Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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8 March 2018

A new paper by Aaron Shaw and one of my favourite scholars, Eszter Hargittai, provides some fascinating insights into why there are inequalities in people’s participation online – in this case in editing Wikipedia. TL;DR a representative survey of the US population shows 3.5% had never heard of Wikipedia, of those who had heard of it, 18.5% said they had never visited (probably an overstatement), and 32% did not know that Wikipedia is editable by anyone – only 8% of those surveyed had ever edited themselves.

They also found that the likelihood they know Wikipedia is editable varies quite widely depending on user’s overall internet skills but also, importantly, on their overall education level. Even among those who have the highest general internet skills, 25% of those without college degrees didn’t realise they could edit Wikipedia – and among women with low education and low general internet skills only 28% realised they could edit Wikipedia. Imagine how much better Wikipedia could be if the knowledge, interests and experiences of the 92% of non-editors could be mobilised!

What’s not in the paper

Now, drawing on my own thinking about this area (which I was delighted to see them reference), let’s talk a bit about some of the overarching issues that this paper doesn’t really dig into (no criticism intended here – you can’t cover everything in a single paper!) Here’s the researchers’ conceptual “participation pipeline”:

Imagine however that the pipe’s size reflected the actual narrowing at each point (sorry I can’t redraw it but maybe the authors or one of you would like to have a go?). First you would need a section of pipe before “internet users” to show all potential users. In the US, the latest survey data shows  9% of the public still doesn’t use the internet – and a full third of all older people or people with less than a high school education (1).

If you are interested, as I am, in participation on the Internet globally, the pipe would narrow much more sharply and earlier in other parts of the world – over half of the world still isn’t on the internet.

(Source: ITU)

After this, the pipe would narrow a bit by “has heard of” and “has visited” Wikipedia but it would narrow more by “knows it’s possible to edit” (the key finding of this paper). Where the pipe really gets narrow, however, is among those who know they could contribute but don’t (92% of the population).

And what this paper couldn’t really get at is why. We still don’t know enough about this but I suggest a few explanations:

  1. Ease of access and device type matter – it’s much easier to edit Wikipedia on a computer than on a mobile phone but there are many who access the internet mainly or exclusively on their mobiles.
  2. Freedom of access matters – not so much an issue in the US but there are many countries where internet use is closely monitored and where writing the ‘wrong thing’ in a Wikipedia entry could get you into serious trouble with your government.
  3. Internalised power structures. If as a woman, say, or or a poor person or an ethnic minority you are accustomed not to have your voice heard, might you assume nobody wanted to hear it on Wikipedia either (especially if existing Wikipedia articles seemed unsympathetic to your point of view, or if your experience of the editing process was unsympathetic). If you did not have much formal education, you might find it difficult to express yourself in writing and you might be concerned that what you wrote might be scorned or mocked because of spelling or grammatical errors. (For an academic gloss on this, you might want to start with Bourdieu).

Lastly, there is a further narrowing of the pipe at the end which the authors could (and really should) have taken into consideration – the question of intensity of use. We know from other research that most people who do edit Wikipedia do so infrequently, but most Wikipedia edits overall are made by a tiny number of very active editors:

English Wikipedia editors by editor class.png
By Dragons flightOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

English Wikipedia edits by editor class.png
By Dragons flightOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The survey they used would not be able to give statistical information about the backgrounds of those editors but there may be some data about this from Wikipedia’s own surveys and I would be astonished if research did not reveal that most edits made on Wikipedia overall are done by a highly privileged subset of all Wikipedia editors, mainly because of those internalised power structures I mentioned above.


Most of us (and in particular many internet scholars) are accustomed to talk about how ubiquitous and accessible and empowering tools like Wikipedia, weblogs and the like are, but as this research shows it is important to bear in mind how far many potential users are from playing an equal part in online spaces. It’s important to remember how dissimilar internet researchers and pundits are from the whole population – if you are reading this I am guessing you have edited at least one Wikipedia page – I’ve edited about a hundred and I don’t even consider myself an avid Wikipedian. Moreover in looking at the US this research is already looking at the top of the global participation pyramid. We need much more research to highlight the extent of participation gaps globally and action to narrow those gaps.


