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Spend some time following your curiosity, instead of an algorithm. (Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Why You Should Scrap Your Instagram for Wikipedia

Why do I feel so, I don’t know, not that great after I spend a few minutes scrolling through social media?

Content feed illustration

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Have you ever pulled your phone out of your pocket to do something useful, like check the weather forecast or Google the business hours of a restaurant, and then, ten or 15 minutes later, you:

  1. have not done the Useful Thing,
  2. forgot what the Useful Thing was, and
  3. could not, a day later, while being interrogated at gunpoint, remember what you actually did during that ten-to-15-minute span?

OK, me too. I would draw a humorous visual representing this exact scenario, but I believe there is no way to improve on this piece by Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal:

Look, I am not here to talk shit to anyone about their social media usage, or habits, or addiction, or whatever we’re calling it now. I am not the regular at the bar who shows up every night and drinks eight beers and then looks across at someone and says, “Now, that guy is a real alcoholic.”

But why do I feel so, I don’t know, not that great after I spend a few minutes scrolling through social media? Like I realized I was hungry, and I should eat a sandwich, but instead I ate ten M&Ms, as if that was a substitute?

M&Ms vs sandwich illustration
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Social media isn’t all bad, obviously. Every once in a while, I find something inarguably fun, like this video of the most perfect slide ever recorded in a baseball game.

And that was great. But most of the time, instead of getting a sandwich, I get ten M&Ms. But it’s not like grabbing ten M&Ms out of a bag—it’s more like sitting down in front of a big bowl of dirt and digging for a few minutes and eventually finding a few M&Ms.

I don’t like eating dirt, but I like M&Ms, and somehow I’ve convinced myself that hours and hours of consuming dirt is worth it for a small handful of candy. And some days, it feels like I don’t even find a piece of food—I just spend all day eating dirt.

You’ve probably seen dozens of headlines about quitting social media, or going on a social media fast, or taking other drastic measures, such as announcing to all your followers on a Saturday that you’re taking a long break from Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, and then posting just a few times, really quick, the following Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

I don’t have any hacks or tricks that have changed my life. But I did, several months ago, delete some apps from my phone and then download the Wikipedia app and move it to the home screen.

Now, why would you do that?

Well, let’s just say you have a few minutes for some Internet stuff (and we have already established that you do, somehow, quite often, have a few minutes; see: previous paragraph about trying to look up a Useful Thing on your phone). A question for you:

Would you rather:

  1. learn some basic information about a random topic, which you may then bring up in a conversation sometime in the next few months, or
  2. scroll through opinions, jokes, hot takes, arguments, complaints, conspiracy theories, GIFs, and/or photos of attractive people doing things, and maybe get some basic information about something through part of that process

If you answered (a), Wikipedia is for you.

Another question:

Do you think life would be more fun in general if we all said more sentences that began with the words “Did you know …”?

  • Did you know the summit elevation of Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, is still rising due to active tectonic uplifting?
  • Did you know that the cooking method for tacos al pastor is based on the lamb shawarma brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants?
  • Did you know that Alexander “Zee” Grant, who paddled the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in a folding kayak in 1941, did not know how to roll his boat?
  • Did you know AJ McLean was technically the first Backstreet Boy?
  • Did you know that Ball’s Pyramid, an erosional remnant of a shield volcano rising 1,844 feet out of the ocean off the coast of Australia and the world’s tallest sea stack, is home to the last known wild population of the eight-inch-long Lord Howe Island stick insect, a species thought to be extinct in 1920 but rediscovered in 2014 by a group of climbers on an unauthorized expedition to climb the spire?
  • Did you know that Count Chocula’s full name is Count Alfred Chocula?

Because all that stuff is on Wikipedia, which literally has a section on its home page titled “Did You Know?”

Some things that are not on Wikipedia:

  • People from your extended family/high school/old job selling you pyramid schemes/conspiracy theories/“science” they learned about on TikTok
  • People arguing with each other
  • People you know calling you an asshole
  • People you’ve never met calling you an asshole
  • People who do not actually exist calling you an asshole
  • People calling other people assholes
  • A Like button
  • A Dislike button
  • Any sort of feature that would allow people to comment
  • Ads

But, you might say, Wikipedia has lots of issues. And you would be correct—there are problems, many of which are documented on the Wikipedia page titled “Why Wikipedia is not so great.”

  • Is it a be-all, end-all source of objective information? It is not. (What is?)
  • Is it a springboard for beginning to learn about something? It is.
  • Does it make me feel better than scrolling through social media feeds? Often.
  • Are the rabbit holes on Wikipedia better than social media rabbit holes? Subjectively, yes.
  • Does it make me feel empty on a regular basis? Not typically. Yes, there is lots of stuff about world history on Wikipedia, and because the world has often been (and still often is) a fucked-up place, you can find yourself reading some fucked-up stuff about the past. But hear me out: learning from the past can be a lot more productive than winding yourself up trying to predict the future based on social media posts and daily news.
Content feed vs curiosity illustration
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

I’m not saying replacing Twitter and/or Instagram with Wikipedia is going to transform your life. But I can definitely vouch for spending some time following your curiosity, instead of an algorithm.

Lead Illustration: Brendan Leonard

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