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

Google Assistant a joué un rôle déterminant dans la popularité de la page Wikipedia de Cléopâtre

If a queen who lived two millennia ago dominates Wikipedia, it is partly thanks to Google Assistant.

Taha Yasseri is a professor of sociology at the prestigious University College Dublin who has a particular interest in how humans. Since the beginning of the year, he has been looking at the statistics of the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia in 2022, and he delivered the fruit of his reflections in a fascinating post published on 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 pages often revolve around the same themes: celebrities, entertainment, and politics. 2020, for example, was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the US presidential elections and the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. In 2021, it was the Euro football, the hit series Squid Games and the death of Prince Philippe that attracted the most users.

We also find these kinds of trends in 2022. On the sports side, the FIFA World Cup (5th), Lionet Messi (14th) or Cristiano Ronaldo (12th) have all attracted more than 20 million Internet users. The same goes for Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, whose defamation lawsuit made headlines for months.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II (6th) did even better, with more than 40 million visits. The page of the essential Elon Musk, particularly talkative in the media this year, inherits the 8th place with almost 28 million visits.

A surprising first place…

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

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

Could it be the Netflix series based on Jeffrey Dahmer, which made a real? Neither ! The serial killer camped by Evan Peters fails on 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 totals almost 56 million visits!

…and surprisingly tenacious

A detail that greatly surprised the sociologist. Admittedly, Cleopatra was the star of an advertisement for the Superbowl, the annual high mass of American football. We’ve also seen some rumors about a possible remake of the classic 1963 film, starring Gal Gadot as the dynast. But nothing that is enough to explain the implausible score of this Wikipedia page.

And taking the analysis further, Yasseri made another startling discovery. Looking at the statistics, he determined what he calls the average half-life of a Wikipedia page. This concept of half-life is generally used by nuclear physicists ; it designates the time after which half of the atoms disintegrate naturally in a radioactive material. It is also used in pharmacology. In this context, the 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 public attention halves. It usually goes from five to eight days, which is quite low in absolute terms. On this graph produced by Yasseri and his team, we can see that this is true in the case of Dahmer. We observe an extreme peak of attendance on the Wikipedia page at the time of the release of the series. It then fell very quickly in the days that followed.

© Taha Yasseri et al.

When Google Assistant plays reel

We can already draw a rather anecdotal conclusion, but not uninteresting on the famous ” snapshot culture that the Web is often accused of encouraging. But the plus graphic of Cleopatra’s page, on the other hand, looks totally different. There is not one, but several successive peaks of attention. As if the sovereign had made the headlines several times during the year.

Increasingly perplexed, the researchers therefore continued to explore various avenues. They finally got the beginning of an answer thanks to Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, administrator of the French branch of Wikimedia. 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 over 2,000 years and a modern voice assistant is anything but obvious. But it happens that when using the program for the first time, it offers some examples of voice commands. For example, he may 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 each month. And mechanically, many of them were therefore redirected to the Queen of Egypt’s Wikipedia page. Moreover, it turns out that in 2020, before the rise of Google Assistant, the page only attracted 2-3 million users per year.

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

The enigma therefore seems solved: if Cleopatra reigns over Wikipedia today as over Egypt of yesteryear, it is because modern software has played the reel… and this is where this story takes a turn. worrying.

A harmless offshoot of a wicked problem

Because in practice, it all started when the designers of the application decided to use the example of Cleopatra. A rather anecdotal choice of design, and above all completely arbitrary, but which generated significant traffic. However, there is another system that gives particular importance to these statistics: Google itself!

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

In summary, we therefore have a situation where a choice of anecdotal design multiplied by 20 the number of people exposed to a specific subject on the basis of a completely arbitrary criterion. So we end up with a sort of digital butterfly effect that is full of profound implications.

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

In this specific case, it is not something intrinsically serious. The theme is both very interesting and not really controversial. But in the light of sordid scandals like the Cambridge Analytica affair, it is easy to understand how problematic these levers could be if they were used for political purposes, for example.

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

Dog on leash
© Laurent Mandine – Unsplash

The takeaway from Yasseri’s post, therefore, is to always be mindful of the immense power enjoyed by these superpowers. Certainly, their products render us proud services on a daily basis. But since they operate behind the scenes, it is also easy to forget that today we are systematically held by the hand when we browse the Internet. Today, it is no longer 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 alert to prevent this support from becoming driving pure and simple. Otherwise, we risk being led by the wandor even completely kept on a leash by algorithms with suggestions that are not always relevant.

You can find this text and Yasseri’s other fascinating contributions on his profile, The Conversation, at this address. His ranking of Wikipedia pages in 2022 is available here.