Just for the record

This interview is part of the series Questioning the Notion of Neutrality.
Click here to read more about the project and to find more interviews.

Loraine Furter, Mia Melvær and Sarah Magnan are members of the cyberfeminist collective Just for the Record. Just For The Record is a project addressing how gender is represented in new media and writing/publishing tools like Wikipedia, and what influence this has on the way history is recorded.

Interview – video

in English

Keywords / Overview

intersectional feminist collective
collective references

neutral information
objective truth

knowledge production
who writes history?

editing in Wikipedia
who is entitled to write?

neutral language
academic language

lack of references
oral history| who gets featured?

editors and diversity

feminist archives
sense of caring community

no binarism
“knowledge should be accessible and editable”
lack of transparency
Wikipedia social impact

Interview – transcript

in English

So, I'm Sarah Magnan. I’m Loraine Furter, and I am Mia Melvær. Together we are Just For the Record. And we work on looking at how we narrate history on online spaces from a feminist perspective and also how kind of online spaces mirror power structures in that we are, have inherited, and lived within our physical spaces. And there's Myriam Arseneault-Goulet, who is the fourth member of the collective, but she cannot be there today. Yeah, so that's also to give you the full image of who we are.

Gloria López Cleries: On your website, you described yourself as a “Cyber-feminist collective”. I'm very curious to see if you can expand this.

Well, it's perhaps the intersectional feminist collective. These words, these labels are often coming with a certain history. I think it's to give a bit of a homage to the cyberfeminist movement of the ‘90s. And that we are maybe spinning on. I think that was a movement that is famous for also, at some point concluding, like started with a lot of optimism of how the internet could become, finally, a place where you were rid of your body as a level rid of your gender. But then sort of discovered that, the internet had exactly the same dynamics as the physical spaces had. And I think this is where we sort of pick up 20-30 years later, we're like, yes, actually, it is very clear now. Maybe we hire somehow more cyber, but it doesn't mean that power structures are erased, that doesn't mean that it's a blank slate, that you're starting from scratch, and you are you don't come with heritage. In cyberspace, there's also the hacking side of it, how to hack and find other ways to do things. Exactly, yeah!

Encyclopedias often claim to be a neutral, or universal space of information or wherever source to share information: this type of objective “truth”. We would like to know if you think it’s possible to create a space that offers a kind of “neutral information” – or “objective”? And how are you approaching this tool that is Wikipedia in that sense?

The short answer is no, no. Why would you want to do that, in fact? Yeah, is it really something you want? Why would you want to reach this neutral point? Is it really interesting to… like, I don't think anything is neutral. No, nothing is neutral at all in the world.

That's a bit of a fake idea to think that you can have one limited number of pages, those histories of the world. But then it's interesting to think, what's the history of the world, who is writing that? What does that mean? And I think it's also what we find interesting in this project, and there is the pad that we did on Wikipedia has to also realize that quite clearly. And I think, giving people the idea that they can write from a neutral or objective point of view is quite dangerous, I think.

What it does to people who do believe that they don't have that power. Also, there is the truth. There also means that they're exactly, I mean, this also is on the sort of cheesy saying of history is written by the winners is not true. So also, who gets to describe themselves as neutral? And I think often this is very visible in the discussion spaces behind the articles on Wikipedia or in chat rooms already. Yeah, when you see people talking about how knowledge should be written, you see immediately what is considered “other” and therefore not neutral. And I mean, it's quite common. Everybody sees this thing, this tendency that for instance, anything that is about women is seen as minority or identity issues, which is quite funny to see sort of, I mean, more than the world's population is and counted as a minority issue and, therefore, the other, and therefore not neutral. Because it's not, because specialized in some way. And this, to observe this in the sort of backgrounds has been quite interesting because it gives immediately quite a good image of what is going on more than what it claims to be, but like, “what is actually happening?” And which situations get met with the arguments, but this is how we've always done it. And then, what does that we refer to, like, always done it online, or always done it in history ever and like. And I think these sorts of cases of objectivity and neutrality are often defended with the sort of conventions or a very conservative position. Actually, yeah, exactly!

“Can you be neutral but ground-breaking?” “Can you be neutral but changing?” I don't know. So, in that sense, I think somehow, we prefer something that is… because it's, it's okay. To say, “No, neutrality doesn't exist” – that's something. And then, what we are proposing – somehow – is a more situated way of writing, a more partial… Like, it's not possible to do, not “a universal.” It is a very problematic notion as well. So, it's more like, “Okay, you are anyway positioned in a place, grounded in culture, with different experiences.” So, it's also acknowledging that, a plurality of voices, that we're looking – as opposed to this, this banner of “neutrality.” Since it doesn't exist, it's more a banner that you are claiming. But anyway, it's not possible, this one banner, because it's definitely what's going back to Wikipedia. It's one of the pillars, to have this neutral point of view that is supposed to be done, I guess, for them, to be more credible in front of a more traditional conductor, “the encyclopedia.” And so, we're to say that there are various, I guess, yeah.

