‘The Missing Wikipedians’ in Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (eds), Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011. ISBN: 978-90-78146-13-1. Download PDF of the final version
Much has been said of the future of Wikipedia. Some have prophesied that the online encyclopaedia will fail due to increasing spam. Others have said that, as large parts of the world go online, Wikipedia might see a wave of new editors as countries from Zambia to Indonesia begin to fill in Wikipedia’s blank spots. In a project that aims to ‘make all human knowledge accessible’, those blank spots can mean many things: the hundreds of thousands of places that aren’t talked about on Wikipedia, the thousands of languages that either don’t have their own encyclopaedia or are struggling to build one, and the countless things that people know about their world but aren’t in written form.
This essay is concerned, not so much with the future of the English version of Wikipedia (about which much of the prophesying occurs) but with the 277 other language Wikipedias. Will this number shrink as editors grow tired of their lonely pursuits, or will it grow as more of the world goes online? As large parts of Africa go online, it is expected that they will start to edit Wikipedia and that they will edit it in their own language. Both of these assumptions may be incorrect. Firstly, there are a number of external and internal limitations to this new wave of editors joining Wikipedia, and secondly, the scale of smaller Wikipedias may mean that they are over-shadowed by stronger motivations to edit the larger, more powerful English version.
‘Makmende’s so huge, he can’t fit in Wikipedia’
In mid-2010, a furore erupted in a small corner of the Internet. The facts sounded all-too familiar: another group of Wikipedia editors fighting over whether something was notable or not. The so-called ‘deletionists’ against the ‘inclusionists’ – those who thought that the encyclopaedia needed to retain a certain quality and that strict editorial control was necessary, versus those who thought that Wikipedia’s goal is to be a different encyclopaedia – one that is much broader and more global than any other existing encyclopaedia.
But a closer look at this blip on Wikipedia’s radar exposed some interesting details – details that exposed this as a story that epitomises Wikipedia’s current growth problems and the challenges it faces as it seeks to ‘make all human knowledge accessible’. The frontline of this battle: a page called ‘Makmende’ that was struggling to be born on the English encyclopaedia.
In March of 2010, Kenya had enjoyed what has been touted as its first viral Internet sensation. While even Eastern Europe has had its share of singing kittens and political remixes, this East African country had not enjoyed the success that comes when the world recognises a local meme that captures the imagination of those outside of it. The meme was based on an interesting local hack of Hollywood culture that originated on the streets of Kenya in the 1990s.
The Swahili slang (sheng) word for ‘hero’, ‘Makmende’ originates from a mispronunciation of Clint Eastwood’s phrase “Go ahead, make my day” (Mek ma nday) – a phrase that became popular in the streets of Kenya in the 1990s when a ‘bad guy wannabe would be called out and asked “Who do you think you are? Makmende?”’ In early 2010, local band, ‘Just a Band’ resurrected the fictional Kenyan superhero in the music video for their song Ha-He. In the music video for their song, the band features Makmende beating up the ‘bad guys’ and even ignoring the girl in a hilarious throwback to the fictional character.
What followed was a popular acknowledgement of Makmende that resonated outwards from local Twitter users. Like other successful memes, Makmende enabled people to participate in the joke and to thereby “own” a little piece of the meme. According to local digital marketing strategist, Mark Kaigwa, people either took popular Chuck Norris jokes and replaced them with Makmende, or they created their own. Radio stations in Nairobi invited people to call in with Makmende jokes when local journalists like Larry Madowo noticed the attention that Makmende was getting on Twitter, and the Kenyan twittasphere seemed to be buzzing with their own Chuck Norris.
In the midst of enthusiasm, Makmende fans tried to create a Wikipedia page about the meme. Wikipedia admins repeatedly deleted the page, initially on ‘criteria for speedy deletion’ G1 (‘Patent nonsense, meaningless, or incomprehensible’), then G12 (‘Unambiguous copyright infringement)’ and finally G3 (‘Pure Vandalism’).
