2022 wasn’t Cleopatra’s year – so why was it the most viewed page on Wikipedia?

At the end of each year, I collect statistics on the most viewed Wikipedia articles of the year. As a computational social scientist, this helps me understand which topics get the most attention, and gives me a chance to reflect on the year’s major public events. I’m trying to use data to determine how the public (and more specifically English 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 commemorated with Netflix’s Squid Game, the men’s European Football Championship and the death of Prince Philip.

But in 2022, a somewhat unexpected name is at the top of the list: Cleopatra.

Most of the articles at the top of the list deal with major world events, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the death of the Queen, and the men’s soccer World Cup. Elon Musk and Johnny Depp were also on the list. In addition to perennial favorites like the Bible and YouTube, there are a few surprises, possibly influenced by outside influences like media and popular culture.

For example, the article about the famous US serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who died in 1994, was viewed more than 54 million times and took second place. Aggregated pageview statistics alone may not fully understand why Wikipedia users are interested in certain topics, but changes in view statistics over time can provide clues.

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

The two side-by-side graphs show that the Jeffrey Dahmer article had a spike in views in September 2022, while the Cleopatra article had a high readership all year with a spike in October.

Daily pageviews of Jeffrey Dahmer and Cleopatra articles on English Wikipedia for 2022. Author provided

But the intense interest in the article about Cleopatra remains a mystery. While there is some news about a remake of the classic movie and a Superbowl ad featuring Cleopatra, they don’t fully account for the significant number of views. The daily view statistics of the Cleopatra article also do not show a specific event as the reason.

It also doesn’t show the typical fast decay pattern that has caught the public’s attention. My colleagues and I have found in our past studies that online attention typically has a short half-life of five to eight days, similar to what we saw on the Dahmer page.

Hey Google, tell me about Cleopatra

While trying to find the reason for the sudden increase in the number of views for the Cleopatra article, I turned to the internet for answers. Soon, someone on Twitter provided a clue: The Google Assistant app, which uses voice recognition to allow users to interact with their phones via speech, may be responsible.

Launched in 2016, the app is now built into at least 1 billion devices and has more than 500 million monthly users. It provides examples of the types of requests you can make once you install and start using the app.

These are commands for your phone’s operating system like “Open YouTube” or “How many ounces in a cup?” includes requests to initiate a web search, such as The app can also perform a combination of actions like “Show Cristiano Ronaldo on Instagram” which opens the Instagram app and brings up Ronaldo’s profile.

Six screenshots of Google Assistant suggestions.

Examples of Google Assistant’s command suggestions. Author provided

One of the prompts the app provides to demonstrate its capabilities is “Try saying: Show Cleopatra on Wikipedia”. Of course, in 2022, more than 50 million people followed this prompt. Before Google Assistant became widespread in 2020, Cleopatra’s annual watch count was around 2.5 million.

Screenshot of the corresponding Google assistant prompt overlaid with a graph showing Cleopatra Wikipedia views since 2016.

It’s the Google Assistant prompt that’s likely responsible for the increased interest in Cleopatra’s Wikipedia page. Views remained low before 2020. Author provided

collective attention design

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

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

These fairly new data sources can be useful and exciting and great representations for tracking human behavior online, but they can lead to misleading analysis. In 2013, Google researchers tried and failed to predict the severity of flu season by analyzing user search data.

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

A smiling woman holds her smartphone to her mouth to talk to a digital assistant.

More importantly, the Cleopatra example highlights the impact of seemingly minor decisions made by designers on directing collective attention to specific issues and issues that can sometimes have more serious consequences. Google has been criticized for ranking search results to prioritize 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 petition website can significantly change the distribution of signatures and thus the chances of gaining broad attention for certain political reasons.

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

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



Taha Yasseri receives funding from the Irish Research Council.

Leave a Comment