Cleopatra wasn’t a hot topic in 2022, so why was her Wiki page the most popular?  : ScienceAlert

Cleopatra wasn’t a hot topic in 2022, so why was her Wiki page the most popular? : ScienceAlert

Cleopatra wasn’t a hot topic in 2022, so why was her Wiki page the most popular?  : ScienceAlert

At the end of each year, I gather statistics on the most viewed Wikipedia articles of the year. It helps me, as a computational social scientist, to understand which topics have received the most attention and gives me the opportunity to reflect on the major public events of the year.

I’m trying to use data to determine how the public (and specifically here, English-speaking Wikipedia readers) will collectively remember the past year.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, the US presidential election and the death of Kobe Bryant were among the most memorable events. According to Wikipedia readers, 2021 will be remembered for Netflix’s Squid Game, the European Men’s Football Championship and the death of Prince Philip.

But in 2022, the list is topped with a somewhat unexpected name – Cleopatra.

Most of the items at the top of the list are related to major world events, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Queen’s death, and the Men’s World Cup. Elon Musk and Johnny Depp were also on the list.

Along with perennial favorites like the Bible and YouTube, there are a few surprises that were likely influenced by external factors like media and popular culture. For example, the article about Jeffrey Dahmer, the famous American serial killer who died in 1994, has been viewed over 54 million times, ranking number two.

Although aggregate pageview statistics alone do not provide a complete understanding of why Wikipedia users were interested in certain topics, changes in pageview statistics over time can provide clues.

In Dahmer’s case, an increase in page traffic corresponds to the release of the Netflix series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on September 21. This suggests that the series may have prompted readers to learn more about Dahmer from Wikipedia.

two charts comparing the spike in daily views on Jeffrey Dahmer with a more spread out pattern for Cleopatra
Number of daily pageviews for articles by Jeffrey Dahmer and Cleopatra on the English Wikipedia in 2022. (Provided by the author)

However, the massive interest generated by the article on Cleopatra remains a mystery.

While there have been a few reports of a remake of the classic film and a Super Bowl ad featuring Cleopatra, these don’t fully explain the massive number of views. The daily audience statistics for Cleopatra’s article also do not point to a specific event as the cause.

Nor does it show the typical pattern of rapidly declining public attention. My colleagues and I have found in our previous work that online attention typically has a short half-life of five to eight days, similar to what we see with the Dahmer page.

Ok Google, tell me about Cleopatra

Trying to figure out the reason for the sudden spike in views of the Cleopatra article, I turned to the internet for answers. Soon someone on Twitter provided a clue: The Google Assistant application, which uses voice recognition to allow users to interact with their phone through a conversation, may be responsible.

Launched in 2016, the app is now embedded on at least 1 billion devices and has over 500 million monthly users. When you install the app and start using it, it provides examples of the types of requests you can make.

These include commands for your phone’s operating system, such as “Open YouTube,” or requests to search the web, such as “How many ounces in a cup?” The app can also perform a combination of actions, such as “View Cristiano Ronaldo on Instagram”, which would open the Instagram app and display Ronaldo’s profile.

six sample suggestions for using the google assistant
Examples of suggested Google Assistant commands. (Author provided)

One of the prompts provided by the app to demonstrate its capabilities is “Try saying: View Cleopatra on Wikipedia”.

Indeed, in 2022, approximately more than 50 million people followed this prompt. Before Google Assistant went mainstream in 2020, annual views on Cleopatra were around 2.5 million.

Designing collective attention

The article’s popularity was likely greatly influenced by a prompt provided by the Google Assistant app, a seemingly arbitrary decision made by Google UX designers.

This is more than just an interesting coincidence. Researchers in the fields of social data science and web analytics often use statistics such as Google search volumes and Wikipedia page views to study the dynamics of attention and popularity. In addition to predicting the box office success of movies, I also used this data to study voter popularity.

While these rather new data sources can be useful and exciting, and great proxies for monitoring human behavior online, they can lead to misleading analytics. In 2013, Google researchers attempted – unsuccessfully – to predict the severity of flu season by analyzing user search data.

It is important for computational social scientists to also consider qualitative methods and in-depth case studies to understand the story behind the data.

More importantly, the example of Cleopatra highlights the impact that seemingly small decisions by designers can have on collective attention to certain topics and issues, sometimes with more serious consequences. Google has come under fire for ranking search results in a way that prioritizes its own products.

My previous research has shown how links on Wikipedia can drive significant traffic to certain articles, and how promoting certain petitions on the front page of a petitioning website can dramatically change the distribution of signatures and therefore the chances of receiving a wide attention to certain political causes.

This phenomenon shows how a small design change or decision can have large-scale effects when it reaches millions of users through digital technology. In this case, no harm was done and we may have learned a little more about Cleopatra and her relationship with Julius Caesar. But the tremendous power that tech and media companies have in shaping and influencing public attention should not be overlooked.The conversation

Taha Yasseri, Associate Professor, School of Sociology; Geary Fellow, Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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