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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.
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!

9 September 2010

Interesting – I just stumbled across a blog post about the demographics of contributors to Global Voices – the source I know best of news and information in blog form from a non-Western perspective. The post reveals among other things that “the Global Voices community is highly educated. Over 85% of respondents indicated they have completed a university degree, and more than 40% have a post-graduate or doctoral degree.” This does suggest alas that while groups like Global Voices have a valuable role to play in making voices heard that might not otherwise have a platform, blogging to and for a wider public still remains an elite activity.

26 August 2006

I just finished writing this post on the LSE group weblog which looks at the low number of Wikipedians editing non-English language articles and the dangers this presents to the credibility of Wikipedia (such as it is). I also tied it in with the recent announcement that the OLPC consortium would be bundling selected Wikipedia articles with its $100 laptops. Take a look at it and see what you think. Have a look at some of the other recent articles there too for that matter – most of them are also written by me (I will start adding bylines from now on).

19 October 2004

Ubuntu Linux, sponsored by South African entrepreneur “Mark Shuttleworth”:http://www.markshuttleworth.com/bio.html is not just available free – the organization behind it will “send free CDs”:http://shipit.ubuntulinux.org/ to wherever in the world people want to get their hands on it. (Note: if you have broadband and can download it rather than getting the CDs please do so and save money that could be used to send discs to developing world organizations that do need it). If you want a review of the current version with all the geeky details read “Kuroshin”:http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/9/28/211242/712. To summarise, it includes the main applications you would need (the Firefox web browser and OpenOffice) but at present if you don’t want it to take over your whole hard disk you have to partition it manually, which doesn’t say much for its user-friendliness. It’s early days though.

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!

19 June 2004

Ethan Zuckerman “posts”:http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethan/2004/06/13#a222 about a thought-provoking lecture by “Guido Sohne”:http://sohne.net/ on the limitations of open source development in Africa. It’s worth reading his whole post but I will just note that Guido suggests open source development is limited in Africa because African programmers are too busy trying to earn a basic living to donate their time to creating open source code. Similarly, providing free wireless Internet access as many are doing as a volunteer effort around the developed world is much more difficult when the cost of providing that access relative to income is much higher in Africa.

In other words a lot of the benevolence we often take for granted online and consider part of the Internet culture actually relies on a certain economic base where programmers have free time and energy to work on projects they consider worthwhile and bandwidth and computing resources are ‘too cheap to meter’.

For a more optimistic view check out Dan Gillmor’s eJournal – Open Source a No-Brainer for Developing World.

Thanks to “Boingboing”:http://boingboing.net/2003_09_01_archive.html#106356200472733745 for the latter link

10 March 2004

“Ethan Zuckerman”:http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethan/2004/02/27#a138 has produced an interesting paper on blogging as a political force in the Third World – commenting on the enthusiasm for Internet-mediated political debate expressed by Jim Moore in an essay “The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head”:http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/jmoore/secondsuperpower.html and by Joi Ito in “Emergent Democracy”:http://joi.ito.com/static/emergentdemocracy.html. I blogged about the latter essay “some months ago”:http://blog.org/archives/cat_best_of_blogorg.html#000687.

He warns astutely:

“If that group [enthusiasts for ‘weblog democracy’] forgets that they’re outliers in terms of larger society and fails to include others in the shaping of these technologies, it’s unlikely that these tools will be useful to the wider world”.

He also suggests that bloggers can’t provide a critical alternative to the mainstream media when a region is not adequately covered:

“When journalists don’t cover parts of the globe, webloggers are like an amplifier without a guitar – they have no signal to reinforce. There aren’t enough bloggers in eastern Congo to give us a sense for what’s really going on.”

He suggests that Third World expats writing about their own nations from abroad and (though he doesn’t explicitly say this) First World expats writing about the countries they are visiting or trying to help could help fill the gap in coverage of third world issues and give the rest of the world a personal view.
He notes the weakness of this proposal:

these discussions are open only to people with the access to the Internet (which cuts out people in countries who censor, people in unsderserved rural areas, as well as people who don’t have money to spend time online); primarily open to people who speak and write English well; primarily open to people who can afford to spend time online engaging in these dialogues (cutting out many people whose jobs don’t afford them the luxury of working in front of a CRT).

He highlights some interesting solutions to the problem of language and cultural barriers to mutual comprehension – “Blogalization”:http://www.blogalization.info/reorganization/, for example, encourages bloggers who can speak foreign languages to translate interesting posts and news items into other relevant languages (chiefly English) – acting as a volunteer news agency. “Living on the Planet”:http://www.livingontheplanet.com/about.html is similar (but only translates to English.
In the end, he acknowledges:

Generally speaking, though, in most developing nations, the Net is not the obvious place to look for political change. So few citizens are online, and those who are generally are atypically wealthy and powerful that the Internet is a poor way to reach the grassroots. Instead, it’s useful to think about what media are analogous to the Internet in developing nations. One likely parallel is talk radio.

He seems to suggest in his conclusion that the “solution” to ensuring that the third world can part lies with the toolmakers – a technical fix.

But a real solution, I suggest, would have to involve a lot of grassroots capacity building work to ensure that a broad range of people in these countries (not just the elites):

1) have access to the technology
2) have the time and literacy to engage with them and
3) are listened to by those with power in their countries.

Big (some might say impossible) preconditions but without them a Third World Blogosphere would be an elite echo chamber. I fear that if tech boosters succeed in persuading developing country governments to foster a burgeoning blogosphere in their countries it would just serve to further benefit the articulate middle classes and elites in those countries who already have influence.

8 March 2004

I’m getting to this one rather late but I found an excellent article by Barry Flynn expressing disappointment with the UK Government for its failure to require digital terrestrial TV to have a return path. Now the horse has bolted – many digital terrestrial customers have already bought set-tops without modems and it will be hard to get them to switch if the Government wants to encourage egovernment or edemocracy applications through digital TV.

21 January 2004

David Wilcox brings to my attention on Designing for Civil Society an article summarising the benefits of several different open source applications for activists.

Interesting and useful though the list is for some, I do think it shows a narrowness of perspective common to technically-proficient activists. It doesn’t talk about how difficult the software is for the group to install or maintain and doesn’t put much stress on whether there is a free hosted version of the software available (so an organization can just use it without having to install it or run their own web server).

The unspoken assumption of those writing seems to be that at least one person among the activist groups will know how to set up and maintain software and have access to a computer with an always-on broadband connection. Tut tut!

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