Feb 23, 2011

Student's Essay Examines Wikipedia's Systemic Bias Against African Topics

A recent essay by School of Information master's student Heather Ford titled "The Missing Wikipedians" argues that "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." Ford, a native of South Africa and a former member of the Wikimedia Foundation's advisory board, published the essay on her personal blog; the essay will also be part of an upcoming reader edited by the "Critical Point of View" Wikipedia research initiative.

The essay centers around the case of the article Makmende on the English Wikipedia, about a fictional superhero that last year became what has been called Kenya's first Internet meme. Around that time, blogger and Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman (also a member of the Wikimedia Foundation advisory board) had tried to look up the term on Wikipedia and instead encountered deletion log entries telling him that the article had been speedily deleted three times (a later version was kept). This prompted him to write a blog post presenting the deletions as a case of what Wikipedians call systemic bias: "Makmende may never become particularly important to English speaking users outside of Kenya. But the phenomenon's quite important within the Kenyan internet".

Ford's essay expands on Zuckerman's blog post, quoting from a subsequent deletion discussion: "Wikipedia editors claimed that the article needed to be deleted because there existed 'no reliable sources, and no claims of notability'. Pointing to the lack of sources relating to African culture online [a user] came back with this retort: 'The problem is that there is hardly any content on African influences in the 90's and 80's which may make it hard to make the connections'. However, Ford also noted that "interestingly, Makmende does not exist in the Swahili version of Wikipedia ... There seems to be a disconnect between where ordinary Kenyans want their cultural narratives to live, and where outsiders imagine it."

Ford called the Makmede deletion "a story that epitomises Wikipedia's current growth problems and the challenges it faces as it seeks to 'make all human knowledge accessible'."

After citing various researchers on the slowing growth of Wikipedia, rising revert rates and deletionism, and questioning the expectation that increased Internet access in developing countries will generate an influx of new Wikipedians, Ford comes back to the Makmende example, asking "why was the Kenyan community so determined that the Makmende article exist on the English version of Wikipedia?", despite the existence of a Wikipedia in their own language, with much less bureaucratic red tape. To answer this, she applies four different kinds of motivation identified by sociologist Peter Kollock for contributing to public good in online cooperations: anticipated reciprocity by other users, reputation, a sense of efficacy (having an impact), and need (of others, i.e. altruism).

In the conclusion, Ford argues that for "people in developing countries like Kenya ... the motivations for contributing in English Wikipedia are ... much greater than [for] contributing to the Swahili version, but it is unlikely that the vast holes in geographical and cultural content will be filled when the costs of contribution are so large." She observes that "far from having nothing left to talk about, Wikipedia has a number of holes", but that it needs "a strategy for dealing with local notability".

(By Wikipedia user HaeB. Adapted from The Signpost, a Wikipedia community-written and community-edited newspaper. This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)


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Heather Ford
Heather Ford

Last updated:

October 4, 2016