is one that includes behaviors that are specifically bad for English Wikipedia in terms of attracting new editors, female editors and making the community a safe place for editors to participate.

There has been renewed interest for this issue on English Wikipedia in the past few months following a speech by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania in August 2014 that called for poorly behaved users to be encouraged to leave the site, and conversations on several high profile user’s talk pages about the use of cunt and other gendered language.
The word cunt is one that appears on English Wikipedia as part of the collaborative process, appearing on over 2,500 different talk pages. Twat appears on over 1,000 talk pages. Bitch appears on over 11,300 different talk pages. Social justice warrior appears on over 20. Whore appears on over 3,500 talk pages. Shemale appears on over 310 different pages. Mangina appears on 60 talk pages. Pussy appears on over 2,600 different talk pages. Slut appears on over 1,400 different talk pages. Bimbo appears on over 550 different talk pages. Douche appears over 1,500 times. Gendered wording, which has a negative implication or is considered vulgar and insulting in some part of the English speaking world, exists on English Wikipedia.
It is important to understand the context around which this gendered language is used on English Wikipedia in order to understand the process of communicating on English Wikipedia, what challenges women face both as participant observers, and how this can be contextualized against the wider backdrop of English Wikipedia’s gender gap and broader discrimination women face on the Internet.
This analysis looks at the use of the word cunt on English Wikipedia’s user talk pages as it is a specific, highly charged gendered insult that has been frequently internally discussed as part of English Wikipedia’s gender gap situation. Mostly recently, this discussion took place in October of this year on Jimmy Wales talk page. A contextual analysis is performed to understand how the word is used in a community context and the community response to the word.

Literature review

English Wikipedia

English Wikipedia’s gender gap is well known and has been well documented since 2011. (Lam, et al., 2011; Buchem, Ducki, Khayati, Kloppenburg, & Weichert, 2014) A 2010 survey found 13% of the editors were female. A 2011 survey found 8.5% were female while another survey the same year claimed 16% of new contributors were female. A 2013 survey said around 16% of all contributors were female. (Buchem, Ducki, Khayati, Kloppenburg, & Weichert, 2014, p. 7-8) The percentages of male to female participation are also country specific. A 2012 survey found 8% of Canadian, German and Middle East and North African contributors were female, 3% of Indian contributors were female, 7% of Brazilian contributors were female, 9% of British contributors were female and 14% of USA contributors were female. (Buchem, et. al, 2014, p. 7-8)
When women do edit Wikipedia, they spend less time editing than men. (WMF, 2011) They also leave and stop contributing to Wikipedia sooner than their fellow male editors. (Lam, et al., 2011) Buchem, et al. (2014) cite the reasons for lack of female participation as lack of time due to personal circumstances, technology and usability, support and accessibility, and the editing atmosphere and tone of communications used on Wikipedia.(p. 9-10) The gender gap exists both in terms of participation, readership and content, and extends to include general resistance towards increasing female participation.(Lam, et al., 2011; Buchem, et. al, 2014, p. 9) Women rate their experience editing Wikipedia, their overall level is lower than that of men. They cite “an unfriendly and rough manner, power struggles, vicious verbal exchanges, sexist comments and outright harassment, as well as the general avoidance of gender sensitive language”(p. 9) as part of the reason for their dissatisfaction. (Gardner, 2011; Schlesinger, 2011)
Participation on English Wikipedia started slowing down in 2009, with a resulting culture that was less welcoming to newcomers and more bureaucratic. (Suh, Convertino, Chi, E. & Pirolli, 2009) The lack of formalized bureaucracy enables users to participate in power plays because of ambiguity. (Kriplean, Beschastnikh, McDonald, & Golder, 2007) A 2011 survey by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 23% of female Wikipedia participants reported they had been harassed, and that women were more likely than men to find the overall tone of communication more problematic than their male counterparts.(WMF, 2011)
Wikipedia’s gender gap creates external problems for the site in terms of Wikipedia’s public image.(Buchem, et. al, 2014, p. 11) It creates internal problems because it distorts information and creates issues regarding under-representation in certain topics, often through subconscious or unintentional acts of the male dominating editor corps. (Buchem, et. al, 2014, p. 11)

The gender gap in other industries and online cultures

The gender gap found on English Wikipedia is similar to several other sectors and online communities, each which can provide their own unique perspective to contextualize events. Professionally, the sports and video gaming industries both have well known and researched gender gaps. Reddit and Quora also both have problems with community gender gaps and abusive behavior directed at women without necessarily having system in place to combat this and while dealing with extensive external and internal criticism for how problematic behavior directed against women is manifested. Google+ and FLOSS projects also have a problem with a significant gender gap. (Buchem, et. al, 2014)
In video gaming, male dominance of leadership positions[4] and overall presence has led to a situation where women are unable to participate equally, face barriers of intentional exclusion to their presence, and are cultured to have less trust in their own competencies. The gender gap in the industry means that women are challenged both in professional video gaming spaces and in informal spaces. (Johnson, 2014)
Professional sports are also largely a domain of men, with most high profile sport teams competing in leagues that explicitly do not allow female participation by rule, or where there are few to zero women participating alongside men. Sports has a long history of being a domain of men, and women were intentionally left out of the early modern Olympic Games because, according to Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, “No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” (United Nations, 2007) In the Olympic and other sporting contexts, sport has been used to reinforce traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. In British male professional sports, coaches frequently use language that evokes war, and is gendered and sexualized in order to improve on field performance. These gendered and sexualized wording are used to reinforce concepts of masculinity to enhance that performance. (Adams, Anderson & McCormack, 2010)

