In late 2011, I was in Nairobi working as an ethnographer for Ushahidi when I heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somalia. After interviewing local Wikipedians, I found out that the Wikipedia article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This story indicated some key design changes that could be made to Wikipedia policy and practice as a result of ethnographic research. Although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out.
In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events — especially when they are physically distant from one another.
When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.
A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator opined that the event was not being reported by the press as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations.
In the next few days in Nairobi, I became steeped in the narratives around this event — on television, in newspapers, in the bars, on Twitter, and Facebook. I learned that the story was not only a story about the invasion of one country by another, and that there were more salient narratives that only people living in Kenya were aware of:
- This was a story about Kenyan military trying to prove itself: it was the first time since independence that the military had been involved in an active campaign and the country was watching to see whether they would be able to succeed.
- The move had been preceded by a series of harrowing stories about the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and tourists on the border with southern Somalia — one of Kenya’s major tourist destinations — and the subsequent move by the British government to advise against Britons traveling to coastal areas near the Somali border. [Another narrative that Mark Kaigwa pointed out was that some Kenyans believed that this was a move by the government to prevent spending cuts to the military, and that, as an election year in Kenya, they wanted to prove themselves]
- There were threats of retaliation by Al Shabaab — many sympathizers of whom were living inside Kenya. I remember sitting in a bar with friends and remarking how quiet it was. My friends answered that everyone had been urged not to go out — and especially not to bars because of the threat of attacks at which point I wondered aloud why we were there. Al Shabaab acted on those threats at a bar in the city center only a few miles away from us that night.
I used to think that these kind of deletions were just an example of ignorance, of cultural imperialism and even of racism. Although some of the responses could definitely be viewed that way, the editor who nominated the article for deletion, Middayexpress has contributed the highest number of edits to the article. His/her actions could not be explained by ignorance and bad faith alone.
What I realized when I was interviewing Kenyan Wikipedians about these and other articles that were threatened with deletion for so-called “lack of notability” was that editors in countries outside of Kenya didn’t have access to the narratives that I highlighted earlier that would make it obvious that this event was notable enough to deserve its own page. People outside of Kenya would have seen the single narrative about the incursion/invasion without any of these supporting narratives that made this stand out in Kenya as obviously important in the history of the country.
Screenshot: The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign
These narratives don’t travel well for three reasons:
a) The volume of international news being covered by traditional media in the West is declining. The story that Western editors were getting was a single story about a military offensive, one they thought must fit within a broader narrative about the Somali war;
b) The buzz in the streets or the threat of bodily harm that people in Kenya were exposed to did not go online in traditional formats but could be witnessed by those surrounded by such messages on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and
c) Even where it did, front pages of news websites are especially ineffective at showing readers when there is a single story that is really important. In newspapers, we fill up the entire front page with the story, make the headline shorter, run it along the entire page, and run a massive photograph when there is a war or a huge story. The front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation is always going to be busy, with a lot of competing stories, making it really difficult just by looking at the site whether a story was relatively more important than others.
This story made me realize how important it is for Wikipedians to expose themselves to social media sources so that they can get access to some of these supporting narratives that you just don’t get by looking online, and that despite Wikipedia’s general aversion to social media, this kind of contextual understanding is essential to gaining a more nuanced understanding of local notability.
This story was originally published by Ethnography Matters in 2013 as part of a series on the work of ethnographers in the design of social computing systems.