The above map shows the global distribution of the Fentanyl trade on the darknet. The US accounts for almost 40% of global darknet trade, with Canada and Australia at 15% and 12%, respectively. The UK and Germany are the largest sellers in Europe with 9% and 5% of sales. While China is often mentioned as an important source of the drug, it accounts for only 4% of darknet sales. However, this does not necessarily mean that China is not the ultimate site of production. Many of the sellers in places like the US, Canada, and Western Europe are likely intermediaries rather than producers themselves.
The growth of online gig work—paid work allocated and delivered by way of internet platforms without a contract for long-term employment—has been welcomed by economic development experts, and the world’s largest global development network is promoting its potential to aid human development. There are hopes that online gig work, and the platforms that support it, might catalyse new, sustainable employment opportunities by addressing a mismatch in the supply and demand of labour globally.
Some of the world’s largest gig work platforms have also framed their business models as a revolution in labour markets, suggesting that they can help lift people out of poverty. Similarly, many policymakers expect that regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia can capitalise on this digitally mediated work opportunity as youth-to-adult unemployment rates hit historic peaks. More broadly, it has been suggested that online gig work will have structural benefits on the global economy, such as raising labour force participation and improving productivity.
Against this background, a new report by Mark Graham, Vili Lehdonvirta, Alex Wood, Helena Barnard, Isis Hjorth, and David Peter Simon, “The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At The Global Margins” [PDF] highlights the risks alongside the rewards of online gig work. It draws on interviews and surveys, together with transaction data from one of the world’s largest online gig work platforms, to reveal the complex and sometimes problematic reality of this “new world of work”.
While there are significant rewards to online gig work, there are also significant risks. Discrimination, low pay rates, overwork, and insecurity all need to be tackled head-on. The report encourages online gig work platforms to further develop their service, policymakers to revisit regulation, and labour activists to examine organising tactics if online gig work is to truly live up to its potential for human development, and become a sustainable situation for many more workers.
The final section of the report poses questions for all stakeholders regarding how to improve the conditions and livelihoods of online gig workers, particularly given how these platforms have become disembedded from the norms and laws that normally regulate labour intermediaries. Specific questions that are discussed include:
Is it necessary to list nationality on profile pages? Will online gig workers receive formal employment contracts in the future?
What formal channels could exist for workers to voice their issues? Where should governments regulate online gig work in the future?
Will governments need to limit online gig work monopolies? And how will governments support alternative forms of platform organisation?
What online forms of voice could emerge for workers, and in what ways can existing groups be leveraged to promote solidarity?
To what extent will companies be held accountable for poor working conditions? Do platforms need a Fairwork certification program?
The report also offers suggestions alongside the questions, drawing on relevant literature and referencing historical precedents.
As David Harvey famously noted, workers are unavoidably place-based because “labour-power has to go home every night.” But the widespread use of the Internet has changed much of that. The confluence of rapidly spreading digital connectivity, skilled but under-employed workers, the existence of international markets for labour, and the ongoing search for new outsourcing destinations, has resulted in organisational, technological, and spatial fixes for virtual production networks of services and money. Clients, bosses, workers, and users of the end-products of work can all now be located in different corners of the planet.
A new article by Mark Graham, Isis Hjorth and Vili Lehdonvirta, “Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods”, published in Transfer, discusses the implications of the spatial unfixing of work for workers in some of the world’s economic margins, and reflects on some of the key benefits and costs associated with these new digital regimes of work. Drawing on a multi-year study with digital workers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-east Asia, it highlights four key concerns for workers: bargaining power, economic inclusion, intermediated value chains, and upgrading.
As ever more policy-makers, governments and organisations turn to the gig economy and digital labour as an economic development strategy to bring jobs to places that need them, it is important to understand how this might influence the livelihoods of workers. The authors show that although there are important and tangible benefits for a range of workers, there are also a range of risks and costs that could negatively affect the livelihoods of digital workers. They conclude with a discussion of four broad strategies – certification schemes, organising digital workers, regulatory strategies and democratic control of online labour platforms—that could improve conditions and livelihoods for digital workers.
We caught up with the authors to explore the implications of the study:
Ed.: Shouldn’t increased digitisation of work also increase transparency (i.e. tracking, auditing etc.) around this work—i.e. shouldn’t digitisation largely be a good thing?
