The Core Problem of Wikipedia.

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A cultural and linguistic design problem

Reda Attarça
Reversed Wikipedia logo
Reversed Wikipedia logo

Wikipedia is a one of this sites that made of the Internet as we know it and have been using it for over 20 years.

The goal of Wikipedia is to spread knowledge to as many people as possible.
To achieve this goal, the creators of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger took the heavy decision to create a site

  • Free

And it is a success!

Wikipedia can now boast 55 million articles written in 309 languages!

No one doubts the information available on the platform anymore. The volunteer communities write, update and monitor changes on all pages.

Moreover, the older versions of the articles are available, allowing to know what has been modified and when, and all the sources are quoted at the end of the page, allowing to verify the information.

We should be happy to have had access for 20 years to a site that has allowed the dissemination of knowledge to as many people as possible.

However Wikipedia has a problem in its design. A problem intrinsically linked to its initial conception as a digital product. A problem that few users are aware of: the access of knowledge is biased.

3D print Wikipedia logo Par Lane Hartwell

55 million articles in 309 languages is a misleading claim.

In total, there are about 55 million unique articles on Wikipedia. Most of these articles are available in several languages. But of course, not all articles are translated into all languages.

There are 6.4 million articles written in English, 2.3 million articles written in French, but only 228,000 articles written in Romanian.

Wikipedia was created in the United States, and then quickly spread around the world. In order to have a rapid development, the site relied on volunteers to write articles, but these volunteers are all part of a linguistic community.

Wikipedia is not one site, but hundreds. Wikipedia France has no connection with Wikipedia Spain or Wikipedia USA.

This lack of editorial direction results in glaring inequalities in the number of articles available in a language. If a community is large and active, there will be plenty of articles, otherwise, users speaking rare languages, not widely spoken outside their country, will have to read articles in another language.

The opposite is also true. Some pages only exist in one rare language and almost nobody can read them, or know they exist.

This leads to a second inequality: the articles are not translated, but available in another language.

English language flag on Wikipedia, by Renatus

An encyclopedia seeks to disseminate objective knowledge, but this is impossible. Knowledge is always colored by the prism of culture. This is also true on Wikipedia.

This aspect of Wikipedia is little known. It is rare that a user who has found the answers he or she was looking for in an article has fun rereading the same article in another language.

When one accesses another language for an article, one changes site, therefore one changes article. The information available is then very variable.
Some translations are almost similar, others add and/or remove information from other languages and some articles are described by sources with opposite points of view.

By typing “pigeon”, Wikipedia proposes the page “Columbidae” which is available in 145 languages.

  • English: long introduction, 15 chapters, and a flattering image of a dove.

A user wishing to learn about this subject will have less information available if he is French-speaking than if he is English or German-speaking.

Columbiae page on Wikipedia in English, German, and French

These differences between the pages influence the worldview of the users.
If a crucial event happened in colonial times but is only documented in the Wolof article and not in the English article, the English-speaking reader will form an opinion of a subject without being able to take into account all the information available.

The knowledge available on Wikipedia is only that available within a country, a language, a culture.

Having alternative pages rather than translated pages allows not to smooth the information, not to show it under only one aspect, but it also limits the access to knowledge having been developed in some languages and not in others.

An African user will have access to many articles if he speaks French, but these articles will have a French vision of things. If they only speak a local language, they will have limited access to anything they might discover.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How do we fix this?

Wikipedia is 20 years old, it might be interesting to try a redesign of the site to take into account the equality of access to information.

It could be interesting to integrate an automatic translator so that speakers of rare languages can access articles in other languages.

Users should be informed that more information is available on other versions of the article.

We all are glad to have Wikipedia in our live, but as a 2000’S website, it has some flaws that designers should fight to promote knowledge for everybody.



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