Wikipedia’s frontiers

Paul Raven @ 04-12-2009

Here’s an interesting thinking-out-loud piece at The Guardian from Mark Graham, which responds to those suggestions from the other week that Wikipedia is losing editors because the crowdsourced encyclopedia is ‘complete’.

Wikipedia still has much to do: the map above suggests there are still whole continents that remain a virtual “terra incognita” and the next explosive growth in the online encyclopedia will come from places that have not previously been represented.

The map represents the roughly half million geotagged Wikipedia articles that fall within the boundaries of any one country. These geotagged articles are either about distinct places (such as cities, buildings, forests) or about events that occurred in distinct places.


But what of the places that aren’t even represented? We often hear claims that peer-produced information is broader in scope and more accurate than traditional methods of content creation. This is certainly true, particularly for topics that generate a lot of interest such as “Paris” or “New York”. However, as we increasingly rely on (and trust) web 2.0 sources such as Wikipedia, what will be the effects of this new “terra incognita” in our shared map of knowledge?

It may be that when broadband reaches more parts of Africa – helped by the landfall of superfast cables in August – that more people there will start discovering Wikipedia, and that the site will see a second explosion of new editors and articles about places that have so far been ignored. Or it may be that by then Wikipedia will be passed by in favour of something new.

The answers are unclear, but we should nonetheless acknowledge the significant geographic gaps in an encyclopaedia that is described as having reached its limits. It is conceivable that it will only be a matter of time until a new generation of wannabe Wikipedia editors in Zambia, in Indonesia, and in much of the rest of the world begin to fill in the blank spots and construct dense layers of virtual representation.

It’ll be interesting to see what political arguments are raised around Wikipedia’s usefulness and ubiquity as new editors start to represent their own less-well-know nations and cities – controversy of one sort or another seems to dog it perpetually. That said, I think Wikipedia (or its inheritor) is going to be around for a good while yet… it’s too useful an idea to disappear that easily.

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