Wikipedia’s #1 page says a lot about today’s web

If a queen who lived two millennia ago dominates Wikipedia, it’s thanks in part to Google Assistant.

Taha Yasseri is a professor of sociology at the prestigious University College Dublin, who has a special interest in how people. Since the beginning of the year, he has looked at the statistics of the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia in 2022 and gave the fruit of his reflections in a fascinating post published in The Conversation. A guided tour of a survey that says a lot about today’s Internet.

In recent years, we see that the most popular sites often revolve around the same topics: celebrities, entertainment and politics. 2020, for example, was dominated by The covid-19 pandemic, the US presidential election and the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. In 2021, it is Euro football, the successful series Squid games and the death of Prince Philippe that attracted the most users.

We find these types of trends in 2022 as well. From the sports side, FIFA World Cup (5), Lionel Messi (14) or Cristiano Ronaldo (12) have all attracted more than 20 million internet users. Same observation for Amber Heard and Johnny Deppwhose defamation suit made headlines for months.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II (6th) fared even better, with more than 40 million hits. Core page Elon Muskespecially chatty in the media this year, inherits the 8th place with almost 28 million visits.

A surprising first place…

Nothing too surprising, in short… at least, until the first position. Because the least we can say is that the link to the news is much less obvious than with the sites mentioned above. And without the image at the top of the article, you’d probably have a hard time guessing what it is.

Some will most likely think about the situation in Ukraine. After all, it has been making headlines for almost a year. Lost! Indeed, politics also played an important role. But the Russian invasion comes only third in the annual ranking, with more than 50 million visits. Vladimir Putin comes in 9th place with 25 million views. It is closely followed by Ukraine’s site (11th) which has accumulated 24 million views in 2022.

It could be the Netflix series based on Jeffrey Dahmer, who made a truth? Neither! The serial killer set by Evan Peters falls to the second step of the annual podium, with more than 54 million views. The victory actually goes to… Cleopatra, the legendary queen of ancient Egypt, who reaches almost 56 million hits!

…and surprisingly persistent

A detail that has surprised the sociologist. Admittedly, Cleopatra was the star of an ad for the Superbowl, the annual high-profile event of American football. We’ve also seen some rumors of a possible remake of the classic 1963 film, with Gal Gadot in the Dynasty role. But nothing is enough to explain the incredible result of this Wikipedia page.

And taking the analysis further, Yasseri made another startling discovery. Looking at the statistics, he defined what he calls average half-life of a Wikipedia page. This concept i half life generally used by nuclear physicists ; it determines the time after which half of the atoms in a radioactive material decay naturally. It is also used in pharmacology. In this context, half-life refers to the time required for the concentration of a molecule in the blood to decrease by half.

In the case of Wikipedia, half-life refers to the time after which the public’s attention is halved. It usually runs from five to eight days, which is quite low in absolute terms. In this chart produced by Yasser and his team, we can see that this is true in Dahmer’s case. We observe an extreme peak of traffic on the Wikipedia page at the time of publication of the series. It then dropped very quickly in the following days.

© Taha Yasseri et al.

When Google Assistant plays the reel

We can already draw a rather anecdotal, but not interesting conclusion about the famous ” instant culture which the Web is often accused of encouraging. But the plus graphic of Cleopatra’s page, on the other hand, looks completely different. There is not one, but several successive peaks of attention. If the sovereign had taken his seat several times during the year.

Increasingly confused, researchers continued to explore different avenues. They finally got the start of an answer thanks to Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, administrator of Wikimedia’s French branch. On Twitter, the latter suggested that this incredible popularity was directly linked… to the intervention of Google Assistant.

At first glance, the connection between a regent who has been dead for more than 2,000 years and a modern voice assistant is anything but obvious. But it happens that when you use the program for the first time, it offers several examples of voice commands. For example, he might suggest “ Tell me a joke », « Open YouTube “… Where” Show me Cleopatra on Wikipedia !

However, Google Assistant is not just a simple gadget. According to a statement from the parent company, it is used by hundreds of millions of users every month. And mechanically, many of them were redirected to the Wikipedia page of the Queen of Egypt. Moreover, it turns out that in 2020, before the rise of Google Assistant, the site attracted only 2-3 million users per year.

traffic to cleopatra's wikipedia page skyrocketed after a line of text was introduced to the google assistant
Cleopatra’s Wikipedia page skyrocketed after a line of text was introduced to Google Assistant. © Taha Yasseri et al. via The Conversation

So the puzzle seems solved: if Cleopatra reigns over Wikipedia today as she did over ancient Egypt, it’s because modern software has played a role… and here’s where this story takes a disturbing turn.

A harmless offshoot of a wicked problem

Because in practice, it all started when the app designers decided to use Cleopatra’s example. A fairly anecdotal design choice, and above all completely arbitrary, but one that generated significant traffic. However, there is another system that gives special importance to these statistics: Google itself!

Indeed, even if the nuances of the algorithm remain mysterious, we do know that the most popular sites tend to be highlighted in search engine results. This results in a squatting effect; since the page in question ranks better in Google after folding the assistant, it is also more visible to other users of the Alphabet engine – that is, almost everyone in America and Europe!

In summary, we have a situation where an anecdotal design choice is multiplied by 20 the number of people exposed to a specific topic based on a completely arbitrary criterion. So we end up with a kind of digital butterfly effect that is full of deep implications.

This shows the extent to which seemingly anecdotal choices can deeply condition the behavior of Internet users. The simple positioning of an image, the shape of a button, the smallest piece of text can have a very concrete impact on the public’s priorities.

In this particular case, it is not something fundamentally serious. The topic is both very interesting and not very controversial. But in the light of dirty scandals like this case Cambridge Analyticait is easy to see how problematic these levers could be if they were used for political purposes eg.

Yasser’s goal is not to hit the Alphabet subsidiary in particular. His conclusions apply to all digital gamers. And because of their status in this industry, Google and the other GAFAM mechanically have a greater responsibility at this level.

Dog on a leash
© Laurent Mandine – Unsplash

Therefore, the main takeaway from Yasser’s post is to always be aware of the immense power these superpowers enjoy. Of course, their products provide us with proud service on a daily basis. But since they operate behind the scenes, it’s also easy to forget that today we systematically hold hands when we surf the Internet. Today, it is not just humanity that defines its own centers of interest; the products of the digital giants participate directly in this.

It is therefore essential to remain vigilant to prevent this support from failing pure and simple driving. Otherwise, we risk being guided by the stickor even completely are chained by algorithms with suggestions that are not always relevant.

You can find this text and Yasser’s other fascinating contributions on his profile The Conversation, at this address. His 2022 Wikipedia page rank is available here.

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