The short story: Because I never want to stop learning, and Wikipedia frequently helps me along that path.
The long story: My older sister once forwarded an e-mail to my family telling us to check out the thank you message she had received from the Wikimedia Foundation after making a small donation with an old balance sitting in her PayPal account. The e-mail contained a heartfelt thank you for supporting the foundation and what my sister accurately described as an awesome message:
“…Your donation covers not only your own costs of using Wikipedia, but also the costs of other Wikipedia readers.
Like the retired farmer in upstate New York who’s using Wikipedia to study the science of sludge, and the student in Kuala Lumpur who’s researching organic chemistry. The British mechanic who, after he broke his back in an accident, used Wikipedia to retrain himself as a web developer. The civil servant in Finland who set up an offline version of Wikipedia for a small school in Ghana. And the father in Mexico City who takes his little daughters to the museum on weekends, and uses Wikipedia to help them understand everything they’re seeing there.
Wikipedia’s job is to bring the sum total of all human knowledge to everyone around the world in their own language. That’s a pretty audacious mission, but with 30 million articles and 287 languages, I’d say that thanks to you and people like you, we are getting there.”
-Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation.
It has been difficult to shake the memory of that e-mail, bursting as it was with positivity and gratitude. And each time I click on Wikipedia in my browser favourites, that e-mail continues to lurk in the back of my mind. Why? The message from Sue Gardner sent to my sister’s email account really sums it up. Wikipedia’s existence is entirely focused on sharing knowledge and giving people the ability to learn… and I am forever grateful for it. The site satisfies my thirst for knowledge on what seems to be a daily basis; and it feels like a gift to have instant access to succinct information on just about anything you can think of.
The concept of this online encyclopedia also feels innately tied to these very retrospective thoughts that I’m having lately about my growth and how much of it has been impacted by new technology. I clearly remember a time when there was a fancy encyclopedia set in the basement of my childhood home. The books were deep red and black with gold trim and glossy pages; neatly displayed in alphabetical order, they served as my secret weapon for school projects. When I was quite young, I thought to myself that I would have to buy my own encyclopedia set when I was all grown up and living on my own. A few years later, I started to question how valuable it would be to have printed books with information that can change as time goes by. And now the idea of buying an encyclopedia set isn’t even something I would entertain – not with Wikipedia just a click away (and obviously the rest of the Internet).
As a child, I was witness to the first dial-up modem in my family’s household. This means that in my lifetime, the Internet has become an irreversibly inherent part of our daily lives and I have been able to observe the change firsthand. Commercial Internet as we know it became available within years of my birth (according to Wikipedia!) so it is eerie to consider that the generation just after me is being born into a world that is so hardwired to be inextricably connected to the Internet. Some babies are born with online profiles already created by their parents. They may never hold a heavy book inscribed with the letter E so they can read about elephants. This generation does not know a world without technology, and now it just seems impossible to imagine life without it.
Our relationship with technology is ambiguous to say the least – I could lament the fact that the baby on Facebook will never hold that beautiful heavy book in his hands, but I can just as easily celebrate the alternative as Wikipedia proclaims itself to be The Free Encyclopedia. This sort of polarity exists even within the structure the great online encyclopedia, making Wikipedia feel like a microcosm that represents our technology-dependent society. Certainly, there are those who might argue that there are flaws with the site. Some will say that the accuracy of the information in the articles is questionable given that anyone can edit the content. There is undoubtedly censorship and bias in some articles – but somehow I’m not bothered. Perhaps recognizing it and being aware is enough for me to look past those negatives. At the end of the day, I’m not using this site to compile research for a thesis; I’m visiting to learn something basic, like checking the year my favourite book was written or to get a high level understanding of something very complex.
Wikipedia’s merits and faults coexist in quiet harmony. In comparison, our complicated and dubious battle between life online and offline is far less harmonious, but equally interesting. What is most clear to me amongst these battling ends of the spectrum is that there is just as much potential for good (if not more) as there is potential for bad when it comes to technology, the Internet, and Wikipedia. And if we look at the good, the great, the really amazing end of the Wikipedia spectrum, it is a simple choice. The Wikimedia Foundation gives us the gift of knowledge for free – so I donated, to give back and to keep learning.