Most measures of “internet development” put a numerical figure on basic infrastructure and use: broadband rates, number of users, number of blogs, etc. This data, however, can rarely capture a sense of how a population is using the net and the larger “internet culture” — i.e., does the internet have an impact within the broader culture and/or are users actively invested in the net as a primary cultural sphere? Most comparisons and opinions on these questions are bound to be based on subjective judgment, but are there not objective ways to measure the abstract idea of “national participation” across the globe?
Wikipedia may provide the perfect field for comparison. Almost every major language has its own Wikipedia, and in most developed countries, the site is one of the most central and widely-accessed reference sources. And since users, rather than a specific company or central organization, are responsible for adding entries, the number of pages in a certain language should reflect an overall interest in a population’s desire to contribute to the internet.
In order to compare across the board, we first need to find a ratio for “number of Wikipedia pages in language / speakers of language.” For the number of pages, I used the figures given on the front page of http://wikipedia.org. For the speakers of each language, I used the highest estimate of native speakers on each language’s Wikipedia page, under the loose assumption that most editors and writers are native speakers. To make a more-easily viewed ratio number, I then multiplied the product of the pages/language division by 1,000.
As we see, European languages like Dutch, Polish, and German show the highest proportional participation in Wikipedia content. English is relatively high, although perhaps this number is skewed by the high usage of the site by non-native speakers. Furthermore, Wikipedia began in English, meaning the English version of the site has had more time to grow and expand than other languages. Some of the difference seen above is clearly socioeconomic: languages like Spanish clearly have a lot of speakers below the poverty level, who may lack access to computers. Europeans, however, still seem to have an extremely high rate of active Wikipedia participation — perhaps suggesting a strong commitment to Wikipedia’s goals.
I initially explored this idea for a measure in June 2008, and now comparing the number of pages in each language at that point in time with those as of late Feb 2009, Spanish has the highest growth rate at a 19.84% — which means there is a growing effort to make up for the generally low ratio. Despite high page numbers, Dutch still is growing at a relatively fast rate of 16.29%. Italian is similar at 16.49%. Japanese, however, is the slowest of the pack at 13.23%.
This, of course, brings us to Japan, which has a relatively low ratio of pages/speakers and low growth rate. Japan is the most illuminating for this measure, as essentially all statements about the “Japanese language sphere” are basically statements about the Japanese nation. I personally believe the low ratio reflects a certain disinterest in internet participation, which can be seen in other aspects of Japanese internet development. This data, although not particularly in-depth or scientific, suggests that there is a relatively slow embrace of the Web 2.0 concept — including the somewhat ideological aspect that everyone, not just elites, should contribute to the collection of information and knowledge. There is a case to be made that this “information wants to be free” philosophical disposition has no real precedents in Japanese institutional ethics or philosophical values, and regardless, has yet to reach joushiki “common sense” level in Japan. Wikipedia is Alexa’s #10 most-viewed site in Japan, so many Japanese are using the site as an easy and convenient reference, but numerically-speaking, they have much less interest in contributing than most major European language groups in the same socioeconomic order. Are the low levels of participation a product of laziness, disinterest, or a belief that collecting knowledge should be left to elites? Is the prominence of mobile phone access to the net, in particular, fundamentally limiting?
Obviously, this measure is not the ultimate means to gauge abstract political feelings about the promise of the internet, but in the case of Japan, I believe this Wikipedia benchmark gives some indication about the lack of net participation, not usually visible in more general statistics about web usage.