Today marks the 15th year of the existence of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is completely free of charge and which anyone can edit and contribute towards.
First starting as a complement to Nupedia – the more traditionally and professionally written version of the online encyclopedia which was merged into Wikipedia in 2003 – Wikipedia has grown immensely in that time, coming ever-closer to the ambitious goal of providing the sum of human knowledge to everyone, everywhere, for free.
The online encyclopedia now boasts over 5 000 000 articles in English alone, and is the 7th most visited website on the internet after Google, Facebook, Youtube, Baidue (a Chinese search engine), Yahoo!, and Amazon.
Afrikaans Wikipedia, which was one of the original 12 Wikipedias to be set-up along with English Wikipedia back in 2001, now has over 38 000 articles written by 158 active editors, the overwhelming majority of whom are based in South Africa.
A community of volunteers
All of these articles would not be possible without the community of volunteer editors from around the world that voluntarily donate their time to making these articles possible. Some do so by patrolling for vandalism (most vandalism of Wikipedia articles now gets rolled back in under a second), others by contributing content whilst others just like to copy edit articles by correcting spelling and grammar mistakes or adding categories to allow others to find relevant articles more easily. This community of editors – roughly 80 000 strong in any given month – is what makes Wikipedia a living, functioning entity.
Other African language Wikipedias are unfortunately less active. isiZulu Wikipedia only has 691 articles contributed by a small community of 16 active editors, many of whom are not based in South Africa. The same is true of isiXhosa Wikipedia which has only 447 articles and 8 active editors. Despite there being over 12 million Zulu language speakers and 8 million Xhosa language speakers, these two Wikipedias unfortunately have some of the lowest number of articles per language speakers ratio of any Wikipedias in the world.
If Wikipedia ever hopes to be able to provide “the sum of human knowledge to everyone, everywhere, for free” then increasing the size of the editing communities on African language Wikipedia is extremely important. A larger, stronger community of editors leads to more articles of higher quality, which in turn makes that language version of Wikipedia ever more useful and relevant for everyone else.
The issue of not enough South African editors is not only restricted to African language Wikipedias, though. In South Africa there are only around 105 active editors in any given month. Colombia, which has a similar-sized population and level of development to South Africa, has roughly double the number of active editors contributing to Wikipedia in any given month.
This means that even on English language Wikipedia, the most-contributed language Wikipedia by South African editors, has relatively little South African content on it. This in turn means that many important South African subjects are simply not covered on Wikipedia, or are poorly covered as there are just too few people editing about them. Sometimes there is even a reluctance by the existing community internationally to accept an article as notable enough to warrant an article on Wikipedia, even though there might be a general agreement in a particular country where that article is relevant to, that it is in fact important and notable.
There is also an issue of a lack of diversity amongst editors, which means that not only could Wikipedia in South Africa do with having more editors of all sorts but that there is a special need to have more editors from backgrounds which are not present in the existing community.
Diversity is very important on a knowledge-sharing platform like Wikipedia because:
• It helps ensure a “Neutral Point of View” (NPOV) in articles, which is very important when writing a good quality encyclopaedic article.
• It increases the range of notable and locally-important topics covered.
• It increases the quality of articles by helping present a more nuanced and diverse insight into the subject of an article.
Ensuring a “Neutral Point of View” is a particularly important issue that only a more diverse editor base can truly solve. This is because no matter how well-meaning existing editors might be, and no matter how much we try to minimize bias, just by virtue of being a member of a particular community or demographic we all have some level of unconscious bias created by the shared social and cultural characteristics of most editors. This is known as systemic bias.
The best way to deal with systemic bias is to increase the number of editors from under-represented communities on Wikipedia. This means that Wikipedia needs more:*
• Female editors: 85% of South African editors self-reported as male.
• African editors
• Editors who speak an African language as a first language: 40% of South African editors are English first language speakers, whereas only 10% of South Africa’s population are first language English speakers.
• Editors from poorer backgrounds
• Editors who do not have an interest in technology: 75% of South African editors self reported being “very interested in technology”
Wikimedia South Africa is trying to mitigate this by organising edit-a-thons that focus one these groups, as well as advocating for more people from under-represented groups to try out editing Wikipedia.
This is not to say that there is not a need for more editors who are not-African, male, wealthy, and/or super interested in technology. Not at all! We need more editors of all sorts contributing to articles in South Africa. But it does mean that a special urging and attempt needs to be made to encourage under-represented people to try out editing.
Instead of donating money, rather try donating your time to edit Wikipedia, especially to African language Wikipedias. Editing Wikipedia might not be for everyone, but I would encourage everyone to give it a try and find out if contributing to the Wikis is a hobby you might find rewarding.
* These figures come from a survey that Wikimedia South Africa ran amoungst Wikipedia editors on Wikipedia from April to June 2015. An infographic summarising the results can be seen here:
This article the personal opinion of Douglas Scott and is not necessarily the position of Wikimedia South Africa or the Wikimedia Foundation. Douglas is the current president of Wikimedia South Africa and has been a Wikipedia editor on English Wikipedia since 2006. Wikimedia South Africa is a non-profit volunteer-driven organisation that exists to support and promote the editing of Wikimedia projects in South Africa such as Wikipedia.