Blue Link (Posted on July 16, 2012. Note: After a long hiatus, I may be able to resume my postings about Wikipedia. Check back soon. Meanwhile, read my reminiscences on the early days of computerization. Just click on “The Long Road: Electronic Version,” above right. )
Wikipedia has blue links and it has red links. The blue links are words and phrases on a Wikipedia page that, when clicked on, take you to another Wikipedia page dealing with that subject. Red links indicate that no Wikipedia page exists on the subject but that someone thought that a page should exist. They are acts of faith, or maybe of prodding. The English Wikipedia just crossed the 4-million page (or article) threshold. Almost every one of them has at least one blue link to it on some other Wikipedia page. For the next year or so, I plan on following blue links wherever they take me.
Wikipedia, of course, is the online encyclopedia that very often turns up as the first or second link whenever you do a search for something on the Internet. It is also an encyclopedia that anyone with access to the Net can add to or correct (or vandalize—more about that, as time goes by). The influence of Wikipedia is enormous. Just take a good look at the third, fourth, or eighth results that you get when you Google “Kamloops”, “netsuke”, or “Eli Manning”. Chances are pretty good that they are verbatim copies of the Wikipedia article or come from non-English versions of Wikipedia.
As a fact-checker I did not accept Wikipedia as a source for anything in the textbooks I worked on. But it was difficult to keep away from it entirely either. The pages—articles—answered questions that encyclopedias such as the Britannica and Encarta could not. Wikipedia was bigger (even then, at less than 2 million articles), had much more about popular culture, and didn’t hesitate to say what was the biggest and the smallest (but not the best—more about that later, too). How do you get around that? Wikipedia articles, even five years ago, had long lists of sources. I didn’t have to accept Wikipedia’s word for anything. I just went to their listed sources, and if it was kosher (the U.N., CIA, The New York Times, the Britannica itself), I accepted the source.
There is a book out there subtitled One Man’s Quest to Know Everything. He spent a year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s not what put this project into my head. For one thing, it would be impossible to keep up with the venerable Britannica, much less Wikipedia. By 2009, 30,000,000 words were being added to Wikipedia every month. That figure is from The Wikipedia Revolution, by Andrew Lih (2009), a book that’s not at all out of date and that I recommend. And then, why would you want to read all of Wikipedia? Almost every middle and high school on Planet Earth with an Internet connection has its own article. The Indian subcontinent has well over a half million villages (not to mention urban neighborhoods), and Wikipedians there seem determined to set up an article on every one of them. Every described species is starting to get an article.
Without photographic memory, you are never going to remember everything you read, anyway. I know. I, too, read a significant way through the Encyclopedia Britannica. Mostly because I was being paid to do it. It’s a great reference work. I usually wound up reading their material more carefully than I needed to, just because it was so damned interesting. The project I worked on was a large series of books that were put together from articles in EB; it’s intended mostly for school libraries. The volumes on baseball and soccer showed that EB can handle popular subjects when it wants to. But whether it was Rivaldo and Jeter, or chemistry and mathematics, it didn’t stick without reinforcement. And remember second-grader Brick Heck on The Middle? His father, Mike, finally turned the compulsive reader on to football, only to have him chase Mike’s friends off by nonstop reciting of football trivia.
After resisting Wikipedia for a long time, I began to be drawn in. It was way too late to write articles about anything remotely basic, like Japan or Dolley Madison. But I saw the small Irish Gaelic Wikipedia (Vicipéid) grow from a little over 2,000 articles to 8,000 and decided not to let my second chance pass me by. (Although, at 8,000 articles, they already had Japan and Dolley Madison!)
Surely this could not be a betrayal of the EB. They have no Irish edition! Then I thought, “If mistakes on Wikipedia are so bad, why should I hold back from correcting them, even on the English one?” A mitzvah here and there for the world’s schoolchildren. I’ve now accumulated over 2,000 edits on the English Wikipedia, 3,000 on the Irish one, and am heading for 100 on Spanish. You can see I have my own compulsion that will be part of this trek: my sometimes clumsy—even lazy—attempt to be a hyperpolyglot reader. Following the blue links may lead into any number of Wikipedias, where articles are seldom mere translations of English ones. The things you learn and the things you see!
The familiar Wikipedia icon as it appeared on the Chinese (Mandarin) project on Chinese New Year’s, in February, 2010. That was the year of the tiger, of course.