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Traffic to Wikipedia articles shows how we remember plane crashes

Keeping the past alive

Air Berlin To Shed 1,000 Jobs Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

How long will we remember the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared back in 2014? About 45 years, say scientists who used Wikipedia page views to develop a new way of studying our collective memory (the memory we share as a society).

For a study published today in the journal Science Advances, researchers analyzed Wikipedia page views to monitor how frequently people visit topic pages after a news event. In this specific study, the team collected page views of airplane crashes from 2008 to 2016 and labeled these “current events.” Then, they collected the same information on all plane crashes from before 2008 and labeled them “past events.” Analyzing the relationship between the two sets of data shows how different topics are related to each other. The researchers found that terrible current events can help keep past events alive, because people reading about the current event follow links to learn about something from years ago.

For example, when the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down while flying over Ukraine, there were more page views for a similar event in the 1980s, when an Iranian airline was shot by down by the US Navy in the Persian Gulf. Not many people today know about that crash, according to study co-author Taha Yasseri, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. But because the two events were categorized similarly in Wikipedia, people who were originally reading about the Malaysia Airlines crash could click through and read about a past event they wouldn’t know about otherwise.

Similarly, there was more traffic to the Wiki page for a 2001 American Airlines crash right after the 2015 Germanwings crash, even though the two pages aren’t directly connected by a hyperlink. The researchers aren’t exactly sure how the two got connected, but the association means “that the memory patterns are not just an artifact of how articles are linked on Wikipedia but shows something more fundamental,” says Yasseri.

The data also provide some insight into which events are more likely to be remembered. Huge events, of course, are intrinsically more memorable: whenever there’s a plane crash, people tend to look at the 9/11 Wikipedia page more. Crashes where either a lot of people or none died, more recent crashes, and crashes operated by Western airlines also receive more traffic. On the other hand, the geographical location didn’t seem to matter much.

The research found that airplane crashes more than 45 years old do not get many page views even when there when a new crash occurs, suggesting that these incidents are lost to memory. This could be explained by the fact that people who remember things from 50 to 60 years ago might not be the typical Wikipedia users, says Yasseri.

A lot of research on collective memory online focuses on the people doing the writing, according to Michela Ferron, a digital communication researcher who was not involved in the study. Today’s paper offers a “novel perspective” because it doesn’t focus just on people who are actively writing and editing the pages, but captures the behavior of people on the web.

The internet shapes our memory in paradoxical ways. Because of the online news cycle, our attention spans are rather short, says Yasseri, and interest in any given airplane crash quickly disappears. But on the other hand, the news event plus Wikipedia provides more opportunity to educate ourselves about the past. “Our attention span might have been shortened by tech and by online environments, but then at the same time long-term memory has become more persistent and things from the past are more accessible,” he says.