Reasons for gendered use of the words

Koppelman & Goodhart (2011) say, “A false solution that does not address the problems of sexism at all is the proposal that ‘sexism would just disappear if we didn’t pay so much attention to it.’ Problems created by sexism did not suddenly appear and they won’t disappear unless people engage in actions to confront, challenge and change sexist attitudes, policies and laws.” (p.31) To this end, feminist on blogs and in academics papers have discussed the reasons that people have given them for using the word cunt in the face of opposition. There are also a number of university and professional writing resources that advocate for the use of gender neutral writing in response to the sexism present in writing.
The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina (2012) at Chapel Hill quotes Kleinman (2000) as saying, “[M]ale-based generics are another indicator—and, more importantly, a reinforcer—of a system in which “man” in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women.” before going on to say, “Words matter, and our language choices have consequences. If we believe that women and men deserve social equality, then we should think seriously about how to reflect that belief in our language use.”
Capital Community College Foundation (2010) says pretty much the same thing, “A responsible, sensitive writer will never make demeaning assumptions about gender role. Whether words such as chairman and congressman are sexist and hurtful and whether their substitutes chairperson and members of congress are unnecessary and cumbersome is an argument that some people will still make, but if we can avoid the argument (and the possibility of hurt) with the use of reasonable substitutes, it’s well worth it.“
Miller (2011) lists three reasons that using the word cunt is offensive towards women, and explains how these reasons related to some excuses made in online communities. First, she says that not using the word is not about being prudish. People who argue prudishness are often implying that people are uncomfortable talking about female anatomy. In an anatomy class, you would not use the word cunt because it isn’t accurate. The word is vulgar in that it is not about describing anatomy. The second excuse Miller counters is it is not about being a hypocrite. Often, people who use the word claim that male gendered words are used and people are being hypocritical by not allowing use of the word. She argues this is merely an excuse for allowing poor etiquette in general. Lastly, use of the word is about a balance of power and about demeaning women. Communities that support and tolerate this word make communities less welcoming to women, and that women hold lower social positions in the community. Stopping use of it would make the community more welcoming to women and potentially change power dynamics.
McEwan (2007) lists five excuses people provide for using the word:

1. The Brits use it.
2. I use it.
3. The guy who used it is “no misogynist.” He was using this term for female genitalia to insult a man, after all, and his intent was not to be misogynistic.
4. Comparing cunt to the n-word isn’t accurate and trivializes the n-word.
5. He can’t “abide” the policing of their comments threads by the PC police (i.e. me).

Her list differs radically from Miller’s in that she clearly explains excuses provided for people using the word, despite the cultural and historical baggage associated with using the word.

Impact of gender harassment on others

Stanley (1977) and Schulz (1979) conducted research into the gendered language in English. Both found that words for women often have meaning that define women as prostitutes. In contrast, words for men often define the penis as a hero, an animal, a tool or a weapon. The English language treats words for men and women are lexicogrammatical different, with male words being positive and female words being negative. (Cameron, 1992) Murnen (2000) found that men were much more likely to use words that degraded and objectified women than women were. Murnen (2000) also found that the person who was described using these words was judged as less intelligent and less moral, and that such language had negative consequences for people on the receiving end of it.
Shariff & Churchill (2010) conducted a study that found that girls were much more likely than boys to be victims of cyberbullying, and that the type of messages girls and boys received were different. Girls were more likely to be taunted based on their looks, sensuality, ability, disability, race, religion and sexual orientation. In contrast, boys were likely to be bullied with messages about their sexual orientation and ability. Girls were also much more likely to receive threats of physical violence as part of online abuse directed at them as victims than boys. In contrast, harassing messages sent to boys were challenges to engage in conflict. Responses to harassment also differed based on gender. Girls were likely to leave, to disengage and disappear, and to avoid confrontation. Boys were more likely to directly engage their harasser as a way of making it stop.
There is also a body of research discussed by Azar (2000, July/August) that discusses how male and female responses to stress differ. The male model to stress is flight-or-fight, while the female model is tend-and-befriend. Women create alliances to protect themselves and their offspring, with their responses more biologically programmed to respond in the part of the brain for attachment and caregiving. The flight response is inhibited because of the desire to protect.
In a legal and social context, online harassment of women is often trivialized with few parties willing to seriously address the issue. (Hess, 2014; Citron, 2009) This online situations at times mirrors the offline challenges some women face in reporting rapes and other targeted violence against women, where a number of hurdles are put up in reporting this abuse, where women have been turned away from reporting rape because they were intoxicated, or because the correct bureaucratic steps were not taken at the expense of evidence collection. These hurdles are often made worse because, following the reporting of violence; survivors are further victimized in their community, by authorities and by the person who committed the assault. (Noon, 2009)
The body of research shows that the use of words for males and females differs in meaning with one more positive than the other. It shows that the type of abuse aimed at women is different than men and that women respond differently to abuse. It also shows that recourse for abuse for women are not effective in that they trivialize their abuse by not taking it seriously, and that women are often revictimized in the reporting process.

