Six unorthodox ways to use Wikipedia

Printed books from Wikipedia
"An encyclopedia in the form of printed books? What kind of crazy idea is that?" Image by Jann Glasmacher for PediaPress (Own work) GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We all know how to use Wikipedia, right? Just do a search in your favourite search engine, and the relevant article is usually among the top results. Alternatively, bookmark the front page in your preferred language, and see what’s current. Then again, some of us want to go deeper. Maybe we want to “mainline” the best  content; maybe we want to explore not a site but an abstract world of information. Below are six ways to use Wikipedia that not everybody knows about.

1) Listen to it. How do you make an encyclopedia accessible to illiterate or blind people? You read it out loud and share the sound recordings. More than a thousand articles in English, and many more in Wikipedia’s other languages, are available in spoken form, downloadable as audio files that you can listen to on a computer or portable audio player. Thus, not only disabled users but anyone on the move can learn about topics including The Order of the Garter, Norwich City FC or the Hindi language. Anyone with a good speaking voice, and access to a microphone, can contribute at the Spoken Wikipedia project.

2) Go straight to the good stuff. The English Wikipedia has its own Newsletter, The Signpost, which is updated every Monday. The Featured content section takes you straight to the very best of Wikipedia: the content that has recently passed the project’s most demanding quality review. This includes recently reviewed Featured Articles, Lists and Topics as well as freely-reusable pictures and sounds with outstanding educational and aesthetic value.

3) On paper. Yes, you can read selections from Wikipedia as a book. The paper version will not be updated like the online version, but it needs no electricity and it’s an ideal format to take on a long journey. The Wikipedia community have already created more than a thousand English language books from sequences of related articles, from Art to Zinc via Exploding Animals. You can create and edit your own using the Book tool (explained in this video). Each book can be freely downloaded as an attractively print-formatted file for an eBook reader or a printer. With a few more clicks and an online payment to a commercial printer, you can have it printed, bound (in hardback or paperback), and sent in the post.

4) Discuss. Discussion on Wikipedia itself is very focused on improving the project. It does not invite general chat about each article’s subject. Elsewhere on the web, there are forums and blogs where you can discuss article topics and, if you’ve learned something interesting, enthuse about it. One of these is the Wikipedia Subreddit, part of the Reddit online community. Registration is quick and free, and allows you to recommend articles, comment on them, and up- or down-vote others’ suggestions. Roughly seventy thousand of Reddit’s accounts are subscribers. Popular recent topics include Tautology, the Imperial Library of Constantinople, and the myth that people only use 10% of their brains.

Finding location-tagged Wikipedia articles on a mobile phone. Photo by Mr3641 (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons
5) Look around you. Many Wikipedia articles are tagged with geographical information. For instance, the Watershed Media Centre article gives the building’s precise longitude and latitude. This information is freely available through location-based services such as Google Earth. If you use Layar or a similar application on your portable device, just search “wikipedia” to select an appropriate “layer”. Looking around central Bristol with this service on my phone, I am offered dozens of articles about local buildings, culture and geography.

6) Machine-to-machine. Computer programmers have more options than the rest of us when it comes to using Wikipedia. The encyclopedia and all its sister projects can be read directly by computer programs, through what’s called an Application Programming Interface. To get the programmer’s documentation, just add “/w/api.php” to the end of the project address, e.g. for English Wikipedia. One very important service built in this way is DBpedia, a huge database of facts. Those who learn the language can ask complex queries, such as “list all endangered primates” or “which French scientists were born in the 19th Century?” For anyone hoping to create Deep Thought, DBpedia provides a huge bank of real-world information to build on.