With SOPA/PIPA blackout, some rest for the Wikied

January 17, 2012

Wikipedia, the completer of homework assignments and mediator of drunken disputes, was set to go black Wednesday, in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two bills that purport to crack down on online piracy, but which detractors say just give the government undue power to shut down Web sites.

By Tuesday afternoon, Wikipedia searches had achieved a deranged, panicked quality, much like the ritualistic scarfing of ice cream that happens before a scheduled power outage. If we do not learn the difference between an oligarchy and a plutocracy now, right now, this moment, then when? Wikipeda has meant a lot of things, but most of all it — and Google — has meant the end of wondering. We do not wonder anymore, we find. Our most errant, absurd, obscure questions (What was the name of Adolf Hitler’s dog?) are now answered with minimal keystrokes (Blondi).

When news of the blackout struck, the industrious boy scouts among us began preparing for the impending doom, battening down the hatches, stockpiling cans of useless information. “How to Survive Wednesday’s Wikipedia Blackout,” a Time headline advertised, providing detailed explanations on downloading the site for offline use. “Use Google Cache or the Wayback Machine,” offered LifeHacker.com. A romantic or two offered up the quaint suggestion of visiting a library on Wednesday — librarians being the original Wikipedia.

A million bajillion high school students immediately flocked to Twitter, mourning the essays they would not write because of the information they would not have access to (Other sites like Reddit.com and BoingBoing.net announced that they, too, planned to shutter for Wednesday).

Oh, callow high school students. As if your unfinished “Jane Austen and Feminism” paper truly represented the profound abyss into which Wikipedialessness would plunge the world. Without the Wiki, could we have finally settled the Yam vs. Sweet Potato debate of 2012 (yams are a starchy root crop, separate from the potato family)? Without Wikipedia, we would sit at our desks, tormented and half-crazed, because we could not immediately access the fake educational records of a fake Dr. Shepherd at a fake hospital on a bad TV show (“Grey’s Anatomy’s” McDreamy went to Bowdoin, then Columbia).

An experiment: On Tuesday, with just a few hours to go before the proposed shutdown, several Internet users were asked to log their Wikipedia usage, to demonstrate what kinds of knowledge they would be deprived of a mere 24 hours later.

“I read the entirety of Lyndon Johnson’s page,” a responder writes. “Do with that what you will.”

“I looked up the details of a BBC sitcom . . . because I forgot an actor’s name and life could not go on until I found out what it was,” writes another, whose Wikipedia travels on that day also included the Munich Pact and the Manic Street Preachers.

In addition to the yam and McDreamy (both real examples), people found themselves frantically exploring the dimensions of the Ford Explorer vs. the Ford Flex, the timeline on Joran van der Sloot’s arrest, and the number of EPs put out by the electronic musician Skrillex.

It is an embarrassment of riches, to live in a world so neatly catalogued and so easily searched, even if the things we are searching for are things that nobody really needs to know. Or that you didn’t know you needed to know until you couldn’t get it.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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