Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wikipedia Is My Religion

It is said that people are drawn to religion because it makes them feel that they are a part of something greater than themselves. Religion makes people feel that they belong — to a community, yes, but also to some Grand Whole. Admittedly, I spent many years feeling disconnected from this Big Picture. When the Internet and YouTube came along, I had the opportunity to express my views and reach out, to have a much more influential hand at stirring the Drink of Humanity, as it were. But I never achieved that feeling of being "a part of something greater than ourselves" until I became a Wikipedia editor a couple of years ago.

Here's how I saw Wikipedia previously: It was an uneven, sometimes reliable (but often not) collection of information managed largely by amateurs, useful for getting a general idea of a topic, but not for research or any serious purpose. Most major articles seemed organized well enough, so I figured there must be a system in place to oversee the editing process. I had heard that anyone could edit Wikipedia, but I assumed that if you submitted an edit, it went to some kind of authorities for approval, and maybe your edit would show up in the article and maybe it wouldn't.

That isn't how Wikipedia works at all. Anyone, anywhere can edit Wikipedia, and change it, right now.* You don't even need to create an account or sign in. Furthermore, there are no "authorities." There are administrators, which are volunteer editors who have been promoted by other editors to perform certain functions, such as banning repeat vandals, and there is also a paid office staff who generally don't get involved in editing. All of the articles are managed by the community of editors, who check each other's edits on a completely equal footing. Since getting involved, I've been continually amazed by how effective this system is.

Wikipedia has a bad reputation as a serious source of information — but it should not be used for that purpose. Instead, it should be used as a gateway to information. One of the things that makes the system work so well is that any addition to the encyclopedia, at least in principle, needs to be backed up by a "reliable source," so if you're looking for a serious reference for research, start with the article and then follow the sources. Reliable sourcing doesn't always happen on Wikipedia, but with major articles that are watched by a lot of editors, as well as highly controversial articles, it almost always does (and it's getting better all the time). Take the article on 7 World Trade Center, for example. Naturally, it is a magnet for conspiracy theorists, who have been trying to tweak the facts therein for years. Without exception, though, dubious and poorly referenced edits are reverted by the community. Fringe theories, according to a key Wikipedia guideline, are not to be given "undue weight" in articles describing the mainstream position. As a result, you'll see very little "9/11 Truth" in the 7WTC article, although there is a link to the article that discusses these theories at length.

Naturally, conspiracy theorists hate Wikipedia. It represents everything they detest — the squelching of alternative ideas and opinions, by some vague assumed authority, in favor of the monolithic mainstream view. For an enthusiast of reality like myself, though, Wikipedia offers an easy way to distinguish educated, informed, scholarly views on a topic (explained in detail and thoroughly referenced) from fringe theories by a small number of not-so-scholarly folks. This is because anyone caught pushing a fringe point of view is quickly ostracized on Wikipedia. Furthermore, blatant acts of vandalism are immediately reverted; at any moment, there are dozens of editors watching the recent changes page, competing to see who can be the first to expunge the addition of the word "penis" from the Salma Hayek article, or whatever. Typically this happens within about 15 seconds.

I've been impressed by the civility of the Wikipedia community as well. Unlike the comments on YouTube, which truly are the worst of the worst in terms of Internet discussions, Wikipedia editors are overwhelmingly friendly, helpful, and impartial. If they have an opinion on a controversy, they tend not to reveal that opinion. Experienced editors I had never communicated with took me under their wing, guiding me and defending me from attackers. When I lapsed into sarcasm in one contentious discussion, another editor called me out for this behavior. In short, editing Wikipedia is for grown-ups — if you aren't one, either you become one fast, or you just go away.

Even after making just a few edits to Wikipedia, I felt transformed — and here's where the "religious" aspect comes in. To make one simple improvement to one Wikipedia article is to contribute to a massive global project. It's likely Wikipedia will be around for a very long time, and that single improvement may last well beyond your corporeal life on Earth. You will have been a part of something greater than yourself, at the same time leaving your mark on the world, making it just a little better than you found it. Isn't that the best of what religion has to offer?

* Articles on celebrities and other frequently vandalized pages tend to be protected, which means they can't be edited by users with no editing history. However, the requirements to qualify for editing these pages are minimal.


  1. I have to say, I felt the same way when I started editing Wikipedia.

    Richard Dawkins has said that, when he once visited the page on natural selection (his specialty, of course), he found it to be remarkably accurate.


  2. Interesting article, and I agree with you for the most part, however I am worried by "This is because anyone caught pushing a fringe point of view is quickly ostracized on Wikipedia". Many of the theories now beautifully explained by science were once fringe theories, ostracized by religiosity. Wikipedia should discourage conspiracy theorists but remain open to new ideas, if and only if there is valid evidence, as I'm sure you agree. I just disagree with that general message 'fringe theories should be ostracized' as I feel it limits wikipedia and is not really that scientific.

  3. Thanks for the comment. Read what I wrote again: "Anyone caught pushing a fringe point of view is quickly ostracized on Wikipedia." That is quite different from "fringe theories should be ostracized." Wikipedia does not shy away from covering fringe theories, it's just that they are given their own place. For example, there's a large article on 9/11 conspiracy theories, and all of the mainstream 9/11 articles mention the conspiracy theories briefly and link to that article. But if someone is trying to force these ideas into the mainstream article itself, where doing so gives the coverage "undue weight," then that editor (not necessarily their ideas) tends to be ostracized by the community.

  4. Wikipedia is one of my favorite websites, although I've never had the courage to do anything more than correct simple spelling or grammar errors.

    People always complain about Wikipedia being unreliable because of it's openness to contribution, but I've always seen that as just their latent misanthropy coming out to play. I just happen to have more faith in the power of human collaboration, and anyone that looks upon wikipedia and doesn't see a jumbled mess of porn and bad spelling, but rather a large community dedicated to the expansion of their documentation of knowledge...should read a little more. Maybe wikipedia.

  5. Thank you for that clarification! Your argument makes sense now that I read it that way. It was my misinterpretation that led to the misunderstanding. I love Wikipedia too! Always felt it was unjust when our teachers told us never to use it for assignments. "But sir, all the information you need is here, in one place!" Keep up the good work, your Building 7 video is excellent, I'd love to see a few more of your "serious" videos, not to say your satires aren't hilarious.

  6. Wikipedia is a perfect place on the net thanks to all the editors . Thanks for helping keep it perfect . a user

  7. It's far from perfect, but getting better all the time.

  8. Greetings Edward ...

    First of all my greatest congratulations for your videos. They are absolutely great.

    My name is Noah, I am Venezuelan and live in Greece today (yep, the Economic Crash country) and since 2 years ago I have a blog about atheism but dedicated specifically to the Christian believer. I have a humor section and personalities... and of course had to publish an article about you and your videos. Which (again) are incredibly cool. Also publish (with your permission) one of your articles from your excellent blog

    I know it's much to ask, but hopefully you have a little time and swiped to the blog and say hello to my readers. Mean a lot to the blog and especially for the dissemination of your videos.

    The blog is in Spanish, but you have a translator in the right side. If you decide to say hello, I then translate your words into Spanish ... well, who knows, maybe if you look a little blog you may take some ideas for some video (which would be a real honor)

    Sorry my bad English, the truth, I speak very little.

    This is the link: http://ateismoparacristianos.blogspot.com/2011/11 / edward-current-a-Christian-ejemplar.html

    I reiterate the thanks for publishing your videos. We admire you a lot in Latin America.