  1. I think that the analysis that this paper did quotes figures for the US population not just for the US online population (even though the survey they did was done online) but if not, you would have to take into account that participation is even more skewed away from the lower-educated (and older) because they are less online in the first place.
23 February 2017

As an media scholar and journalist with an interest in the digital divide, I have long believed that one of the things that media outlets could do a lot better is using their higher profile to give a voice to ‘ordinary people’ who have something to say. I also believe that one of the things that Facebook like other news intermediaries should be trying to do is increase ideological diversity in their feeds. Lastly, I am aware that it is not right to judge what people say online just because it is poorly written technically. And then this happens.

This is my top Facebook recommended story on Facebook’s top trending issue. The story’s summary suggests it is from the Huffington Post, which has some journalistic credibility, but if you visit the story itself and look carefully you will see that it is an un-edited, un-curated self published blog posting.

It is also badly written, bigoted, and dismayingly lacking in concrete, citable facts.

There was a riot of violence and destructions by immigrants in the capitol of Sweden, Stockholm. The police was forced to shoot with ammunition to put and end to it. In Malmö, another city south in Sweden they have struggle with gang violence and lawlessness for years. So when Trump talk about that Sweden have an immigration problem he [Trump] is actually spot on.
It’s well known for Scandinavians and other Europeans that liberal immigration comes with drugs, rapes, gang wars, robbery and violence

(For a more nuanced view of recent events in Sweden, read this.)

In the end, I think that what this underlines is another of my personal tech policy prescriptions – we need to ensure that when technology companies are doing socially important work like influencing what news we see, they do not offload this role onto an unaccountable algorithm. Instead, they should ensure that the algorithms are overseen adequately by humans and that those humans are in turn accountable to the public for their actions.

26 March 2015

Two recent pieces of news made me think about the issue of timing of news consumed online. Most obviously, online publication pushes journalists to publish ever-faster, but the ability to archive everything means there is also a place for “evergreen” features and explainers. Once done, as long as they are revisited from time to time to ensure they are still relevant, they can continue to draw people to your writing via search, and as a journalism educator I have long encouraged my students to produce and value such pieces.

Shirley Li points out in the Atlantic that even quite old pieces of ‘news’ can end up being recirculated as if they were new. Her concern is that people sometimes don’t realize that online news recirculated this way is outdated (because timestamps on stories can often be hard to find) but this also suggests once again that older news stories/features can also have continued value.

Alarmingly, however, it seems that online advertisers (at least in one case) place very little value on readers’ attention if it was drawn by old material. According to Jim Romenesko, journalists for Forbes magazine (who are paid per click) will be paid only a quarter as much as before for visits to pages that are more than 90 days old. According to a memo passed to Romanesko, “advertisers are increasingly buying premium ads for new content, not old”.

It is unclear why advertisers would necessarily prefer a view of a new story to a view of a similarly interesting and accurate but older story. However if this were part of a larger trend, what would be the implications? Will this encourage editors to superficially refresh even “evergreen” stories to make them “new” for advertisers? (Keeping a closer editorial eye on older stories might be no bad thing). Might this mean that rather than updating old stories, they are deleted or unlinked and new stories based on the old ones will be written (which among other things would complicate site archives and contribute greatly to the problem of “link rot” where links to old journalism vanish)?

18 March 2015

I am used as a journalism professor to suggesting to my students that for any specialist topic – a disease, a hobby, a location – they should seek out the online discussion forums chat rooms or mailing lists that relate to it. These can act as sources of expertise or places where they can seek out opinions or story ideas. Only when I have suggested they do this recently and have gone to look for them myself… I found surprisingly very little. It used to be that searching for “[topic] messageboard” or “[topic] forum” or “[topic] mailing list” would nearly always find something. I didn’t even find a discussion board by and for Canadian post-secondary students akin to the UK’s Student Room.

Back in 2011, Pew Internet found “65% of the internet users who are active in groups say they use their groups’ websites… 24% of these internet users say they contribute material to their groups’ online bulletin boards and discussions.”

Have the problems of troll management killed most of these off as it seems to be doing to media comments sections?  Has Facebook eaten up most of that discussion time? (I am not finding a lot of very active special interest Facebook groups either – at least not proportional in size to what seems to have been lost).

My students seem to see Reddit subreddits as their “go to” source of topic-centred conversation but Reddit is again not big enough to replace all of the little conversation spaces that used to be around (is it?), and ISTR it trends pretty young. Twitter is a) not usually the same as a message board in terms of length, depth and continuity of dialogue and b) my sense is that it is more a discussion tool for elites than for a broader range of participants.

Do you have the sense this is a real trend? Is anyone still tracking discussion board use? (If it isn’t still being tracked that might itself be a sign of something!)

