As the internet opens up borders and lets us communicate globally, not locally, information travels more readily across borders. Or does it? New research on how people from different countries edit Wikipedia suggests that despite our unprecedented access to information, our interests have a lot to do with where we live.
Intrigued by the challenges of exchanging information globally, a team of researchers from Sweden and Germany turned to Wikipedia. Since exchanging information means sharing interests, they decided to focus on how geography and interests intersect. They used a random sample of one million Wikipedia articles and associated each article with the location of editors—over 23 million edits in all. Then they analyzed the data to see how shared interests corresponded with geographical location.
Their analysis revealed something intriguing: though they found 2,847 statistically significant shared interests and 18 clusters of “strongly connected countries,” interests tended to clump together by region. They found that when editors from two countries co-edit a Wikipedia article, more often than not it’s an article that has to do with a local interest—a sports figure who plays in both countries, for example, or a music genre that originated nearby. When they plotted strong shared interests on a map, they found that while interests certainly cross borders, they might not spread as widely as might be expected given how easy it is to exchange information.
It’s not clear what news that our interests tend to conform to geopolitical borders means for globalization, which has been linked to growing inequality even as it creates new opportunities around the world. The researchers were able to identify one region that seems to hold truly global promise:
Interestingly, the Middle East cluster has the largest strengths to other clusters, forming a hub that connects East and West, North and South. Interpreting the strong connections as potential highways for information spreading, the Middle East is not only a melting pot of ideas, but also plays an important role for the spread of information.