Mapping Wikipedia

Michael Mandiberg at The Atlantic: “Wikipedia matters. In a time of extreme political polarization, algorithmically enforced filter bubbles, and fact patterns dismissed as fake news, Wikipedia has become one of the few places where we can meet to write a shared reality. We treat it like a utility, and the U.S. and U.K. trust it about as much as the news.

But we know very little about who is writing the world’s encyclopedia. We do know that just because anyone can edit, doesn’t mean that everyone does: The site’s editors are disproportionately cis white men from the global North. We also know that, as with most of the internet, a small number of the editors do a large amount of the editing. But that’s basically it: In the interest of improving retention, the Wikimedia Foundation’s own research focuses on the motivations of people who do edit, not on those who don’t. The media, meanwhile, frequently focus on Wikipedia’s personality stories, even when covering the bigger questions. And Wikipedia’s own culture pushes back against granular data harvesting: The Wikimedia Foundation’s strong data-privacy rules guarantee users’ anonymity and limit the modes and duration of their own use of editor data.

But as part of my research in producing Print Wikipedia, I discovered a data set that can offer an entry point into the geography of Wikipedia’s contributors. Every time anyone edits Wikipedia, the software records the text added or removed, the time of the edit, and the username of the editor. (This edit history is part of Wikipedia’s ethos of radical transparency: Everyone is anonymous, and you can see what everyone is doing.) When an editor isn’t logged in with a username, the software records that user’s IP address. I parsed all of the 884 million edits to English Wikipedia to collect and geolocate the 43 million IP addresses that have edited English Wikipedia. I also counted 8.6 million username editors who have made at least one edit to an article.

The result is a set of maps that offer, for the first time, insight into where the millions of volunteer editors who build and maintain English Wikipedia’s 5 million pages are—and, maybe more important, where they aren’t….

Like the Enlightenment itself, the modern encyclopedia has a history entwined with colonialism. Encyclopédie aimed to collect and disseminate all the world’s knowledge—but in the end, it could not escape the biases of its colonial context. Likewise, Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte augmented an imperial military campaign with a purportedly objective study of the nation, which was itself an additional form of conquest. If Wikipedia wants to break from the past and truly live up to its goal to compile the sum of all human knowledge, it requires the whole world’s participation….(More)”.