Mark: It depends. One of the goals of our research is to ask who actually wins and loses from the digitalisation of work. A good thing for one group (e.g. employers in the Global North) isn’t necessarily automatically a good thing for another group (e.g. workers in the Global South).
Ed.: You mention market-based strategies as one possible way to improve transparency around working conditions along value chains: do you mean something like a “Fairtrade” certification for digital work, i.e. creating a market for “fair work”?
Mark: Exactly. At the moment, we can make sure that the coffee we drink or the chocolate we eat is made ethically. But we have no idea if the digital services we use are. A ‘fair work’ certification system could change that.
Ed.: And what sorts of work are these people doing? Is it the sort of stuff that could be very easily replaced by advances in automation (natural language processing, pattern recognition etc.)? i.e. is it doubly precarious, not just in terms of labour conditions, but also in terms of the very existence of the work itself?
Mark: Yes, some of it is. Ironically, some of the paid work that is done is training algorithms to do work that used to be done by humans.
Ed.: You say that “digital workers have been unable to build any large-scale or effective digital labour movements”—is that because (unlike e.g. farm work which is spatially constrained), employers can very easily find someone else anywhere in the world who is willing to do it? Can you envisage the creation of any effective online labour movement?
Mark: A key part of the problem for workers here is the economic geography of this work. A worker in Kenya knows that they can be easily replaced by workers on the other side of the planet. The potential pool of workers willing to take any job is massive. For digital workers to have any sort of effective movement in this context means looking to what I call geographic bottlenecks in the system. Places in which work isn’t solely in a global digital cloud. This can mean looking to things like organising and picketing the headquarters of firms, clusters of workers in particular places, or digital locations (the web-presence of firms). I’m currently working on a new publication that deals with these issues in a bit more detail.
Ed.: Are there any parallels between the online gig work you have studied and ongoing issues with “gig work” services like Uber and Deliveroo (e.g. undercutting of traditional jobs, lack of contracts, precarity)?
Mark: A commonality in all of those cases is that platforms become intermediaries in between clients and workers. This means that rather than being employees, workers tend to be self-employed: a situation that offers workers freedom and flexibility, but also comes with significant risks to the worker (e.g. no wages if they fall ill).
The excitement over the potentially transformative effects of the internet in low-income countries is nowhere more evident than in East Africa. Reposted from The Conversation.
The excitement over the potentially transformative effects of the internet in low-income countries is nowhere more evident than in East Africa—the last major populated region of the world to gain a wired connection to the internet.
Before 2009, there wasn’t a single fibre-optic cable connecting the region to the rest of the world. After hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, cables were laid to connect the region to the global network. Prices for internet access went down, speeds went up, and the number of internet users in the region skyrocketed.
Politicians, journalists and academics all argued that better connectivity would lead to a blossoming of economic, social, and political activity—and a lot of influential people in the region made grand statements. For instance, former Kenyan president Mwai Kibai stated:
I am gratified to be with you today at an event of truly historic proportions. The landing of this fibre-optic undersea cable project in Mombasa is one of the landmark projects in Kenya’s national development story.
Indeed some have compared this to the completion of the Kenya-Uganda railway more than a century ago. This comparison is not far-fetched, because while the economies of the last century were driven by railway connections, the economies of today are largely driven by internet.
The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, also spoke about the revolutionary potentials of these changes in connectivity. He claimed:
In Africa, we have missed both the agricultural and industrial revolutions and in Rwanda we are determined to take full advantage of the digital revolution. This revolution is summed up by the fact that it no longer is of utmost importance where you are but rather what you can do – this is of great benefit to traditionally marginalised regions and geographically isolated populations.
As many who have studied politics have long since noted, proclamations like these can have an important impact: they frame how scarce resources can be spent and legitimise actions in certain areas while excusing inaction in others.
Two moments of change
Because the internet is so frequently talked about in revolutionary terms, colleagues Casper Andersen and Laura Mann and I decided to compare in a paper the many hopes, expectations and fears written about the internet with those from another transformational moment in East Africa’s history: the construction of the Uganda Railway.
The Uganda Railway was built from 1896 to 1903 between Mombasa and Lake Victoria, connecting parts of East Africa to each other and the region to the wider world. There were strong views at the time of what this could bring. The journalist and explorer Henry Morten Stanley claimed:
I seemed to see in a vision what was to happen in the years to come. I saw steamers trailing their dark smoke over the waters of the lake; I saw passengers arriving and disembarking; I saw the natives of the east making blood brotherhood with the natives of the west. And I seemed to hear the sound of church bells ringing at great distance afar off.