Methodology

For this analysis, a decision was made to focus on user talk pages as this space is primarily for editor interaction and because there are a number of pages on English Wikipedia that legitimately contain the word in the title, or the word as part of the article. The use of and purpose of these two collaborative spaces is also different. Laniado, Tasso, Volkovich & Kaltenbrunner (2011) characterize these differences as, “In Wikipedia there are also talk pages associated to registered users; these pages are somehow complementary to the article discussion pages, and are used for personal communication between the Wikipedians, as a sort of public in-box.” (p. 177) They also found that there were more total comments on user talk pages than article talk pages.

The data was manually gathered in the first week of November 2014 by searching for the term cunt using English Wikipedia’s search engine and limiting the results only to user talk pages. The total number of user talk pages in this time varied from 1,703 to 1,711. Results were not randomized, and were entirely based on the search position. Wikipedia’s search engine works by ordering results “by relevance or user settings.[5] The first 360 pages of results were included, representing roughly 20% of all pages. These pages contain 522 different comments which contained the word cunt. [6]
During the collection process, each comment was categorized as belonging to or not belonging to one of five category types: Insult, Gendered insult, Vandalism, Article discussion, and User name. The categorization of insult was reserved for a derogatory comment with a target, be it themselves, another editor or a group of people. Gendered insult occurs when the word cunt is used in a way that is insulting with the implication that cunt is a bad female thing, or what appears to be using a gendered insult solely to be provocative. This count is higher because people may use cunt as a gendered insult in terms of asking others to stop insults with the word cunt, or discussion of the word cunt in the context of if it is a gendered insult. When it comes to article notifications and cunt appearing in an article title like “Famous person is a cunt” or appearing as part of cluebot notification about potential vandalism where the reported edit included an insult, the comment was also included as a gendered insult but not an insult. Vandalism is defined as changing another editor’s words to include the word cunt where it was not present, or just inserting the word cunt onto your own talk page as the only word. Article editing comment is a deletion notification or a discussion related to an article. Instances of notification about user names containing the word cunt were not counted. Usernames were only counted when the user had a notification on their talk page: If their userpage showed up in search but had no notification, it did not count. For example, Centro Cunts and TurdFuckerCuntSucker were blocked for this but no talk page notification.
At the same time that comments were being collected, the author of the comments, the location of user based on IP address of information on their user page, the date the comment was made, the year the comment was made, and the url for the comment were also collected. If the comment was an insult, information was added to a column to note if it included a threat, if that user was blocked within a week for making the threat and, in some cases, if the target was still contributing to English Wikipedia following the threat.

Findings

Usage

Cunt is used on English Wikipedia user pages in a variety of contexts. The prevalence of one context over another changes from year to year. In Wikipedia’s earliest years, 2004 and before, cunt was used as an insult. In 2005, the frequency of cunt as an insult climbed but not at the rate of article discussion, vandalism warnings and deletion about pages with cunt in the article title. In 2006, user talk pages had their highest year of vandalism with users replacing other people’s texts with the word. That same year, the use of the word cunt as an insult tripled and discussion or comments or insults that made clear this word was gendered and problematic quadrupled. Comments about pages with cunt in the title topped all categories in 2006. This remained the case until 2010, when all categories dropped with the exception of vandalism. After this, the word appeared in the context of gendered insult every year except 2013 when article editing narrowly beat it out.

Communicating wikipedia female 01.png

Use of the word cunt as an insult and gendered insults strongly correlate at 0.738. Use of cunt as a directed insult and discussion (warnings, deletions and actual editing discussions) correlate much less at 0.458. When one goes up, the other generally goes up, though there is a degree of randomness to this. This correlates more strongly than gendered insult and article discussion, which has a correlation of 0.166 and says the relationship between the two is pretty much random. The relationship between gendered insults and cunt in the user names is pretty much completely random at -0.075. On the whole, the different types of use are largely independent of each other.
Another way to picture the differences between the different categories of usage is looking at commonly used words in each category. In the category for insults, common words include cunt, fuck, just, people, little, old, fucking, bitch, please, one, something, never, ass, stop, think, balls, pathetic, want, go, shut. This can be seen in the word cloud graphic below.

Communicating wikipedia female 03.png

This contrasts to gendered insult, where the word cloud includes common words like cunt, cunts, dick, sexist, vandalism, please, like, Wikipedia, editors, used, just, people, content, without, know, deletion, calling, attack, women, offensive, block. This is scene in the word cloud below. There are words that signal awareness and defense of criticism of the use of the word like sexist, UK and duck, and the sexually vulgar words are less commonly used.

Communicating wikipedia female 04.png

Vandalism related edits highlight that the word cunt is used in an insulting manner based on the words used alongside it, and this can be seen in the word cloud below. Words are much more sexually graphic and offensive. They include clit, dick, ass, anal, hump, juggs, finger, pecket, cock, shit, asshole, wetdream, gayness, Jewish, shit, and wanted.

