214: The Problem with Wikipedia

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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The Problem with Wikipedia
'Taft in a wet t-shirt contest' is the key image here.
Title text: 'Taft in a wet t-shirt contest' is the key image here.


This comic illustrates the "problems" of information abundance coupled with a dense web of hypertext links. Through most of human history, written media has been both slow and linear. Hypertext allows a new type of information consumption, through small chunks of information linked together in a web of related concepts, and by being digital, each new chunk can be retrieved quickly and effortlessly. Wikipedia applies this principle very strongly, and because it covers so many topics, it is common for a reader to skim an article about a topic they need or want to know about, and end up following a series of links out of curiosity. Since each new page also has several links, the overall navigation pattern resembles a tree that branches out, "exploding" in size with each new level of link-clicking, thus resulting in many wasted hours (three in this case) of reading stuff unrelated to the original goal, and lots of open browser tabs holding a wide variety of articles, which are seemingly unrelated, but have common "ancestors".

All of the articles and the depicted links between them existed when the comic was published, with the exepion of "Fatal hilarity" not being linked from Batman. ("Structural collapse" was piped to Structural failure. Fatal hilarity has since been renamed to Death from laughter.) Whether each of these articles actually could, or presently can, be reached from Tacoma Narrows Bridge is unknown, and would make good challenges in the Wikipedia game.

Path for Batman (travellable Jan 23, 2007): Suspension bridge --> Japan --> United States --> American comic book --> Batman

The title text refers to two of the articles that were supposedly reached at the bottom. William Howard Taft was the 27th President of the U.S., in office from 1909 to 1913, who was notorious for being so overweight that he became stuck in the White House bathtub. A wet T-shirt contest "is an exhibitionistic competition typically featuring young women contestants at a nightclub, bar, or resort." Clearly the combination of these two would be rather bizarre.

This comic is very similar to 609: Tab Explosion, which refers to a similar effect caused by another reference site, TVTropes.


The Problem With Wikipedia:
Tacoma Narrows Bridge
[Lines Lead to] Suspension Bridge [and] Structural collapse
Three Hours of Fascinated Clicking Later
William Howard Taft
24-Hour Analog Dial
Lesbianism in Erotica
Batman [leads to] Fatal Hilarity
Taylor Hanson
Cotton [leads to] T-Shirt [leads to] Wet T-Shirt Contest

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I was unable to find the fatal hilarity link from the Batman page. I call shenanigans. Davidy22(talk) 23:16, 1 November 2012 (UTC)

Could that be a reference to the Joker? --B. P. (talk) 19:35, 3 November 2012 (UTC)

This always happens to me on Wikipedia! Glad to know I'm not alone :) (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

If I had a dollar for every wiki article I read that had nothing to do with the initial reason I opened Wikipedia, I'm guessing I could buy myself that motorcycle I've always wanted. Also, it's been a long time since I last read any Asimov, but didn't he describe, in the Foundation series if I remember correctly, something very similar to Wikipedia? I wonder if that was any inspiration to the creators of Wikipedia. Militon (talk) 09:22, 19 February 2014 (UTC)

That would be the "Encyclopedia Galactica." Perhaps more resembling the "Encyclopedia Britannica" than Wikipedia. The Encyclopedia project was embarked because the collapse of the Galactic Empire and consequent decline into a dark age was already too far along to avoid, but with an Encyclopedia covering all scientific knowledge, with copies in every major library in the Galaxy, science won't need to be re-discovered, and the dark age period would be shortened from 30,000 years to a mere 1000. It is subsequently revealed that the whole Encyclopedia project was a hoax designed to trick the people working on the project into being exiled to the edge of the Galaxy, where, in order to survive the growing barbarism around them, they would be forced to form a technologically advanced civilization -- the namesake Foundation -- and it is that Foundation, rather than the Encyclopedia, that would facilitate the end of the dark age within a mere 1000 years. Mountain Hikes (talk) 04:19, 23 September 2015 (UTC)
Perhaps Milton was referring to Asimov's essays, in particular "The New Teachers" and "Future Fantastic" in which he envisioned a future where every home had a computer linked up to the sum of human knowledge, letting each child, while receiving rudimentary and fundamental physical and social skills by others, is allowed to learn about whatever suits the child's fancy, to follow in-depth, to discover new interests, to receive instructions and lessons from experts, to give lessons and share their own knowledge when ready, to add to the global knowledge library, and when, and if (as Asimov hoped) the drudge work of day-to-day existence was given over to automation and robots, a new Renaissance could be born. DavidM. 07:48, 4 January 2018 (UTC)

This happens to me on explainxkcd. This should be added to explanation, which will make it self-referential comic. 15:10, 6 July 2014 (UTC)

So I thought I would try and complete the wikipath to Lesbianism in Erotica while on a break at work... Bad move, all the 'What Links Here' pages are pornography related, and my boss just happened to appear at the wrong moment. --Pudder (talk) 12:29, 2 February 2015 (UTC)

I once spent over eight hours on Wikipedia and at the end I had over fifty tabs open. Next time I'll try for a Graham's number. ~Sub6528

I get this way when I read XKCD, actually. Tonight I've wound up from this to Pietro Aretino to poor marketing decisions aimed at millenials, to Postmates. -- 13:22, 12 July 2016 (UTC)