Do you think, for example, this open-source platform has the same biases in how knowledge has been created?

With Wikipedia as a case study, that is kind of a modern tool that is still based on how academia works with references. It relies very heavily on what has already been published. And so for us, for instance, one example that we use in our work is how many books per capita exist in different countries to show if you base yourself on printed matter only and you, for instance, give oral history much lower weight, then you immediately put certain countries and certain cultures ahead of each other. There is something that we often use. It comes from a study that analyzes throughout the Wikipedia community. So, who had this Wikipedia? And it turns out that they did a study on who is writing Wikipedia. Because at some point, they were like, yes, is for anyone. And so, at some point, they really did some kind of insight survey. And they came up with the fact that most of the users are like: white, hetero, male, like 31 years old. But that's the only thing that really changes. You have a higher education, another, that's the answer. So, this is pretty much how history has always been written, like by privileged, hetero male, like, you know, the dominant figure in hetero, patriarchal, and colonial society.

And the only thing that differs a bit is that the person who edits Wikipedia is younger than before. So maybe there, there is a change. And what I find interesting is that there is this potential, you know. Anyone could, indeed, if you, if they're in the right conditions, they have a computer. Somebody tells them: “Yeah, you can click on those edit buttons that are everywhere.” So, there is potential that is not really met. It's not happening. And, yeah, so that's also from a feminist perspective. And also, activist perspective. So, you can do something, but it's also very hard because even if you're a group of people with some experience on the platform, it's actually quite hard to make some changes because then you're facing like, deletions and, you know, like never-ending discussions on like: “No, no, but that's not how you do it, that's not how everything's been done in the past.” And also, Wikipedia, it's clearly not a blog. So, you really have many rules to, again, prove that this is a science encyclopedia. So, there's just a point of view, but there is also the referencing ways of working so you cannot create something of your own, you have to refer to the thing and the phrase or the writer, but other publishing and preferably something that is already written on a printed source, which is that all those mechanisms are ways of doing a mix that you, In fact, repeat what already has been written or printed. And since it seems that there is a, I mean, there's not as if there is a really a way of clear something that asks you to question it, or to the way you're going to write it, then you rewrite because paraphrase and rewrite exactly the same way. And that's also just reproducing exactly the same thing. And there also, I think there are also some quite subtle, how you say, mechanisms at play as well. Like, this thing of opening a room up for everyone to say: “Now everyone can write, everyone has access to this room.” If you then don't acknowledge that certain p eople feel a lot more entitled to write than others, who feel entitled to speak up? Who feels that their knowledge is part of history?

And under this kind of aim for neutrality and objectivity, Wikipedia, for example, doesn't really take a stand to… I mean, it's so busy being neutral that it doesn't do any equity. It doesn't compensate for any existing power imbalances. And so, it just sort of opens the door. And then whoever can go in can go in. Whoever speaks the loudest gets heard, unless the door. Yeah, and I think it's like opens, titled it is what type of language is considered neutral and therefore doesn't get flagged as often. It also, there is one person we've worked with who is looking more into computer linguistics, saying that it's very masculine language that goes through all academia that is considered neutral language or scientific language. So, you have all these little ways where you are maybe pushed out or maybe we're the group that is sort of left standing or left writing, let's say, is a very recognizable, very traditional group. And these are quite difficult dynamics to maybe pinpoint exactly, but we do start to see them as we sort of dig into it.

There is, for instance, an example of what is not covered that goes with printed? Printed matters? So much a source? Do you have the name of the game at the very last? We have a picture of it. Double Carly. So, there was a children's game in India that was featured on Wikipedia. But because there were no written sources about it, it was contested. And I think it was removed even. And it's an example of how absurd it gets because this game has been played by or is played or known by about by 40 million people that all know the rules, that all know about it. But it's, it's in the tradition of in the same line as oral history or like things that you inherit that are not written down. They are still cultural institutions. So, I think that's a very good example of how skewed it can be, it can turn out. If you can prove its existence, either online or in video, in audio, like I don't know, if it's actually cultural heritage, how do you then get features let's say? In this query, there is no space for that. Yeah, no. So, who gets featured? I don't know. Everyone you imagine? Everyone you mentioned, but again, because it has to be sourced and even some, some that could be references, if they are less represented in the printed world of before, let’s say, they are less likely to be.

