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Egypt: Lots of bloggers, fewer wikipedians

My friend Kevin Donovan has an interesting post today, wondering about the size of the Arabic-language wikipedia. As he observes, it’s smaller than the Esperanto wikipedia despite the fact that it’s likely the fifth most spoken language in the world, at least in terms of native speakers. (Esperanto, for the curious, is not the fourth most spoken language in the world.) Kevin is suspicious of attempts to pay people to contribute to small wikipedias, and wonders what sort of incentives in a gift economy might encourage people to author content for small Wikipedias.

Kevin references an old post of mine, where I tried to figure out the ratio of native speakers of a language to the number of wikipedia entries, and offer some speculation about the motivations of people who contribute to wikipedia in their mother tongues versus contributing in English. I suggested that some wikipedians might be contributing to the English-language wikipedia rather than their native wikipedias because they’ll have a much broader reach and influence, as the English-language wikipedia is one of the world’s most popular sites, while smaller wikipedias often have small audiences.

The question is a timely one, as the Wikimania conference just took place in Alexandria and may serve as a major impetus to encourage contributions to the Arabic Wikipedia. Kevin’s post speculates that there may be a form of “social permission” that lets people know that it’s okay to contribute to a project like wikipedia, even in absence of formal reward mechanisms. As I was reading this post (serendipity!), I got an email summarizing the results of an Egyptian government study on blogs from a friend who works with Jeeran.com. My friend was pleased by results that suggested that more than 70% of Egyptian bloggers were using Jeeran. I was staggered by the size of the Egyptian blogosphere:

– The total number of Arabic blogs is 450.000 blogs with a percentage of 0.7 % of the total number of blogs in the world. And the Egyptian blogs form 30.7 % of the Arabic blogs.
– 76.8 % of the Egyptian blogs use the Arabic language, 9.6 % are written in English, and 20.8 % are mixed.
– 73 % of the Egyptian bloggers are males, and 27 % are females.
– 53.1 % of the Egyptian bloggers are between 20 – 30 years old.

(I’m quoting my friend’s translation – the original report is in Arabic, and is available here as a pdf.)

Egypt is a big place, with over 80 million people. But net penetration is around 10%, and broadband penetration is much lower, with ITU estimates of only about 430,000 subscribers. In other words, there are roughly as many Egyptian bloggers as broadband subscribers, and roughly one of twenty Egyptian net users is a blogger, which isn’t a bad participation rate.

The mixed language nature of Egyptian blogs is particularly interesting – since the vast majority of Egyptians speak Arabic, this suggests roughly 30% of Egyptian bloggers – more than 100,000 people – have the linguistic skills neccesary to translate content from the English wikipedia into Arabic. And the whole mass of bloggers have the technical means to contribute to the Arabic wikiedia, should they be interested in doing so.

Which brings me to Kevin’s question about cultural “permission” to participate in a project. Blogging has gotten a lot of press in Egypt, much of it characterizing blogging as a highly political activity. A number of Egyptian bloggers have been imprisoned, either for their online writing or their offline activism, and it’s likely that some Egyptians think of blogging as a dangerous activity. That hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians from getting online. Here’s hoping that Wikimania and the press attention surrounding it helps recruit thousands of new authors to the Arabic wikipedia in the near future.

Bonus content:

Noam Cohen in the New York Times Bits blog talks in detail about the conversation about low participation in the Arabic Wikipedia at Wikimania.

10 thoughts on “Egypt: Lots of bloggers, fewer wikipedians”

  1. I guess no press is bad press for Wikipedia – hopefully, though, the press extends to the greater Arabic speaking world instead of just Egypt.

    By the way, do you have a link to the original blog post? I can’t find it in a search

  2. This reminded me of a scary factoid I read in Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith”: Spain translates as many books into Spanish each year as the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the 9th century.” He’s quoting from a 2002 UN report.

  3. For people who would like to get to know Arab blogs, I suggest http://itoot.net

    Blog posts are in English and Arabic.

    “Today’s handpicked bloggers from 172 blogs selected by toot. We find the best and freshest voices from across Arabia and around the world.”

  4. Great points, Ethan. The comparison with blogging is especially smart and makes me consider the differences in peer-approval and authority-approval. It seems blogging in Egypt has benefited from the Streisand effect which may be more important than positive encouragement. So, if Wikimania in Egypt doesn’t work, perhaps we need Mubarak to ban Wikipedia for a while ;)

  5. note that the study says only 48% of these blogs are active, my guess is 60-80 thousand bloggers is a more accurate number (but we where only a handful back in 2004 so rate of growth is staggering).

  6. I have seen very little Arabic coverage on Wikimania so far. The most prominent independent Egyptian daily quoted Jimbo saying that both Egypt and the US censor the web, and that’s about it. Alas, I think we shouldn save all the money and jet fuel, and organise most of wikimania online.

    It may be worthwhile to note that a few years ago, there was a lot of overlap in the circles of bloggers, wikipedians, and free software geeks, and this applies to rest of the Arabic-speaking countries as well.

    My impression is that the culture of the Arabic wikipedia, and I have been there since the early days, has involved a lot of censorship, comparing to my impression of other wikipedias. Blogging, on the other hand, is more of a one-man show. Things are getting better, though. The Arabic wikipedia is growing more reliable and interesting.

  7. I know many people in Mexico (probably not enough to be representative of a trend…) that blog and publish in Spanish, but make contributions to Wikipedia in English only.

    The issue here is not the reach they can have with an article in the English Wikipedia, it is that the content of the English project is closer to their interests and reality.

    The Spanish Wikipedia is, well, very “Spain-Spanish” to put it somehow. It would take a tremendous effort to “mexicanize” it. And it would not be in the best interest of the project or community anyway.

    It is the idea of the Universal Encyclopedia, which is embodied by the English language Wikipedia project. Every other Wikipedia tends to be local in content and interest. But problems arise when it is not clear or accepted what “local” means. It may well be that smaller wikipedia-like projects could emerge that mimic the impact and popularity of blogs, use the local language, and do aim to collect useful knowledge.

  8. Pingback: Why is the Arabic Wikipedia So Small? « Blurring Borders

  9. Hi Ethan,
    just found this article by Al Arabiya News channel:

    According to a recent report published by the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), Egypt has over 162,000 bloggers [mostly between 20-30 year olds], which constitutes 30 percent of Arab bloggers.

    The detailed report raises pertinent questions that require further examination. The efforts invested in investigating the numbers of Egyptian bloggers and gathering information about their activities is a testimony of the growing influence of this segment in society in the political and media spheres – not only in Egypt but in the world.


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