Wikipedia editors claimed that the article needed to be deleted because there existed ‘no reliable sources, and no claims of notability’. Pointing to the lack of sources relating to African culture online, user, Cicinne came back with this retort: ‘The problem is that there is hardly any content on African influences in the 90′s and 80′s which may make it hard to make the connections’.
On March 24, the Wall Street Journal’s Cassandra Vinograd commented on the story, reporting that ‘Kenyan bloggers and Tweeters (had) seized on the video and launched a campaign for the man they’re calling Kenya’s very own Chuck Norris – complete with one liners about Makmende’s superhero skills and prowess.’ According to the WSJ, Makmende had drawn more than 24,300 hits in the week since its release and had collected 19,200 fans on Facebook.
The article was deleted once again, prompting Ethan Zuckerman to write a blog post about the systemic bias operating in the encyclopaedia community that would delete the stub:
The one that’s currently under development followed a classic Wikipedia structure – it went up as a brief stub, and has accreted more content in the past few hours. What concerned me is that the attempt to delete that stub argued that the article was unsourced – actually, it was quite well sourced, including a reference to a Wall Street Journal online publication and five weblogs. Perhaps the user who nominated for deletion made a mistake. Or perhaps he acted in bad faith, trying to avoid a battle over notability and tried a different tactic to see the page removed.
If Wikipedia wants to make progress in improving areas where it’s weak – i.e., if it wants to address issues of systemic bias – the community needs to expand to include more Wikipedians from the developing world. Deleting three versions of an article important to Kenyans and trying to delete a fourth doesn’t send a strong message that Wikipedia is the open and welcoming community you and I both want it to be.
After being covered on CNN, Fast Company and numerous location Kenyan publications (most of which are not online), the article was eventually voted ‘keep’ citing the WSJ post as proof of notability required to survive and move past the deletion debates. The question then became: if something needs to be ‘notable’ to get on Wikipedia, by whose standards are we judging notability? Is it about numbers, about reputation? Can this be measured? And would this have been such a debate if it had occurred elsewhere in the world?
This story epitomises the challenges facing Wikipedia as it comes up against the scope of a traditional encyclopaedia. Ethan Zuckerman summed it up as follows:
Most Wikipedians seemed to accept the idea that different languages and cultures might want to include different topics in their encyclopedias. But what happens when we share a language but not a culture? Is there a point where Makmende is sufficiently important to English-speaking Kenyans that he merits a Wikipedia page even if most English-speakers couldn’t care less? Or is there an implicit assumption that an English-language Wikipedia is designed to enshrine landmarks of shared historical and cultural importance to people who share a language?
Interestingly, Makmende does not exist in the Swahili version of Wikipedia, and the battle to put Makmende on Wikipedia came just two months after Kenyans were being incentivized by Google to create Swahili Wikipedia pages. There seems to be a disconnect between where ordinary Kenyans want their cultural narratives to live, and where outsiders imagine it.
This story doesn’t only represent a clash between the inclusionists and deletionists in Wikipedia. It also reflects key issues about the relationship between different Wikipedias in countries where English dominates as the written language; about the motivations of Wikipedians on the edges of the Wikipedia network; and about tensions between existing policies, the goal of the encyclopaedia and the realities of historical knowledge in the developing world.
Background: Wikipedia growth is slowing
In August of 2006, Diego Torquemada drew a statistical model that predicted the future growth of English Wikipedia to reach 6 million articles by the end of 2008. This model was based on the premise that more content leads to more traffic which leads to more edits which generates more content on the encyclopaedia. Wikipedia had enjoyed exponential growth until that point, with the number of articles doubling annually from 2002 to 2006.
Torquemada could not know that Wikipedia growth had reached its peak in 2006 when he developed his model. At a rate of 60,000 articles per month in mid-2006, the number of new articles would start to follow a downward trend reaching the point of around 35,000 new articles per month by the end of 2009. The number of edits similarly reached a peak in 2007 with 6 million edits and active editors at 800,000. At the end of 2009, the number of edits had levelled out to about 5.5 million and active editors were down to around 700,000.
The slowing growth of Wikipedia has been the subject of a number of news articles, as Internet commentators predict the slow demise of Wikipedia, and Wikipedians fight back, saying that they are merely “consolidating”.
