Mining the ‘Depths of Wikipedia’ on Instagram
Did you know that there’s a Swiss political party dedicated to opposing the use of PowerPoint? That some people believe Avril Lavigne died in 2003 and was replaced by a look-alike? Or that there’s a stone in a museum in Taiwan that uncannily resembles a slab of meat?
Probably not — unless, that is, you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people who follow @depthsofwikipedia. The Instagram account shares bizarre and surprising snippets from the vast, crowdsourced online encyclopedia, including amusing images (a chicken literally crossing a road) and minor moments in history (Mitt Romney driving several hours with his dog atop his car). Some posts are wholesome — such as Hatsuyume, the Japanese word for one’s first dream of the year — while others are not safe for work (say, panda pornography).
Annie Rauwerda, 22, started the account in the early days of the pandemic, when others were baking sourdough bread and learning how to knit. “Everyone was starting projects, and this was my project,” she said.
At the time, she was a sophomore at the University of Michigan. Students are often discouraged from using Wikipedia as a source in academic work, because most of its pages can be edited by anyone and may contain inaccurate information. But for Ms. Rauwerda, the site was always more about entertainment: spending hours clicking on one link after another, getting lost in rabbit holes.
“Wikipedia is the best thing on the internet,” Ms. Rauwerda said in a phone interview. “It’s what the internet was supposed to be. It has this hacker ethos of working together and making something.”
At first, only her friends were following the account. But it received a wave of attention when Ms. Rauwerda posted about the influencer Caroline Calloway, who was upset that the post featured an old version of her Wikipedia page that said her occupation was “nothing.” Ms. Rauwerda apologized, and Ms. Calloway later boosted the account on her Instagram.
Ms. Rauwerda has since expanded @depthsofwikipedia to Twitter and TikTok. She sells merchandise (such as a coffee mug emblazoned with an image from the Wikipedia entry for “bisexual lighting”) and has hosted a live show in Manhattan, featuring trivia and stand-up.
Her followers often pitch her Wikipedia pages to feature, but these days it’s hard to find an entry that will impress Ms. Rauwerda. “If it’s a fun fact that’s been on the Reddit home page, I’m definitely not going to repost it,” she said. “For example, there are only 25 blimps in the world. I’ve known about that for a long time, and it went around Twitter a couple days ago. I was shocked. I was like, ‘Everyone knows this.’”
She is choosy in large part because many of her followers rely on @depthsofwikipedia for unearthing the hidden gems of the internet.
“I just love to learn stuff, especially these strange photos and things I could never find on my own,” said Gabe Hockett, 15, a high school student in Minneapolis. He said his favorite posts from the account include “The Most Unwanted Song” and the “Dave Matthews Band Chicago River incident.”
Jen Fox, 22, said that trading posts from the account with her boyfriend is “a special, nerdy love language.” It’s also been a litmus test for friendships. When Ms. Fox, a copywriter, moved to San Francisco in February, she would mention the account to new people she met. If they were familiar with it, she said, “we would start DM-ing each other and sharing our favorite posts, which felt like we were really solidifying a concrete friendship.” Ms. Fox even attended a @depthsofwikipedia meet-up at a local brewery. “There’s such a community behind it,” she said.
It’s not new for lovers of Wikipedia to rally around their passion for the platform. A Facebook group called Cool Freaks’ Wikipedia Club, founded eight years ago, has nearly 50,000 members who actively trade links.
Ms. Rauwerda’s account “makes the internet feel smaller,” said Heather Woods, an assistant professor of rhetoric and technology at Kansas State University. “It shortcuts the rabbit-hole phenomenon by offering attractive — or sometimes hilariously unattractive — entry points to internet culture.”
Zachary McCune, the brand director for the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, said that @depthsofwikipedia is an extension of the site’s participatory ethos. “It’s a place where Wikipedia comes to life, like an after-hours tour of the best of Wikipedia,” Mr. McCune said.
And because Wikipedia has more than 55 million articles, having a guide like Ms. Rauwerda is helpful. She hopes that visitors to her page walk away with new shared knowledge. “I want you to see something that makes you pause and go, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting,’” Ms. Rauwerda said. “Something that makes you rethink the world a little bit.”