Some slices are bigger than others. Photo: jzawdubya/Flickr/CC BY-SA
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Geotagging reveals Wikipedia is not quite so equal after all

It may be open to the world, but the articles on Wikipedia reflect existing hierarchies of knowledge.

Wikipedia is often seen as a great equaliser. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people collaborate on a seemingly endless range of topics by writing, editing and discussing articles, and uploading images and video content. But it’s starting to look like global coverage on Wikipedia is far from equal. This now ubiquitous source of information offers everything you could want to know about the US and Europe but far less about any other parts of the world.

This structural openness of Wikipedia is one of its biggest strengths. Academic and activist Lawrence Lessig even describes the online encyclopedia as “a technology to equalise the opportunity that people have to access and participate in the construction of knowledge and culture, regardless of their geographic placing”.

But despite Wikipedia’s openness, there are fears that the platform is simply reproducing the most established worldviews. Knowledge created in the developed world appears to be growing at the expense of viewpoints coming from developing countries. Indeed, there are indications that global coverage in the encyclopedia is far from “equal”, with some parts of the world heavily represented on the platform, and others largely left out.

For a start, if you look at articles published about specific places such as monuments, buildings, festivals, battlefields, countries, or mountains, the imbalance is striking. Europe and North America account for a staggering 84% of these “geotagged” articles. Almost all of Africa is poorly represented in the encyclopedia, too. In fact, there are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica (14,959) than any country in Africa. And while there are just over 94,000 geotagged articles related to Japan, there are only 88,342 on the entire Middle East and North Africa region.

Total number of geotagged Wikipedia articles across 44 surveyed languages. Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K., and Medhat, A. 2014. Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty. Annals of the Association of American Geographers (forthcoming).

When you think of the spread in terms of the way the world’s population is spread, the picture is equally startling. Even though 60% of the world’s population is concentrated in Asia, less than 10% of Wikipedia articles relate to the region. The same is true in reverse for Europe, which is home to around 10% of the world’s population but accounts for nearly 60% of geotagged Wikipedia articles.

Number of regional geotagged articles and population. Graham, M., S. Hale & M. Stephens. 2011. Geographies of the World's Knowledge. Convoco! Edition.

There is an imbalance in the languages used on Wikipedia too. Most articles written about European and East Asian countries are written in their dominant languages. Articles about the Czech Republic, for example, are mostly written in Czech. But for much of the Global South we see a dominance of articles written in English. English dominates across much of Africa and the Middle East and even parts of South and Central America.

Dominant language of Wikipedia articles (by country). Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K., and Medhat, A. 2014. Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty. Annals of the Association of American Geographers (forthcoming).

There more Wikipedia articles in English than Arabic about almost every Arabic speaking country in the Middle East. And there are more English articles about North Korea than there are Arabic articles about either Saudi Arabia, Libya, or the United Arab Emirates. In total, there are more than 928,000 geotagged articles written in English, but only 3.23% of them are about Africa and 1.67% are about the Middle East and North Africa.

Number of geotagged articles in the English Wikipedia by country. Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K., and Medhat, A. 2014. Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty. Annals of the Association of American Geographers (forthcoming).

All this matters because fundamentally different narratives can be, and are, created about places and topics in different languages.

Beyond English
Even on the Arabic Wikipedia, there are geographical imbalances. There are a relatively high number of articles about Algeria and Syria, as well as about the US, Italy, Spain, Russia and Greece but substantially fewer about a number of Arabic speaking countries, including Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, there are only 433 geotagged articles about Egypt on the Arabic Wikipedia, but 2,428 about Italy and 1,988 about Spain.

Total number of geotagged articles in the Arabic Wikipedia by country. Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K., and Medhat, A. 2014. Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty. Annals of the Association of American Geographers (forthcoming).

By mapping the geography of Wikipedia articles in both global and regional languages, we can begin to examine the layers of representation that “augment” the world we live in. Some parts of the world, including the Middle East, are massively underrepresented – not just in major world languages, but their own. We like to think of Wikipedia as an opportunity for anyone, anywhere to contribute information about our world but that doesn’t seem to be happening in practice. Wikipedia might not just be reflecting the world, but also reproducing new, uneven, geographies of information.

Mark Graham has received research funding from the ESRC, IDRC, ERC, and the British Academy.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

All photos available for public use: Wikimedia Commons, Getty, Flickr
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Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.

These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).

St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.

The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.

The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.