How Wikipedia Introduced Me to the Internet

Wikipedia, the online, reader-edited encyclopedia, honored the 750th anniversary of American independence on July 25 with a special featured section on its main page Tuesday…

The special anniversary tribute refutes many myths about the period and American history. According to the entry, the American Revolution was in fact instigated by Chuck Norris, who incinerated the Stamp Act by looking at it, then roundhouse-kicked the entire British army into the Atlantic Ocean…

While other news and information websites chose to mark the anniversary in a muted fashion, if at all, Wikipedia gave it prominent emphasis over other important historical events from the same day, including the independence of the nation of Africa in 1847, the 1984 ascension of Constantine to Emperor of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the 1998 birth of Smokey, a calico cat belonging to Mark and Becky Rousch of Erie, PA.

The Onion

We continue our series on websites-I-use-almost-daily-that-remain-immensely-popular-worldwide-despite-justifiable-mocking-from-some-quarters with — you guessed it — Wikipedia, “the Free Encyclopedia.” Having already covered Twitter and YouTube, I’m basically doing this in reverse chronological order as well as order of importance to my life. Wikipedia is something I could easily live without, but it’s been a convenient (especially the “free” part) tool that I’ve used for a variety of projects.

As the Onion so effectively illustrates above, this encyclopedia is rather infamous due to the fact that anyone in the world can edit its entries. Making the site more accurate is a never-ending task. Certainly whenever serious research is required, this is not the place to go (but then, all encyclopediae are secondary sources and should only get you started, right, students?). On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever read every word in a Wikipedia entry. It’s best used as a quick guide to basic facts, names, dates, quotations, and so forth. Breadth is emphasized over depth in many cases — currently, the website hosts over 4.2 million English-language articles. It includes a whole bunch of topics that will never be found in a standard encyclopedia. But even for something as innocuous as a historical or biographical date, I tend to check another source to confirm the information is correct if I’m going to use that information for anything.

Wikipedia 1One of the first projects for which I leaned heavily on Wikipedia was a top 100 list of the greatest writers of all time. I was still in high school at the time and had read a little bit by somewhere between 20 and 25 of the writers who ended up on the list. In hindsight, I suppose, I was getting a little too big for my britches. Anyway, Wikipedia helped me select the few hundred nominees which I whittled down to the final 100. Diversity was very important to me; I wanted to be sure I had considered writers from all over the world and all time periods (skewing older, just because that was and is my disposition). The articles on Spanish literature, Chinese literature, the 18th century in literature, and so on linked me to articles on individual authors whom I may or may not have heard of before. These provided blurbs that gave me an idea of those writers’ reputations. I tried to use other resources in my quest, but Wikipedia and my own preconceived ideas were probably the most important. In lieu of mastering four thousand years of human thought, this was the best I could do. And I still think the results aren’t half bad. It’s a project I may revise at some future date.

That list was one of my last grand experiments. I still love list-making, but I mostly restrict myself to personal favorites rather than “the greatest such-and-such of all time.” Still, Wikipedia is one of the places I go to remind myself that some person or thing exists, when they existed, and what they did while existing.

Wikipedia 2In recent years, the primary use I’ve had for the site is as a tool for building, and adding information to, my music collection. With iTunes I can keep track of the year any song or album came out and the names of the songwriters. The iTunes store often provides this information, but in many cases it’s either incorrect or formatted in a way that makes searching difficult. I’ve been working to standardize my music library for some time now (since I’ve become a voracious collector, this has been a big project). When it comes to finding information on all the many, many types of music I own, Wikipedia rarely lets me down. Entries on individual songs: I think that is the perfect example of what makes this encyclopedia unique. (Another resource for this information is allmusic.com, and although that site is somewhat slower and less wieldy, I usually have it open in a second tab.) Additionally, I sometimes search on Wikipedia for music I don’t own yet — either something I may have heard but forgot about, or something important that deserves a place in my library.

I think I just buried the lede under 800 words. What does all that have to do with “How Wikipedia Introduced Me to the Internet”? you might be asking. In my defense, I believe the hyperbole in that title is difficult to miss, and this post has served the same function as my posts about Twitter and YouTube: sharing the different ways I’ve used these websites over the years. Even so, I started this off with a provocative headline and it would be awful of me not to explain it. For the first few years of the new millennium, my use of the Internet was extremely limited. Wikipedia was essential in opening my eyes to the educational potential of what used to be called cyberspace. The Internet as a whole can be viewed as the most extensive encyclopedia ever created. Wikipedia, then, is a microcosm of the things the Internet can do, and also the ways it can fail us. It wasn’t until college that I discovered other microcosms in YouTube and the social networks. I can’t say Wikipedia directly led me to any of those places, but it made me hungry. The constant acceleration of technology makes primordial what happened barely a moment ago. At some point in the last ten or twelve years, my history with the Internet truly began.

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