The World Hasn’t Gotten Much Better at Telling Everybody’s Stories

Know that whole thing about history being written by those with the power to do so?

Well, it looks like that adage — crudely put, that “winners write history” — might hold true even in the supposedly democratized digital age, according to a paper out of Oxford.

The paper sets out by addressing a common expectation: That the Internet should create greater opportunity for people that have historically gone unheard to gain voice.

“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 paper reads. “However, many have pointed to the potential for radical change as digital divides are bridged and 2.5 billion people are now online.”

Not quite, the study found.

The authors took to Wikipedia to study the geographic focuses of the articles on the user-generated encyclopedia. More specifically, they studied 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 under-represented.

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“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: there is simply not a lot of content about much of the world,” the abstract reads.

The paper 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.

“Not only are some parts of the world massively under-represented on Wikipedia, but a lot of the content that does exist tends to be in only a few languages,” the authors write. “Many countries in the Global South have more articles in a non-local language (often the language of a former colonial power) than a commonly spoken local language. In other words, we see a broad pattern of the Global North being represented in local languages while the South is largely being defined and described by others.”

Number of geotagged Wikipedia articles per country, per the study

If these discrepancies sounds a little bit like, oh, much of human history, that’s the point.

To some extent global broadband capabilities play a role in these dynamics. But broadband isn’t everything. Some locations had more articles written about them than their broadband capabilities might suggest, which the authors say might be a result of external individuals — people who don’t live there — adding information “for the sake of completeness.” Alternatively, the authors found that increased broadband did not have an immediate effect on Wikipedia activity in a number of countries

The authors suggest that the pre-existing conditions of uneven “information geographies” lead to the same problems on Wikipedia. For instance, consider that Wikipedia is basically a consortium or curation of pre-existing 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 U.S. to jump on to a page 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.'”