General Lithuanian EncyclopediaThere’s a story about a college freshman who walks into the university library for the first time and sees a long row of books, all with the same binding, on a shelf.  “What’s this?” he asks the librarian.  “What are all these books that all look the same?”

“That’s the encyclopedia,” the librarian tells him.

“Really? Cool! Somebody printed the whole thing out?” the student responds.

For students today, for the most part, “encyclopedia” means wikipedia. I don’t think there’s a college student in this country (maybe not even an elementary student) who has not used wikipedia.  Some colleges have tried to ban it, some professors say they won’t allow it as a source for research, but it is still the first reference, the go-to source, for almost any topic.  It’s comprehensive, up-to-date, and accurate (maybe not so sure about that last–at least not on every topic).  Wikipedia has several advantages over the “traditional” encyclopedia.  It can be updated quickly and frequently.  It has no real limit on size (it doesn’t have to fit on a shelf), so it can include all kinds of information, particularly about popular culture, that there would be no room for in a printed encyclopedia.  It’s searchable and most of all hyper-linked, so connections and cross-references and serendipitous discovery are at the center of the experience.  But like any tool (as you’ll read from me in the one of the readings for this unit), if it’s not used as what it is, it will be inefficient or ineffective, or even harmful.  Which is (partly) why some colleges and professors want to ban it.

For most students, other than just searching and finding an article, the bulk of wikipedia might just as well not even exist.  I hear people all the time, not just students saying things about “them” at wikipedia.  But the point of wikipedia is that there really is no “them.”  It’s US.  I know all of you have read articles on wikipedia.  But have you written any? Or even edited any?  When you read an article, do you check the talk page for that article? That’s where the action is!  I’ve been in a few editing struggles (I won’t say wars) on wikipedia myself, and I have to say that that’s where I’ve learned the most–not just about the subject, but about wikipedia, too.  When you realize that there is no “them,” that we are all editors, all wikipedians, it becomes a much more interesting and useful tool.  I would like to see college classes (maybe even this one!) instead of forbidding wikipedia, requiring it.  But requiring that students write articles, or edit existing articles.

The point of learning to ask, of google-fu and searching as a powerful act is that we get to create the information as we consume it.  That’s a concept that is new, and one that is somewhat explored in some of your readings.  When I used to use the World Book Encyclopedia as a kid, or the Encyclopedia Britannica, I would sometimes find things that I didn’t like or agree with.  But there wasn’t much I could do about that, and I had no idea about how an encyclopedia was written or assembled.  But now I do–and now I’ve done it myself.

The title of this post (“we are wikipedians”) sounds in my head like the little girl saying “we are wine bottles!” in this video

That video (apart from being one of the cutest things ever) gives a somewhat indirect example of what’s going on in the world of information right now.  “Kittens,” inspired by Kittens, could be a shorthand for the world of remixing and mashing up–where you get to create your own communities and your own publications.