In trying to understand the slowing growth of Wikipedia, researchers at Palo Alto Research Center took a closer look at the data and interpreted an ecological model to explain the slowing growth. Suh, Convertino, Chi and Pirolli likened the stagnation to a Darwinian ‘struggle for existence’ in the encyclopaedia, noting that ‘as populations hit the limits of the ecology, advantages go to members of the population that have competitive dominance over others’.
Suh et al argued that the ‘resource limitations’ can be likened to limited opportunities to make novel contributions and that the consequences of these increasing limitations will manifest itself in increased patterns of conflict and dominance. Wikipedians, it seemed, had covered all the “easy” articles and now had “nothing left to talk about”.
Nothing left to talk about?
Is Wikipedia really ‘running out of things to talk about’? Suh et al suggested that the number of Wikipedia articles could increase due to the growth of new knowledge as a result of new scientific studies and new events but that the size of the encyclopaedia was still levelling out.
Others like geographer, Mark Graham deride claims that Wikipedia is ‘running out things to write about’ for other reasons. Mapping the presence of geotags on Wikipedia, Graham found that there are still ‘whole continents that remain a virtual “terra incognita”’ on Wikipedia and that if these places were given the same detailed treatment as places in Western Europe and North America, then Wikipedia is only just getting started.
New Wikipedians as the developing world comes online?
Graham suggests that, ‘It may be that when broadband reaches more parts of Africa – helped by the landfall of superfast cables in August – that more people there will start discovering Wikipedia, and that the site will see a second explosion of new editors and articles about places that have so far been ignored’.
But it is doubtful whether Internet access alone will make people in developing countries contribute to Wikipedia. In his study of twelve different Wikipedia language versions, Morten Rask found that although ‘there is a linear relation between the level of internet penetration and reach of the Wikipedia network, there is a stronger linear relationship between the level of human development and internet penetration’.
Rask used the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index in his study as a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living for countries worldwide. He was interested in finding out whether Wikipedia was only for ‘rich countries’ in order to understand ‘who is open to work together in the sharing of knowledge’.
Rask’s findings contradict the so-called ‘techno utopians’ who have claimed that the mere existence of either the Internet or information and communications technology have the ability to lift developing countries out of poverty. Techno utopians include commentators like Don Tapscott who coined the phrase wikinomics to describe ‘deep changes in the structure and modus operandi of the corporation and our economy, based on new competitive principles such as openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally’.
Tapscott believes that we are living through a ‘participation revolution (that) opens up new possibilities for billions of people to play active roles in their workplaces, communities, national democracies, and the global economy at large. This has profound social benefits, including the opportunity to make governments more accountable and lift millions of people out of poverty’.
Access to Wikipedia’s ‘revolutionary’ potential is an extension of this techno utopian vision. Investigating the ‘reach and richness’ of Wikipedia, Rask provides a solid critique of statements like Tapscott’s that ‘all one needs is a computer, a network connection, and a bright spark of initiative and creativity to join in the economy’ by showing that ‘Internet penetration is not the only complete and sufficient variable’ for development. Analysing data from twelve Wikipedia language versions, and mapping it to variables such as the country’s Human Development Index and broadband penetration, Rask was able to show that human development variables were much more critical to participation in Wikipedia than broadband access.
Apart from the external limitations of human development and broadband penetration, Wikipedians on the edges of the network also face a number of internal challenges that reflect a growing resistance within Wikipedia to new content. As those from developing countries come online and try to edit the encyclopedia, a number of conflicts have arisen due to tensions between so-called ‘inclusionists’ and ‘deletionists’ in the encyclopaedia.
‘Inclusionists’ are Wikipedians who would rather see more articles – even if they are short and/or poorly written, while ‘deletionists’ are concerned with quality, believing that it is more important to have less, good quality articles than more poorly written articles with questionable notability.
In an article entitled, ‘The battle for Wikipedia’s soul’, The Economist writes: ‘The behaviour of Wikipedia’s self-appointed deletionist guardians, who excise anything that does not meet their standards, justifying their actions with a blizzard of acronyms, is now known as “wiki-lawyering”’.
