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Wikipedia growth shows the power of the Global South

Non-profit giant’s experience carries lessons for publishers

In early February Katherine Maher announced her intention to step down after 5 years as CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia. While tech giants received unprecedented scrutiny and criticism, Maher’s record has been praised and Wikipedia’s reputation is higher than ever before.

One of the achievements Maher highlighted herself is reversing the decline in volunteer community growth. She also successfully increased diversity. Indeed, Wikipedia – a multilingual encyclopedia available in over 300 languages – has grown significantly in the Global South in recent years.

The example set by the Wikimedia Foundation offers some interesting lessons for the news publishers.

Outgoing Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in 2017 (Freddy2001 / СC BY-SA 3.0)

“Middle-aged white guys”, or Wikipedia’s diversity  and growth problems

For several years after its founding in 2001, Wikipedia was often treated as a joke. “[S]omething between a fluke and quirky outlier,” wrote journalists Omer Benjakob and Stephen Harrison. Predictions of Wikipedia’s decline (which Wikipedia documents in a separate encyclopedia article), started to appear as soon as the platform became moderately popular.

Mid-aughts, though, brought increasing recognition of Wikipedia’s model. Wikipedia was steadily adding new language editions, and by early 2004 over 50% of its articles were non-English. A famous 2005 study in Nature compared Wikipedia with Encyclopædia Britannica and concluded that, on scientific topics, Wikipedia’s quality approached that of Britannica. In 2006, English Wikipedia reached the milestone of one million articles.

However, as Wikipedia was growing, there emerged an understanding of a certain personality type who is most likely to volunteer their time and energy to writing an online encyclopedia – “middle-aged white guys,” as Sarah Stierch put it. Women constitute some 10-15% of active users. The United States and other Global North countries are predominantly where Wikipedia, especially its English-language edition, gets written.

Wikipedia edits per 10,000 internet users in 2014 (Mark Graham / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The imbalance in the composition of volunteers leads to skewed coverage. Articles on military history or Seinfeld episodes are much more detailed and well-sourced than, say, entries on female scientists.

It also limits Wikipedia’s development. At some point, the online encyclopedia’s growth started hitting a ceiling – in part because there’s only so many “middle-aged white guys” out there. The number of new editors stopped growing as fast or, in some instances, even started to decline. 

The number of active users in the English-language Wikipedia edition per year – rapid growth in the first few years, followed by a decline and a stabilisation. (Graph per Wikistats).

First brought to public attention a decade ago, Wikipedia’s double problems of diversity and growth still exist in 2021. Yet, over the past years, Wikipedia has made considerable progress – thanks to the push for diversity.

More from The Fix: What you need to know about Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ new social media platform 

Reversing the decline: Wikipedia growth in the Global South

Wikipedia has seen substantial growth in the Global South
English Wikipedia page views by country in January 2021 (per Wikistats)

As Wikipedia’s issues became apparent in the early 2010s, the Wikimedia community set out to attract more – and more diverse – perspectives.

Some of the efforts focused on product development. Wikimedia Foundation developed Visual Editor to make it easier for “newbies” to get involved in editing. The “what you see is what you get” interface is more accessible than the traditional but confusing wiki markup. The team also implemented smaller features, such as a “thanks” button as a way to motivate users.

More importantly, though, the Wikimedia Foundation and various grassroots community initiatives made a point to focus resources on Wikipedia growth in the Global South.

Wikipedia Zero, a program instituted in 2012, provided free-of-charge mobile data to access Wikipedia for hundreds of millions of people. (The program was discontinued in 2018, in part because mobile data in the Global South became cheaper over the years).

According to Maher, “[Wikimedia] community presence in Africa, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, grew by 500 percent since 2014, measured by the number of organised Wikimedia volunteer affiliates.”

The strategic direction of the Wikimedia movement crafted in 2017 defined “knowledge equity” as key to Wikipedia’s future, with a pledge to “focus… efforts on the knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege” 

Under her watch as CEO, Maher boasts reversing contributor decline and growing editorship by 36% thanks to the emerging markets.

While Wikipedia still struggles with diversity, it is arguably moving in the right direction.

Map of local Wikimedia organisations across the world as of mid-2020; different colours denote different types of organisations (Effeietsanders / CC0 1.0)

Wikipedia’s example is valuable for news media

News media operates under a radically different model than Wikipedia. Quality journalism is not typically created by a decentralised community of volunteers. (Wikipedia actually has a sister project called Wikinews trying to prove the opposite, but it has arguably been remarkably unsuccessful at this task).

Yet, the broader theme resonates with the media industry as well. We have much to gain when we shift our attention from several Western countries and focus on the Global South – and actively engage underrepresented communities in the creation of content.

Women are continuously underrepresented in news. According to a GMMP report, women represent only 24% of the people who could be seen, read or heard in the media. A Council of Europe report shows that women typically make up 15-25% leadership positions in journalism. Other non-privileged groups are in a similar situation.

Recently, there’s been a welcome rise in projects trying to showcase non-privileged perspectives. Hostwriter is launching a global newsroom, with a goal to draw on a wide network of journalists from across the world. Rest of World defines its mission in delivering tech coverage “outside the western bubble”.

Wikipedia’s example might be useful as the news media is trying to solve its own “middle-aged white guys” problem.

More from The Fix: New publication launched aims to cover tech stories “outside the Western bubble”

Photo by Przemyslaw Marczynski on Unsplash

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