After 16 years of online addiction, I went cold turkey: no social media, no YouTube, no Netflix, no fun on the Internet of any kind. But with my heaviest habit stopped, my poor plastic brain was searching for its fix, like a recovering alcoholic suddenly attracted to mouthwash. And I found it in an old friend that had all the divine appeal of Listerine Freshburst: Wikipedia.
I first tasted the intoxicant when I was nearing the halfway point of puberty. A friend and I slouched at a boxy Dell desktop, injecting profanities and concocting outrageous biographies. It was a rush. Now as a grown man slouched before a MacBook, I’ve found it all again. But in those moments of clarity that grace every addict, I saw Wikipedia for what it really is: another social media platform.
Wikipedia’s appearance gives it airs of authority and joylessness, like a county hospital administration wing. It doesn’t have the inviting daycare-blue interface of Twitter. But there’s a colorful world behind the chilly aesthetic, as users post content, craft profile pages, navigate moderation policies, push opinion disguised as fact, and fight, fight, fight.
On Twitter, I’d scroll through my feed until I found something worth biting into. When I browse Wikipedia, I swing from link to link until I land on a meaty topic. But I don’t care about the content of the article — I want to go where the sausage is made: The Talk Page. This is the rusty back room of every Wikipedia entry, where editors discuss changes — discussions that often become bickering, self-righteous appeals to authority and claims on God’s honest truth. In other words, just like Twitter.
The Talk Page is really a debate page, and the debates are often just tit-for-tats. “Republicans are populist.” “No, they’re not.” “Yes, they are.”
Such exchanges may descend into side-mouthed insults forbidden under Wikipedia’s No Personal Attacks rule. The ticket to winning a Wikipedia skirmish is a source, which could be a book, a news item, a scholarly article, a blog, etc. So as with any other social media platform, a user attaches their opinion to someone else’s opinion and fires it into the battlefield like a lightning bolt of truth.
When I find a particularly juicy exchange, I want to go deeper. I click through to an editor’s user page and I’m often transported to a place that’s a mix of shrine, diary, and manifesto. It feels 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 commitments, identities, and interests displayed in a variety of colorful ways. “This user believes that the death penalty should never be used,” reads one. “This user has read anarchist literature, agrees with a lot of points and expresses full solidarity with anarchists,” reads another.
One of the five pillars of Wikipedia is neutrality. Etched across that marble pillar is the edict that personal opinions and interpretations “do not belong” on the site.
But there they are: The death penalty should never be used. Anarchism makes sense. America is a beacon of liberty. 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 should be punished. Marriage is oppressive. Public education is propaganda. Health care is a human right. Christianity is a cult. God created man in his image. Gender is fluid. Sex is fixed. The body is a temple. Love is love. Fairness means equity. Money is the root of all evil. Cash is king. Community first. Karma’s a bitch. And so on.
These are the kinds of personal views and opinions that percolate in all human beings. And we need them. They’re a travel guide for navigating reality, giving meaning and context to information. They point us in a particular direction, which bubbles up in our psyche as interest. Without them, we’d be lost. A Wikipedia editor’s interest in an article sprouts from their values and opinions, and their contributions are filtered through their general interpretation of reality. Edict or no, a neutral point of view is impossible. Not even a Wikipedia editor can transcend that.
So Wikipedia is a social media platform where user-generated opinions and interpretations battle it out in a game of popularity and attrition — just like Twitter. But Wikipedia also does what other social media platforms can only dream of: It establishes consensus and authority.
Conflicts on Twitter proceed as though there were a single record that logs the conclusions of our collective debate. We like to imagine Twitter as a floating metaphysical ledger waiting for that final word. That’s why we dunk on people, fact-check, and correct the record: We think we’re in a reality war and there can be only one winner. But the imperative “We all have to get on the same page” is literal on Wikipedia. It manifests that imagined ledger as a visible page on which the winning opinion is made concrete and true. And so it might be the most real and significant social media platform of all.
The first step is admitting it: I have a problem with social media. But then we start bargaining: I won’t browse Twitter, but I’ll keep YouTube. Or we start blaming: It’s Twitter’s fault. It’s the algorithm’s fault. Turns out, even the seemingly coldest, most aesthetically challenged website on the Internet has the same problems. The fights, the anxiety, the way it hooks you, the appeals to authority, and the unfounded sense of existential importance it imparts.
If even Wikipedia is just another social media platform, where do I go now?