Oct 16, 2008, 05:34AM

Wikipedia, the 21st Century's Freudian Mother

Wikimommy.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

I first gained trust in Wikipedia in high school, when for about a month or so my friend Rick and I made it our goal to mess up articles. He tried to change the definition of “nose.” I tried to turn the “ice cream making” entry into a poem about God and Baskin Robbins. Those were a couple out of many attempts, but they’d always get deleted within minutes. Once, I tried to make an entry for myself. “Becky Lang,” was the title; “if you like Beckies, click here,” was the only sentence, along with a link to my then website. Other people also tried to make entries about me, whether they were nice or not, I don’t know. All that was left was a line in the harsh yet subtle delete log, which showed the entry and a small explanation for its deletion, in that case being “vanity.”* All we could hope was that in those few moments before the editors came along, some one had read our slanted truth.

Rick did find one type of entry he could change: school songs. For about a month, all of the suburban schools around Minneapolis listed pep songs that talked about the teeth-brushing habits of football players, and what their moms were like. They’ve since been fixed.

That time gave me an impression of Wikipedia as being like the Freudian mother. It’s soft but powerful and all-knowing, and the closest connection between a swaddled mind and the rest of the wide, multi-lingual world. I had tested Wikipedia the way a two-year old pokes at their mom to get attention, and like a good mom, it had proved itself to be devoted and somehow all mine.

In my college years, Wikipedia became a way to skip taking classes just because you have a mild interest in the subject. My boyfriend and I would lie on our stomachs in front of my laptop, reading the entries for “Shintoism, “Quantum Physics” and “Existentialism.” Books of philosophy that would have once at least made me throw down money for gas to run to the library were suddenly streamlined and placed on a friendly white page, in a format that I was familiar with. Wikipedia changes the threshold of the amount of time commitment it takes to become interested in something. Now, when I hear about some random thing that strikes me as mildly interesting, you can bet that’s where I’ll be. Sarah Palin’s kids have weird names? Wikipedia. How exactly are fruit rollups made? Wikipedia. How would you translate “Death to Hamas” into Arabic?** Wikipedia (they have impressive language learning tools as well). Once I spent an hour just reading about Absinthe.

So what is it about Wikipedia that makes it so readable? Let’s start by examining an entry. Going with the Freudian mother theme, I’ll jump to Wikipedia’s page for “mother.” It starts by explaining that they’ve redirected everyone who tried to search for “mom, mommy, moms, and mum.” On the right is a picture representation of a mother, which some author chose to be “Migrant Mother,” by Dorthea Lange circa the Great Depression. Wikipedia’s mother is sad and thin, and surrounded by two tiny kids with the same fluffy, bird-like haircuts. The content is split into four parts: synonyms and translations, metaphorical mothers, “see also,” and notes. It’s not the best Wikipedia entry, but there’s an uncanny feeling that you get from seeing something so intuitive methodically and creatively put through the Wiki process. The photo choice is classic as well.

Some Wikipedia entries are downright fun to read. The entry for “hip” is a work of catalogued knowledge art. It explains that “hip is the opposite of square or prude” before delving into a series of conjectures about the history of the term, jumping from theories about opium dens to African languages. Without further complication, the entry simply ends with a song from the 1940s.

Wikipedia’s simple design is possibly what, at the most instinctual level, makes it so good. The background is white, the text is always in the same general type of organization, and there’s always that friendly column on the side that I can click on if I get bored while reading and want to see what the same entry looks like in a language I don’t know at all. The result is not intimidating, which is a relief when the goal of visiting a page is to learn about something that you know nothing about.

Plus, there’s something about Wikipedia’s entire existence that is, simply, jaw-dropping. Just seeing that they have an entry for “control-alt-delete” makes you realize how many people in the world know small nuggets of information well enough to contribute them for free. It’s sort of like a collective consciousness, acid-tongue 60s connotations and all. Mother nature, meet mother Wikipedia.

So what plays the role of the father in this Oedipal triangle of knowledge? Lots of sources claim to hold the firm fist of truth and knowledge over our heads, but I don’t see many college kids waddling over to Encyclopedia Britannica (.com) and paying the subscription fee to get the copy edited, so-called facts, along with a few ads mildly related to one of the words in the article.*** Move over pops.****

*As you may have guessed, reading the delete logs became my next hobby. You’d be surprised how many stoners try to make entries about the deliciousness of things with names like “Monster Cookies!!!”
**This came up in the office once.
***A search for “hip” on Encyclopedia Britannica yields a few ads about medical help pages, and one for a “Hip Pocket Guide to Understanding Democracy.”
**** I’m not saying that feminine knowledge is inaccurate, just that Freud was right when he pointed out that so many establishments that dictate our versions of reality were based on grim rule over admitting that truth is somewhat unknowable. We’re the generation that came of age under the Bush administration and read Nietzsche in high school English class. Journalism isn’t really neutral and neither are the facts. We don’t kid ourselves. We’re just that postmodern. 

  • Wikipedia will be even better in five years, when it gets more expansive and eliminates the far more infrequent mistakes that still pop up. Although I guess it'll always be a source of amusement for those who want to alter items and see if they can get away with it.

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  • It always pisses me off when professors don't permit citations of Wikipedia. It's just as valid a source as any other, and much more comprehensive.

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  • Oh Kodak, I hope you're kidding.

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