The Missing Wikipedians

This essay <download below> is being published as part of the ‘Critical Point of View: Wikipedia Research Initiative’ Reader. Thank you to Geert and Nathaniel and the rest of the folks at the Amsterdam-based Institute of Network Cultures (INC) and the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society for making me realise that you can love something and be critical about it – and that sometimes you have to love it to be truly so.

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.

‘The Missing Wikipedians’ in Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (eds), Critical Point of View: A Wikpedia Reader, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011. ISBN: 978-90-78146-13-1. Download PDF

10 thoughts on “The Missing Wikipedians

  1. This is fascinating, and I hope you don’t mind me rushing to respond before having enough time to read it fully and thoroughly.
    Last summer, under the impression of Mark Grahams’ talk in Bangalore, I had an idea. In Beersheba (southern Israel) there is an academic center called “Africa Center”. It is affiliated to the local Ben Gurion University and headed by Tamar Golan, a former journalist and diplomat with a vast knowledge about Africa and deep love to its cultures.
    I contacted this center and found out that they do much more than academic studies of the continent – there are regular student groups going to African countries and living there in remote villages, there are project fostering African immigrant cultures in Israel etc.
    I went with a group of local Wikipedians to meet with Tamar Golan and other staff members. There was a lot of enthusiasm in this meeting from both sides. As a first step we linked between the Center and an association that collect used desktop computers, so as to send them with the next student groups equipped with an offline content of WP in English, French and Portuguese. Then I said we ought to work to enlarge Wikipedias in African languages – Amharic, Swahili, Hausa and others, as well as establishing new ones in such languages. The response I received was “leave it” with a simple reasoning – educated African people always write in European languages – English, French and Portuguese. They wouldn’t like the idea of writing high-level educational material in their local languages.
    I felt quite frustrated, but then again, perhaps it is my expectation that these people would use local African languages rather than En/Fr/Pt is my problem trying to see things through the values of my home culture. The problem of African people to “set their foot” (so to speak) on the English Wikipedia is very clear, and it is as if there should be English-language Wikipedia (Africa) along with English-language Wikipedia (Europe) and English-language Wikipedia (North America).

  2. Interesting story, Dror. I’m not sure if this is the case everywhere in Africa, but from who I have spoken to in Kenya, this is definitely true. And I like your idea about an English-language African Wikipedia!

  3. I have always believed that conveyance of knowledge (as opposed to expressing opinions) should be through one channel, like many people putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I always thought that Wikipedia was written in different languages, but that there was only one channel, namely one core body of knowledge, presented in various forms. In this sense, the fact that African people prefer reading and writing in English, French and Portuguese should be considered a blessing (although as a linguist, I prefer seeing as much language versions as possible). And yet, I came to the conclusion that human psychology does not allow single-channel conveyance of knowledge. People of different cultures, or of different social and political views, don’t work well together, so instead of collaborative work we have a fight for the “winning version”, and a lot of knowledge items are lost in the battleground. I therefore have to agree that an African-English version of WP is indeed a good idea, and hopefully, as it develops, information will leak from it to the European-English WP (and vice versa).

  4. Something Wikipedia has tried this past year is to have a mentorship or “ambassador” program, and involve university students. This was trialled in the Wikimedia Public Policy Initiative at universities in the United States, but we’re looking at what worked well and apply it elsewhere.

    We work with a handful of professors and classes at universities, and a campus ambassador is assigned to each. The campus ambassador is supplemented with online ambassadors who can answer questions and guide the new users.

    Don’t know if we have numbers yet, but I suspect the mentorship helps the new users avoid having their articles put up for deletion. And if that happens, they have an advocate in the mentors to help out.

    I would definitely like to see this idea tried in Africa, with university students and others who are interested in getting involved on Wikipedia.

  5. @Katie Filbert – Do you have information regarding the number of articles that were written or improved within the framework of this program, and in which subjects? Do you know whether articles / changes to articles that were previously rejected became accepted when reintroduced via this program? I think these things should be checked not only in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, but also to identify weaknesses in the system of WP. If a good article needs an advocate to protect it against deletion, then something went wrong in the system. If technical problems of format and layout cause deletion of an article otherwise well written, then it means that there is poor collaboration among editors, or, alternatively, that the formats have become too rigid. These questions go beyond the specific subject discussed here, but they are closely related to it.

  6. Thanks for your comment @Katie. I think that it sounds like an interesting idea, but it would be good to do research on the ground about what really works in different places. And as @Dror notes, it would be a good idea to team it up with really good analysis of how/whether it is working. Would love to hear more 🙂

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