Communicating wikipedia female 05.png

In contrast, words used in comments about page editing are much more welcoming as seen in the word cloud below. Words used include please, page, encyclopedia, edits, sandbox, make, deletion, welcome, unconstructive, source, although, experiment, learn, reverted, recent, vandalism, use, test, warning. The volume of words that would be used in insults or of a sexual nature is much lower than other categories.

Communicating wikipedia female 06.png

Geography

A common argument for accepting the use of the word cunt as an insult is the word’s meaning is completely different in one part of the world from the next and that people should accept the British tolerance of the word with the alleged non-anti-female overtones as the default way to handle the word. Assuming for a second that the audience consists only of British men and women who use the word cunt only in this fashion,[7] geography could be a variable in understanding usage of the word. Using IP address data and registered user locations disclosed via user boxes on their user page, the country of residence for users was tabulated.
Surprisingly, given the arguments put forth about the British usage, the known geographic population most likely to use cunt as an insult were from United States, followed by England, Australia, Isle of Man, Ireland, New Zealand, with Canada and China tied for the eighth and ninth spots.

Communicating wikipedia female 07.png

One user is quoted as saying in defense of the usage through display of a user box, “I would prefer “This user recognizes that “cunt” is colloquial English outside the USA,” since our goal is to remove a provincial puerile block, for which wider support is preferable.” The fact of the matter is the country identified as having highly offensive use for the term is the country with the greatest percentage of contributors using it in a targeted insulting way. The United States also has the largest percentage of users using the word in a gendered way, both to support and condemn usage of the word, and as part of general insults. USA based contributors are followed closely behind by the English, Australians, Canadians, Canada, Isle of Man, Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland, and Wales. England does top the list of contributors using the word cunt as part of talk page vandalism, accounting for 57% of all occurrences. They are followed in a three way tie between the United States, New Zealand and the Sudan. When it came to making threats including the cunt as part of insults, the United States topped the list of countries. They accounted for 45% of all threats, followed by 27% of all threats made by contributors from New Zealand, and 9% each for contributors from England, Canada, Ireland and China.
Overall, contributors that used the word cunt came from countries that included Australia, Canada, Chile, China, England, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, Slovakia, South Africa, Sudan, Sweden, United States and Wales. It also included a sizable number of users where the country and bot users. English Wikipedia’s user base using this terminology is very geographically diverse and is not joined by a common cultural experience.
Despite implications that the word has colloquial usage in Great Britain espoused by some editors, the available data does not support the conclusion that this should be the norm on English Wikipedia as USA based editors who should be aware of the offensive implication of the words, especially when part of phrases intended to insult, are actively using the word. The United States readership and editor base also make claims that Brits would not be aware of the offensive nature of the word to be less likely. It is difficult to support any broad claim of non-gendered insult, the word has the same meaning as the word “dick” in the broader context of insults from English based editors saying things like, “And before you make any more edits, kindly fuck off and die you homophobic cunt.”, “big fat cunt”, “You speak like a total fucking cunt, but I’m sure you are not one.” It is hard to see much difference with intent from USA based editors who leave comments like, “The meaning of Kaylee is.. Cunt munching lesbian.. This includes having sexual relations with girls. Huge flamer. Very queer. Loves sex. Raging dike”, “You are a cunt and we dont want you using this site by dike”, and “I hope you die you worthless pathetic fucking cunt.”
If geography is not an issue, in terms of the word being culturally isolated in use to people from a country where there is a perception by some editors of the word not being offensive, perhaps the issue could be that geography as a function of time is actually more important and that cultural shifts in its usage have taken place. The total number of insults was broken down by year for the United States, England and Australia as combined they represent 70% of all known countries insulting comments.

Communicating wikipedia female 09.png

The correlation between the by year volume for the United States and England is 0.531. The correlation between the United States and Australia is 0.581. Both of these say there is a slightly meaningful relationship between the prevalence of usage of cunt as an insults. The correlation between England and Australia is 0.288, which means the relationship is pretty random. Australian and English usage of the word is unrelated. Each country has a different year for peak usage. The United States peaks much earlier than England, 2009 compared to 2011. Australia has two peaks, also in different years, 2008 and 2012.
The use of cunt as a gendered insult does correlate more strongly than targeted insults. For the United States and England, the correlation is 0.772. The correlation between the United States and Australia is 0.831. The correlation exists between England and Australia at 0.515. Once again, peak usage of the word cunt as a gendered insult differs from country to country. The United States and Australia both peaked in 2014, accounting 30.7% of all uses by year for the USA and 26.3% for Australia. England peaked in 2011 with 36.8% of all uses in a single year. That the USA and Australia had different peak years from England demonstrates that there are attitudinal differences between the different country cohorts, which is backed by a textual reading of the two types of comments from year to year for each. There is also a participation difference from national cohort to national cohort from year to year for Australia and the United States. England has no such difference.

