Why Wikipedia isn't actually the 'sum of all human knowledge.'
Image: Giulia Forsythe/Flickr
Free online encyclopedia Wikipedia might seem like a repository of global human knowledge: Recent research suggests it's one of the "top-twenty websites in ninety-five percent of the world." However, despite generating multilingual content, most of the editors taking part in the great Wiki-mission are from the Global North.
In a paper published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, researchers from the University of Oxford's Oxford Internet Institute (OII) investigated the digital information divide created by looking at who was contributing to Wikipedia.
"We wanted to look at issues of participation in Wikipedia and look at who gets to represent who," Mark Graham, an associate professor at the OII, told me over the phone. "We wanted to see if Wikipedia offered a space, not just for people in the UK to write about things in the UK, but for, say, people in Kenya to write about things in Kenya."
The researchers collected their data by focusing on geolocating "both edits and editors." In other words, they looked at both where the edits were coming from and what they were editing.
"So, for example, for all of the articles on things in France, we looked at who contributed those edits in order to find out what might explain participation, and where all this participation is coming from," explained Graham.
Across Wikipedia, the researchers found that participation was uneven, with a large percent of editors from North America both editing content their own content as well as content from other cultures.
"[Wikipedia] is not inherently democratising knowledge."
They found that 45 percent of all edits to Wikipedia came from five countries (Italy, France, United Kingdom, Germany and the United States), and that there were actually "more Wikipedia editors from The Netherlands than all of Africa combined."
"First, we find that many articles about places are edited by non-locals, thus challenging the idea that Wikipedia offers a platform for a local voice," they write. "Second, much of the small amount of participation that we see originating in low-income countries is actually focused on writing about global cores." In a nutshell, when "peripheral" editors edited or contributed content, this wasn't for their own localities, but rather for places where a great deal of wiki-information already exists.
Though the group's research didn't specifically focus on why this was the case, Graham suggested that Wikipedia's infrastructure perpetuated the conundrum.
"You need content to make more content on Wikipedia; You can't just submit content without any citation," said Graham. "If you are trying to contribute content about a place where there is little existing content about it in the first place, you're going to have a hard time finding sources to back up what you're trying to say."
Wikipedia can give off the impression of being a great knowledge and information democratizer. However, according to Graham, it's important to remember that Wikipedia is "no Tabula rasa," and can often unwittingly reflect and reinforce information biases.
"In fairness to Wikipedia, they're trying their best—they have a global outreach team and recognize that this is a problem," said Graham. "However, [Wikipedia] is not inherently democratising knowledge, and is not the sum of all human knowledge, as their motto states [...] We need to keep a focus on these key biases that it is reproducing, and perhaps reinforcing."
In order to lessen the Global North's dominance on Wikipedia, Graham said it wasn't a question of internet technologies providing a quick fix, but rather an issue of fostering cultural and educational institution in locations where more peripheral Wiki editors were active.
"I think the reason why we see Western Europe and North America dominating at Wikipedia is not necessarily because they're better at it, but because they have all of these underlying institutional advantages that Wikipedia is just reflecting, rather than undermining in any way."