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quantifying the zeitgeist
finally - what the internet should be
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for warmly welcoming me into your home. I come to you today with a product that no family should be without. No! Please don't close the door. Hear me out, I genuinely think you will be interested. In fact, I think you will be genuinely interested. I am a man of honor, and I would not peddle meaningless trash.

Let me pose this question to you:

Do you want to have your finger on the pulse? No. Not your pulse. Take your fingers off of your neck. I mean The pulse. See that capital T there? That's not just for show. I can give you the key to all the answers you might seek. Be the wonder of your friends! Be the master of Trivial Pursuit! Crush your Cranium opponents! Have the entirety of pop culture at your fingertips!

I do not jest.

Just a few years ago, I might have been standing on your doorstep selling you a bundle of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Guinness Book of World Records. But not today! No, today, I'm here to show you something that's available to all of us, something that you may already be familiar with. Boys and girls, be prepared to turn familiarity into intimacy, as I show you the wonders of The Wikipedia.

If you're even somewhat familiar with Wikipedia you already know that it's an excellent repository of knowledge. What you might not know is how it works. Wikipedia, you see, is a wiki. Essentially, it's a webpage that anyone can edit. Anyone. Right now, you can sign up and edit it. Go ahead. Try it. Be nice, though, and play in the sandbox, or add onto a column that you actually know something about. Or fix a misspelling. Don't bother being mischievous. Vandalism is fixed pretty quickly by editors and other know-it-alls.

In fact, the entire knowledge base of Wikipedia has been entered at one point or another by a user. This, of course, means that you should never trust the information as absolute fact. It is not a good resource to reference on your Ph.D. dissertation. It is a good place to get information to impress your friends and win your bar bets.

Most importantly, since it's entirely user created and maintained, Wikipedia is a great measure of cultural knowledge, and thus the measure of the zeitgeist. If it's not a relevant part of pop culture, it's not on Wikipedia.

One might be tempted, I'm sure, to point to the Google Zeitgeist for a quickie. It does give a very handy snapshot of searches within the last week, but what does it tell you about them?

I can see that last week, harriet miers was one of the most searched-for terms on Google, but if I look for Harriet Miers over on Wikipedia, I can see why. More importantly, by looking at the history of the edits, I can see that less than a year ago her entry was only a short bio and I can pinpoint the exact moment she became an important part of the Zeitgeist. On Sept. 27, 2005 the line was added:

She has been mentioned as a possible nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

And from there things really start to churn.

She was nominated for the Supreme Court on October 3rd -- noted that day at 11:12 AM. 20 minutes later the article was tagged as a current event article, and roughly 12 hours and hundreds of edits later the article was in almost the exact same shape it's in, now. There has been a bevy of small editorial changes since then, and they will continue at a high rate until she passes from the popular interest.

Let's not forget, though, that Wikipedia is not only a record of when it's also a record of what. At your fingertips is the collected knowledge of the geeks of the world! Find out what the state fish of South Dakota is! (The Walleye) Find out what the capital of Svalbard is! (Longyearbyen) Find out whether or not your fingernails grow after you die! (No.) Find out who the first female Transformer was! (Elita One). Find out just how many Power Rangers series there have been! (13, plus two movies) Find out how many times James Bond was played by Roger Moore! (7) Find out the axial tilt of Uranus! (97.77°) Find out how big the world's biggest ball of twine built by only one person is! (It's twelve feet in diameter and weighs 17,500 pounds.)

It's more than an encylopedia; it's more than a record book. It's both, and then some. It's searchable, contained in one easy volume, has the incredible ability of sometimes being wrong but correctable, and is absolutely free.

You heard me, folks, free.

Ladies and gentlemen, your ever-evolving guide for information and pop culture in the new millenium: Wikipedia.


Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

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sandra thompson
10.26.05 @ 10:42a

I can't imagine why no one has posted anything here. I LOVE Wiki. I look up stuff there almost every day, and it's a good start to find real facts.

sarah ficke
10.26.05 @ 11:41a

It's funny. As an academic, I am mistrustful of Wikipedia. It has the potential to change in a moment, it's fueled by public knowledge, and it's not being overseen by any one group of people to make sure it's right. Yet... it's the fastest way for me to find information, it's ridiculously comprehensive, and often well-organized as well. For everyday use, or as a first resource (to be double-checked later) it's awesome.

erik myers
10.26.05 @ 11:50a

Well.. actually it is overseen by a group, but only to make sure that it's referenced, because references are likely to be right.

There's also a fair amount of editing going on to make sure that it fits certain style guidelines - like all of the information is supposed to be in an impartial tone.

Using Harriet Miers as an example again, you can see in the history of her edits you'll see things in the notes like:

(Revert reversion by Neutrality. "Unusual" is a POV word.)


(Remove Link to RighSideRedux.com - inappropriately biased link)

So, there is a fair amount of real editing going on.

The Wikipedia FAQ does address this, though:

Wikipedia:Schools' FAQ

Answering such questions as:

- Is Wikipedia accurate and reliable?

- Can students cite Wikipedia in assignments?

and of course

- Is it a safe environment for young people?

sarah ficke
10.26.05 @ 12:00p

Ah. That's a good, responsible answer from them.

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