Goofing off on Wikipedia taught me digital literacy

Sometimes the most important things you learn in high school don’t come from the classroom. I am thankful to have gone to a very good high school, and yet one of the best, most useful, and longest-lasting things I learned came from outside the classroom. It came from a game that one of my friends taught me called the Wikipedia game.

The premise of the game is simple:

  1. Pick any two random topics (e.g., butterflies and discrete mathematics; ice cream and Waterloo; Ray Bradbury and the Mariana Trench). The farther apart they seem to be, the better.
  2. Navigate from one to the other using just internal links within Wikipedia articles.
  3. The first one to the second entry would win.

The one rule is that you can’t use the back button. You can only go forward with hyperlinks. The game can be played with a group, but I think 2–3 people is best.

If you want to get from butterflies to discrete mathematics, you have to think about how the two concepts relate. You find yourself asking questions like: What in Topic B overlaps with Topic A? What do Topics A an B share in common? It’s sort of like playing Catchphrase, except you’re trying to use one term as a launching pad to get to another, instead of looking for synonyms and rhyming words to help other players guess a word.

As you play the game, you skim each article for terms with hyperlinks that might help you get closer to your goal. As an example for this post, I decided to go from butterflies to discrete mathematics, which took me through the following pages:

  1. Butterflies
  2. Molecular clock
  3. Molecular evolution
  4. Genetic recombination
  5. Four-gamete test
  6. Coalescent theory
  7. Geometric distribution
  8. Probability distribution
  9. Discrete uniform distribution
  10. Statistics
  11. Discrete mathematics

That’s ten clicks to get from the first entry to the last. A more informed player may have been able to cut that number in half or better. I didn’t even know that there was such thing as a “four-gamete test” before I embarked on that journey. Did you?

By forcing you to think how different topics connect, the game teaches a process of associative thinking that enables you to see overlaps in knowledge domains. Along the way, it introduces you to topics and terms that you may have never heard of otherwise. In that way, it’s sort of like flipping through one of those old hardback World Book encyclopedias of yore, except in this case the entries aren’t alphabetically ordered. They’re linked according to your intuition and best guesses. The result is a interesting and illuminating trip through a corner of the Internet that basically reveals the varying degrees of separation between terms and topics.

When we finished a match, we’d discuss our strategy for traversing the links. It was interesting to see how the first few clicks could either propel you closer to your goal or get you stuck in a conceptual bog. Some Wikipedia entries have more extensive internal links than others, and again, you can’t use the back button. If you find yourself in a topic that took you farther from the intended goal, it’s almost like starting over from a brand new topic.

I can’t remember the name of the friend who introduced me to this game, and I have no idea how they learned it. Admittedly, it’s a odd game that most folks would find boring. But I was a odd kid, and I found the game to be great fun. My high school was chock-full of nerds.

Fast forward to the present, and now I realize that having an understanding of the internal structure of the Internet is just as critical as knowing how to use the Dewey Decimal System was for previous generations. Being able to traverse the knowledge graph of a site like Wikipedia, to understand the relationships between ideas, and to form a serviceable mental model of concepts are important digital literacy and research skills.

Today, I use those skills on a daily basis. Wikipedia is the first stop for a good portion of my initial research into a topic. I still skim articles, and I use internal hyperlinks to see how ideas and schools of thought are connected. I click through hyperlinks within help docs to understand how a knowledge base is structured so I can navigate it effectively in the future. I credit the Wikipedia game for helping me gain both an understanding and a skill set that have proved useful for nearly 15 years.

But hyperlinks have existed since the beginning of the Internet, which incidentally is longer than I’ve been alive. There are millions of websites in existence today, which probably means that there are trillions of hyperlinks floating around out there. Search engines are designed to serve up relevant hyperlinks to search queries. All of us are accustomed to clicking on hyperlinks in search results and within pages to get where we want to go.

My point is that there is a tremendous amount of web architecture that relies on the humble hyperlink. And more than that, there’s a mind-boggling number of people who are used to this convention. I doubt the web is going to flip to a new linking paradigm anytime soon, and so I believe that this skill of link hopping through cyberspace will be likely remain useful for decades to come.

The longer I work with websites and content development, the more I’m surprised (and thankful) that such a seemingly small part of my high school experience has proved to be indispensable. I suppose that’s how life is: The things that seem to be most crucial in the moment just fade into the background, whereas the small experiences and interactions in the gaps turn out to be what you remember for a lifetime. And as experience is teaching me, sometimes the very best thing you can do is take some time to goof off.

Scroll to Top