Where else should I be sending my students online to find and solicit citizen views these days?

And with my communication studies hat on, if the internet-using public loses the “habit” of using online discussion forums, would this not undermine one of the important means the internet could function as a potential space of public “sphericules”?

12 September 2012

I’m all in favour of attempts like that of the World Wide Web Foundation to make in their words “multi-dimensional measures of the Web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations” but to call it the “first” such attempt would seem to be overlooking the strikingly similar ITU “Measuring the Information Society” programme or The World Economic Forum’s “Network Readiness Index” (there are and have been probably others too). There’s plenty of room for all though and each group of scholars has something to contribute (indeed the Web Index draws from ITU figures among others). If you are interested in the digital divide, check them all out!

5 March 2012

Of course it has a role for easy, quick communication of relatively unimportant information but I fear that its very availability and ease means that like some kind of online kudzu it is expanding and driving out longer-form online discourse – particularly blogs. This is particularly problematic for academics like myself. It used to be that I would string together 500 words and more about an academic subject or something in the news and post it on my academic blog (okay, I admit I was a grad student with a bit more time on my hands) but now I tend to just tweet or Facebook post about it because the blog form implicitly demands more engagement than I feel I can give. It seems to me that possibly for similar reasons gradually nearly all of the blogs I used to read by fellow academics giving me their insights into trends and papers have died away*, replaced by tweets simply directing me to relevant web addresses.

Don’t get me wrong–I love to read and pass on the kinds of references to papers and to newspaper articles I get–see my twitter feed– but by the time a tweeter tells you who sent them a web address, very briefly summarizes why you might want to click and perhaps provides a hash tag to indicate its subject all that remains to be said is that said document or image is “enjoyable”, “provocative”, scary etc. A blog posting by contrast does not have to be that much longer but allows the writer to provide at least a little more context for the resource that they are talking about or indeed to provide a small but nonetheless useful addition to scholarly knowledge without all the psychic and administrative burden of turning out an academic paper.

Moreover, I have recently realised thanks to the news about Datasift providing companies with access to archives of tweets back to 2010 that although Twitter has kept everything, if I as a user ever did want to find an insightful tweet from even a week ago unless I had favourited it or I had been using third-party programs to archive a particular user or hashtag I would be out of luck. I always supposed that the limitations of search in tools like TweetDeck or Twitter.com itself were just a coding problem not reflective of an underlying technical problem.

* Mind you, this rant which I have been saving for a while now was inspired in part by the excellence of a Nathan Jurgenson blog post which reminded me that academic blog excellence is not yet dead.

The cartoon below (sorry have lost the original source) presents a number of other good reasons I dislike Twitter…

23 May 2008

This artwork/prank/pr stunt is fascinating. We take the fantastically complex technology involved in webcam chat for granted, but connect two points by fibre optic cable (I’m assuming that’s how this works!) and then let people look down the “telectroscope” using the naked eye and suddenly the experience becomes magical again…

Update: I just found that CNN has de-mystified the device – it’s actually a ‘conventional’ pair of very high definition webcams.

9 September 2005

Dogs and Blogs New Yorker cartoon
Thank you Alex Gregory of the New Yorker this week for bringing us this cartoon – a lineal descendant of the justly famed (if somewhat inaccurate) 1993 “on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog“.

13 December 2004

I just added a “post about global broadband penetration”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=20 and a few days ago I posted about research on “hit counts as a predictor of the number of citations”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=14 for academic articles published online. There have also been some recent postings by other blog members on “literature reviews”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=13 and the “use of the Internet for politics in the UK”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=18. I have some postings yet to come there about search engines (you should look there for any future information on search engines – especially as one of my colleagues there is studying them for her PhD)…

P.S. If you want an easy-to-remember address for the site (which does not yet have its own ‘proper’ domain) you can get to it by typing “http://get.to/lseblog”:http://get.to/lseblog.

23 October 2004

I always assumed that the large amount of news I receive about battles with the US Congress about various communications policy issues (copyright, privacy, digital divide issues) was simply due to my own interest in these subjects influencing my choice of online media sources. But it seems according to a report by Syracuse University’s “Convergence Center”:http://www.digital-convergence.org/,

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, communications and information policy (CIP) replaced the environment as the policy domain of greatest congressional activity, as measured by number of hearings. From 1997 to 2001, the annual number of congressional hearings devoted to CIP surged to approximately 100 per year.

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