The Palo Alto Research Center group suggested that the ‘deletionists might have won’ when they found that the number of reverted edits has increased steadily, and that occasional editors experience a visibly greater resistance compared to high-frequency editors.
According to Suh et al., ‘Since 2003, edits from occasional editors have been reverted (at) a higher rate than edits from prolific editors. Furthermore, this disparity of treatment of new edits from editors of different classes has been widening steadily over the years at the expense of low-frequency editors. We consider this as evidence of growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content, especially when the edits come from occasional editors’.
Public goods and the costs of contribution
If Wikipedia is available in Swahili, and the effort required to start a Swahili page is lower than on the English version, why was the Kenyan community so determined that the Makmende article exist on the English version of Wikipedia?
Clues to the answer can be found in debates about public goods. Wikipedia can be considered to be a public good since it is non-rivalrous (one person’s use of Wikipedia doesn’t deplete another person’s use of it) and non-excludable (no one can be effectively excluded from using Wikipedia, if they’re online at least). Peter Kollock, writing in the late 90s about public goods and how their value shifts when it is placed online, declared that all online community interaction creates public goods and that this is a remarkable property of online interaction and unprecedented in the history of human society.
Unprecedented as it is, people still need to be motivated to contribute to public goods. The question with regard to the Makmende case is: If people will create public goods when motivations are higher than costs of contributing, what are the relative costs for contributing to English vs Swahili Wikipedia?
It is clear from the Makmende example that Wikipedia newbies must navigate a growing bureaucracy and complicated policies when dealing with English Wikipedians, many of whom would rather not have to deal with any more articles to improve. This creates a high barrier to entry that must be offset by higher motivational factors in order to incentivise volunteer activity.
If the costs of contribution in terms of centralised control, bureaucracy and the lack of ‘reliable’ sources are higher in the English Wikipedia, then motivations for contributing must have been significantly higher for Kenyans when contributing Makmende to the English version.
In his paper on ‘The Economies of Online Cooperation’ Kollock notes four motivations for providing public goods including anticipated reciprocity, reputation, sense of efficacy and need.
According to Kollock, ‘a person is motivated to contribute valuable information to the group in the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return that is, the motivation is an anticipated reciprocity’.
The promise of reciprocity on the English Wikipedia is relatively high based on the scale of contribution. Even though contributors account for less than 1% of users, the scale of the encyclopaedia means that the numbers of active contributors is about 40,000 active editors for 26 per million speakers versus Swahili Wikipedia with 0.4 editors per million speakers (about 20 active editors). According to Phares Kariuki, he created the Makmende page because there are few opportunities to create a Wikipedia entry that would be populated quickly. Kariuki said that he isn’t a regular Wikipedia contributor and that the last time he contributed was many years ago. He points to the small numbers who care enough to promote the page as a problem. “If I started a page on my high school it would take six years to build up.” Kariuki had tried to edit before but didn’t have much success. “I am a heavy user like most of us here in Nairobi but there’s never really been motivation to become an editor before,” he said.
Wikipedians on the English Wikipedia are relatively assured that others will continue to contribute, whereas contributors to smaller Wikipedias must understand that numbers of editors are few and that Wikipedia may shut down Wikipedias where growth has stagnated and where they have become overrun by spam.
Interestingly, Eric Goldman’s claim that ‘Wikipedia will fail in 5 years’ because of increasing spam has been more prophetic for smaller Wikipedias than the English Wikipedia. According to Goldman, ‘free editability’ (allowing anyone to edit) is Wikipedia’s Achilles’ heel. The sheer scale of the English Wikipedia has won out against spammers in English Wikipedia, but smaller Wikipedias must face a continual battle – especially when their numbers are so small in comparison to the spammers.
Kollock noted that the effect of contributions on one’s reputation is another possible motivation. ‘High quality information, impressive technical details in one’s answers, a willingness to help others, and elegant writing can al work to increase one’s prestige in the community,’ he found.
