I don’t know what it says about the English-speaking world (OK, in this case probably the United States) that its Wikipedia contributors disagree more about professional wrestlers than nearly any other topic, but it can’t be good. It’s one of numerous interesting, if not always surprising, findings from a group of international researchers who determined the most-controversial Wikipedia articles across 10 different languages. (Hat tip to the MIT Technology Review’s Physics arXiv Blog; Wired Science’s Social Dimension blog also covered an earlier draft of this research in May.)
The researchers, who come from Oxford, Rutgers and two Hungarian institutions, identified the articles by creating a formula based upon the number of mutual reversions each article receives (essentially when Editor X reverts Editor Y’s edit back to the original form, and then Editor Y returns the favor). Here are the top 10 controversial articles in each language they analyzed: English, French, German, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew.
There are many topics you’d probably expect to see pop up across geographies — religion, politics, history — and many specific names or issues. Although, I must say, Czech-language editors’ apparent hangup with sexual orientation is a little weird, as is the fact that the English-editing world feels the need to quibble over who’s employed by World Wrestling Entertainment. (A couple commentators to the MIT Technology Review post suggest, perhaps rightly, that Wikipedia editors might not represent an accurate cross-section of any given population.)
The study includes all sorts of informative visualizations — you really should check it out — including this one on the articles most commonly disputed in what some might call the western world.
The authors claim the purpose of was primarily to identify the socio-political nature of so-called “edit wars” and how they look across different cultures. Among their findings was that languages with more articles and more contributors have more diversity in the topics about which they argue — something that could be indicative of greater cultural differences, or perhaps just a matter of statistics (more people and more articles means each person and each article less significant). English also appears to be a lingua franca of sorts for Wikipedia, containing the most globally relevant topics.
Cultural aspects aside, the authors also note another, possibly more difficult, area that could benefit from studying Wikipedia edit controversies: the dynamics of disputes as more and more collaborative work is performed via the web. How issues arise, escalate and ultimately resolve themselves without the benefit of in-person communication could be a valuable cycle to understand.
Authors Taha Yasseri and János Kertész have been steeped in the topic of Wikipedia edit wars for some time. This particular study will be a chapter in a forthcoming book, but earlier this year they published a different paper looking at how edit controversies behave over time.