July 19, 2013 at 6:06 PM ET
George W. Bush and pro wrestling may be the most controversial topics on Wikipedia when it comes to English-language entries, but you won't find them causing a stir in Czechoslovakia or Germany, where instead, Psychotronics and Homeopathy are hotly contested. Some topics do provoke conflict all over the world, but new research shows that what really riles people is highly variable by language and region.
The researchers, led by Taha Yasseri at the University of Oxford, wanted to visualize where and how such controversial topics emerge and progress. Their research is ongoing, but in this first paper posted to arXiv and updated July 8, they came up with a method to identify contested topics and looked at how those topics vary around the world.
They determined that what makes a topic controversial is not simply the amount or frequency of edits, because that could simply be an active or new topic, like a current event or pop star. Instead, they focused on the interactions of the editors themselves.
An editor fixing vandalism or poor grammar won't inch an entry toward controversy, but two editors locked in battle over the characterization of a political figure or historical conflict will. They tend to produce lots of "mutual reverts" as they undo each other's work, going back and forth in a "bursty" pattern a bit like a sharp exchange in an argument. This suggests real controversy, or perhaps opposing principles.
Using this method, they analyzed the entire 12-year edit histories of Wikipedia in 10 different languages, producing a top-10 most-controversial list for each. The contents vary widely: the most controversial article on the English site is former president George W. Bush, but in Czech it's homosexuality, in Romania a football club, and in Hungary, "Gypsy crime."
You can use this web tool to see how different languages broke down as far as topics most likely to be controversial. In Japan, it seems, culture and media are the most discussed, while the Hebrew Wikipedia's conflicts are largely ideological and political.
Yet there are similarities as well. "Jesus" figures in several top 10s, and Holocaust-related pages (from Adolf Hitler to Israel) are always sites of major editorial conflict. This word cloud shows words in proportion to how controversial they were on average:
There were other findings as well: conflicts appear to be cultural, rather than just isolated to one language or country — Eastern Europe, for instance, sticks together largely, while Western Europe and Middle Eastern countries also "stuck together" in the general flavor of their controversies.
The work is ongoing, and the researchers said in an email to NBC News that they were working on isolating and mapping controversy not just by language or region, but also by time — seeing how events trigger edit wars, or the way hot topics cool down over the years.
It's not the first study to tackle Wikipedia edit wars as an interesting sociological phenomenon. Others, like this Hungarian study from June 2012, are interested in different aspects of the sprawling battleground of the online encyclopedia. The Oxford researchers, however, are working on a whole book called "Global Wikipedia" that, according to one of its authors, Anselm Spoerri, will "explore a wide range of international and cross-cultural issues as they are manifested in Wikipedia." It's due to be published in 2014.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.