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.