Wikipedia as Sacred Text

From Wikipedia User: Dispenser. [An ASCII art version of Wikipedia’s logo — a globe made from puzzle pieces — composed of dashes, parentheses, and other punctuation. Below is Wikipedia spelled out in dashes, and The Free Encyclopedia in normal text below it.]

Sharon Park: I wanna talk a little about how we met. So back in art school, I was taking a class on identity systems and was thinking about what entity I should do this huge project on…and I think I was on Wikipedia, researching brands to rebrand. At a certain point I had this moment of zooming out and thought, “oh shit, Wikipedia!” I Googled “Wikipedia rebrand” because I wanted to know what was already out there — and the first result was the wiki article on “rebranding.” It was then that it hit me: Wikipedia is that invisible.

And maybe intentionally so. With the project, there was this balance of keeping the spirit of the site in its scrappiness. It didn’t feel right to make a sleeker version of it. So I approached it like how I personally experience Wikipedia, embracing all the rabbit holes and discovering its culture and rules along the way. 

A couple years later, I got connected to the design team at the Wikimedia Foundation, and they invited me to present the project, which was so surreal. I remember you were pretty vocal in the chat and had sent me links to some extremely important stuff (like this unofficial mascot). 

Puzzly: “A curious creature, most commonly seen educating (or trying to educate) new users on Wikimedia Commons.” [An affable-looking cartoon character with a puzzle piece for a head.]

Carolyn Li-Madeo: Working at the Wikimedia Foundation, I see a lot of unsolicited rebrands or redesigns of Wikipedia, and they often focus on modernization for the sake of modernization. They’re not thinking holistically about Wikipedia as a community and as a project — about the editors and their needs. I think once you get into the Wiki world, it’s the people and communication and collaboration that are so fun and exciting — all of these people across the globe are working together to make this repository of knowledge. 

Sharon: After meeting virtually, we attended an NYC editor meetup together during Wikimania, the annual Wikimedia conference.

Carolyn: How was it meeting Wikipedians in real life? Do you feel like it deepened your perspective of Wikipedia?

Sharon: Definitely, it was inspiring to see how everyone enters the community through a different way, whether it be through a social lens or the super technical side. I became so aware of how much I don’t know about Wikipedia — and it wasn’t a bad feeling. How was your experience?

Carolyn: This was my second Wikimania that I’ve been to, and I feel you that there’s always going to be someone who knows more about Wikipedia than you do. Also, the volume of engagement is really different person to person, so it’s easy to be intimidated. Despite how welcoming and nice Wikimedians are, if you step back and take a look at how much people have edited and the raw impact that they’ve had, it’s very humbling. 

For instance, there’s an editor whose retirement plan has essentially been biking around New York City each day with the goal of taking a photo of every single building and uploading them to Commons. It’s amazing! But to be a Wikimedian you’re not required to have that level of participation. Often when I talk to new editors they’re excited to make an article about someone they care about, but creating a new article is like climbing a giant mountain — there are lots of prolific editors who never create new articles and building an article from scratch alone is not very common. It’s been really interesting to build a more nuanced understanding of the different roles that people play in the movement. It can be a very accepting community depending on what you’re trying to do.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s so true. Sometimes when I get overwhelmed with how vast Wikipedia is, I start gravitating towards the aspects that feel intimate and familiar. I feel like you also view the site through a poetic lens, in addition to the type of work you do. What inspired your channel “Wikipedia as sacred text?”

Carolyn: One of the things that I thought about as I started my channel was to really focus in on articles that felt unique to Wikipedia. Articles that had resonated with me as a human being. There are things that I’ve learned on Wiki that have fundamentally shaped how I see the world and shaped my worldview. I’m not a religious person so I don’t have a religious text, I don’t have some guiding sacred text in my life.

Sharon: Right.

Carolyn: But what if we treated this massive community project as something sacred? How would we read articles differently if we did that? 

Working in apps, I think a lot about the long form nature of Wikipedia and how so much of the text that we come into contact with online these days is abbreviated and shortened. There’s a lot of pressure to do that on Wikipedia sometimes. But no one would suggest that you abbreviate or shorten a sacred text, right? You would carefully read the whole thing from top to bottom.

Sharon: That’s true.

Carolyn: That was the initial impetus for making the channel. Later I started meeting with a coworker called Peter Pelberg, just for fun. He’s a product manager who works on the editing team. We are both really interested in physicality online. And about Wikipedia as a place. 

What does it feel like to be on Wiki? Does it feel different to read Wikipedia versus to be on something that has an infinitely scrolling feed, or something that is designed to agitate you or designed to relax you?

Wikipedia’s not designed to do any of those things. It’s designed to give you information and give you access to creating or transcribing more information. 

So I started to think about what it would be like if you could create a set of Fluxus-style prompts that could help you feel embodied on Wiki. What would it be like to either memorize a part of the memorization article, or to try to be really aware of your physical self while you’re on Wiki?

A prompt from Carolyn’s “Wikipedia as Sacred Text” channel. [Text that reads “On your birthday, contribute to an article about a historical event that happened on the date you were born.”]

Sharon: I really enjoyed that one prompt…the one about reading the article on naps while trying to take a nap. I also love what you said about viewing it as sacred text, because so often the idea of scriptures from any major religion is that it can’t be changed — which is such a huge contrast to Wikipedia and how it’s dynamic, alive, and breathing. 

Carolyn: The cool part about Wikipedia is that everyone has their own personal relationship with it. That’s why it’s so cool to see what Annie Rauwerda is sharing through Depths of Wikipedia. Through her work, you’re able to watch someone engage deeply with the idiosyncratic elements that make Wikimedia a special and beautiful place. 

