Saturday, January 15, 2011

Celebrating a Decade of Wikipedia (with the help of Wikipedia)

As evidenced by much of what I write about on Seth Saith, and even more so the tidbits I throw up on Facebook, I enjoy recognizing milestones—birthdays, anniversaries and the like. This isn’t due to any overt sentimentality nor need for vicarious celebration; a living or long-dead celebrity, or historical event, isn’t really all that more important to me on any given day than the other 364.

But milestone recognition and referencing serves as a rather cogent reminder—mainly to myself, but also to anyone who may care about the things I share—of people and events that have much merited significance or deserve for me to learn more. 

While I already knew that today’s date, January 15, is the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I also just discovered that it is also the birthday of (late) musicians like famed drummer Gene Krupa, Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant and the recently passed Captain Beefheart. On the flip side, two disparate but highly acclaimed songwriters, Sammy Cahn and Harry Nilsson, both passed on this day, a year apart (in 1993 and 1994, respectively).

January 15, 2011 is also the 44th anniversary of the first Super Bowl, precisely 112 years since the incorporation of the Coca-Cola Company and the first anniversary of the miraculous landing—by Captain Chesley Sullenberger—of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, resulting in the survival of all 155 people on-board.

Not coincidentally, today is also the 10th anniversary of the source of all this knowledge (trivia? minutia?): Wikipedia.

Yes, on January 15, 2001, what has become the world’s predominant encyclopedia and 8th most popular website, first went online.

Sometimes it's hard to remember life before Wikipedia, although I clearly do. In fact, when considering possible detrimental effects of the all-too-instant and frequently impersonal Internet age, I often wonder if Wikipedia makes it too easy for people—especially those without another point of reference—to instantly find what they seek while eliminating the residual benefits I gained from riding my bike to the library, walking past the stacks of books and perusing the encyclopedia far beyond my assigned subject.

But while I worry that a desirable balance between the analog and digital world is forever slipping away, my opinion about Wikipedia, in and of itself, is 110% favorable.

I visit virtually every day, often several times per day, both on my desktop and through its handy iPhone app. There is rarely a movie I watch, a play I attend, a book I read, a band I discover, an artist I recall or a blog article I write that isn't enhanced by learning more through Wikipedia. If I'm confused about a movie's plot, the Wikipedia article helps explain it. If I'm curious about where an author's or artist's given work fits into his or her entire oeuvre, Wikipedia fills me in. If something "based on actual events" leaves me wondering where the line was blurred between fact and fiction, Wikipedia sets me straight.

And beyond simply looking things up on Wikipedia, I've come to also love it for what I've drawn upon here: discovering milestones. On the main page (in English or many of its 257 active language editions), there is an "On This Day" section through which you can find Events, Births, Deaths, Holidays and Observances. Such as it being John Chilembwe Day in Malawi.

I know that Wikipedia has its detractors and skeptics--probably out-of-work encyclopedia salesmen--but studies have shown that the accuracy of articles on Wikipedia holds up against Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources, despite their being compiled and edited by the general public. It's never smart to take any single source as 100% gospel truth, but I've yet to find any substantive reasons not to believe what I read on Wikipedia.

Jimmy Wales
Larry Sanger
Of the billions of websites in existence, Wikipedia is probably my favorite--excepting, of course--or at least the one I find most useful. So on its 10th anniversary, which is being celebrated in myriad ways around the world wide web, I thank and salute its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger--though I doubt either is starving, they are to be applauded for not selling or commercializing Wikipedia, which could have easily made them billionaires--and all who have contributed to making Wikipedia the phenomenal resource it is today.

Ironically, I learned that today was Wikipedia's 10th anniversary not through Wikipedia itself, but via Time magazine, whose new issue features a "10 Questions With..." piece with Jimmy Wales. Like much on Wikipedia, it is well worth reading.

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