A young Winston Churchill waxed lyrical on the new railway:
What a road it is! Everything is apple-pie order. The track is smoothed and weeded and ballasted as if it were London and North-Western. Every telegraph post has its number; every mile, every hundred yards, every change of gradient, has its mark … Here and there, at intervals which will become shorter every year, are plantations of rubber, fibre and cotton, the beginnings of those inexhaustible supplies which will one day meet the yet unmeasured demand of Europe for those indispensable commodities… In brief, one slender thread of scientific civilisation, of order, authority, and arrangement, drawn across the primeval chaos of the world.
Learning from expectations
After a full analysis of the historical and contemporary texts, we can make two key points.
The hopes and fears people hold about changes to how they connect with other people and places are surprisingly similar across generations. But there are notable differences between these two moments, a century apart.
The arrival of the railway revolved around the use of technology to integrate an empire and open up new lands to imperial ambitions. By framing the arrival of the railway as allowing the core to extend its dominion over the periphery, what was said and written at the time served to legitimise the extension of colonialism.
The arrival of fibre-optic cables, however, presents a different story. Instead of a world of shrinking space between the core and periphery, it tends to lean more on the idea of a “global village.” The need to connect everyone to the global economy overrides concepts of self sufficiency, local economies, or trade outside the global marketplace.
These visions matter because they leave little room for alternatives. Just as dominant narratives around the arrival of the railway presented a worldview amenable to colonialism, contemporary dominant narratives offer a convenient justification of globalised capitalism and neo-liberalism.
How people imagine they are connected to the world matters. They shape how we make sense of the world and ultimately what steps we take to re-shape the world. We should therefore look to the past, and not just the future, when we examine the effects of the changing ways in which we are connected.
Ed: You are looking at the structures of ‘virtual production networks’ to understand the economic and social implications of online work. How are you doing this?
Mark: We are studying online freelancing. In other words this is digital or digitised work for which professional certification or formal training is usually not required. The work is monetised or monetisable, and can be mediated through an online marketplace.
Freelancing is a very old format of work. What is new is the fact that we have almost three billion people connected to a global network: many of those people are potential workers in virtual production networks. This mass connectivity has been one crucial ingredient for some significant changes in how work is organised, divided, outsourced, and rewarded. What we plan to do in this project is better map the contours of some of those changes and understand who wins and who doesn’t in this new world of work.
Ed: Are you able to define what comprises an individual contribution to a ‘virtual production network’—or to find data on it? How do you define and measure value within these global flows and exchanges?
Mark: It is very far from easy. Much of what we are studying is immaterial and digitally-mediated work. We can find workers and we can find clients, but the links between them are often opaque and black-boxed. Some of the workers that we have spoken to operate under non-disclosure agreements, and many actually haven’t been told what their work is being used for.
But that is precisely why we felt the need to embark on this project. With a combination of quantitative transaction data from key platforms and qualitative interviews in which we attempt to piece together parts of the network, we want to understand who is (and isn’t) able to capture and create value within these networks.
Ed: You note that “within virtual production networks, are we seeing a shift in the boundaries of firms”—to what extend to you think we seeing the emergence of new forms of organisation?
Mark: There has always been a certain spatial stickiness to some activities carried out by firms (or within firms). Some activities required the complex exchanges of knowledge that were difficult to digitally mediate. But digitisation and better connectivity in low-wage countries has now allowed many formerly ‘in-house’ business processes to be outsourced to third-parties. In an age of cloud computing, cheap connectivity, and easily accessible collaboration tools, geography has become less sticky. One task that we are engaged in is looking at the ways that some kinds of tacit knowledge that are difficult to transmit digitally offer some people and firms (in different places) competitive advantages and disadvantages.
This proliferation of digitally mediated work could also be seen as a new form of organisation. The organisations that control key work marketplaces (like oDesk) make decisions that shape both who buyers and sellers are able to connect with, and the ways in which they are able to transact.
Ed: Does ‘virtual work’ add social or economic value to individuals in low-income countries? ie are we really dealing with a disintermediated, level surface on a global playing field, or just a different form of old exploitation (ie a virtual rather than physical extraction industry)?
Mark: That is what we aim to find out. Many have pointed to the potentials of online freelancing to create jobs and bring income to workers in low-income countries. But many others have argued that such practices are creating ‘digital sweatshops’ and facilitating a race to the bottom.
