Africa, Wikipedia’s new frontier

It’s taken just 17 years for the free online resource Wikipedia to carve out a significant corner of the internet for a vast archive of human knowledge. As the fifth most popular web-based entity in the world, its 32.5 million editors upload an average of 600 new English articles to the site every day. But in 2018 - the year that marks a turning point for global connectivity, in which more people will be online than offline for the first time in history - Wikipedia is under increasing pressure to stand by its mission statement of ‘empowering and engaging people around the world’. To stay relevant, and with its coverage of almost every aspect of the Western world well established, Wikipedia is eyeing its next big challenge: Documenting the Global South.

Scanning the conference venue in a downtown Cape Town hotel, Emna Mizouni waves to a group of Wikipedians - the name given to volunteer Wikipedia contributors - that she met at a 2015 event in Mexico City. She appears to know almost everyone in the room, which is no small feat at Wikimania, the largest annual gathering of the world’s almost 33 million Wikipedians.

“Who doesn’t Google something and say, ‘ah! It has a Wikipedia article?’” said the Tunisian history and heritage communications specialist, who became one of the online platform’s army of volunteer editors and content curators in 2013, when it first became a resource in her North African home.

“Tunisia is not a western country, but we found that Wikipedia brings a solution for us and a room for us in the international atmosphere,” said Mizouni, adding that she immediately saw the many upsides to Wikipedia French as a partner for her heritage and history NGO, Carthagina.

Soon, articles were being uploaded in 301 different languages, from Albanian to Zamboanga Chavacano.

“We first heard about a photo contest called Wiki Loves Monuments,” said Mizouni of Wikipedia’s annual photographic contest. “It’s brought a wider audience to Tunisia and given more credit to the documentation that we’re doing,” she said.

Tunisia is no stranger to innovation: it was the first country in Africa to connect to the internet, and it remains one of the most connected countries in North Africa and the Middle East. But the introduction of Wikipedia presented the country’s many free culture advocates and digital activists with a tool they’d never had before: The ability to present Tunisia to the world as a nuanced and vibrant country not just defined or dominated by the stigma of factional terrorism that often clouds the region.

As in Tunisia, Wikipedia’s popularity in non-English speaking countries around the world quickly grew. Soon, articles were being uploaded in 301 different languages, from Albanian to Zamboanga Chavacano. People from countries all over the world were signing up to add their knowledge to the database; others were searching for topics and information that reflected their needs, interests and lived experiences. With this growth, challenges unsurprisingly began presenting themselves.

Contributing to Wikipedia meant having access to a sturdy internet connection. Articles had to adhere to strict policies and protocols, including the citing of sources “published by a reputable publication”. Article titles needed to ideally be recognisable to English speakers. In short, despite its mandate of free knowledge for everyone, many felt Wikipedia was becoming an overwhelmingly Western platform, curated by predominantly Western editors, for a majority Western audience. It didn’t adequately recognise the knowledge systems inherent in cultures with strong oral and non-written traditions; or factor in issues of access, or the prevalence of social media as a tool for modern information sharing.

“There have been these intense debates about how something that was a revolutionary act on the internet seemed to have become conservative in terms of what should be published,” said Dr Sean Jacobs, Associate Professor of International Affairs and founder of the website, Africa is a Country.

“Historians have thought about these things, and they’ve decided that, actually, you’ll find way more interesting accounts of the past (and) the present if you go look at other kinds of sources that are not in books.”

“There have been these intense debates about how something that was a revolutionary act on the internet seemed to have become conservative"

“Nowadays, you can go on YouTube and find an interview with an historian on Ethiopian state television,” said Jacobs. “And then there’s this very popular Ethiopian artist called Teddy Afro who made a song and a video to celebrate that event. And so you can let students watch the video with the historian, watch the music video, and you can open up a debate about Ethiopian national identity,” he said.

“But you can do that by looking at YouTube videos. So you may have to rethink what is relevant and noteworthy - and who is in charge of deciding that.”

Building knowledge equity into a system as vast as Wikipedia takes time, and it starts with acknowledging that there is a wealth of knowledge not yet represented, said Wikimedia Foundation Monitoring and Evaluation Strategist, Dumisani Ndubane.

“That knowledge comes from emerging communities, in particular on the African continent,” he said. “I feel responsible for finding those gaps and doing something to get (that knowledge) online. We need to feel motivated that we are part of the global community and that our knowledge and knowledge forms are acceptable and they’re being taken on, and that we matter,” Ndubane said.

La Mer
La Mer

By 2050, more than a quarter of the world’s population -- an estimated 2.5 billion people -- will live on the African continent. The Global South will dominate the world in numbers. So it’s only logical that the content on the internet and in future knowledge systems should reflect their contribution.

“The internet has not been set up for smaller languages. It was not created with the needs of somebody in Nepal in mind,” said Wikimedia Foundation’s Executive Director, Katherine Maher.

“But there is just a real demographic shift that’s happening across the world today. So from our perspective, really investing in countries and emerging markets that are not really represented is important, not just because we want that knowledge on Wikipedia and we want to be able to understand the perspective on the world from the people in those places, but because we recognise that it’s not just Wikipedia that’s missing for so many of these communities and languages.

“It’s actually being represented in digital spaces in general,” Maher said.

For history and heritage enthusiasts like Emna Mizouni, introducing the rest of the world to Tunisia one article or citation or photograph of a monument at a time, on a platform like Wikipedia, has been a revelation. And as Wikimania 2018 drew to a close on the other end of the continent, it was the revelation of Africa’s infinite wisdom the she and many others committed to sharing with the world, as far as the infinite internet allows.