214: The Problem with Wikipedia

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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 explosion 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 trivia-filled hours (over 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." (The problem, for Randall, of wasting time on Wikipedia was later referenced in the title text of 1501: Mysteries, and the more general problem of getting trapped following a never-ending chain of interesting links was covered in 609: Tab Explosion.) The large diversity in end links may also be a reference to the Wikipedia game.

One can also see this effect occur in other MediaWiki-powered wikis such as this very website, where one comic can lead to another of similar relation or category. In the table below, a possible route for each entry has been found.

Finding routes between the start and end points of the two pages above and the six below makes good challenges in the Wikipedia game.

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 when a White House chief usher invented a story about him getting stuck in the White House bathtub, people took it seriously. 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.

There is an online game that involves trying to get from one Wikipedia page to another in the shortest possible route: http://thewikigame.com/.

Table of paths

Due to the ever changing nature of Wikipedia, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge entry on Wikipedia no longer links to Structural collapse, requiring an intermediate step via Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940), and since Structural collapse now redirects to Structural integrity and failure, most pages on Wikipedia that linked to Structural collapse have been changed to rename this link.

The table below lists one valid route for each destination article, though it is not necessarily the most efficient route. And that these routes may become invalid as articles are edited. They all have been updated on March 21, 2015. All links then could be found directly on the page. This was not the case in the original version of the paths, where some links were in hidden parts of the page.

Target Wikipath
William Howard Taft Tacoma Narrows Bridge > Suspension bridge > George Washington Bridge > Washington Heights, Manhattan > George Washington > President of the United States > William Howard Taft
24-hour analog dial Tacoma Narrows Bridge > Suspension bridge > Steel rope (now redirecting to Wire rope) > Steel > Watch > 24-hour analog dial
Lesbianism in erotica Tacoma Narrows Bridge > Suspension bridge > Fausto Veranzio > Zagreb > Animation > Anime > Hentai > Cartoon pornography > Pornography > Lesbianism in erotica
Fatal hilarity via Batman Tacoma Narrows Bridge > Suspension Bridge > New York City > Washington Irving > Batman > Batman (1989 film) (this extra link now needed to go to the final page) > Fatal hilarity (this page now redirects to Death from laughter. On the previous page the link to that page is called die laughing)
Taylor Hanson Tacoma Narrows Bridge > Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940) (this extra link now needed to go to the next page) > Structural collapse (this page now redirects to Structural integrity and failure and is also called this on the previous page) > Burj Khalifa > Chicago > Baseball > Baseball rules > Hit by pitch > Homer Simpson > Namesake > Taylor Hanson
Wet T-Shirt Contest via T-Shirt and Cotton Tacoma Narrows Bridge > Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940) (this extra link now needed to go to the next page) > Structural collapse (this page now redirects to Structural integrity and failure and is also called this on the previous page) > Maharashtra > Cotton > T-Shirt > Wet T-Shirt Contest


[Heading above the chart:]
[Text in a frame below the heading:]
Tacoma Narrows Bridge
[Lines lead down both left and right to two new frames with the following entries:]
Suspension bridge
Structural collapse
[Two more lines lead down from the left frame and one from the right frame, and all lines end on a wiggling line from left to right. Below this wiggled line in square brackets it reads:]
Three hours of fascinated clicking
[Further below there is a similar wiggling line, from where six lines lead to new frames below:]
William Howard Taft
24-hour analog dial
Lesbianism in erotica
[This frame is followed by a second:]
Batman; Fatal hilarity
Taylor Hanson
[This frame is followed by a chain of two others:]
Cotton; T-Shirt; 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 ~~~~)

Same, except I always end up on WP: pages. PoolloverNathan (talk) 21:59, 19 January 2021 (UTC)

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'm pretty sure that would destroy the universe[citation needed]. Psychoticpotato (talk) 21:43, 13 May 2024 (UTC)

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)

Actually, this happened before the web. When I was a kid, whenever I looked something up in a good encyclopedia, I was likely to follow the "see also" titles at the bottom of the article, and then the subsequent see alsos, et cetera. — Kazvorpal (talk) 04:06, 21 October 2019 (UTC)

Just straight-up sea of blue. -- 18:04, 13 October 2022 (UTC)

Hey, wasn't there a bridge collapse in March this year? Psychoticpotato (talk) 00:34, 21 May 2024 (UTC)

Well, yes, among others that you might also be thinking of... But I'm not sure it's notable to this article. 01:04, 21 May 2024 (UTC)