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Wikipedia's Digital Divide

The winners write history even in the supposedly democratized digital age.
Image: Mypouss/Flickr

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They say winners write history, and it seems that adage holds true even in the supposedly democratized digital age.


A recent paper out of Oxford argues that although the common expectation is that the internet should create greater opportunity for people that have historically gone unheard to have a voice, digital media actually reinforces the global disparity of wealth and power that already exists.

Despite Wikipedia's millions of user-generated entries from around the world, long underrepresented parts of the world still suffer from "information poverty," the authors wrote. "Geographies of codified knowledge have always been characterized by stark core-periphery patterns: with some parts of the world at the center of global voice and representation, and many others invisible or unheard."

The authors studied the geographic focuses of the articles on Wikipedia. More specifically, they looked at both the quantity of articles about geographic locations, as well as the amount of editing that occurs on those pages. They found that even though anybody is welcome to contribute to Wikipedia, many areas of the world are severely underrepresented.

"Even though Wikipedia consists of a massive cloud of geographic information about millions of events and places around the globe put together by millions of hours of human labor, it remains that the encyclopedia is characterized by uneven and clustered geographies," researchers wrote. "There is simply not a lot of content about much of the world."

The study found much of Africa and the Middle East to be under-covered on Wikipedia. Meanwhile, North America, Europe, and the most populated parts of Asia have plenty of content. It also found that many areas that are represented often aren't represented by their own people.

Number of geotagged Wikipedia articles per country, per the study

If these discrepancies sound a little bit like, you know, much of human history, that's the point. The world hasn't gotten much better at telling everybody's stories.

To some extent global broadband capabilities play a role in these dynamics. But connectivity isn't a panacea, it points out. The authors took broadband into consideration when forming their hypotheses about given area's Wikipedia presence, and many countries fell well short of the mark despite having internet access.

So why the discrepancy? The authors suggest that Wikipedia reflects preexisting examples of uneven "information geographies," caused by "social, economic, political, regulatory, and infrastructural barriers."

Consider that Wikipedia is basically a consortium or curation of preexisting information, cited and put into encyclopedic form. That means there's a much greater barrier to starting Wikipedia pages about fresh topics as opposed to editing existing pages. So while it's easier for people from the US to jump in and add new information to the page about Seattle, it's difficult for somebody from Sub-Saharan Africa to create a brand new page about their village.

Meanwhile, since there has always been more information generated about the Western world, there's more to cite on Wikipedia—and therefore a greater capacity to create new information.

The authors consider the ways the discrepancy could self-perpetuate and ultimately undermine Wikipedia. If the power structures on platforms like Wikipedia remain as they are, it could lead "the Global South to consider Wikipedia as primarily the project of the Global North"—a far cry from the edict of the "sum of all human knowledge."