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.

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes:

  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.

28 March 2013

Like many a tech-savvy parent I am trying to divert my kid’s gaming attention towards Minecraft – and with some success. There’s a ‘legacy’ iBook G4 he can use but getting the program to run at all was difficult and now that it is running, I have found it runs unusably slowly, even with all the graphical options I could find turned down (and with non-working sound). This to run a game that is deliberately designed to look ‘retro’ and which I imagine could have worked on a Mac LC c. 1990 if suitably coded! Since it’s a very popular game with a hyperactive development community I thought there was bound to be a way to make things work better. Alas, nothing I tried (Magic Launcher launching Optifine Light mainly) seemed to work and it took me several hours of forum reading, installation and tweaking to get this far.

It’s not a new observation but what makes older machines like my nine-year-old macbook obsolete does not actually seem to be the speed or capability of the underlying hardware but the steady ratcheting up of the assumptions that software makes. Somewhere (presumably in Java, which is Minecraft’s ‘environment’) I’m guessing there’s a whole load of un-necessary code that has been added in the last nine years which has dragged what should be a perfectly usable game down to a useless speed.

Just to drag this back to academic relevance for a moment, this is to my mind a good example of how the structure of the computer industry aggravates digital divides by gradually demanding users ‘upgrade’ their software to the point that their machines stop working, well before the end of their ‘natural’ lives.

PS If anyone has managed to get Minecraft working adequately on a Mac of similar vintage please share any tips…

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!

28 November 2008

Just one good reason to learn to love the European Union:

BBC NEWS | Technology | Europe backs mobile roaming cap.

The rules put a retail price cap of 11 euro cents (9p) on texts sent while roaming – a substantial cut on the European average of 29 euro cents (24p). The ministers backed a cap of 1 euro per megabyte (83p) on the price of downloading data – though this applies only to the charges operators levy on each other.

11 November 2006

Thanks to a house move I have been trapped on dialup at home – at least for the next week or so – and I have been reminded about just how painful using the Internet is when you have to do it at less than 10Kb/s. All Internet users are definitely not equal in their ability to get things done. It has taken me 20 minutes just to check my email and read a minimal number of pages very slowly. By contrast once my broadband is installed, £5/$10 a month will get me a scorching fast (up to) 8Mbps (because it is bundled with my satellite TV). I can hardly wait!

18 August 2005

The American consumer advocacy group Consumer Reports recently published a online hazards survey which found:

  • 33% of those surveyed said a virus or spyware caused serious problems with their computer systems and/or financial losses within the past two years.
  • 50% reported a spyware infection in the past six months. Of those, 18% said the infection was so bad they had to erase their hard drives.

    To avoid spyware, 51% of all online users reported being more careful visiting Web sites, and 38 % said they download free programs less frequently.

  • 64% of survey respondents said they had detected viruses on their computer in the past two years. 4% found them at least 50 times.
  • Macs are safer than Windows PCs for some online hazards. Only 20% of Mac owners surveyed reported detecting a virus in the past two years, compared with 66% of Windows PC owners. Just 8% of Mac users reported a spyware infection in the last six months vs. 54% of Windows PC users.

To this I would add that my guess is that a fair amount of the virus reporting by Mac owners is probably "false positives" – people whose Macs stopped working for some unrelated reason and they blamed it on viruses. Ditto for spyware. I don’t think viruses or spyware aimed at current Macs are still around outside of the labs of anti-virus software companies.

There are some good recommendations linked alongside the report but interestingly it fails to mention one of the best ways to reduce the incidence of viruses and spyware – don’t use Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer. It’s not that they are bad in themselves (though I would argue the free alternatives like Eudora and Firefox are better) – it’s that virus and spyware writers tailor their programs to work with the most popular email and web browsing programs out there.

A note about computer literacy – 17% of respondents weren’t using antivirus software and 10% of those with high-speed broadband access–prime targets for hackers–said they didn’t have firewall protection.

Also see two recent reports from the excellent Pew Internet and American Life project:
Spam & Phishing (April)
Spyware (July)

14 September 2004

If you are based in the UK and have a personal home page (this includes weblogs and journals), please visit this home page creation survey and fill it in – it should only take you ten minutes.

If you are an academic I would also be interested to know what you think of it as a survey and how I might improve it (bearing in mind it is only a very rough pilot at the moment!), and if you have a weblog or home pages (anywhere but particularly one that might be seen by Brits) please publicise this survey on your site. The survey will only be up for a month (or less, if I get enough respondents before then).

I don’t expect to publish anything from it as the sample size will be too small and it is very open-ended at the moment so I can get some idea of the kinds of answers people give, but if anything interesting comes out you will hear about it here.

P.S. I am using “QuestionPro”:http://www.questionpro.com/ to do this survey, which from what I have found appears to be one of the best options around for serious surveys (I did some earlier “investigation of survey software options”:http://blog.org/archives/001183.html). If you want to try it out too, please “contact me”:http://davidbrake.org/contact.htm so I can invite you (I would get $10 if you end up using it).

20 July 2004

A European pundit, Thierry Chervel, complains that key European newspapers and ‘cultural journals’ are not available online and suggests this impoverishes Europe’s public sphere. To prove his point he cites the failure of an initiative by Jurgen Habermas, who wanted to launch his “Kerneuropa -initiative” against the Iraq war and the “new Europe” via various European newspapers:

He published his own article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and assigned his colleagues to the Suddeutsche Zeitung , to the El Pais and in the Corriere della Serra. None of these papers however published the articles online. An interested intellectual in Madrid, Paris or Berlin would have had to go the main train station and purchase four newspapers from three different countries. A few days later, the debate was quickly forgotten.

Had Habermas invested a few thousand Euros to build his small website, had he published his article and those of his colleagues simultaneously in English, the sensation would have been big.

Well, it is not clear that this would have happened (and it seems that Habermas’ statement “actually is available online”:http://www.faz.net/s/Rub117C535CDF414415BB243B181B8B60AE/Doc~ECBE3F8FCE2D049AE808A3C8DBD3B2763~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html), but the general point is an interesting one. It would certainly be nice if the major non-English=language European newspapers and magazines published their articles online for free and translated them into English – it would give a much broader perspective to the online audience but is unlikely to happen, alas.

Mark Liberman “posted”:http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001168.html his own interesting comment and critique about this article asserting (correctly I suspect) that the root cause of this problem is not so much economic conservatism on the part of European newspapers but a larger “Internet illiteracy” on the part of many mainstream European intellectuals (including Thierry Chervel who does not have a website of his own). Hopefully this will change over time…

16 July 2004

My supervisors have been active in the “CRIS”:http://www.crisinfo.org/ ( Communication Rights in the Information Society) programme and have called my attention to its work. On this year’s CRIS agenda is:

The CRIS Global Governance Project, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. The project’s aim is to support the emergence at national level of the concept of communication rights … advocacy on governance issues including civil society participation in governance structures… and in various global governance fora.

If you’re an academic interested in the connection between media participation and civil society take a look and join in!

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