Threats

At times, use of the word cunt as an insult on English Wikipedia co-presents alongside threats of blocking, physical abuse and death, and wishes of or desires for death, disease and other consequences. Examples of death threats that contain the word cunt in the message include, “If you heathens dare stand in my way, you shall be burned, flayed, frozen or crushed alive!” made by an IP address in 2008. “And before you make any more edits, kindly fuck off and die you homophobic cunt.” was another 2008 death related threat. “Fuck off you officious cunt […] You heard me. Go die in a fire you stupid pile of crap.” was a 2012 comment by another IP. “you sound like a faggot so just go kill yourself you fat cunt :D” was a 2011 comment by registered user with three total edits. In 2012, there was the comment “Please try not to be a cunt you fucking piece of chicken shit. Go suck a dirty old cock or some shit and kill yourself, fucker.” In none of these cases were the users blocked. “Please commit suicide, please.” was a comment made in 2010 on a talk page by a user who had already been blocked. A 2007 comment wishing ill health, “May you contract dysentery and shit yourself into a desiccated coma.” did result in the user getting blocked. “Listen cunt, I’m going to fucking kick you in.” was a 2006 threat made after the user was already blocked. “If you do nothing, I will bury my fucking shoe up your cunt.” was a comment made as part of an unblock request.
As part of insults, threats and desire for harm co-presented 13.5% of the time. Most of these threats occurred in a single year, 2012 and account for 39.1% of all threats. 2008, 2010 and 2011 were the other high years when it came to cunt co-presenting along other threats, accounting for 13% of all co-presenting threats. 2006, 2007, 2009, 2013 and 2014 account for 4% of all threats.
While rape threats on user talk pages are rare, with only eleven rape threats found on user talk pages[8] compared to 115[9] co-presented threats of violence, the existence of rape threats does not correlate with co-presentations of threats and the word cunt, at -0.2944. The peak year for rape threats was 2006, accounting for 27.3% of all threats, and the second most popular year was 2013, accounting for 18.2% of all rape threats. Overall, the use of the word cunt alongside threats occurred at a much higher percentage than rape threats alone did: 68% to 32%, with the 68% representing only a quarter of all occurrences of the word cunt on English Wikipedia user talk pages.

Editing wikipedia while female.png

In the case of threats co-presenting alongside the word cunt and threats of rape, the consequences for the person making the threats differs dramatically. 45.5% of the time, users making rape threats were blocked within one week. In contrast, users who co-presented threats along the word cunt were only blocked 13.0% of the time. In the case of comments made by users who were already blocked, 17.4% of the users who made threats co-presenting with the word cunt while 18.2% of those who made rape threats were already blocked. 8.7% of threats co-presented with the word cunt were included in unblock. Threats co-presented with the word cunt were unlikely to get the user blocked: 60.9% of the time they were not blocked. Those users who made rape threats were not blocked 36.4% of the time.
In the broader context of Internet communities, threats towards women and gendered threats have a negative impact on feelings of female and in female participation. Hess (2014) says of these types of comments, “So women who are harassed online are expected to either get over ourselves or feel flattered in response to the threats made against us. We have the choice to keep quiet or respond “gleefully.”” Hess goes on to explain the consequences of the proliferation of these comments,

“And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.”

Co-presentation of cunt

Sometimes the word cunt co-presents alongside –isms. A 2008 comment by an IP says, “And before you make any more edits, kindly fuck off and die you homophobic cunt.” Another is a 2011 comment that says, “Please do not leave derogatory messages on talk pages. Save it for hell, you sad, pathetic racist bitch of a bastard with cunt on the side and poofs up your bum.” In both cases, the person was not blocked.
At other times, the word cunt co-presents alongside accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior or to suggest someone should have sex. “Sanford-JJ is a fucking cunt. Red-necked, Nazi-loving, Kraut with small, shriveled-up balls due to interfamily fucking.” was a 2007 comment that did not result in a block. In 2014, the following comment did not result in a block, “Fuck off u cunt”. A 2007 comment was, “If i want to talke about Kate Ritchies perfect pink and wet vagina and her lusious full suckable breasts, i will you fucking mother fucking sleazy cunts. go fuck your dogs cunts” Another comment from 2008 says, “Whoever the tedious little twats are that continue to make immature edits to pages for the “har har” factor… You’re not funny, you’re a cunt!”
Other times, the word cunt co-presents alongside other general insults including intelligence. An example of this from 2010, “JzG – you’re a dumb cunt, read your email fuckwit.” Another 2010 comment was, “You are fucking retarded, crabcore is not a music genre and The Devil Wears Prada isn’t even screamo you retarded cunt”

Defense and condemnation of use

The acceptability of the word cunt on English Wikipedia talk pages is not universal. There have and continue to be occasional debates on user talk pages about its usage, with the largest conversations occurring in 2011 and 2014.
The major 2011 conversation largely indicated support for the use of the word. Snippets from the conversation supporting a user of the word include, “Australian, male, not seeing any consensus for this block on ANI and certainly not offended by the use of the word “cunt”.” Another user said, “In the UK, “cunt” is categorically not a sexist insult. It isn’t used about women and I’ve never heard it used towards a woman.” Another user provides a more detailed explanation for tolerance of this behavior, saying:

Well if [redacted] is banned for calling somebody a cunt it would prove what I’ve thought about wikipedia all along. That wiki politics and correctness and often unfeasibly high standards of personal conduct are considered way more important than what matters most, content and development of content to GA and beyond. The sooner the site starts treating people like normal human beings who are prone to losing their temper or snapping at people every now and again the better. Unless its racial or religious abuse and something very seriously threatening I really would take it with a pinch of salt. If somebody intrudes and you feel they are point pointy or patronising when they are totally not wanted its a pretty natural reaction to tell somebody to stop being an ass and to get the hell off their talk page. Blockable, maybe, banning would be very extreme.