And also, then, who is the population of Wikipedia? I think we are a good example. Because we're not regular editors of Wikipedia for probably various reasons. But personally, one of the reasons is that I find it a hostile place in general, not the potential of it. Not the idea, not the tool. But the community. I'm not 100. Yeah, I'm not even 16. How many persons, I wonder, engaging with them somehow? Yeah, so. So that's also I think it's a very good sign of like, “Who stays,” and, “Who feels at ease.” And it's hard to change this kind of general ambience. It's also the first time where you kind of have all these discussions in text that used to happen in rooms, and you couldn't prove it. And often, with feminist work, you would just be frustrated, and you couldn't prove all the things, all the ways you were knocked back and not represented. And suddenly, now it's in writing, and you can like show that you are not allowed to represent, be represented in the way that you know is fair. Yeah, that's something that you often use, like neutral or ideological. Yeah, exactly, exactly. Different types of public space have different rules and different codes that you bring with you, often quite unconsciously, as you do in physical space. This comes back to recall the mantra over IRL, his URL is IRL. And, yeah, and just now, just before this idea of gossip and oral history and sort of weeds in the kind of winding around or the different strategies for not maybe survival, but for, like, resistance. Yeah, and then friendship and that are used is something that also really comes back. And this is maybe where the toolkit is kind of interesting because it's not the toolkit as, for instance, how do you write a Wikipedia and the way that Wikipedia can tell you that it is. How do you write sort of consciously, in a feminist way? Anywhere and also by going around those hindrances, like, it's kind of the sneakiness, that we also have found where we are kind of like weeds in a garden, o r gossip and not official information. So, this is also very central.

And it's maybe important also, as much as the Wikipedia editors, the people, the volunteers are too homogenous, for what they like, the people behind are quite different. And there are chapters of the people who are working gathering funds and keeping up with our feminist chapters. There are other more conservative chapters. It's not that is actually much one. So there, you maybe have a bit of that diversity.

It's more… because you don't get in touch with the organizers so much. You get in touch with the people who spend all their time behind Wikipedia. It's very good also to acknowledge that we sometimes have been given priorities as well. Because we were given organizational grants from Wikimedia, the organization behind Wikipedia, to pay for expenses of events, and it was literally a grant that we got to criticize their platform. And I think this is quite nice. When somebody pays someone to criticize them. Or more to analyse what was the problem. Because, they have this problem, and they wanted to get out of it. Because I think, as we said in the beginning, that this was not the plan to be narrowed as one type of person. But yeah, there are some very good and smarter moves, that you… just to be able to do that.

But it's nice now also in use, often our experience from looking into that to them. It's to look back into the real world and say and like, look back into feminist archives and libraries. So, it does kind of, the mirror goes forth and back. Like it's sort of you look at Wikipedia or online collective writing platforms and you see the heritage that is sort of, maybe, unacknowledged that comes from the real world, or earlier times, let's say. And then you can, also, kind of use that knowledge where you really suddenly see in writing the dynamics that happened between people and use that to sort of reflect on real-life spaces where you don't have all that conversation in writing, but you do see it suddenly, quite quickly. And so, in our events, for instance, also this sort of sense of caring community and to do, to feel good in the room you're working in has been very central. So, we also centre a lot of things around food, around childcare, artistic interventions… trying to get different perspectives that are not necessarily only verbal, or text-based.

And so yeah, that's also it sort of bounces for them back, this reflection.

Somehow, we noticed since the very beginning that there’s no binary between good and bad. Because, actually, Wikipedia comes from this quite progressive idea that knowledge should be accessible to everybody, and also editable to everybody. So, in essence, it is like, “Wow, what a great project!” And then you realize, once you look at it, yeah, when you dig a bit into how it works, that actually, it's not perfect. It's not representative of everybody and not used by everybody, at least in the cooler capacity, as Mia was saying. So, it's like, also understanding that it's less binary than that, and that every project has some kind of, you know, it's always a passion, and more complex than that. So, in that sense, I think, since the beginning, we've been very much also trying to develop, unfold all these nuances. Rather than anything, this tool would be better, or because, I think so far, and come up with the perfect counter solution somehow. But more like complexifying our view of it, and then our understanding. To open the black box. Exactly!

Because it is supposed to be quite transparent, in fact, but it's not entirely true. Yeah! That's a superpower tool. Yeah. Just again, what is the framing that you put on that tool? And the tool itself? Also, I am a bit surprised it didn't go further than just, like, things haven't been so much developed in the beginning. And yeah, there's certainly tools that you use, or a story or diversity or what have you.

And that's also often something we've been saying is that we're not taking a position on whether we're for or against it, but it's a tool that is so central. It's the most used encyclopedia we have today. So, to not discuss it is not possible, we have to discuss it. We cannot say whether we're, you know, whether we like it or not, it's kind of irrelevant, because you have it. It's used especially by elementary school teachers. And it's feeding, now also, because it's the biggest body of text, categorized text, that is very often used to train different software. And so, it hasn't reached that it's just beyond imagination in a way, so it kind of becomes insignificant whether you would wish it existed or not.