Among the blessings of the modern world, some are more apparent than others. We’re all (I hope) thankful for plumbing, supermarkets, and antibiotics. Living as we do in one of the most developed regions of a rapidly developing world, we cannot help but feel lucky that we were born in the 20th century, and not an earlier one. Beyond the clear benefits of the scientific and industrial revolutions, we have also become a more tolerant people. As Stanford students, we come from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds that would have been unimaginable at similar institutions of the past.
Yet I suspect there is one modern achievement which we may be passively thankful for, but don’t fully appreciate for its massive significance. Though Wikipedia as a site is only 12 years old, and encyclopedias available to the masses really only a few decades older, it deserves recognition as one of humanity’s greatest inventions.
Indeed, to have such enormous amounts of knowledge available to essentially anybody with Internet access is nothing short of revolutionary when compared to the levels of education offered to the vast masses of human history. There were quite literally entire centuries in the early middle ages of Europe when even the most educated individuals would have access to perhaps a few hundred books, and the vast majority of people were illiterate. The printing press and the subsequent ability to easily disseminate and consume written content fueled unprecedented human progress and allowed us, for the first time, truly comprehend the world in which we live.
For the most part, we are able to explain the natural and sociological phenomena of our world, which, though it seems trite, is the exception rather than the rule of human society. In so many ways, we are the heirs to scholarship and human curiosity lasting for millennia, and, with Wikipedia, are uniquely privileged to have it readily available within seconds, divided by index, categories, and available in many of the most widely used languages in the world.
It is important to remember, however, that this great achievement has always been, and must remain, a collaborative effort. Though Wikipedia’s volunteer base is often mentioned, usually to bring up legitimate concerns about its article quality, I don’t feel as if I personally know very many people who take the time to contribute to the site. I know people, myself included, who spend hours on reddit, Facebook, and tumblr, creating and re-posting content, but far fewer who do the same on Wikipedia, perhaps a far more useful endeavor.
I myself was a passive bystander until recently, when I authored my first article, on the artist David Humphreys Miller. It’s admittedly a very rough and badly formatted piece, but I was much prouder of it being published than I thought I would be. It sounds dramatic, but I feel like I’ve contributed, albeit in a minuscule way, to the sum collection of human knowledge, and nobody but family has even read my article. Since that triumph, I’ve mostly focused on editing other articles for better language, but I hope to return soon to the gritty world of article creation.
A good friend once told me that most Wikipedia articles on complex subjects are written by procrastinating grad students, which brings me to a curious point about Wikipedia editor demographics. Like a lot of Internet communities, I assumed that there was a male skew to the crowd, but I was shocked and somewhat appalled to learn that a recent study found that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are female. It’s beyond the scope of this column to speculate as to why, but I suspect that this data is not the result of systemic problems with Wikipedia access, but rather harmful cultural norms.
Regardless of gender, I think contributing to Wikipedia is both satisfying and important, and I hope that more people begin to do so. Though English speakers may have a parochial view of the site’s global impact, less than a quarter of Wikipedia’s articles are in English, making it truly an international project. As a free resource, an organized trove of knowledge, and a monument to human achievement, Wikipedia deserves more than to be hastily consulted before research papers are due. We all must do our part to ensure the site stays accurate, coherent, and comprehensive. Ultimately, we all must step up to the plate and help contribute to this small piece of the wondrous present.