One website can really make a difference in someone’s life. There is story about one doing exactly that, and not in some small timid way. It involved a matter of life and death. I’ve had a lifelong thirst for knowledge that comes from a desire to assert control over my life. This is the story of how Wikipedia helped me do that when it was most important.
When I visited the site this morning I saw the Beggar’s Banner at the top. I peeked into my history on my main desktop computer. I knew I used it a lot, but I was surprised. I have made at least 3,810 visits to the site since the August 26th till now. I didn’t count searches, or pages I visited twice. It doesn’t count cellphone visits or my laptop. I realized that because of Wikipedia, I had at very least acquainted myself with about 3800 discrete topics ranging from the 11th Congress of the United States to the Zimbabwe White Minority in less than five months.
When I was a child, my fantasy was always about escape. I was always a deeply unhappy kid and on top of that, there didn’t seem to be anything I was good for. I couldn’t dribble a basketball to save my life, or run around a track without losing my breath, or play an instrument, or bend my thumb all the way back. I was eight, and I already felt like a loser. I dove into books like they were escape pods and launched myself into a world where nothing seemed impossible. I was never helpless when I had some book to guide me.
One day, my father brought home a new computer to replace the old MS-DOS machine we had been running in the house. It was a Packard Bell computer that among other things, came with its own mouse! It also had a CD-ROM drive, ran a whopping 75MHz Pentium processor, and came with all kinds of neat software, including a Spider-Man cartoon maker. I nearly died with glee. While my father was fiddling with the software though, and my back was turned, I heard a magical sound. What is that? I had to turn around. I had discovered Encarta 95. I remember my words to my father to this day, “You can put an encyclopedia on a computer?” Little did I know, my life was about to change forever.
From then on if I was on the computer, I was either making Spider-Man cartoons, drawing blobulous pictures on MS-Paint, or reading Encarta (or playing MindMaze, which is really the same thing.) From then on it seemed there was nothing I did not know- unless it wasn’t in Encarta. We didn’t have Internet access at the time. Gradually, I realized I was circling back on the same old articles, finding them lacking. It got boring after a while, the articles never changed. I felt like I knew a lot more, but I wasn’t learning anything. I still couldn’t figure out what to feed the cool spider I caught, or what kind it was (I let it loose) or why I couldn’t see constellations (light pollution).
It was a few years before we got dial-up, and I was introduced to the new and interesting world of blue text on red backgrounds that was the early Internet. People often denigrate Wikipedia for being wrong sometimes. I think they forget what preceded it. This was also pre-Google, and sometimes just finding things felt like a big part of the battle.
Sometime in 2004, I went to college. It took one look at the campus library to feel I had arrived. This at least, was a place I could find knowledge if all else failed. I treated the library like a mooring in an uneasy sea. I joined the school’s magazine, and one afternoon when I was struggling to get some research done, one of the editors pointed to a ready source of information on the internet. “Haven’t you used Wikipedia?” He said it to me like, “Have you been living under a rock, protected by lead, in the middle of a nuclear wasteland?”
“Well let me show you.” Everything after was a blur. I remember starting in the university computer lab on an article on something like Western philosophy and about four bleary-eyed hours later was reading about tank armor. I was home. This was the infinite bookshelf that could hold as much knowledge as people cared to add to it.
Things happened after that. I learned a great deal during my college years only to have some of the residual evils of my experiences as a child sneak up and drag me down. It turns out that a love of knowledge does not necessarily correspond to academic success in and of itself. I dropped out, dropped in, dropped back out, dropped back in, until finally I was kicked out. Something was off about the way I thought of myself. I didn’t think I had demonstrated an ounce of worth in the entire history of my existence. I remember after a class one of my professors putting his hand on my shoulder and looking me right in the eye and asking, “Are you okay?” Like a fool I said yes.
I knew that I had to do something, change something, make something of myself. So I did what I always did when I didn’t know what to do: I tried to learn more about it. Soon Wikipedia was teaching me things about depression, about anxiety, about post-traumatic stress disorder. I had friends that helped me, certainly, I can’t give the website all the credit. But when I was alone in the middle of the night in depth of winter and with no one to help me step back from despair, I went to Wikipedia, looked up the article on suicide, and realized that I wasn’t alone, that I needed help, and that it was out there. Maybe to some people it seems rather cold and unsentimental to garner hope from facts and figures, but for me, it was ripe with a perfect and powerful logic. There was something about the raw truth itself that proved a more powerful force of nature than the stars exploding.
So yeah, maybe I’m a nerd and I reach for the bookshelf when I’m in trouble. Sure the way I think and act can be considered strange or unusual in a lot of ways. But, here’s the important thing I know about what Wikipedia means to me: It helped save my life.