Another defense of use of the word said:

In the UK, “you daft cunt” is often used as a term of endearment, admonishing someone for their stupidity whilst still keeping it friendly. “you daft twat” is less friendly; “you fking cunt” would be unfriendly. “What a cunt” can mean a person, an object, or an event (similar to “that was bad luck”) “cunt” is DEFINITELY NOT a sexist term in the UK – I have only ever used it once in my whole life to refer to a woman. In the US it is most probably sexist. I am appalled by the attitude of many admins that over-react to blocking people

Another defender of this behavior said:

Women like a bad ass [redacted], you, our resident Dirty Harry, sure are on good terms with the ladies on here despite the supposedly “sexist” and “vulgar” word. they are smitten with you mate. Wikipedia needs a bad ass to stand up to the pretentious “establishment” on here and reduce the significance of adminship to what it really is, a mop and brush, janitor work. And yes I totally agree its completely pointless the willingness to block people just so they can go “yey look how powerful I am, I can control a better editor than myself” or simply to be pointy and treat every word as a taboo however light hearted it is. In this case the blocker was [redacted] though who is a brilliant editor with a superb listed of good articles and was only following the “consensus” an ANI so he us excused but the admins on here who are not and slap the cuffs on anybody for anything know who they are. I’ve had it done to me and it can be pretty pathetic at times. As its common knowledge that the website has scores of the types [redacted] identified above it is about time that the NPA thing changed. The way some people act or what they do on here is usually far worse than any one comment anybody says but the NPA system ignores the real damaging behaviour which drives away our top editors like [redacted] in favour of punishing even the most juvenile of playground remarks. You are very right that bullying is a far worse problem on here and unless somebody actually calls anybody a word or is particularly “offensive” then it goes unpunished. So in other words [redacted], don’t be a cunt and let them win, come back here once the block is removed and just swing your large cajones in the face of any admin you think is a being a dick and continue to focus on what you do.

Another defense of the word included the following comment:

but if we’re going to be a project that seems to want to reach out to many differing cultures – we need to recognize that those culture’s have differing ideas of what’s acceptable in public discourse. And [redacted]’ point about how using “cunt” isn’t acceptable but “dick” is acceptable – THAT is a valid and noteworthy point. Why is using slang for male genitals perfectly fine to fling around at others, but using slang for female genitals (which in parts of the world isn’t that uncommon) wrong? Why do some admins insist on blocking (and thus treating the blockee like a toddler) as their first choice? Why is it so hard for them to recognize how insulting that is?

One person condemned radical feminists in defense of the use of the word:

I am genuinely unsure if [redacted] genuinely believes all that guff, but it does worry me that people continue with this modern form of sexism. The sexism thing is a growing issue largely because of the more radical elements of feminism. As one of my (female) friends likes to say; “they’re all cunts, and the sooner they go away the sooner my boss will see me as a person instead of working out whether he can ask me to do the photocopying without it being harrassment”.

2011 opposition to people using the word was often weaker and often not part of the dialog about tolerating the word. One condemnation of the word that year included,

please don’t go around calling people “reprehensible cunt”, esp. not if they’re still alive and a judge to boot. It doesn’t matter what he did or what you or I might feel about it. I’m sure it violates our BLP policies in a couple of ways, and it sets a bad example for the kids and the grown-ups as well.

Another comment opposing use of the word said:

[redacted] chose his words to achieve the effect he wanted, eventually making a particularly hostile comment about an individual editor (You are so much a fucking cunt [redacted]), perhaps with the intention of burning all bridges (see the edit summary). It doesn’t require familiarity with UK culture, or indeed the work of Derek and Clive, to appreciate that this phrase is not a term of affection

In the 2011, the people excusing the word as an insult ticked off defensive reason on McEwan’s (2007) list. Their voices outnumbered voices condemning use of the word by a volume of 15:1. Finding examples for opposition to use of the word was almost difficult, and the two provided are about it.
Following the 2011 discussion, the issue largely went away as evidenced based on the timeline where overall usage and gendered discussion usage declined in 2012 and 2013. The conversation re-emerged in 2014, with the ratio of total comments supporting use of the word versus opposing its usage having changed to a degree to be closer to 5:1. Arguments and group membership on the supporting usage side though largely remained unchanged. One example was, “In working class London, where I worked for a few years in the 80s, “cunt” was a term of abuse applied exclusively to men and (usually paired with “dumb” and a chuckle) was even a coarse term of endearment.” Another user implied people using these types of words are not the real problem on English Wikipedia, saying,

“Sad, because this flamboyant sideshow is obscuring the real civility problem here. The real toxicity. Some of the very worst characters here are strutting about waving admin badges in people’s faces, never using a word like “cunt”. While many admins here are saints without whom this place would disintegrate, some are pure sadists.”