We undoubtedly are not seeing a purely disintermediated market, or a global playing field. But what we want to understand is who exactly benefits from these new networks of work, and how.
Ed: Will you be doing any network analysis of the data you collect, ie of actual value-flows? And will they be geolocated networks?
The geography of knowledge has always been uneven. Some people and places have always been more visible and had more voices than others. Reposted from The Conversation.
The geography of knowledge has always been uneven. Some people and places have always been more visible and had more voices than others. But the internet seemed to promise something different: a greater diversity of voices, opinions and narratives from more places. Unfortunately, this has not come to pass in quite the manner some expected it to. Many parts of the world remain invisible or under-represented on important websites and services.
Until now, there has been no large-scale analysis of the factors that explain the wide geographical spread of online information. This is something we have aimed to address in our research project on the geography of Wikipedia. Our focus areas were the Middle East and North Africa.
Using statistical models of geotagged Wikipedia data, we identified the necessary conditions to make countries “visible”. This allowed us to map the countries that fare considerably better or worse than expected. We found that a large part of the variation between countries could be explained by just three factors: population, availability of broadband internet, and the number of edits originating in that country.
While these three variables help to explain the sparse amount of content written about much of sub-Saharan Africa, most of the Middle East and North Africa have much less geographic information than might be expected. For example, despite high levels of wealth and connectivity, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have far fewer articles than we might expect.
Constraints to creating content
These three factors matter independently, but they will also be subject to other constraints. A country’s population will probably affect the number of activities, places, and practices of interest (that is, the number of things one might want to write about). The size of the potential audience might also be influential, encouraging editors in more densely populated regions and those writing in major languages. And social attitudes towards information sharing will probably also change how some people contribute content.
We might also be seeing a principle of increasing informational poverty. Not only is a broad base of source material, such as books, maps, and images, needed to generate any Wikipedia article, but it is also likely that having content online will lead to the production of more content.
There are strict guidelines on how knowledge can be created and represented in Wikipedia, including the need to source key assertions. Editing incentives and constraints probably also encourage work around existing content—which is relatively straightforward to edit—rather than creating entirely new material. So it may be that the very policies and norms that govern the encyclopedia’s structure make it difficult to populate the white space with new content.
We need to recognise that none of the three conditions can ever be sufficient for generating geographic knowledge. As well as highlighting the presences and absences on Wikipedia, we also need to ask what factors encourage or limit production of that content.
Because of the constraints of the Wikipedia model, increasing representation on pages can’t occur in a linear manner. Instead it accelerates in a virtuous cycle, benefiting those with strong cultures of collecting and curating information in local languages. That is why, even after adjusting for their levels of connectivity, population and editors, Britain, Sweden, Japan and Germany are extensively referenced on Wikipedia, but the Middle East and North Africa haven’t kept pace.
If this continues, then those on the periphery might fail to reach a critical mass of editors, needed to make content. Worse still, they may even dismiss Wikipedia as a legitimate site for user-generated geographic content. This is a problem that will need to be addressed if Wikipedia is indeed to take steps towards its goal of being the “sum of all human knowledge”.
The geographies of codified knowledge have always been uneven, affording some people and places greater voice and visibility than others. While the rise of the geosocial Web seemed to promise a greater diversity of voices, opinions, and narratives about places, many regions remain largely absent from the websites and services that represent them to the rest of the world. These highly uneven geographies of codified information matter because they shape what is known and what can be known. As geographic content and geospatial information becomes increasingly integral to our everyday lives, places that are left off the ‘map of knowledge’ will be absent from our understanding of, and interaction with, the world.
We know that Wikipedia is important to the construction of geographical imaginations of place, and that it has immense power to augment our spatial understandings and interactions (Graham et al. 2013). In other words, the presences and absences in Wikipedia matter. If a person’s primary free source of information about the world is the Persian or Arabic or Hebrew Wikipedia, then the world will look fundamentally different from the world presented through the lens of the English Wikipedia. The capacity to represent oneself to outsiders is especially important in those parts of the world that are characterised by highly uneven power relationships: Brunn and Wilson (2013) and Graham and Zook (2013) have already demonstrated the power of geospatial content to reinforce power in a South African township and Jerusalem, respectively.
