Wikipedia’s appearance gives it airs of authority and sadness, like a wing of the county hospital administration. It doesn’t have the inviting blue daycare interface of Twitter. But there’s a colorful world behind the cool aesthetic, as users post content, create profile pages, navigate moderation policies, push opinion disguised as fact, and fight, fight, fight. .
On Twitter, I scrolled through my feed until I found something worth biting into. When browsing Wikipedia, I jump from link to link until I land on a meaty topic. But I don’t care what the content of the article is — I want to go where the sausage is made: the talk page. It’s the rusty back room of every Wikipedia entry, where editors discuss changes — discussions that often turn into squabbles, self-righteous appeals to authority, and claims to God’s honest truth. In other words, just like Twitter.
The talk page is really a debate page, and debates are often just tit-for-tats. “Republicans are populists. “No they are not.” “Yes they are.”
Such exchanges can escalate into secondary insults prohibited by Wikipedia’s No Personal Attacks rule. The ticket to win a Wikipedia skirmish is a source, which can be a book, news, scientific article, blog, etc. So, just like any other social media platform, a user joins their opinion with someone else’s opinion and shoots the battlefield like a flash of truth.
When I find a particularly juicy exchange, I want to dig deeper. I click on a publisher’s user page and am often transported to a place that’s a mix of sanctuary, journal, and manifesto. It looks like something I’m not supposed to see. The user page has the feel of an HTML blog and the spirit of a MySpace page, with engagements, identities, and interests displayed in different colorful ways. “This user believes the death penalty should never be used,” it read. “This user has read anarchist literature, agrees on many points and expresses full solidarity with anarchists,” reads another.
One of the five pillars of Wikipedia is neutrality. Engraved on this marble pillar is the edict that personal opinions and interpretations “do not belong” to the site.
But here they are: the death penalty should never be used. Anarchism makes sense. America is a beacon of freedom. Racism haunts society. All gun laws are unconstitutional. Abortion is a human right. Capitalism will produce communism. Taxation is theft. Forgive and forget. The wicked must be punished. Marriage is oppressive. Public education is propaganda. Health care is a human right. Christianity is a sect. God created man in his image. Gender is fluid. The gender is fixed. The body is a temple. Love is love. Equity means fairness. Money is the root of all evil. Cash is king. Community first. Karma is a bitch. Etc.
These are the kinds of personal views and opinions that seep into all human beings. And we need them. They are a travel guide for navigating through reality, giving meaning and context to information. They steer us in a particular direction, which bubbles up in our psyche in the form of interest. Without them, we would be lost. A Wikipedia editor’s interest in an article stems from their values and opinions, and their contributions are filtered by their general interpretation of reality. Edict or not, a neutral point of view is impossible. Even a Wikipedia editor can’t transcend that.
Wikipedia is therefore a social media platform where opinions and interpretations generated by users compete in a game of popularity and attrition, much like Twitter. But Wikipedia also does what other social media platforms can only dream of: building consensus and authority.
Conflicts on Twitter unfold as if there is a single recording that records the conclusions of our collective debate. We like to imagine Twitter as a floating metaphysical ledger waiting for that last word. That’s why we dunk people, fact check and fix the record: we think we’re in a reality war and there can only be one winner. But the imperative “We all need to be on the same page” is literal on Wikipedia. It manifests this imaginary ledger as a visible page on which the winning opinion is made concrete and true. And so it could be the most real and important social media platform of all.
The first step is to admit it: I have a problem with social networks. But then we start negotiating: I won’t browse Twitter, but I’ll keep YouTube. Or we start to blame: it’s Twitter’s fault. It’s the algorithm’s fault. It turns out that even the seemingly coldest and best looking website on the internet has the same issues. The fights, the anxiety, the way it hooks you, the appeals to authority, and the unfounded sense of existential importance it bestows.
If even Wikipedia is just another social media platform, where do I go now?
Shaun Cammack is an Appalachian writer. He is the founder of The storytelling projecta non-profit organization that seeks to create a more peaceful internet and political discourse.