Mumbai: In the modern digital newsroom, life without Wikipedia is not very fun. The perils of reporters overusing the online encyclopedia are, of course, well documented, but it cannot be denied that Wikipedia is an easy way for journalists to check spelling, refresh their memories on the chronology of certain events, pick up free for use images, and, thanks to its referencing system, find other important links to read around various subjects. (Read more on the journalist relationship to Wikipedia)
But Wikipedia is not used by journalists alone. It is often the digital native’s first stop for reference and information. Student’s use it to plump up their assignments and presentations (They’re not supposed but they still do it). Many use it to learn more about a certain topic or person that has suddenly caught their interest. Others use it as a default search for information. So when Wikipedia announced that it would black out its services for 24 hours to register its protest against the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act being considered in the US, the impact on general web behavior was bound to be huge.
In the run up to the great Wikipedia blackout, Sites like lifehackerand The Next Webpublished quick ways to ensure that users would still have access to the encyclopedia. The Washington Postcreated a hashtag called #altwiki, telling people to ask their editorial staff questions on Twitter with the hashtag and they would do their best to answer them. Some questions would be answered by Washington Post readers in sort of an impromptu version of Wikipedia’s online community.Others waited with interest to see how life would pan out. In the words of one Twitter user, Chirag Mehta, “Wikipedia was down is the new dog ate my homework.”
Firstpost spoke to a few people from a range of professions to see how they managed. Nupur, a student pursuing a masters in development communication at Jamia said that the news had been earth shattering. “I was like damn! How will I survive?” she laughs. Nupur says she was lucky that she didn’t have any projects due anytime soon, because she relied so heavily on the site. Interestingly however, she knew nothing about SOPA or why Wikipedia had shut down, saying that though it “sounded stupid” she would go home and look it up. And getting stuck for project information is not only limited to students it would seem. Ashwini Pooviahwho spoke to us via Twitter said, “I’m doing research on PR crises and need event briefs of Kingfisher crisis/2g Scam etc Wthout Wikipedia I’m stalled!” Popular Twitter personality Abhishek Asthana who is better known as Gabbar Singh, had a most eloquent way of describing his relationship with Wikipedia, “Yeah, Wikipedia does occupy 20% of the total tabs open on my browser at any given time. It’s like a parent who’s holding your hand while you roam around a Glitzy Fair – which is the Internet. You move around wide eyed and when you find something you don’t know abt, you ask your parent, and she answers your question promptly and in detail.”
We also spoke to Tinu Cherian, an active Wikipedia editor in India. “Well of course I’m connected to Wikipedia in many ways, so not being able to edit it greatly influenced my online behavior. But also I was able to get on to some other things, so in some ways it was like a vacation for a day!”, he said.
Other users like Agunnupuri missed Wikipedia in the course of their normal browsing. He said, “I was looking for a filmmaker and missed the ‘comprehensiveness’ of the wiki page.” Samit Malkani, who contacted us via Facebook had a similar experience. “I wanted some info on Steve Jobs, and without thinking about it I ran a Wikipedia search through my browser. I’d barely started scrolling down the page when it turned dark…FML and how!!!”, he said.
But there were ways around the blackout. A few people discovered that pressing the ‘escape’ key would stop the blackout page from loading and this piece of information was disseminated widely. The blackout was also not active on mobile phone browsers. But the frequency with which this piece of information was disseminated also pointed out to how reliant people are on Wikipedia as a source of information.
Of course some users claimed that they had not missed it at all. But possibly the most honest answer was from Facebook user Praful P. Pai who said, “I Haven’t missed it much today. But the point is, “What would happen if it was blocked for longer, say a week? Or permanently?”