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Dive into the weird and wonderful Depths of Wikipedia

A screenshot of the Depths of Wikipedia Instagram page. (Screenshot by Here & Now)
A screenshot of the Depths of Wikipedia Instagram page. (Screenshot by Here & Now)

The Museum of Bad Art. A dog named Trump. The concept of an ‘ugly man contest.’ A list of informally named dinosaurs, including one just called Alan.

All these topics have a Wikipedia page about them. And they’re all cataloged on the Instagram account @depthsofwikipedia, run by Annie Rauwerda, which has amassed more than 1 million followers.

Rauwerda regularly visited Wikipedia in high school but really found her affinity for the free online encyclopedia in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. She pored over articles about everything from Oklahoma’s state vegetable (watermelon) to perpetual stews (she created one of her own last summer, which cooked for two months straight.)

One of her recent most entertaining finds is an article about a prankster in 1809who bet his friend he could make a random house the most talked about place in London. He succeeded, wreaking havoc on the inhabitants of the property by sending countless outlandish deliveries every day that drew city-wide attention.

Rauwerda also shares anecdotes and trivia factoids in cities across the country on her Depths of Wikipedia tour and even did a TED Talk about the joys of learning random information on the site.

Watch on YouTube.

For Millennials and older members of Generation Z, Wikipedia defined the early days of researching online. But do people still use it as a resource today? Yes, Rauwerda says, and it’s more popular than ever.

“In English alone, there are 6.7 million articles,” Rauwerda says. “Wikipedia is, some people have said, the best source of information that humanity has ever had.”

Wikipedia is a crowdsourced public service that allows users to edit and write articles to populate the site. With virtually anyone allowed to make changes, critics often cite potential unreliability as a reason not to use the source. But, Wikipedia has proven even more accurate than Encyclopædia Britannic.

“In the past 10, 15, 20 years that Wikipedia has existed, it has become a lot better about verifiability and having each of its statements backed up by a source,” Rauwerda says. “This is definitely not the case in every single article and in every single statement, but ideally in the best articles, you can read something and then immediately you can click on the citation if you have any doubts.”

The accuracy can also be attributed to Wikipedia’s team of relentless volunteer editors. They’re quick to update outdated information; user Asticky changed every instance of ‘is’ to ‘was’ on Henry Kissinger’s page as soon as his death was announced on Nov. 29. However, sometimes editing wars ensue on articles about contentious topics such as the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

Rauwerda is one of those tireless editors. Just days before her Here & Now interview, she wrote the article about the BumpIt hair accessory popularized in the 2000s.

As a woman, she’s a bit of an outlier in terms of Wikipedia editor demographics. Best estimates predict that 80% of Wikipedia editors are men, and the breadth of information on the site reflects that disparity.

“In the early days of Wikipedia, there were just weird disparities in the coverage,” Rauwerda says. “It goes to show how ‘nerdy’ the Wikipedia editor base was and how much it didn’t really reflect the broader world.”

For example, the entry on Mole Day, a made-up holiday in chemistry to celebrate the mole unit, went up a whole year before the article on hip-hop music and five years before the entry on fashion shows.

Volunteers are dedicated to expanding the reach of knowledge on Wikipedia, though. A group called AfroCROWD seeks to catalog Black history and culture accurately. Similarly, the WikiProject Women in Red works toward writing robust biographies of women on the site.

In a time when artificial intelligence is creeping into virtually every aspect of the internet, Rauwerda says supporting and contributing to Wikipedia is vital.

“When you Google things right now, sometimes Wikipedia is the only search result that was written by humans,” she says. “I care a lot about having human moderation of information, even if humans sometimes do make mistakes. And I also think that so many corners of Wikipedia are just so odd and delightful.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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