Thinking about Wikimedia as a space, what types of places or objects remind you of Wikipedia?

Sharon: I often think of it as a place with infinite rooms, sometimes like a city. Actually, I was so intrigued by the fact that on Wikipedia there’s so many references to physical structures and shared spaces that exist beyond the screen. Like the Wikipedia Sandbox where you can draft up an article or practice editing, the Library which is an open research hub, the Commons which is so aptly named as a public domain media repository. Not to mention the Teahouse, Village pump…even an Embassy?? While they all serve as utilitarian places where editors can ask questions and receive help, they hold so much character as well.

Screenshot of the Wikipedia embassy. [A Wikipedia page for Wikipedia: Embassy.]

But my favorite place I stumbled upon has gotta be the Wikipedia Graphics Lab.

Carolyn: I don’t even know where this is — you found a room I’ve never been to!

Sharon: It’s a page of people requesting random things to be made into SVGs, editing photos to be more vibrant, or just cleaning up images. I mean, someone’s got to make those topographic maps shine! As someone who works in these editing programs everyday, discovering that corner of Wikipedia was pretty exciting.

Carolyn: I think that’s one of the parts that makes Wikipedia feel so actionable. On Wiki it feels like it’s really possible to find a community that needs your special skills, whatever they might be. It’s like there’s a task out there waiting for everyone.

Sharon: Right! When I discovered the WikiFauna list, I can’t describe the joy I felt. It was so funny seeing roles that came straight out of an RPG. Like, WikiGnome, WikiAngel, WikiTroll??

Carolyn: Yeah, WikiOgre!

Definition of the WikiGnome, as found of the WikiFauna list. [A screenshot of part of a Wikipedia article defining WikiGnome as “having desirable traits of an editor who quietly attends to details of the encyclopedia.”]

Sharon: It’s so good. Many roles on Wikipedia are maintenance roles — cleaning up, keeping knowledge current. It’s rare that digital spaces require stewardship and fewer ask us to do so collectively. Just identifying yourself with one of the roles makes you feel like you’re really part of an online ecosystem. There’s a parallel in broader liberation movements — remember that Social Change Map that was floating around a couple years ago? It helps you answer the question: how can I use the skills I might already have and apply it for service elsewhere?

A graphic titled The Social Change Ecosystem that was passed around social media during the George Floyd protests. [In the center of the graphic is a yellow circle that reads “Equity, Liberation, Justice, Solidarity,” which is connected to other colored circles that have different “roles” that people can inhabit for achieving that, such as weavers, guides, experimenters, etc.]

So how did you first get into editing Wikipedia? 

Carolyn: I signed up for an account to edit Wikipedia when I was in library school. I was working as a reference librarian while I was going to school, and part of my job was talking with students about the “right way” to utilize Wikipedia in research. Once I learned more about how Wikipedia works and about editing, it opened up a lot for me; how empowering it could be to make changes. It was hard to jump in and feel knowledgeable about stuff, but maintenance is such a huge part of Wikipedia. 

So, living in New York, you see a lot of horror movie posters and I’m always intrigued by what those movies might be about, but also very, deeply scared of horror movies —

Sharon: SAME.

Carolyn: I like to read the Wikipedia articles of the movies, so that I can see the poster and not imagine something worse. So I actually got into editing Wikipedia as a WikiGnome, which is to say that I would read these really poorly written stubs or short articles about newly released horror movies, then just go in and fix all the grammar because you don’t need to see the movie to fix the grammar in the article. Doing these little edits was a really great way to learn how to edit and to sort of see how much people cared about things like a random horror movie.

A prompt from Carolyn’s “Wikipedia as Sacred Text” channel. [Text that reads “Take a walk and note 1-5 things that you hear, smell or see on your walk. Try learning one new fact about something you encountered on your walk.”]

Sharon: For me, I find a lot of satisfaction in starting articles. I recently was drafting up an article for a person who’s big into community organizing, who just published their first book. That was an interesting unlock for me because it’s like — they’re part of the queer Asian community, and if not us writing these articles about the people in our circle then who, you know? By being part of communities in the real world, you’re also bridging that knowledge on Wikipedia, in building things that have a tangible impact.

Carolyn: I think it’s really interesting that everyone brings their own perspective of the world to what they want to see on Wiki. It’s almost like everyone has a different flashlight. You’re searching and shining your light on this undefined space for someone. Because you edit, you have this lens that if you’re searching for something that’s not on Wiki, it probably should be. Like, this person should be in the record. You’re able to bring your perspective and make it a reality. 

I think once you stop thinking of Wikipedia as a passive consumption space, it’s really empowering. 

Sharon: 100%. 

Carolyn: When you Google something and no search results come up, there’s no call to action to add information about it. There are just no results or bad results. But if you go on Wikipedia and you search for something and it’s not there, the system presents you with an invitation to immediately start an article. 

Sharon: Yeah, it—I don’t know, it gives you butterflies. You’re there holding a flashlight and suddenly, oh my god. You just found something. And that discovery—is that there's nothing

Carolyn: Yes! It’s weirdly exciting to find nothing, because it means you can make something.

This piece was originally published in the Annual 2023, available here.

Sharon Park is a designer and maker based in Brooklyn, New York.

Carolyn Li-Madeo is a design manager who works for the Wikimedia Foundation (thoughts shared in her interview are purely her own and do not represent the Foundation). She is based in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY.