(Giulia Forsythe/Flickr)

On Nov. 1, Wikipedia announced a mind-boggling milestone: Its English edition has logged 5 million entries since its launch in 2001.

That’s a profound accomplishment — but also overwhelming, as far as such things go. At 2.5 billion words and almost 30 terabytes of information, the largest repository of human knowledge is far too large to ever be read in its entirety by any individual. (If you started reading, continuously, today, it’d still take you 19 years and change.)

[English Wikipedia is the largest Wikipedia. You probably won’t guess the runner-up.]

So we invited a small group of journalists, Wikipedians and Wiki enthusiasts to nominate the highlights: the Wikipedia articles that they find the most informative, the most entertaining or — frequently! — the most comically trivial. The result is a pretty killer list of what brilliance results when the Internet’s nerds put their collective minds together.

If you think you can beat sexually active popes and extreme ironing, please e-mail your submission to caitlin.dewey@washpost.com. We’ll keep this updated with the best submissions.

1. Sexually active popes

Wikipedia’s “List of sexually active popes” is both useful and frivolous, impressive and incomplete. When I showed it to Caitlin here at the Intersect, she declared it “simultaneously the perfect example of Wikipedia’s promise and its failings.” So maybe I’m bad at finding the “best” one, but I feel like this particular list is one of its most emblematic.

The idea of collecting a list of popes who were sexually active at some point speaks for itself – it’s a uniquely Wikipedian way of categorizing history in the age of search engines.

But I’m really into the entry’s talk page. Since its creation more than a decade ago, this particular list has been argued over, corrected, and expanded with vigor. One user went after some pretty egregious errors when it comes to Catholic terminology. There are also substantial arguments over the neutrality of the entire concept of collecting sexually active popes – whether historically confirmed or not. One lengthy talk thread is titled “Encyclopedia or tabloid?” and several Wikipedians drop in to accuse the entire article of being anti-Catholic, while others defend it.

It might not surprise you to find out that it’s been nominated for deletion, twice, and somehow survived. Despite its critics, the page itself has been immortalized (kind of) in an XKCD comic, view-able in the Alt text that pops up when you mouse over one of its images.
— Abby Ohleiser, The Intersect

2. Common misconceptions, unusual deaths and uprisings led by women

When the Wikimedia Foundation recently polled its staffers about their favorite pages, these lists of urban legends, weird deaths and under-touted revolutions were among the winners. No explanation necessary, tbh: They’re all self-evidently fascinating.
— The staff of the Wikimedia Foundation


Women’s march on Versailles during the French Revolution 1789 (National Library of France, via Wikipedia)

3. Helicopter prison escapes

Because it makes life seem like a little more like a 1970s New Hollywood action thriller, one that’s partly set in France, with exciting scenes involving helicopters and prison escapes.
— William Beutler, Wikipedia commentator (@thewikipedian)

4. Demon cat

A ghost cat, 10 foot high, which haunts the Washington D.C. Capitol Buildings. Its home is supposedly the basement crypt of the Capitol that was originally intended as a burial chamber for President George Washington. It explodes when startled.

“The society’s version of the story states that a security guard was once licked by a cat when he was lying down. Being drunk, the man thought he was still standing at the time and was frightened by the apparently giant cat.”
— Richard Symonds, Wikipedia volunteer

5. Lists of lists of lists

Look no further than this page’s description: “This article is a list of articles that are themselves lists of articles that are also lists on Wikipedia.”

It takes a few reads to comprehend what you’re actually looking at, but this is the epitome of Wikipedia. This web page, I believe, is where the Internet starts to devour itself. Also, I like lists.
— Ric Sanchez, The Washington Post

6. Jesus

A composite showing how representations of Jesus' ethnicity have changed over time. (Wikipedia) A composite showing how representations of Jesus’ ethnicity have changed over time. (Wikipedia)

The prospect of writing an encyclopedia entry on someone who is indisputably one of the most important figures in history is daunting to say the least. This article is one of the most-linked and most-edited in Wikipedia and is a magnet for virtually every agenda that you can imagine. In spite of this, the article was promoted to Featured status—indicating that it is the highest quality in Wikipedia. Getting to that point required a wealth of the two most fundamental principles of Wikipedia: collaboration with others and good scholarship.
— Justin Anthony Knapp, Wikipedian

7. Political catchphrases

For the political junkie, this page is like a flash card version of some of the most memorable political catchphrases, gaffes and misspoken statements in world history. You have several well-worn sayings, like the imperial “Veni, vidi, vici” from Julius Caesar to Obama’s “Yes we can.”

But you also find how volatile foreign politics can be. Ireland has four famous phrases with f-bombs in them. During Ontario’s 2003 general election, then-Premier Ernie Eves called his opponent an “evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet.” And nothing beats what former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange said when asked by a journalist for “a brief word” about Australia: “Wombat.”
— Gene Park, The Washington Post

8. What Wikipedia is not

People go to Wikipedia to find out what things are, and I love that an encyclopedia is self-reflective enough to decide what copulae it contains but does not embody.
— Hunter Pauli, Wikipedia enthusiast

9. Rex Stout bibliography

It may not be “best” in terms of the quality of the prose — which is utilitarian as one would expect in a ‘list’ article — but one of my favorite pages is the Rex Stout bibliography, which was split off a few months ago from the main Rex Stout article.

A few years ago, User:WFinch expanded Rex Stout bibliography by adding about a dozen of Stout’s earliest stories, which had not been reprinted since their original magazine publications between 1912 and 1918. These stories were unknown even to Stout’s academic biographer and bibliographers, but they turned up in the indexing. Members of “the Wolfe Pack” (Stout’s literary society or “fan club”) asked me about the stories, and I undertook to track them all down … “The Last Drive and Other Stories” came out last May and is now available on Amazon, making 11 of Stout’s early stories readily available to fans, critics, and scholars for the first time.

Do we owe the book to Wikipedia? Well, it might have happened sooner or later anyway, but the information my friends and I found on Wikipedia is what actually made it happen, and I think Wikipedia gets some of the credit for that.
— Ira Matetsky, Wikipedian

10. Susan La Flesche Picotte

Sometimes it’s not just the article that’s inspiring, it’s the way it was written. Marie Pellissier was taking Professor Marilynn Johnson’s class at Boston College and assigned to write a Wikipedia article about the Wild West. She was surprised to find that so many of the people she could write about were men. So she dug a little deeper into her research, and now there’s a Wikipedia article about the first Native American woman doctor, Susan La Flesche Picotte, who helped her tribe stave off tuberculosis and fought for its land use rights.
— Eryk Salvaggio, Wiki Education Foundation

11. Inventors killed by their own inventions

Franz Reichelt (d. 1912) attempted to use this contraption as a parachute. Reichelt died after he jumped off the Eiffel Tower wearing his invention, which failed to operate as expected. (Wikipedia) Franz Reichelt (d. 1912) attempted to use this contraption as a parachute. Reichelt died after he jumped off the Eiffel Tower wearing his invention, which failed to operate as expected. (Wikipedia)

This list is so ironic. The point of invention is to improve the human experience. For the inventor to be killed is the last thing one would expect or want to do. This says something about the relationship between humans and technology. While lots of good is created, there are downsides we don’t always foresee.
— Matt McFarland, The Washington Post

 

12. Thomas Jefferson Jackson

For the lede alone: Thomas Jefferson Jackson (T. J. J.) See, (February 19, 1866 – July 4, 1962) was an American astronomer of high potential who ended a colorful life with no real accomplishment in astronomy or physics. He is known for a career dogged by plagiarism, being fired from two observatory staffs, grand egotistical claims, being ‘exiled’ to an isolated outpost, and his vitriolic attacks on relativity.
— Katherine Maher, Wikimedia Foundation

13. Ebola

Earlier this year when the Ebola epidemic was on the rise, a group of volunteers, a few of them medical professionals, came together with the goal of making Wikipedia a trustworthy resource about Ebola. The article got 17 million views in that month and was translated into many languages. The New York Times covered it here. This quote talking about James Heilman, a doctor working on the Ebola article, is my favorite:

“He is unabashed about his goals: to emphasize that Ebola does not get transmitted through the air; to call out unproven treatments; and to make sure the language is as simple as possible, in part so it can be more easily translated into other languages. ‘We don’t need to write for experts, experts have lots of excellent sources,’ he said.

— Moiz Syed, Wikimedia Foundation

14. Crayola crayon colors

Children of the ’80s and ’90s, rejoice: There are color swatches on this page that you didn’t even know you wanted to see again. I’m talking the Silver Swirls palette, circa 1992. Glitter crayons. Changeables. The Gem Stones set. Colors like maize and blue-green and burnt umber, which — in Crayola form, at least! — no longer exist. It’s a weirdly evocative nostalgia-trip, and I highly endorse it. The fact that Wikipedians managed to locate a hex code for each of these colors is also really impressive.
— Caitlin Dewey, The Intersect


(Wikipedia)

15. Extreme ironing

… This is a thing! End of story.
— The staff of the Wikimedia foundation

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