Most-read Wikipedia articles: French holly, Vietnamese sex positions and Japanese pornstars

A glimpse into national psyches.

Via Chris Applegate on Twitter, here's a list of the most viewed articles on each of the 35 most active versions of Wikipedia in 2012.

It's a curious collection of pieces: some boring, some weird, and most just vain. Let's look at the fun stuff first.

The weird

Japanese: AV女優一覧, a list of lists of "adult video" actresses. No English language version of this one, despite my, ahem, exhaustive research. I particularly like that it's not even a list of porn actresses; it's a list of lists of porn actresses.

Vietnamese: Danh sách tư thế quan hệ tình dục/Sex position. Because how else will you learn about sex positions?

German: Sackgasse/Cul-de-sac. I don't know why cul-de-sacs are such a source of curiosity for German-speakers. But they are.

French: Houx crénelé/Ilex crenata. French-speakers apparently care deeply about an ornamental species of holly native to east Asia.

The boring

Some countries use Wikipedia to look up normal boring things. How unimaginative of them.

Croatian: Zakon o sprječavanju internetskog piratstva/Stop Online Piracy Act

Slovak: Majstrovstvá sveta v ľadovom hokeji 2012/2012 IIHF World Championship

Czech: Seznam historických výročí/List of historical anniversaries

Danish: Te/Tea

Norwegian: Schrøder, an article about the Norwegian surname

Dutch: Hua Shan/Mount Hua

Turkish: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk/Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Thai: สมาคมประชาชาติแห่งเอเชียตะวันออกเฉียงใต้/Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Italian: Grey's Anatomy/Grey's Anatomy

Catalan: Mario Conde, a Spanish banker.

Hungarian: Magyar névnapok betűrendben, a list of Hungarian "name days".

Tech companies seem to be especially popular, and one in particular:

Chinese: 百度/Baidu

Korean: 네이버/Naver

Indonesian: Facebook/Facebook

Spanish: Facebook/Facebook

English: Facebook

The vain

Do you know what Wikipedians really like to do? Look up their own country:

Slovene: Slovenija/Slovenia

Estonian: Eesti/Estonia

Lithuanian: Lietuva/Lithuania

Greek: Ελλάδα/Greece

Hebrew: ישראל/Israel

Romanian: România/Romania

Finnish: Suomi/Finland

Swedish: Sverige/Sweden

Polish: Polska/Poland

Russian: Россия/Russia

Bulgarian: България/Bulgaria

Ukrainian: Україна/Ukraine

And a couple of not-quite entries:

Portugese: Brasil/Brazil

Persian: تهران/Tehran

Arabic: مصر/Egypt

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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First The Dress, now The Legs: Why is the internet so obsessed with optical illusions?

Ever since The Dress, optical illusions have dominated our feeds and brains. What does this tell us about 21st-century society?

Are these legs shiny and oily, or are they legs with white paint on them? That’s the first question. The second question is: why do we care? Ever since the fateful first light of 25 February 2015, optical illusions have become the internet’s currency. “Is this dress white and gold or black and blue?” whispered the world wide web on that day, paving the way for our news sources to be replaced by a constantly updating feed of hidden cigars in brick walls, phones concealed in carpets, and a lonely Cheese & Onion Bake secreted in some Steak Bakes.

Today, The Dress has been usurped by The Legs. Within the last few hours, news stories on The Telegraph, Metro, Mashable, Buzzfeed and The Independent’s Indy100 have popped up about a tweet from Twitter user @kingkayden, who posted a picture of legs-splattered-with-white-paint-that-sort-of-look-like-legs-splattered-with-oil. No one on social media can shut up about it, and – aside from the fact that anything, absolutely anything, which distracts us from Brexit will do – it’s a mystery why.

“Optical illusions have always been very popular because they challenge the basic notion that we are able to see what is right in front of our eyes,” says Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, author, and owner of the YouTube channel Quirkology, which is full of optical illusions and tricks. “In fact, perception is constructive and our brains are constantly making guesses about what is happening around us. But it doesn't feel like that.

“Illusions show us that we are not really seeing the world as it is and I think people find that fascinating. The web just allows these images and videos to be shared more quickly than ever before.”

It’s a fascinating explanation, but there are also much more cynical tricks at play. News websites deliberately play on this basic psychological love of optical illusions to ensure that they spread online and therefore generate clicks.

“If you sell the story on social channels as a challenge it’s more likely to perform well,” explains a writer for a popular viral news website who wishes to remain anonymous. “I honestly think people like the feeling that they’re intelligent or have completed a challenge simply because they can see the reasoning behind why a certain illusion works.”

Although the writer, understandably, doesn’t want to share the number of clicks an average optical illusion story gets, they assure me that they are a huge traffic driver. “I think there’s something to be said for optical illusions stories being entertainment as news – they’re innocuous pieces which pretend to teach you something about the way your eyes and brain work, but actually you’re just clicking on it because you think you know what the trick will be. Of course this is a fallacy, but it’s one that works for everyone – the ‘news’ website gets traffic, the people get entertained,” they say.

“That it’s become such a success story for viral news outlets is more concerning – the traffic these stories generate mean they often supersede actual news in terms or priority, even if the news is thoroughly entertaining. This is where I think we hit murky waters if we attempt to define our product as 'news'.”

It's true that there's room on the internet for everything and everyone, and optical illusions shouldn't disappear from our hearts and feeds, but it is fair to be worried about their prevalence online. When news websites sell stories as something “Only 2 per cent of people can see!!!”, we are simultaneously dumbing down and pretending we are smart. 

Besides, the legs clearly have white paint on them.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.