At midnight, the English-speaking world will have gone 24-hours without Wikipedia. In some ways, the outage, which was planned in protest of an Internet piracy bill, presented an opportunity to gauge what Wikipedia means to the world. So NPR, The Washington Post and The Guardian launched a 24-hour project in which researchers, reporters and the public tried to answer questions usually answered by the so-called “online encyclopedia.”
Hundreds of questions flowed through Twitter using the hashtag #altwiki. Here’s just a sampling:
Some of them were impossible to answer.
“The hipster oracle is down today,” NPRaltwiki responded to the Portland question. And the Washington Post, responded that pancakes predate the Dutch.
We spoke to Jo Ella Straley, an NPR reference librarian, who took on the challenge along with her colleague Kee Malesky. We asked her if she learned anything about Wikipedia throughout the day.
Nope, she said, but she did learn quite a bit about Ann Landers. Pointing to the book Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present Jo Ella told @nothinbutaword that Ann and her sister ran competiting advice columns.
But get this: Landers was born Esther Pauline and her twin sister was named Pauline Esther. “Who does that?” said Jo Ella.
“I know, right? Tripods are A BIG DEAL in certain epics,” Jo Ella responded. We won’t get into the details, because it’s way beyond the scope of this blog, but if you really care about tripods Jo Ella pointed to a book with a chapter titled “The Semantics of the Tripod in Early Greek Culture.”
So what did we learn from the great Wikipedia blackout of 2012? First many on Twitter pointed out that Wikipedia has become indispensable, but we’d say the one thing that was obvious is that despite Wikipedia’s absence, human curiosity didn’t rest.