What is Wikipedia?

Where to start? The same place we’ll end — Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a multilingual free online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of volunteers through open collaboration and a wiki-based editing system. [source: Wikipedia]

The humble encyclopedia has mostly been forgotten. In its place is the encyclopedia, the source of all knowledge, the first link on your search. And against all odds, it is a mostly wonderful, quiet place. It is a community run by fervent volunteers, devoid of ads, complete with an interface that never left early web aesthetics. It is a celebration of information for all cultures and languages. More generally, it is a celebration of information. More specifically, it is a celebration of information as originally orchestrated by two men.

As with all things, Wikipedia was not inevitable. First came the concept of a wiki, a collaborative publication that lives online. Well, first came a peer-reviewed online publication that fostered quality but not quantity. Then came a second draft, in English, on January 15, 2001. Then around a year later, amid external fears of out-of-control monetization, the organization cemented its mission by switching to a “.org” address. Growth from there was exponential, eventually stabilizing into an active user base that ranks seventh of all websites today.

This website and its community have, mostly, stayed true to the founding core values. Issues arise, and arise again, but have yet to lead to any moments of self-immolation. And while reputability concerns always exist, even articles on the most basic of topics are troves of scholarly references that any student would be envious of. When a librarian first introduced me to Wikipedia, they also offered a healthy dose of skepticism. That dose remains as healthy as ever, and Wikipedia is the first resource for all my scholarly research, late night deep dives, and frantic fact checking scrambles. An astute researcher does not ignore the first resource — instead, they vet it with that healthy skepticism.

I invite you to Wikipedia with a new set of eyes. Take this thing — this place — that we so often take as trivial or for granted. What is it? Data? Information? Users? A community? A website? An encyclopedia? A book, even? Or just light on a computer screen?

What about Wikipedia makes it a natural part of our lives? Its ubiquity? Its simplicity? Its familiarity? What about its dominance over virtually all narratives?

Whatever it is, it is many things. I am curious about one thing though, which is its physicality. An encyclopedia has bulk, but only so much of Wikipedia is visible or felt at a single moment. Furthermore, Wikipedia is the encyclopedia, the authors, the librarians, the public, and the library. Where is everyone? Where is everything?

This project is a reimagining of Wikipedia as several new spaces with the intention of changing your perception of what the website is or isn’t.

As a library, Wikipedia is a collection of books. What stories will you find?

As a café, Wikipedia is a collection of conversations. Who will you bump into?

As a gallery, Wikipedia is a collection of artworks. What images will you view?

I invite you into this town to see the things you already know, but might not, too.

Who made this?

Design + Code: Gabriel Drozdov

Colophon: Biolinum and Libertine by Philipp H. Poll

Content: Wikipedia (using the random API)

Created during the Fall 2022 semester as part of RISD’s Graphic Design MFA program, specifically for the grad elective “Source” taught by Eric Li.