I don’t remember much about the early internet. I remember the dial-up tone, obviously. Largely because it sounded like Satan using a telephone to escape Hell and enter Earth directly through my dad’s computer, and is thus impossible to forget.
I get the impression, though, that the early internet had an enriching, edifying quality. Users weren’t just online, they were ‘surfing’: skimming along on a tidal wave of well-moderated discussion boards, glistening in the ocean spray of free-to-read academic papers. There was no data stealing, no nasty algorithms, and the closest you got to being trolled was when the Microsoft Paperclip stuck his nose into your project uninvited.
But today’s internet is different. We don’t surf the web anymore. We just crawl, mouth-first, through a sort of sugary mud: it’s utterly disgusting but impossible to stop, and all our friends are eating it so if we did stop we’d be lonely as well as ravenous for sugar mud, so we may as well keep going.
That’s what the modern web feels like to me. A perpetual, hyper-addictive shitshow that’s rendered me emotionally and physiologically dependent on scrolling. I feel pathetic when I log off. It’s like emerging from the matrix, except the slime is my own.
Thank God, then, for Wikipedia: the only major website not designed to ensnare you in an addictive quagmire of bad holiday photos and targeted ads. I really like Wikipedia. In fact, I’ve started giving it £3 a month, which technically means I like it as much as I like Ugandan orphans not contracting Malaria. Which I really like.
I think we should all give to Wikipedia (and the Against Malaria Foundation, but that’s harder to be funny about), and there are many reasons why. Firstly, the range of articles is staggering. I recently spent an hour reading about the air conditioning systems on trams, essentially rendering them my main cultural reference point. The depth is incredible, too. There’s roughly three pages of information just in Wayne Rooney’s ‘personal life’ section, which, adjusted for font size, makes it longer than his autobiography.
Wikipedia is ad-free, which means you don’t have to hear about single mums who’ve RILED their surgeons using one simple trick. It’s also relentlessly impartial. Thanks to its not-for-profit nature and tireless moderating team, most articles have the diplomacy of an RS teacher trying to get a debate going. This is more valuable than ever in a web riddled with echo chambers, fake news, and algorithms that just tell you what you want to hear (which according to my Facebook are being removed, so that’s good).
Of course, Wikipedia isn’t flawless. Its search function refuses to locate an article unless you type your entry perfectly, sort of like a facetious English professor who claims not to have understood a word you’ve said because you used ‘less’ rather than ‘fewer’. Likewise, the vast majority of its contributors are male, meaning it has more information about a cartoon rat than it has about Marie Curie, and its article on the menstrual cycle is just a series of question marks and a picture of the moon.
But, if anything, these rough edges make me trust Wikipedia even more. Any site that lacks basic functionality probably also lacks the capacity to recognise when I’m feeling depressed and try to sell me a noose. I know it seems a bit weird to be praising something that’s been around for decades, like a pensioner who’s finally bought a microwave and can’t stop describing it to his grandkids, but that’s kind of the point. Wikipedia is brilliant – it represents everything the web was intended to be – but if we take it for granted it may become subsumed into the hideous swamp that is the modern web. Or lost completely.
So, next time Wikipedia asks for a donation, don’t dismiss it. Yes, Jimmy Wales looks like the owner of a struggling local restaurant, desperately proffering the dessert menu with a terrified, deranged smile. But there’s charm to that. And anyway, he’s probably done at least six of your homeworks, so you owe him.
Wikipedia is the last bastion of a lost web, and deserves your hard-earned cash. It’s also eighteen this year, which, believe it or not, makes it older than the KLIT 600/1 tram-cab cooling unit. Doesn’t time fly!
Image credits: Manfred Werner/Tsui – CC by-sa 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50853349
Pagina Web – http://www.estadio.ec/sites/default/files/field/image/2015/12/12/rooney_5.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0
Robertolyra at Portuguese Wikipedia. – Transferred from pt.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0