Until now, there has been no large-scale empirical analysis of the factors that explain information geographies at the global scale; this is something we have aimed to address in this research project on Mapping and measuring local knowledge production and representation in the Middle East and North Africa. Using regression models of geolocated Wikipedia data we have identified what are likely to be the necessary conditions for representation at the country level, and have also identified the outliers, i.e. those countries that fare considerably better or worse than expected. We found that a large part of the variation could be explained by just three factors: namely, (1) country population, (2) availability of broadband Internet, and (3) the number of edits originating in that country. [See the full paper for an explanation of the data and the regression models.]
But how do we explain the significant inequalities in the geography of user-generated information that remain after adjusting for differing conditions using our regression model? While these three variables help to explain the sparse amount of content written about much of Sub-Saharan Africa, most of the Middle East and North Africa have quantities of geographic information below their expected values. For example, despite high levels of wealth and connectivity, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have far fewer articles than we might expect from the model.
These three factors independently matter, but they will also be subject to a number of constraints. A country’s population will probably affect the number of human sites, activities, and practices of interest; ie the number of things one might want to write about. The size of the potential audience might also be influential, encouraging editors in denser-populated regions and those writing in major languages. However, societal attitudes towards learning and information sharing will probably also affect the propensity of people in some places to contribute content. Factors discouraging the number of edits to local content might include a lack of local Wikimedia chapters, the attractiveness of writing content about other (better-represented) places, or contentious disputes in local editing communities that divert time into edit wars and away from content generation.
We might also be seeing a principle of increasing informational poverty. Not only is a broader base of traditional source material (such as books, maps, and images) needed for the generation of any Wikipedia article, but it is likely that the very presence of content itself is a generative factor behind the production of further content. This makes information produced about information-sparse regions most useful for people in informational cores—who are used to integrating digital information into their everyday practices—rather than those in informational peripheries.
Various practices and procedures of Wikipedia editing likely amplify this effect. There are strict guidelines on how knowledge can be created and represented in Wikipedia, including a ban on original research, and the need to source key assertions. Editing incentives and constraints probably also encourage work around existing content (which is relatively straightforward to edit) rather than creation of entirely new material. In other words, the very policies and norms that govern the encyclopedia’s structure make it difficult to populate the white space with new geographic content. In addressing these patterns of increasing informational poverty, we need to recognise that no one of these three conditions can ever be sufficient for the generation of geographic knowledge. As well as highlighting the presences and absences in user-generated content, we also need to ask what factors encourage or limit production of that content.
In interpreting our model, we have come to a stark conclusion: increasing representation doesn’t occur in a linear fashion, but it accelerates in a virtuous cycle, benefitting those with strong editing cultures in local languages. For example, Britain, Sweden, Japan and Germany are extensively georeferenced on Wikipedia, whereas much of the MENA region has not kept pace, even accounting for their levels of connectivity, population, and editors. Thus, while some countries are experiencing the virtuous cycle of more edits and broadband begetting more georeferenced content, those on the periphery of these information geographies might fail to reach a critical mass of editors, or even dismiss Wikipedia as a legitimate site for user-generated geographic content: a problem that will need to be addressed if Wikipedia is indeed to be considered as the “sum of all human knowledge”.
Wikipedia is often seen as a great equaliser. But it’s starting to look like global coverage on Wikipedia is far from equal. Reposted from The Conversation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All this matters because fundamentally different narratives can be, and are, created about places and topics in different languages.
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.
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.
Wikipedia has famously been described as a project that “ works great in practice and terrible in theory”. One of the ways in which it succeeds is through its extensive consensus-based governance structure. While this has led to spectacular success—over 4.5 million articles in the English Wikipedia alone—the governance structure is neither obvious nor immediately accessible, and can present a barrier for those seeking entry. Editing Wikipedia can be a tough challenge—an often draining and frustrating task, involving heated disputes and arguments where it is often the most tenacious, belligerent, or connected editor who wins out in the end.
Broadband access and literacy are not the only pre-conditions for editing Wikipedia; ‘digital literacy’ is also crucial. This includes the ability to obtain and critically evaluate online sources, locate Wikipedia’s editorial and governance policies, master Wiki syntax, and confidently articulate and assert one’s views about an article or topic. Experienced editors know how to negotiate the rules, build a consensus with some editors to block others, and how to influence administrators during dispute resolution. This strict adherence to the word (if not the spirit) of Wikipedia’s ‘law’ can lead to marginalization or exclusion of particular content, particularly when editors are scared off by unruly mobs who ‘weaponise’ policies to fit a specific agenda.
