The Lopsided Geography of Wikipedia

Founder Jimmy Wales discusses the barriers to the encyclopedia’s expansion.

Sergio Moraes / Reuters

Think about how often, in the course of a week, you visit Wikipedia. Maybe you’re searching for basic information about a topic, or getting sucked into a wiki-hole where you meant to study up on the “Brexit” but somehow find yourself, several related pages later, reading about the carbonic maceration process for making wine (to take just one example that has totally never happened to me).

Now imagine you can’t access Wikipedia. Or you can, but not in your native language. Or there are plenty of entries in your language, but few on the subjects that are part of your daily life. Or those entries exist, but they’re not written by locals like yourself. You certainly have other ways of getting information. But Wikipedia is one of the most ambitious information clearinghouses in human history. How would these challenges shape your understanding of the world? And how would that understanding differ from the worldview of those who don’t face such challenges?

“Our ambition has always been a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language,” Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, told me in May, at the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. But he admitted that the 15-year-old site is not nearly there yet. While Wikipedia has become one of the most popular websites in the world, its editions in European languages such as English and German, along with a few other languages like Japanese and Chinese, are much more robust than the rest. The size of various language versions “tracks things like literacy rates, access to broadband [internet], access to computers, and number of speakers of the language,” Wales said.

That equation is more complex than it might initially look. Consider broadband access: Internet capacity, or bandwidth, is growing rapidly in Africa, Wales pointed out. Yet most of those who are coming online for the first time are doing so on mobile devices, which you can easily use to, say, make a spelling correction on a Wikipedia page, but not to contribute four paragraphs of text with 18 footnotes. These trends hold in many developing countries, as the graph below from the International Telecommunication Union makes clear (mobile broadband penetration rates are in light blue; “fixed,” or non-mobile, broadband rates are in gray).

Global Internet and Cellular Penetration Rates

The number of speakers of a language is also an imperfect indicator for the size of a given Wikipedia edition. “One of the things that really motivates people to write [for Wikipedia] is the existence of readers,” Wales said. There are nearly 70 million Tamil speakers in the world, for instance, but getting them to contribute to Wikipedia in Tamil depends on how widespread internet access is among Tamil speakers and how high the demand is for information in that language rather than English.

Censorship, moreover, can render all these other variables irrelevant. Wales told me that the Chinese government is presently blocking Wikipedia in its entirety, in part because of the encyclopedia’s recent move to an encrypted “HTTPS” protocol that makes it harder for the government to determine what people are reading and to selectively filter sensitive pages, as Chinese censors had done in the past.

“Part of the reason why Wikipedia is not the immediate kind of thing that people want to block is it’s not a wide-open free-speech message board and people aren’t getting on Wikipedia to plan a protest at a certain date, at a certain time,” Wales said. “Even our discussion pages are about how to improve the article, not for your general opinion of Barack Obama.”

Still, Wikipedia has flickered in and out of the Chinese internet over the years, and in December Wales traveled to China to meet with government officials. What’s his pitch to Chinese authorities? “An argument that doesn’t really work very well is to sound like some kind of crazy American talking about the First Amendment. They just don’t care,” Wales said. He argues that access to knowledge is a human right, but he doesn’t dwell on that point. “The main [argument to the Chinese] is that Wikipedia is incredibly useful for economic growth, they do care about that, for education, they do care about that. For people in technology, for example, if you ask any programmer, ‘How do you keep up to date with new technology? How do you hear about some new programming language?’ They go to Wikipedia.”

These obstacles to Wikipedia’s geographic expansion complicate the widespread view that the democratization of internet access will necessarily democratize the production, exchange, and consumption of information. Don Tapscott, the co-author of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, articulated one version of this view when he compared the significance of the internet to that of the printing press: “The printing press gave us access to recorded knowledge. The internet gives us access not just to knowledge but to the intelligence contained in people’s crania, access to the intelligence of people on a global basis. This is not an information age. It’s an age of communication, of collective intelligence, of major collaboration, of major participation.”

At the University of Oxford, Mark Graham and a team of researchers have spent several years investigating just how “global” this collective intelligence really is. They’ve found all sorts of fascinating ways to track “geographies of knowledge” on the internet, including on user-generated platforms like Wikipedia. In 2014, for example, they mined 44 language editions of Wikipedia, mapping more than 3 million articles that had been “geotagged,” or assigned a geographic location (go to the Wikipedia page for, say, the Colosseum, and you’ll see the coordinates for where it stands in Rome; only a small fraction of Wikipedia articles are geotagged).

What emerged from the exercise was a rather misshapen map. More than half of the articles analyzed were about people, places, and events in Western and Central Europe, a region constituting only 2.5 percent of the world’s land area. In case you’re disoriented by Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map projection below, Western and Central Europe are in the red circle, with Africa to the lower right and the United States to the upper left.

Graham and his colleagues discovered that much of the variation in the number of geotagged articles per country could be attributed to the size of the population in a given country, the availability of fixed broadband internet, and the number of edits originating in that country.

These patterns seemed to be self-reinforcing, making the informational disparities on Wikipedia more pronounced. Graham and his colleagues theorized that one of Wikipedia’s greatest strengths—its strict editorial standards, particularly with regard to sourcing—might also be one of its greatest impediments to expansion.

“Not only is a broad base of source material, such as books, maps, and images, needed to generate any Wikipedia article, but it is also likely that having content online will lead to the production of more content,” Graham wrote. “Editing incentives and constraints probably also encourage work around existing content—which is relatively straightforward to edit—rather than creating entirely new material. So it may be that the very policies and norms that govern the encyclopedia’s structure make it difficult to populate the white space [in the map above] with new content.”

Then again, Wales has spent the past 15 years populating white space, against the odds. Graham and his fellow researchers note that Wikipedia has achieved a remarkable global presence: It exists in hundreds of languages and is one of the 20 most-accessed sites in 95 percent of the countries where such metrics are tracked. But one of their key points is that presence is not the same thing as participation and representation. They report, for example, that users in the United States and Western Europe contribute vastly more edits than those in regions such as Africa and the Middle East, and that more edits originated in Hong Kong than in all of Africa combined, according to a snapshot of Wikipedia data from 2010-2011.

Average Number of Edits to Wikipedia, by Country of Origin

“The core concern,” Graham and his co-authors write, “is that a relative lack of voice and representation serves to reproduce the power of people and places at the center of geopolitical mass-culture.” Such power dynamics have long existed, of course. What’s changed is that innovations like Wikipedia conjure a world where things could be otherwise.

This reporting was made possible in part with the support of the Human Rights Foundation.