The online manifestation of our collective cultural memory can give us a few clues to who we see as central figures.
Who are the people at the center of history and our world today? What does the cast of actors look like, how do they connect, and how do the leads vary country to country, culture to culture?
Narrative history would provide us with one set of answers. Probably any list would include a smattering of American presidents, great rulers from kingdoms and empires of the past, and certainly a few religious leaders such as Jesus and Mohammed.
But another way to answer the question would be to plumb the connections of Wikipedia, a sort of global memory bank of significant people and events. This approach -- quantitative, present-biased -- reveals not just lists but rankings, and because those rankings are so neat, orderly, and numeric, we can also compare the across cultures, which is what a group of researchers at the Barcelona Media Foundation has done.
First place to start, who are the most linked-to people in the English Wikipedia? The top 10:
1. George W. Bush
2. Barack Obama
3. Bill Clinton
4. Ronald Reagan
5. Adolf Hitler
6. Richard Nixon
7. William Shakespeare
8. John F. Kennedy
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt
10. Lyndon B. Johnson
Lots of presidents. All men. The first woman, Elizabeth 11 comes in at number 23, beating Jesus at number 24. Hillary Clinton is at spot number 25.
But Wikipedia offers other ways of measuring a person's historical importance, one of the most interesting being a persons "betweenness" as the researchers call it, "the fraction of shortest paths between other pairs of nodes passing through a given node," meaning, how much they connect other people. By this measure, the 10 most central people in English Wikipedia are:
1. George W. Bush
2. Ronald Reagan
3. Adolf Hitler
4. Bill Clinton
5. John F. Kennedy
6. Elizabeth II
7. Richard Nixon
8. Barack Obama
9. Jimmy Carter
10. Winston Churchill
Such lists of course capture a cultural opinion as it is manifested in Wikipedia's pages, and, as such, they will vary culture to culture. Does George Bush retain his prime place internationally? Not so much. Of the 15 language versions the authors analyzed, Bush is the #1 most in-between person only in English and, for some reason, Sweden. Hitler, meanwhile, takes the top spot in four languages: German (no surprise), French, Japan, and Catalan. (The authors say that the results may contain a Anglo-Saxon bias, since they created their list of "nodes" from a dataset of links to 296,511 English articles, but it's unlikely that a person of such prominence in any of the other 14 language editions would have made zero appearances in the English set.) Here's a complete picture of the top five nodes in terms of "betweenness" for the 15 editions:
The authors describe this picture:
For many languages we find ... that the top ranked persons reflect country specific issues. Thus, for example, Pope John Paul II is only present in the top five list of the Italian and Polish Wikipedia, two countries which have a special tie with this figure. In the English Wikipedia we find that most central figures are former US presidents, while the Spanish-speaking Wikipedia community makrs out Latin American revolutionaries. ... The Japanese Wikipedia is the only one that cites the Japanese author Mishima [in the top five].
In a way, the findings illustrate in an empirical way a distinction helpful for thinking about what truth means across cultural and national boundaries. Pope John Paul II is the "same" person wherever you're viewing him from -- he was the pope. But what that means -- who he is in a fuller sense, beyond his job and details of his biograph -- that's something we see in the context of where he sits among the links.