Another person defending the use of the word said, “If “cunt” is a misogynist word, why do we have WP:DICK? More to the point, I think you know very well that in many countries “cunt” is not used in that fashion, and the UK is one of them.” Another person argued that there is no gendered aspect to the insult, saying,

Yes, it’s a personal attack, no-one is disputing that, but you’re claiming it’s a misogynist one. If I do something stupid at work, I’m just as likely as anyone else to be called a “stupid cunt” regardless of my genitalia. Would you claim that being called a “dickhead” is a misandrist attack?”

Another person said, “I’d rather be called a cunt than an “alleged” good writer – incidentally with that last adverb Jimbo it’s a pretty disparaging slur on the whole Featured Article process BTW.” Still yet another editor defended the use of the word with, “FA quality work benefiting millions upon millions of people globally or one editor being mildly offended by being called a “dishonest cunt”. Put it in perspective. What really matters here?” Still another user said,

“I really think you should try living for a few weeks in average cities and towns in the UK, especially among working class communities. Calling somebody a cunt is simply an uncouth word like “twat” is in a lesser degree for somebody who is a contemptible ignorant person.”

The same editor also said,

“you say that [redacted] is responsible for the driving away female contributors by calling people cunts, but genuinely my experience of him and his talk page stalkers is that his involvement in the project has actually encouraged collaboration with quite a few decent editors here and there are many female editors here who’ve been grateful for his involvement and frequently turn up to thank him.”

Compared to 2011, the volume of comments and the willingness of people to make more than one comment to condemn usage of the word was high and it appeared in a few cases outside the active discussion. One such comment outside the main discussion was:

“You are correct that “actress” can be used, as most people can understand the meaning and intention which you are trying to communicate. You would also be correct to assert that “cunt” could be used to identify a vulva. It would be a fallacy to assert that it follows that it should be used. I am 100% British (75% English, 25% Northern Ireland), and I would never call any actor an actress.”

One comment from inside the conversation was,

The point is that I don’t go around abusing people, calling them misogynist terms like “cunt” and using sexist terminology like “who would have the balls to block Jimbo”. That kind of behavior is simply unacceptable and it’s high time that we said so clearly and without regret

The same user is another comment said,

You forget that I live in the UK, and “cunt” is considered a personal attack here as it is anywhere. It is not at all acceptable to call people names (of whatever provenance) at Wikipedia, and the apologetics for abuse must stop.

Another user said, “This isn’t about censorship in the mainspace – I’m not saying we should remove the word ‘cunt’ from Wikipedia – it’s about conduct in the workplace.” A different user said, “Calling someone a cunt is seriously uncool no matter where you’re from.” Still yet another user said,

if you defend his abusive behavior you passively condone his actions, which negatively affects the community at large, as evidenced by this most recent chapter in the time-sink that is [redacted] . I.e., the only reason that [redacted] isn’t already banned is because of editors like you who make apologies for him, suggesting above that since, IYO, “cunt” is not that bad of a word in the UK, every editor of Wikipedia must learn to deal with it, versus taking a stand and asking (read: compelling) [redacted] to stop. From the Urban Dictionary: “Cunt: Derogatory term for a woman. Considered by many to be the most offensive word in the English language.”

The major difference between 2011 and 2014 is that while the voicing supporting the use of the word largely remained unchanged in group membership and message, there were new voices and new arguments that condemned its usage.

Volume of individual targeted abuse

Unlike other websites where users are targeted where they participate online, there is no evidence that English Wikipedia an individual’s user talk pages is a location for targeted harassment of an individual. When insults using cunt as part of banter to demonstrate the word cunt is not offensive are removed, there are 146 unique user pages with sixteen of those pages have two comments that include the word cunt. In a few cases, the double comments occurred during and after block actions.

Conclusion

There are numerous anecdotal stories about users on English Wikipedia who have been chased off the project because they were women. In early November, there was a report on the Administrators Noticeboard [10] that following the return of one such female user, a user who has a history of using the word cunt as a gendered insult commented right away to insult her and that after a report of their behavior, no action was taken. Another female user decided to work on the increasing female participation, and when she complained about harassment, faced escalating harassment with no options for how to deal with it. There is another story of a woman who was targeted offsite for her efforts to increase female participation and her visibility, which led to retaliation that cost her her job while few males stood up to condemn the culture of harassment against women and try to change the climate that embraced the decision to punish her for being a highly visible woman in the community. In discussions with female acquaintances, the issue often comes up that any potential benefit from contributing to Wikipedia is mitigated by the downsides of harassment, outing and loss of employment: the benefits do not outweigh the cons for participating. These anecdotal stories are supported by a body of research that shows Wikipedia has a gender gap problem, and cultural problems that contribute to its existence.

This research has demonstrated just how problematic the use of the word cunt is on English Wikipedia in communications with women and with men. The term is used by men to insult other men by implying their actions are female and therefore lacking. It co-presents alongside other troublesome behavior such as racism and homophobia. It is a word used in making threats against other users on the site. The use of the word in inappropriate situations largely goes unpunished, with users not receiving blocks or other sanctions for their actions.

