The Wondrous World of Wikipedia

We don't normally think of Wikipedia as social media–but for enthusiasts, it's just as social as any. Here's an inside look into what makes it tick.

10 mins read

This story is syndicated from The Spectator, the newspaper of Stuyvesant High School in New York City. The original version of the story ran here.

At 6:05 a.m. on December 26, 2005, Wikipedia user Teddybear nut uploaded a picture of a giant teddy bear enveloping a fluffy white dog. The piece was titled “File: Samoyed-and-teddy-bear.jpg.” We can only imagine that the user reached peak contentment because they captioned the picture, “I’m the author. This is a picture of my samoyed with a teddy bear. I release all rights to it. It would just be nice if her image could survive forever.”

Wikipedia is alive and well. It can be a place of childlike wonder, not just encyclopedic knowledge. It is a place where fervent fact-checkers will nip your misinformation in the bud, but make sure to preserve Wikipedia cultural landmarks like the  “[cetacean needed]” where a picture of a Tamanend’s bottlenose dolphin should be. All this to say: yes, Wikipedia has memes. 

Art credit: Cayla Chew

This shared repository of inside jokes—some of which go back years with infamous “editing wars” of whether the article for corn should’ve been called “Corn” or “Maize”—was recently collected in one slideshow presentation as part of a project named Depths of Wikipedia by treasure-hunter and archive-sweeper Annie Rau, who reminds us that the writers of Wikipedia are really people. She takes us through the history of the site like it’s a gallery of human connection. Through slides composed of Wikipedia article excerpts, she shows us how, two days before Wikipedia was born in January 2001, former President George W. Bush choked on a pretzel and fainted and how the co-founder of Wikipedia originally spent his time exploding melons in open fields. Indeed, the prototype of what would become Wikipedia’s slogan read: “What we lack in depth, we make up for in shallowness.” 24 years of changes crowdsourced from millions of people made Wikipedia the place it is today. What was once a website with a seven-step review process that limited writers to those with PhDs is now a site where the most edited articles are “List of WWE Personnel” and  “United States.”

When asked what excites her about the future of Wikipedia,  Rau answered, “Really smart and cool young people are still drawn to editing! Seems like every time I go to a Wikimedia event, I  meet a venerated admin—some wise sage whose Wikipedia contributions I’ve admired for years—who was born in like, 2005!” Wikipedia editing is not conducted exclusively by grownups with degrees in three programming languages plus knowledge about the article topic—sometimes editing is about reading a news article about a local train station that got renovated and deciding that you want this knowledge to survive—something young people very much could get into.

The Wikipedia community’s very welcoming in-person events render the goal of joining the team of Wikipedia editors as a teen slightly more realistic—most notably and recently, the founding of Wikipedia’s birthday party, where I met the person who started the article for the city’s World Trade Center and Chambers Street station. These events are always free. Even the spaces in the Wikipedia world are designed with a level of playfulness in mind. Specific subjects’ branches are almost magically referred to as “portals”, and the landing page for beginners to edit is called the “Teahouse”. Wikipedia’s very name—from the Hawaiian word “wiki” for “quick”—suggests expediency as part of the design, almost as if the online encyclopedia were more of a game—more Club Penguin than Britannica.

Even so, links on Wikipedia that direct to places promisingly called “community portals” are disorienting, information-packed at best, and discouraging at worst. The aforementioned Teahouse—though a refreshing concept for guiding newcomers onto online spaces when we cynically associate being new to online spaces as an isolating experience—has too many places to start, and one almost wishes it were formatted with Duolingo-style buttons and animations to engage more people with the lesser-known functions of the site. Even so, Wikipedia is forever flexible and retains the ability to surprise visitors as they spend more time on the site. I found out that typing in “Wikipedia: Essay directory” into the search bar reveals a collection of humorous opinion essays from “Lobster,” which argues that every Wikipedia article should include the word “lobster,” to one called “No one cares about your garage band.”

On one hand, the expectation Wikipedia has of you is justifiable—put in the work to understand how it’s run before you can feel like you are making a difference. It’s what we’ve heard from teachers that say when they were your age, they had to travel to archives to pore over fiches with gloves for hours at a time to do any constructive research. On the other hand, Wikipedia is as old as a recent college graduate, and having many different ways to start editing  such as clicking the bracketed “edit” button next to subsections of an article, going to “Learn to Edit” on the sidebar, or going to the “Talk” version of the article page to see what editors are debating about doesn’t mean any of these options are appealing. That’s where our teachers have to come in.

The issue with how we talk about Wikipedia is not that we don’t see it as fun. Anyone who has spent the better part of an hour reading an article on a subject they had no idea could be so intriguing knows learning is fun. What’s more worrying is that Wikipedia—despite having an entire database of peer-reviewed, reliable sources with comprehensive detailing of what criteria go into determining the reliability of a source—is dismissed as unreliable. The easiest way for people to start editing is just to look through articles and add sources to the information already in the article. When a 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck near Hualien County in Taiwan on Tuesday night, its Wikipedia article had over 70 supporting sources the next day. The staggering result of nearly 300,000 people editing each month is disregarded as something that can “only be a starting point” for one’s research. When teachers do not guide students in how best to take advantage of this free but incredibly layered resource, they communicate something more harmful in the long term than having an over-simplified understanding of material for a history project. By rejecting Wikipedia, teachers are saying that it’s not worth learning how to navigate crowd-sourced information and that it’s not worth contributing to it.

The relationship that school settings encourage us to have with technology lacks nuance. Talos, a site created by a Stuyvesant student, now has features for student input on administration decisions that appear as if they ultimately do not have a strong impact. School Wi-Fi blocks “anonymizers,” but that umbrella technology prevents the use of tools that students can use to hop over The Washington Post paywalls. When we learn about the Red Scare in APUSH, we should also be taught what the Electronic Frontier Foundation does to protect us and those extensions of ourselves that we call “devices”. All of this learning starts with “the free encyclopedia,” the slogan of which people forget ends with “anyone can edit.” The phrase “anyone” makes this slogan powerful. It means you. Young people. People who care about images of their fluffy dogs, surviving forever.

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