Future Tense

How Katie Bouman Shook Wikipedia

Hand holding a tablet displaying Katie Bouman's Wikipedia page.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wikipedia and Patrick Schneider on Unsplash.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

Katie Bouman is a 29-year-old postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose Wikipedia article was created last Wednesday, when astronomers released the first-ever direct image of a black hole to the world. Bouman was an influential member of the Event Horizon Telescope team that captured this extraordinary photographic evidence. She was widely covered by the press after MIT tweeted a photo of her excitement upon seeing the image for the first time on her laptop.

The timing of Bouman’s Wikipedia page makes sense: Pages are often created after a figure bursts into the news. What is unusual, though, is how much Bouman’s entry has been modified in this short period—more than 100 times per day by nearly 160 contributors. The frantic level of editing reflects the rapid mobilization by members of the online encyclopedia community to rescue Bouman’s page from deletion. The debate also shows how a minority of internet encyclopedists are more concerned with disputing individual merit than creating a reference source that serves the public interest.

British physicist Jess Wade created Bouman’s Wikipedia page on April 10, coinciding with the black hole photo announcement. Two days later, the page was nominated for deletion. The few editors who argued adamantly that Bouman’s page should be deleted mostly said she lacked sufficient notability as an academic to have her own article. On the other side were those who said Bouman was clearly notable because of the vast amount of press coverage following the black hole announcement. Biologist Maryam Zaringhalam summarized the pro-article position well by tweeting, “Katie Bouman’s—one of the scientists behind the image of the black hole—Wikipedia article has been flagged as ‘not notable.’ If she’s not notable, then who TF is?!”

After discussion and voting, the arguments for retaining Bouman’s Wikipedia page carried the day. The whole crisis was resolved within about 80 minutes, what Wikipedians refer to as a “speedy keep.”

This happened against the backdrop of a larger discussion about Bouman. After MIT tweeted the famous photo of her looking delighted, the university posted further tweets clarifying that she was part of a global collaboration of more than 200 scientists who made the discovery possible. Bouman likewise posted on Facebook that “no one algorithm or person made this image” and included a photo of the larger team. It was a similar argument to the one she made in her 2016 TED Talk: Big scientific discoveries are the work of big teams, not lone geniuses.

By this point, though, the internet trolls had descended. The Verge’s Mary Beth Griggs recounts the online harassment in grim detail. Trolls set up fake Twitter accounts and fake Instagram accounts in Bouman’s name and had the fake Bouman claim that her colleague Andrew Chael wrote 850,000 of the 900,000 lines of code that were written into the algorithm that found the black hole. That’s when Chael himself chimed in, tweeting, “While I wrote much of the code for one of these pipelines, Katie was a huge contributor to the software; it would have never worked without her contributions.” Chael added that he hoped the “awful and sexist attacks” on Bouman would stop.

Back on Wikipedia, a few in the pro-delete tweet camp were nasty and sexist. One editor pointed out that “as a young good looking woman she was much more attractive to the media” than the low-resolution photo of the black hole, and that the MIT scientist should only be covered as a “media phenomenon” since “sex sells.” On Twitter, another user falsely claimed that the only thing Bouman contributed was “changing fonts” in the code, suggesting that this was secretarial work that a high school student could handle.

But there’s another type of pro-delete comment that’s worth examining and debunking. During the discussion, one editor arguing to delete Bouman’s page said this: “I am in fact a scientist with more publications & citations than Katie (though she is younger, so it’s not a fair comparison). … Was her work that important?” This comment is, in fact, highly revealing about how this editor views their role on Wikipedia. Rather than grounding notability in the scientific community, the press, or popular culture, this individual editor is holding to their own standards of comparative merit. But this type of personal vendetta and probable jealousy does not advance Wikipedia’s goal to be the sum of all human knowledge, which has certainly been advanced for the more than 350,000 people who have now visited and learned from Bouman’s page.

I’m not the first to observe that the deletion debates on Wikipedia and other internet knowledge platforms frequently seem unproductive. Perhaps instead of fighting to remove someone’s encyclopedia entry, people should instead do something useful like, I don’t know, help photograph a black hole. Or, since that’s been done, maybe make a movie of one. Either way, it is no doubt better to search for dark despair vortexes elsewhere in the universe than to create them with our behavior online.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.