It is interesting to note that the reputation motivation requires that there are people to impress in the community. Because of the small scale of Swahili Wikipedia, for example, the fact that one can gain prestige from the group might not necessarily be positive if the real power lies outside the group. The English version of Wikipedia receives 9 million views per hour, whereas the Swahili version gets 1,700 with the effect that one’s reputation is much more highly valued on the English version of Wikipedia.
In addition, the content of the article is noteworthy. A description of Kenya’s first Internet meme, it can be seen as Kenya’s unique contribution to the global phenomenon of Internet memes. This wasn’t an article about the British parliamentary system or the life cycle of bees – it was an article that positioned itself in the global framework of Internet memes. ‘Look, world,’ Kenyans seemed to be saying, ‘You have your Internet memes. Now we do too!’
If one looks at this through the information sharing lens, one can make a parallel with the fact that people are more likely to contribute expertise rather than organisational knowledge because of its unique character and because it shows something of their unique nature. Kenyans were sharing this information specifically on the English Wikipedia because it was unique in the global sense and because they were about to contribute their expertise on a subject that they had direct experience with for the first time.
Sense of efficacy
The third possible motivation proposed by Kollock is the sense that a person contributes valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy, that is, ‘a sense that she has some effect on this environment’.
Certainly, those editing Swahili Wikipedia must have a much larger sense that they are affecting change in the environment since their edits are much more likely to be accepted, and they are more likely able to develop policies and rules in the emerging Wikipedia. Contrast this with the fact that new content on English Wikipedia will most likely be reverted and one recognises how one’s sense of efficacy on the environment is affected by Wikipedia’s growing isolation from new editors.
From another perspective, however, it can be said that the sense of efficacy would be so much greater on the English Wikipedia since the content of the article is so unique and would have an important impact in diversifying the range of material on the English Wikipedia. In this sense, even if the costs of contributing to English Wikipedia are higher, and even if it is much more difficult to have an effect on the environment, the resulting efficacy is large because it is a unique contribution.
According to Kollock, the fourth motivation is altruistic in the sense that individuals value the outcomes of others. ‘One may produce and contribute a public good for the simple reason that a person or the group as a whole has a need for it,’ he says. Here, there may be a stark difference between the need for Swahili language content on Wikipedia as perceived by the international community and the need within Kenya.
Kenya’s official languages are Swahili and English, with most Kenyans being trilingual, speaking their tribal language as well as Swahili and English. English is the lingua franca of the global business community and arguably that of the Internet.
Despite 50 million speakers, the Swahili Wikipedia has only about 17,000 articles and 400,000 editors, and Swahili is considered more of a spoken language than a written language. Thus, Kenyans may not regard the need to develop a Swahili encyclopaedia as high when they are trying to improve their English in order to become more established in global business.
Unhindered by long print publication schedules, Wikipedia is able to reflect events and incidents as soon as they happen, rather than recording only those that a smaller group of experts decide is important enough. As broadband access grows in large parts of Africa and Asia, Wikipedia could expand to include a massive new corpus of previously unrecognized viewpoints.
Recent studies have shown how power within Wikipedia is consolidating and that attempts to broaden the scope of the encyclopaedia are often met with aggressive deletionism. Wikipedia is said to be ‘revolutionary’ because it is written by ‘ordinary people’ rather than ‘experts’, but whether experts or ordinary people, Wikipedia still reflects the perspective of a small, homogenous, geographically close community.
Although the costs of contributing to smaller Wikipedias are arguably lower, people in developing countries like Kenya see the English Wikipedia as the relevant venue for articles that show Kenya’s unique contribution to global phenomena. The motivations for contributing in English Wikipedia are therefore much greater than contributing to the Swahili version, but it is unlikely that the vast holes in geographical and cultural content will be filled when the costs of contribution are so large.
My conclusion is that, far from having nothing left to talk about, Wikipedia has a number of holes, but that the homophily of the current network is coming up against its need to expand and diversify. Without a strategy for dealing with local notability, Wikipedia will continue to battle to overcome its impediments to growth and will ultimately fail to realise more diverse, global participation.
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 This was the headline of a blog post by Ethan Zuckerman http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/03/24/makmendes-so-huge-he-cant-fit-in-wikipedia/