The Wikimedia Foundation has released its latest report card for the movement's hundreds of sites. The WMF has published statistics since 2009, but only recently have they been expanded in scope and depth to provide a rich source of data for investigating the movement and the world it serves. Erik Zachte, who is from the Netherlands, is the driver of the WMF's statistical output—assisted, he told the Signpost, by "a bunch of colleagues". He has been a Wikipedian since 2002 and the Foundation's data analyst since 2008. Erik writes in his understated way that the report card and accompanying traffic statistics comprise "enough tables, bar charts and plots to keep you busy for a while".
The news is good in terms of the Wikipedias' popularity: monthly page views for the 285 sites rose by a healthy 25% from March 2012 to March 2013, including a 74% rise in views from mobile devices. The Wikipedias are viewed nearly 22 billion times a month—more than 8000 hits a second—or an average of 36 hits a year for every single human, all the more extraordinary for the fact that only about one in four of us uses the internet.
This week, the Signpost gives a thumbnail sketch of some of the statistics concerning page views among the Wikipedias, with a focus on the relationship between the world's major languages—particularly the global role of the English Wikipedia. What we found raises far more questions than it answers, and indicates the extent of the opportunities for using the statistics to analyse both internal and external phenomena.
The English Wikipedia (en.WP) receives 47% of the page views (down from 53% in 2009), and remains dominant among WMF sites. The next most popular WPs are the Spanish and Japanese (at just over 7%), the Russian (nearly 6%), the German (5.4%), and the French (4.2%).
English Wikipedia more popular among many non-native speakers
Surprisingly, the average rate at which internet users view en.WP pages is higher in many countries than in the six major countries with a native English-speaking majority (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand—all red in Fig. 1). Among those six, en.WP is by far the most popular in Canada, with 16 views per month, and would be higher still if adjusted for the fact that more than one in five Canadians is a native speaker of French. The UK and Ireland came in next, with 13 views per month, followed by the US, Australia, and NZ on 11 per month.
The average views of en.WP among internet users in the global north is also 11 per month (roughly three-quarters of all views); Europe, North America, generate the same average; Oceania (Australia, NZ, and surrounding Pacific nations) generated 10; the global south views en.WP six times a month (a quarter of all views).
The Arab world
The tangled consequences of European colonisation are evident in profound differences in WP usage among the two dozen modern nation states that have significant ties to Arabic (Fig. 2). At 79%, the Arabic WP page-view rate is highest in the small state of Comoros off the Tanzanian coast, against 11% for en.WP and 2.4% for the French WP. This turns out to be on the extreme end of Arab usage, with a steady fall to less than a quarter in some countries, in favour of the colonial languages: overall, the Arabic WP is still the minority choice, against the English WP and, in places that were French colonies, the French WP.
These inconsistencies suggest that WP choice is complex and multifactorial: the Signpost has been told that nothing is certain, but factors could include a combination of (i) the proportion of internet users who read English (or French); (ii) the perceived quality and/or scope of the Arabic WP versus that of the English (or French) WPs; and (iii) political, educational, or social pressure to use or avoid a certain WP. Each of these factors, if they did play a part, would probably be the result of a number of component factors. While countries that share other languages—such as in the Spanish-speaking world—also show internal differences in their rate of en.WP views, they are not nearly as pronounced as in the Arab world.
The dynamics over time—country by country since 2009
Aside from the six major English-speaking countries, the WP viewing patterns of almost every country focus almost entirely on two WPs (in a few cases three); English is usually the second most popular, with tiny percentages going to other WPs. Over the past four years, the Arab world has seen particularly sharp movements away from the colonial languages towards the Arabic WP. Egypt, for example, has reversed from a 62/30 English/Arabic split to 40/53; this has been repeated almost exactly in Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent in some other Arab nations. Where French is a major choice, it too has tended to recede along with en.WP. To what extent is this related to the Arab Spring, and a sense of increasing pride and independence in Arab culture and language? And to what extent is it a product of any greater scope and depth on the Arabic WP?
Since 2009, this significant move away from en.WP to the WPs of local languages has been repeated around the world, although not usually as dramatically as in Arabic-speaking countries. There are many distinctive and unexplained patterns. A common scenario is a vacillation between the English and local-language WPs, quarter by quarter, with an unexplained shift to and from English in 2010. Taiwan (Fig. 3) shows the swing from Chinese to English in 2010, and another such swing more recently, in a mirror image characteristic of many countries. (Figs. 3–5 have two y-axes, which are scaled differently, and not from zero, to illustrate this mirrored relationship and to save space.)
Brazil shows a similar relation between English and Portuguese, although there has been a slight move towards en.WP over the past six months. Every Portuguese-speaking country had a precipitous drop in the use of the Portuguese WP in 2010, including Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, East Timor, and Portugal itself. The Signpost has yet to ascertain whether this, and indeed the peak in en.WP traffic around the same time, were artefacts of the data-gathering system.
Against the grain, the three German-speaking countries—Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—have all seen a move away from German and towards English. It has been suggested that this may be connected with a resistance by editors to the coverage of popular culture on the German WP. In Switzerland (Fig. 5), where French is also a major language, the popularity of German is more recently eroding in favour of English, and to a lesser extent French. Luxembourg has seen German usage fall significantly in favour of French and English. However, in neighbouring Belgium, both official languages—Dutch and French—have been gaining the edge on English.
Expatriate choices—just one fascinating area for investigation
Interestingly, some major expatriate groups do not appear to align strongly with the WP of their native tongue: only 0.6% of American page views went to the Spanish WP, yet more than 12% of the US population speaks Spanish at home. Similarly, only 2% of views from Finland are to the Swedish WP, although nearly 6% of Finns are native Swedish-speakers and the language has equal status with Finnish as an official language. The WP preferences of minority language groups appears to be a complex issue. By comparison, large native Russian-speaker groups in countries such as the Baltic states that were assimilated into the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century appear to be using both the Russian and the local-language WPs in greater proportions at the expense of English.