How can we advance human understanding on the internet when so many people are left out of the conversation? And what can we do to change that?

For African societies, information on Wikipedia about history, place, and culture is mostly created by people living elsewhere. Last time researchers measured, they found that 3/10ths of a percent of Wikipedia’s information comes from African sources (Ford 2013). These gaps in information and participation on Wikipedia (Graham et al, 2014) can mislead the world and cause readers to miss out on African life.

To change how Wikipedia sees Africa, we need to increase participation from African contributors. That’s the goal of our community partner WikiLovesAfrica (WLA). Starting in 2014, WLA has coordinated thousands of people from most countries in Africa to contribute over 65,000 images for inclusion in Wikipedia articles across many languages.  

Each year, WLA chooses a theme such as “play”, “cuisine”, or “cultural fashion”  which help build the world’s largest free knowledge source. A network of community groups and past contributors compete for regional awards and continent-wide cash prizes every year.

In 2018 when the organizers of WikiLovesAfrica reached out to us, they were determined to close the gap further. They wanted to know: what are efficient and effective ways to recruit more contestants – and so more contributed photos? For this year’s competition, “Africa on the Move,” we worked together on a study to test recruitment ideas.

Winner of 2019 Competition. Theme: Play. By Marco Gualazzini – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Winner of 2018 Competition. Theme: Work. By Yann Macherez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

To recruit photographers, WLA team members use several strategies, including promoting the contest to the Wikimedia community, inviting Africans to participate through a banner displayed at the top of all Wikipedia pages, using social media, and organising media events led by local teams. WLA also sends invitation messages to the “talk page” of all past contestants. The contest’s coordinators were interested to see if they could improve that message, but first they wanted to be sure sending a message was worth the effort. Talk page messages aren’t costless; they take time to write and they can be considered spam if not welcome. Maybe their recruitment message wasn’t worth the bother – or was hurting their efforts?

CAT Lab partnered with WLA to see if their recruitment message, indeed, resulted in more return contestants. We ran a randomized controlled trial in which half of WLA’s almost 6,000 past contestants received a recruitment email (treatment) and half did not (control). Because we imagined the message could have a stronger effect on more recent contestants, we made sure there was a balance of last year’s entrants in treatment and control.

The results were clear: past contestants were 1.2 percentage points more likely to re-enter the competition if they received a talk page recruitment message. For the previous year’s participants, who were more likely to re-enter regardless, the effect was larger, with 2.7 percentage points more return photographers.

While those numbers may seem small they add up to about 70 more entrants than the contest would have if they did not send a recruitment message to former participants. Given that each returning contributor submits about 29 photos on average, that translates to 2,000+ more photos. Since this year totaled 16,919 images, we estimate that the recruitment campaign increased the overall number of photographs by approximately 13%.

Last year participated n included in study % invited to participate 2020 % participating 2020 mean photos submitted
before 2019 4615 50% 1.00% 0.192
2019 1290 50% 5.04% 1.833

Should the WLA organizers continue to send a recruitment email? We can’t answer that question. What we can say is that it almost certainly helps recruitment. It is up to the WLA organizers to decide if those 70 additional contestants and 2,000+ photos are worth their effort. (But we are guessing they will think it is.)

Next year we hope to work with WLA to see if they can improve on their recruitment message’s effectiveness. CAT Lab and the WLA organizers are interested to test two strategies for recruitment; either drawing on photographers’ drive to increase their personal recognition and prestige or by calling on their motivation to altruistically contribute to a valuable endeavor. By testing alternative messages, we hope to learn what motivates contestants to contribute to Wikipedia photo contests and, perhaps, what motivates Wikipedians in general. We also hope to leave WLA with a more effective recruitment message and more stunning photos. Here’s one more, just for your viewing pleasure, along with a few of WLA organizers…

2nd Prize 2019. (Note: first time participant!) By Summering 2018 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
WikiLovesAfrica 2020 in Botswana (By Shoodho 2020 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
WikiLovesAfrica in Benin, 2020. (By Fawaz.tairou 2020. Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
WikiLovesAfrica in Zambia 2020. (By Icem4k 2020. Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Top image: Fishermen in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, contributed by SYLLA Cheick 225, CC BY-SA 4.0

Further Details

Pre-analysis plan:

Pre-print: Broadening African Self-Representation on
Wikipedia: A Field Experiment


Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K. & Medhat, A. Uneven geographies of user-generated information: Patterns of increasing informational poverty. Annals Assoc. Am. Geogr. 104, 746–764 (2014). Publisher: Taylor & Francis.

Ford, H., Sen, S., Musicant, D. R., & Miller, N. (2013, August). Getting to the source: Where does Wikipedia get its information from?. In Proceedings of the 9th international symposium on open collaboration (pp. 1-10).