What I learned from Wikipedia's most popular articles of 2012

No one needs an Internet list of 2012 trends to tell them that Psy was a hit this year or remind them that Justin Bieber has droves of prepubescent followers. However, a ranking of popular 2012 Wikipedia articles in different languages offers a fascinating window on global trends around the world—and some anomalies.

Created as part of the Wikitrends project, the 2012 listing ranks the top 100 articles in various language versions of Wikipedia, from English to Estonian. So what can we learn from the Wikipedia tower of babel hit list but were afraid to ask?

Many countries are more similar than different in that they all seem fixated on ... themselves. Like the narcissistic practice of Googling one's own name, the top article in many countries was a profile of the country itself. You know who you are, Bulgaria, Russia, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, Greece, et al.

Perhaps they were just curious to see what the rest of the world was reading about them?

2012's Most viewed articles

The 100 most viewed articles on English Wikipedia during 2012. The ranking of popular 2012 Wikipedia articles in different languages offers a fascinating window on global trends around the world.

1. Facebook: 32,647,942 views
2. Wiki: 29,613,759
3. Deaths in 2012: 25,418,587
4. One Direction: 22,351,637
5. The Avengers (2012 film): 22,268,644
6. Fifty Shades of Grey: 21,779,423
7. 2012 phenomenon: 20,619,920
8. The Dark Knight Rises: 18,882,885
9. Google: 18,508,719
10. The Hunger Games: 18,431,626

For the most frequently visited version, the English language Wikipedia, the top hit was an article about Facebook. Perhaps people like Mark Zuckerberg's sister Randi were trying to figure out how to prevent personal photos from becoming public postings. (Unfortunately, the article isn't of much help when it comes to the social network's privacy settings.) Or maybe it was popular because people were trying to understand why their investment in the company tanked.

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Around the world, the Wikipedia rankings show that there continues to be a fascination in many countries with American TV shows. In Italy, the article about "Grey's Anatomy" was ranked number 1 and "Gossip Girls" was number 4. In Germany, "How I Met Your Mother," "The Big Bang Theory," "Two and a Half Men" and "Game of Thrones" were all in the top 10 (somebody is watching way too much TV).

This trend might also account for the fact that Croatians last year were most interested in the Stop Online Piracy Act. I know some colleagues in that country who have watched every episode of "MASH" thanks to BitTorrent. (I'm just sayin'.)

As one might expect, popular stories in some countries involved local rather than global musical trends over the past year. For Swedish Wikipedia visitors the number 2 hit was an entry about Loreen, a Swedish pop singer who won the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest with her entry "Euphoria.” Japanese popular musical tastes continue to be something of an enigma, witness the second most read Japanese article about AKB48—an all-girl idol group.

Some other areas of interest will be even more mystifying to citizens in other countries. For example, who knew Germans were so interested in dead-ends—or avoiding them? The German word for cul-de-sac (sackgasse) was the top Wikipedia hit. Some have suggested that it was due to an erroneous translation of a song by the boy band One Direction that generated the inordinate German curiosity. (Or maybe it was something said during an episode of the German version of Doc Martin, who knows?)

Looking at the French Wikipedia rankings for the year, one might believe that France was in the grip of a Japanese holly craze. But odder still, was Madonna—yes, the “Like a Virgin” Madonna—who ranked number 6 en francais (beating out One Direction, take that kids!).

In the former case, some Francophones point out there was a spike in Japanese holly hits earlier this year that looked suspiciously like the work of an online bot. In the second case, Madonna continued to court controversy in the country with a short show in Paris (boos were heard) and a cover of a Serge Gainsbourg song. There was also the scandal over Madonna using an image of far right-leaning French National Front party leader Marine Le Pen in a concert montage that included a swastika. Whatever she did, she sure got the attention of the French.

Less controversial, Go, a Chinese board game, is apparently a subject of fascination in Turkey. It was the second most popular article in the Turkish edition. An interesting biography about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, was number one.

In Russia, where they have a reputation for focusing on serious issues, a rather mundane Wikipedia entry about Internet pornography was number 3 in the Russian edition. Perhaps they don't get those sites in Russia or perhaps the readers were looking for external links? Lower down at number 7 was an article on unemployment and at number 10 was an article on labor, so perhaps Russians are still pretty serious after all.

Marking the socio-economic tumult in many countries, there was also a focus on serious political issues around the globe. In Arabic, the most popular article was a profile of Egypt. In the Greek edition, the second most popular story was an article about the contentious extremist group Golden Dawn.

Of course like any year-ender, trend ranking, these results are just one snapshot among thousands of the year that was. And remember, like most of what's on Wikipedia, it shouldn't necessarily be trusted for its veracity. On the other hand, it sure is an interesting way to see what some people in other countries might be thinking about.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.