Governing such a vast collaborative platform as Wikipedia obviously presents a difficult balancing act between being open enough to attract volume of contributions, and moderated enough to ensure their quality. Many editors consider Wikipedia’s governance structure (which varies significantly between the different language versions) essential to ensuring the quality of its content, even if it means that certain editors can (for example) arbitrarily ban other users, lock down certain articles, and exclude moderate points of view. One of the editors we spoke to noted that: “A number of articles I have edited with quality sources, have been subjected to editors cutting information that doesn’t fit their ideas […] I spend a lot of time going back to reinstate information. Today’s examples are in the ‘Battle of Nablus (1918)’ and the ‘Third Transjordan attack’ articles. Bullying does occur from time to time […] Having tried the disputes process I wouldn’t recommend it.” Community building might help support MENA editors faced with discouragement or direct opposition as they try to build content about the region, but easily locatable translations of governance materials would also help. Few of the extensive Wikipedia policy discussions have been translated into Arabic, leading to replication of discussions or ambiguity surrounding correct dispute resolution.
Beyond arguments with fractious editors over minutiae (something that comes with the platform), negotiating the wider politics of Wikipedia can be a daunting task, particularly when in it comes to content about the MENA region. It would be an understatement to say that the Middle East is a politically sensitive region, with more than its fair share of apparently unresolvable disputes, competing ideologies (it’s the birthplace of three world religions…), repressive governments, and ongoing and bloody conflicts. Editors shared stories with us about meddling from state actors (eg Tunisia, Iran) and a lack of trust with a platform that is generally considered to be a foreign, and sometimes explicitly American, tool. Rumours abound that several states (eg Israel, Iran) have concerted efforts to work on Wikipedia content, creating a chilling effect for new editors who might feel that editing certain pages might prove dangerous, or simply frustrating or impossible. Some editors spoke of being asked by Syrian government officials for advice on how to remove critical content, or how to identify the editors responsible for putting it there. Again: the effect is chilling.
A lack of locally produced and edited content about the region clearly can’t be blamed entirely on ‘outsiders’. Many editors in the Arabic Wikipedia have felt snubbed by the creation of an explicitly “Egyptian Arabic” Wikipedia, which has not only forked the content and editorial effort, but also stymied any ‘pan-Arab’ identity on the platform. There is a culture of administrators deleting articles they do not think are locally appropriate; often relating to politically (or culturally) sensitive topics. Due to Arabic Wikipedia’s often vicious edit wars, it is heavily moderated (unlike for example the English version), and anonymous edits do not appear instantly.
Some editors at the workshops noted other systemic and cultural issues, for example complaining of an education system that encourages rote learning, reinforcing the notion that only experts should edit (or moderate) a topic, rather than amateurs with local familiarity. Editors also noted the notable gender disparities on the site; a longstanding issue for other Wikipedia versions as well. None of these discouragements are helped by what some editors noted as a larger ‘image problem’ with editing in the Arabic Wikipedia, given it would always be overshadowed by the dominant English Wikipedia, one editor commenting that: “the English Wikipedia is vastly larger than its Arabic counterpart, so it is not unthinkable that there is more content, even about Arab-world subjects, in English. From my (unscientific) observation, many times, content in Arabic about a place or a tribe is not very encyclopedic, but promotional, and lacks citations”. Translating articles into Arabic might be seen as menial and unrewarding work, when the exciting debates about an article are happening elsewhere.
When we consider the coming-together of all of these barriers, it might be surprising that Wikipedia is actually as large as it is. However, the editors we spoke with were generally optimistic about the site, considering it an important activity that serves the greater good. Wikipedia is without doubt one of the most significant cultural and political forces on the Internet. Wikipedians are remarkably generous with their time, and it’s their efforts that are helping to document, record, and represent much of the world—including places where documentation is scarce. Most of the editors at our workshop ultimately considered Wikipedia a path to a more just society; through not just consensus, voting, and an aspiration to record certain truths—seeing it not just as a site of conflict, but also a site of regional (and local) pride. When asked why he writes geographic content, one editor simply replied: “It’s my own town”.
Mark Graham is a Senior Research Fellow at the OII. His research focuses on Internet and information geographies, and the overlaps between ICTs and economic development.
