Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

Heather Ford

Heather Ford

Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events. 

Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.


A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.   

In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.

A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations.

In the next few days in Nairobi, I became steeped in the narratives around this event – on television, in newspapers, in the bars, on Twitter, and FB. I learned that the story was not actually a story about the invasion of one country by another, and that there were more salient stories that only people living in Kenya were aware of:

  1. This was a story about Kenyan military trying to prove itself: it was the first time since independence that the military had been involved in an active campaign and the country was watching to see whether they would be able to succeed.
  2. The move had been preceded by a series of harrowing stories the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and tourists on the border with southern Somalia – one of Kenya’s major tourist destinations – and the subsequent move by the British government to advise against Britons traveling to coastal areas near the Somali border. [Another narrative that Mark Kaigwa pointed out was that some Kenyans believed that this was a move by the government to prevent spending cuts to the military, and that, as an election year in Kenya, they wanted to prove themselves]
  3. There were threats of retaliation by al Shabaab – many sympathizers of whom were living inside Kenya. I remember sitting in a bar with friends and remarking how quiet it was. My friends answered that everyone had been urged not to go out – and especially not to bars because of the threat of attacks at which point I wondered aloud why we were there. Al Shabaab acted on those threats at a bar in the city center only a few miles away from us that night.

I used to think that these kind of deletions were just an example of ignorance, of cultural imperialism and even of racism. Although some of the responses could definitely be viewed that way, the editor who nominated the article for deletion, Middayexpress, was engaged in the AfD (Articles for Deletion) discussion, and has contributed the highest number of edits. His/her actions could not be explained by ignorance and bad faith alone.

What I realized when I was interviewing Wikipedians about these and other articles that were threatened with deletion for so-called “lack of notability” was that editors in countries outside of Kenya didn’t have access to these narratives that would make it obvious that this event was notable enough to deserve its own page. People outside of Kenya would have seen the single narrative about the incursion/invasion without any of these supporting narratives that made this stand out in Kenya as obviously important in the history of the country.

The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign

The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign

These narratives don’t travel well for three reasons:

a) The volume of international news being covered by traditional media in the West is declining. The story that Western editors were getting was a single story about a military offensive, one they thought must fit within a broader narrative about the Somali war;

b) Much of the local media that people in Kenya were exposed to (and certainly not buzz in the streets and in bars or the threat of bodily harm by terrorists) did not go online in traditional formats but was available on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and

c) Even where it did, front pages of news websites are especially ineffective at showing readers when there is a single story that is really important. In newspapers, we fill up the entire front page with the story, make the headline shorter, run it along the entire page, and run a massive photograph when there is a war or a huge story. The front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation is always going to be busy, with a lot of competing stories, making it really difficult just by looking at the site whether a story was relatively more important than others.

This story made me realize how important it is for Wikipedians to expose themselves to social media sources so that they can get access to some of these supporting narratives that you just don’t get by looking online, and that despite Wikipedia’s general aversion to social media, this kind of contextual understanding is essential to gaining a more nuanced understanding of local notability. This finding influenced the eventual report for Ushahidi on how Wikipedians manage and debate sources and citations, and lent legitimacy to Ushahidi’s plans to develop news filtering tools for use during rapidly evolving news events such as disasters, elections and political violence.

Featured pic by NS Newsflash (CC-BY) on Flickr



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7 Responses to “Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD”

  1. Paul
    March 14, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    Hey Heather,

    I think this problem is common to all chroniclers of history, no matter the medium. Imagine you were right in the middle of the October 1917 revolution: you would have heard rumours, seen some scuffles, read some reports here and there of some kind of takeover, got conflicting views from friends and work colleagues and it would have been difficult to isolate any kind of significance from it all.

    Only looking back could you say, ah there was the defining moment of the Russian Revolution where Lenin seized power. But at the time it would not be possible to say “I’m in the middle of a significant historical event.” Isn’t that the ultimate challenge that Wikipedians face in their quest for notability?

    We may look back in a year and realise that this incursion was the moment that Al Shabaab decided to pull back from the border and move north, forcing something else to happen that changed Somali history.

    • March 14, 2013 at 10:23 am #

      Hi Paul! Thank you for your great comment. Certainly, historians do have this problem. But they weigh up the evidence long after an event has occurred, thus enabling them more perspective on deciding whether this was, in fact, notable in the context of a larger chunk of time. I think that’s what’s so interesting about Wikipedia – the editors are writing ‘history’ (in the sense that they’re deciding that an event is notable enough for its own page) as it happens… And that’s despite the verifiability issue (that reliable secondary sources that have already analyzed the event are preferred) and the Wikipedia:NOT NEWS policy. Given the fact that there are articles that are admitted and those that are challenged, it’s interesting to try to consider why? Why was the Egyptian Revolution article, for example, written just a few hours after the first protests started and using a single (news) source that spoke about the protests in the future, allowed without dispute while this was challenged. I feel like it’s something about the context of media use as well as all the stuff we hear about bias and representation. So, you’re right that this is the ultimate challenge for Wikipedians. They’ve seized it, certainly, but only under certain conditions. That’s what I’m trying to figure out 🙂

      • Paul
        March 14, 2013 at 11:33 am #

        Very interesting project you have there I must say. Reminds me of Jon Udell’s 2005 screencast of Wikipedia edits to a random page and his analysis of how the factual, tonal and content elements of it change over time:

        I think it would be an interesting exercise to somehow analyse the Egyptian Revolution page using his methods and see what survived and what didn’t. You couldn’t rely on a computer to do the content analysis but perhaps some tool could be written that presents the edits and comparisons side by side in a visual format to make commentary easier. You could also tie in a dependency graph like this one:
        except for sources. Sounds like a fun weekend project if I didn’t have a whole bunch of other code to write 🙂

        I’m an amateur historian and very much a ‘big picture’ person so I’m always tempted to look at single events and say “gosh, this means X is going to happen.” Sometimes I’m even correct 🙂

  2. March 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    Paul, thank you so much for those links. I loved the Jon Udell vid and you’re right, this is exactly the kind of thing that I want to do to be able to better explain how the article grows over time. And yes, still thinking about viz tools. They are really important to get a better sense of such massive articles for sure 🙂

  3. June 26, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    Reblogged this on and commented:

    First published on ethnomatters in March.


  1. March 2013: Stories to Action Edition | Ethnography Matters - April 24, 2013

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