“Do your friends ever have a conversation, and you just nod along even if you’re not really sure what they’re talking about?”
Those of you among the generation that grew up watching six people sitting in a coffeehouse in New York (Friends, to you Gen-Zers) might recognize the reference above. The quote in question is from a Season 4 episode in which Joey gets talked into buying a set of encyclopedias by a pushy salesman but can only afford the letter V. Convinced this will give him the whole package of brains and beauty, he swats up on Vesuvius, vivisections, and the Vietnam War. Of course, none of it helps him to impress the gang or the girls. But after watching the episode again in 2018, what struck me was that not only Joey’s laboriously gained wisdom, but more generally his situation, has become obsolete.
We are all familiar with those moments when we awkwardly pretend to understand what our friends and entourage are talking about. But now instead of living in social angst, we just Google it and, lo and behold, 99.9% of the time there is a Wikipedia article that neatly summarizes what we need to know.
This automatic reflex applies to countless moments in our lives, whether it is researching a topic for a work presentation or a school paper (unsurprisingly, Wikipedia has the highest affinity among 16- to 24-year-olds, according to GlobalWebIndex) or just getting by in real-life Trivial Pursuit. We have all benefitted from the easy, free, and open access to almost 40 million articles in 293 languages. There are more topics covered by Wikipedia than by any other body of written text in history. This alone makes it one of the most popular sites in the world (fifth, according to Alexa, behind Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Baidu), but in my opinion, its meaningfulness lies beyond.
Thanks to Wikipedia’s underlying technology—the wiki—users, not just website publishers, can write and modify content on an ongoing basis. You don’t even need a Wikipedia account to do so. There is no other site that embodies the potential of the internet to harness collective intelligence in such a collaborative way—and in exchange for zero personal data or advertising. Pretty extraordinary when you think about it.
Even more so is Wikipedia’s ability to generate a form of “global” consensus among the web community about the information it contains. At a time when user-generated and even published content on the web raises concerns about “fake news,” this is no easy accomplishment. So how does Wikipedia manage it?
Contrary to skeptical belief, Wikipedia pages are often curated by keen experts and are usually among the best place to gain an informed and up-to-date overview. Critics tend to forget that Wikipedia entries do not attempt to be a substitute for more comprehensive bodies of work but to complement them; its content is largely derived from previously published information. This is why contributors have an obligation to credit their sources through traceable referencing. Had it not been for this, I would be staring at plagiarism fines of galactic proportions.
Of course, the quality and comprehensiveness of content varies, and there will always be a degree of vandalism. In 2016, a journalist from Le Monde wrote an article about a fictional Greek scholar called Léophanès, which was based on falsified historical sources. It survived six weeks on French Wikipedia before he announced it was a hoax.
But luckily, Wikipedia’s technology, governance, and norms allow these types of fake articles to be identified and removed. From the beginning, Wikipedia has been based on a core of volunteer editors (users with accounts who actively contribute to / edit articles) who share a common ethos and some substantive expertise in fact-checking. This community has grown, and today English Wikipedia counts more than 130,000 active editors (it’s many more when we consider all languages) who fix typos, remove vandalism, polish content…and generally safeguard this unique information ecosystem. There are plenty of other websites, as well as TV channels and shows, newspapers, and apps, that I use daily, appreciate enormously, and find beneficial for my personal use. But none are as important and meaningful as Wikipedia. Seventeen years since it was created, it is fair to say I cannot imagine the World Wide Web without it. And chances are neither can you.