Wikipedia is often seen to be both an enabler and an equaliser. Every day hundreds of thousands of people collaborate on an (encyclopaedic) range of topics; writing, editing and discussing articles, and uploading images and video content. This structural openness combined with Wikipedia’s tremendous visibility has led some commentators to highlight it 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” (Lessig 2003). However, despite Wikipedia’s openness, there are also fears that the platform is simply reproducing worldviews and knowledge created in the Global North at the expense of Southern viewpoints (Graham 2011; Ford 2011). Indeed, there are indications that global coverage in the encyclopaedia is far from ‘equal’, with some parts of the world heavily represented on the platform, and others largely left out (Hecht and Gergle 2009; Graham 2011, 2013, 2014).
These second-generation digital divides are not merely divides of Internet access (so discussed in the late 1990s), but gaps in representation and participation (Hargittai and Walejko 2008). Whereas most Wikipedia articles written about most European and East Asian countries are written in their dominant languages, for much of the Global South we see a dominance of articles written in English. These geographic differences in the coverage of different language versions of Wikipedia matter, because fundamentally different narratives can be (and are) created about places and topics in different languages (Graham and Zook 2013; Graham 2014).
If we undertake a ‘global analysis’ of this pattern by examining the number of geocoded articles (ie about a specific place) across Wikipedia’s main language versions (Figure 1), the first thing we can observe is the incredible human effort that has gone into describing ‘place’ in Wikipedia. The second is the clear and highly uneven geography of information, with Europe and North America home to 84% of all geolocated articles. Almost all of Africa is poorly represented in the encyclopaedia—remarkably, there are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica (14,959) than any country in Africa, and more geotagged articles relating to Japan (94,022) than the entire MENA region (88,342). In Figure 2 it is even more obvious that Europe and North America lead in terms of representation on Wikipedia.
Knowing how many articles describe a place only tells a part of the ‘representation story’. Figure 3 adds the linguistic element, showing the dominant language of Wikipedia articles per country. The broad pattern is that some countries largely define themselves in their own languages, and others appear to be largely defined from outside. For instance, almost all European countries have more articles about themselves in their dominant language; that is, most articles about the Czech Republic are written in Czech. Most articles about Germany are written in German (not English).
We do not see this pattern across much of the South, where English dominates across much of Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia, and even parts of South and Central America. French dominates in five African countries, and German is dominant in one former German colony (Namibia) and a few other countries (e.g. Uruguay, Bolivia, East Timor).
The scale of these differences is striking. Not only are there more Wikipedia articles in English than Arabic about almost every Arabic speaking country in the Middle East, but there are more English articles about North Korea than there are Arabic articles about Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the UAE. Not only do we see most of the world’s content written about global cores, but it is largely dominated by a relatively few languages.
Figure 4 shows the total number of geotagged Wikipedia articles in English per country. The sheer density of this layer of information over some parts of the world is astounding (with 928,542 articles about places in English), nonetheless, in this layer of geotagged English content, only 3.23% of the articles are about Africa, and 1.67% are about the MENA region.
We see a somewhat different pattern when looking at the global geography of the 22,548 geotagged articles of the Arabic Wikipedia (Figure 5). Algeria and Syria are both defined by a relatively high number of articles in Arabic (as are the US, Italy, Spain, Russia and Greece). These information densities are substantially greater than what we see for many other MENA countries in which Arabic is an official language (such as Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia). This is even more surprising when we realise that the Italian and Spanish populations are smaller than the Egyptian, but there are nonetheless far more geotagged articles in Arabic about Italy (2,428) and Spain (1,988) than about Egypt (433).
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. We have seen that, notable exceptions aside (e.g. ‘Iran’ in Farsi and ‘Israel’ in Hebrew) the MENA region tends to be massively underrepresented—not just in major world languages, but also in its own: Arabic. Clearly, much is being left unsaid about that part of the world. Although we entered the project anticipating that the MENA region would be under-represented in English, we did not anticipate the degree to which it is under-represented in Arabic.
Ford, H. (2011) The Missing Wikipedians. In Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, ed. G. Lovink and N. Tkacz, 258-268. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.
Graham, M. (2013) The Virtual Dimension. In Global City Challenges: Debating a Concept, Improving the Practice. Eds. Acuto, M. and Steele, W. London: Palgrave.
Graham, M. (2011) Wiki Space: Palimpsests and the Politics of Exclusion. In Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader. Eds. Lovink, G. and Tkacz, N. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, pp. 269-282.