Adrianne Wadewitz, Wikipedia contributor, dies at 37


Adrianne Wadewitz, a feminist scholar at Occidental College who was a prolific editor for Wikipedia, died after a rock-climbing accident. She was 37. (Karen Sayre/Wikimedia Foundation)
April 25

When Adrianne Wadewitz became a Wikipedia contributor 10 years ago, she decided to use a pseudonym, certain that fellow scholars at Indiana University would frown on her writing for the often-maligned “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

But Dr. Wadewitz eventually came out as a Wikipedian, the term the encyclopedia uses to describe the tens of thousands of volunteers who write and edit its pages. A rarity as a woman in the male-centric Wikipedia universe, she became one of its most valued and prolific contributors as well as a force for diversifying its ranks and demystifying its inner workings.

Her goal was “empowering everyday Internet users to be critical of how information is produced on the Internet and move beyond being critical to making it better,” said Alexandra Juhasz, a Pitzer College professor of media studies who worked with Dr. Wadewitz to address gender bias in Wikipedia.

Dr. Wadewitz, who trained scores of people, particularly women, to participate in Wikipedia as editors, died April 8 in Palm Springs, Calif., 10 days after sustaining head injuries in a fall while rock climbing in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, said her partner, Peter B. James. She was 37.

A postdoctoral fellow at Occidental College’s Center for Digital Learning and Research, Dr. Wadewitz worked with faculty members and students to use technology and the Internet effectively in the classroom. As a campus ambassador for Wikipedia, she also tackled widespread skepticism about the online source’s trustworthiness and biases.

An expert in 18th-century English literature, she merged her interests in Wikipedia, where she wrote articles on famous writers including Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft and pioneering female rock climbers such as Steph Davis and Lynn Hill.

Dr. Wadewitz had more than 50,000 “edits” or contributions to her credit. She also was the author of 36 “featured” articles, the highest distinction bestowed by other Wikipedians on the basis of accuracy, fairness, style and comprehensiveness.

“She was one of the top 10 editors in terms of producing a lot of high-quality content,” said Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that operates Wikipedia.

Dr. Wadewitz did not fit the profile of the typical Wikipedia editor. According to a 2011 Wikimedia Foundation survey, only 9 percent of more than 100,000 Wikipedians were women, and of those, 22 percent reported that editing for Wikipedia was “an unpleasant experience.”

When Dr. Wadewitz emerged from behind her moniker (she initially identified herself as “Awadewit”) she was greeted by a range of responses from other Wikipedians that spurred her to think about the Web site’s gender gap.

“When I used my real name, all of a sudden there was a lot of commentary,” she told a Scripps College audience this year. “ ‘Oh, you’re a woman’ or ‘You can’t really be a woman’ or ‘You don’t write like a woman.’ Or all of a sudden, my arguments were not taken as seriously or were judged as hysterical or emotional. . . . So I got much more interested in why this was happening.”

She began to cast herself as a bridge between Wikipedia and a distrustful public that regarded the online encyclopedia as unreliable and error-prone. She began leading workshops called “edit-a-thons” where she took participants on a tour of the Web site and explained how entries are produced, vetted and constantly updated and revised.

Adrianne Wadewitz was born Jan. 6, 1977, in Omaha and grew up there and in North Platte, Neb. She received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1999 and a doctorate from Indiana University in British literature in 2011.

Besides her partner, survivors include her parents, the Rev. Nathan R. Wadewitz and Betty M. Wadewitz.

When she began taking rock-climbing classes, she “felt silly because I could not do basic exercises that seemed effortless for other people,” she wrote last year in an essay, “What I Learned as the Worst Student in the Class.” In time she celebrated her successes, such as the first time she balanced on a small foothold.

“For me, one of the most empowering outcomes of my year of climbing has been the new narrative I can tell about myself. I am no longer ‘Adrianne: scholar, book lover, pianist, Wikipedian.’ I am now ‘Adrianne; scholar, book lover, pianist, Wikipedian, and rock climber.’ ”

— Los Angeles Times

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