While at the end of the day the volume and type of abuse aimed at female contributors on their own talk pages are very different and lower than Reddit and Twitter and in situations like GamerGate, the use of cunt as a gendered insult on English Wikipedia is problematic. In a number of cases, the use of the word cunt co-presents alongside threats and discussions which dismiss the harm, discussed in the review of literature, the word causes in parts of the community as they collaborate towards building an encyclopedia that contains “the sum of all human knowledge.”
Gendered insults are problematic for English Wikipedia in terms of attracting new editors, female editors and making the community a safe place for editors to participate. The research shows women are more likely to be victims of cyberbullying and are more likely to be criticized for their abilities and appearance, and be subjected to threats of violence. In reporting violence, their concerns are less likely to be heard, to be treated seriously and that they can be victimized again during that process. Women are also cultured to leave when dealing with harassment, rather than challenge their harassers. When faced with people calling them names and threatening them with violence or loss of employment, women are cultured to not stand up: instead, they are cultured to take flight and avoid confrontation. They have a tend-and-befriend response which could inhibit them from participating in a high threat environment to begin with. The culture on English Wikipedia that tolerates gender specific abuse feeds and repeats this cycle is asking for a situation where women leave the project, fail to provide their knowledge and leave a void in Wikipedia. The English Wikipedia cycle mirrors the research as women deal with gender specific abuse, threats of violence and criticism of their abilities and appearance only to report this and either not be taken seriously or be revictimized. If these female contributors do this and fail, they are almost certain to join the group of women who leave anyway after having been subjected to abuse.
The findings demonstrate that the culture on English Wikipedia of accepting the type of behavior that allows for people calling each other cunt while excusing it is in line with typical comments made by apologists and excusers of gendered language abuse. This includes individuals saying they do not find it offensive so others should not, that it is acceptable in British pubs and working class locations so it should be tolerated elsewhere, that the person who used it is not a misogynist, and that not tolerating its use is about enforcing political correctness. The findings also demonstrate that contrary to claims about the non-problematic nature of comments with the word, the word is used in ways that are problematic on English Wikipedia. The word is used alongside other offensive insults, and is used as part of threats of violence against contributors. Context also makes clear that the word, even when targeted at male contributors, is intended to imply that a person is not wanted in the community because they have female characteristics. In some ways, the word is a greater issue when it is used by males and used to insult males as it sends a subliminal message that being female is an undesirable characteristic when it comes to contributing to Wikipedia.
Communication style is an important component when it comes to encouraging people to make the transition from passive consumer of Wikipedia to editors. (Ganz, 2013) The findings support conclusions by Wikimedia leaders like Sue Gardner and researchers that there is a communication style problem. It also supports the claims that women face more harassment, find the tone to be more problematic than men, and that women do not like Wikipedia because of the “unfriendly and rough manner, power struggles, vicious verbal exchanges, sexist comments and outright harassment, as well as the general avoidance of gender-sensitive language”. (Buchem, et. al, 2014, p. 10) These are issues that people are aware of when it comes to recruiting and maintaining a female editing cohort that assists Wikipedia in its mission to share knowledge with the world and improve the impression that Wikipedia has with the general public.
Interventions need to be tried to change the climate on English Wikipedia, with the success of these interventions studied to understand where and how they fail. These attempts need to be continual, and come internally from Wikimedia Foundation employees, administrators, editors and from external forces such as feminist groups, universities, non-profits and existing social justice groups online that have had success elsewhere.

Footnotes

  1. This noticeboard is an informal place to seek assistance in resolving disputes. It is non-binding, and is located at http://enwp.org/WP:DRN .
  2. The Arbitration Committee is the place of last resort for conflicts on English Wikipedia. It can be found at http://enwp.org/WP:ARBCOM .
  3. See Sankin (2014, August 27) for a discussion of the problems on Reddit, which includes the type of abuse women are subjected to and the response from Reddit management to reports of abuse.
  4. This holds true for leadership positions on English Wikipedia. Of the 36 stewards on English Wikipedia, only one is female. (Lurie, 2014)
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Searching#Search_results_page states,”The ordering of the list of search results is by relevance or user settings.” In doing the analysis, all user talk page results included the word cunt and there was no difference between the results found on the first page and the results found on the last page.
  6. A distinct comment is defined in this case as a comment made by a unique editor with a unique timestamp. In some cases, these comments may contain multiple uses of the word cunt.
  7. There is ample evidence that United States readership makes up a large portion of English Wikipedia’s readership. According to Alexa.com, the site is the sixth most popular in the United States. Compete.com estimates USA traffic to Wikipedia accounts for 97,528,733 unique visitors each month. That is a whole lot of USA editors to pretend not to exist. The site is the eighth most popular in India and no argument has been put forth that the word cunt has the same meaning as the UK. There is also evidence that exists that the word cunt has vulgar connotations and is not used in professional situations between work colleagues.
  8. The data was gathered in the same period, and included threats of rape targeted at other users.
  9. This is based on the sample size of 20%, with 23 multiplied by five to arrive at the projected number.
  10. English Wikipedia shorthand for this noticeboard is ANI, and it is located at http://enwp.org/WP:ANI.

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External links

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