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Lithium The viral Instagram page diving into the depths of Wikipedia

Jan. 5, 2021
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My quarantine consisted of a lot of wallowing and a little reading. 21-year-old Annie Rauwerda, a junior at the University of Michigan, was slightly more productive. Annie saw quarantine as the perfect time to finally scratch the itch of an idea she’d had for a while: an Instagram account dedicated to the funniest, most random Wikipedia entries.

I FaceTimed the neuroscience-major-slash-pilates-instructor, who’s now the admin of viral Instagram page Depths of Wikipedia, to talk trends, internet holes, and a *potential* merch line. 

Once a Nerd, Always a Nerd

Annie: I’m a neuroscience major at the University of Michigan. I took a year off between high school and college where I did a year-long Americorps program in Chicago working in a middle school math classroom, so I feel like my studies have always been pretty STEM-oriented. 

Aashna: Studying neuroscience and running an Instagram account dedicated to the funniest and weirdest Wikipedia articles is an interesting contrast. How did you find yourself in that pocket of the internet? 

Annie: The internet and I kind of grew up together. I think of myself as a generalist, a jack-of-all (maybe a few)-trades, master-of-none type. I’ve always been into niche Facebook groups and nerdy subreddits.

Aashna: Do you remember what the first pages you got into were? 

Annie: There’s this Facebook group called Cool Freaks’ Wikipedia Club where a lot of Wikipedia editors and enthusiasts discuss cool articles. Depths of Wikipedia was borne from there not being an Instagram home for weird Wikipedia excerpts! I think it blew up because my posts have fewer words and are more meme-adjacent so they’re easily shared. 

Aashna: Where in the intersection of neuroscience and Wikipedia do you find yourself?

Annie: That’s the big question I keep asking myself! I’m really inspired by the “you-can-learn-anything-for-free” ethos of the internet—think Kahn Academy, Coursera, Wikipedia—and I would love to find a career in science education or communication. 

Aashna: The dispersal of information and the internet’s ability to democratize education and access to information is pretty incredible. 

Annie: For sure. That’s part of the beauty of both Wikipedia and the Instagram page. While I’m the one curating, the real genius of the account is the Wikipedia writers who document all this stuff. The ability of the internet to, like you said, democratize education is why the account even exists. 

Going Viral, Caroline Calloway, and Cute Animal Posts

Aashna: So did your decision to start the Depths of Wikipedia Instagram come from the Facebook group or were there other factors involved? 

Annie: I first started hunting for weird Wikipedia excerpts for a “quaran-zine” my friend made, and I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to stop. I started putting them on Instagram, and while I felt the idea had the potential to gain traction, I definitely wasn’t expecting to gain 80,000 followers in six months. 

Aashna: I remember when I first started seeing people reposting your page and then overnight it seemed like everyone on my feed was reposting your page. People got very into it very quickly. 

Annie: Yeah! I think it was in July when I had a thousand followers that it popped off. Caroline Calloway shared, like, ten of my posts and I got thousands of followers overnight. 

Aashna: Have you noticed any trends in the Wikipedia content people seem to resonate with most? 

Annie: I think emotional, short, and animal-related ones get a lot of traction: Emily (cow), Polar bear jail, Cream Puff (cat), Rebecca (raccoon), Andy (goose)… All of those just blew up. I used to post more things that were conceptual, like mind-blowing physics concepts, but those didn’t lend themselves to Instagram as well since they require a few minutes of thinking and reading.

Humans of Wikipedia

Annie: It wasn’t until I hit 5,000 followers or so that I linked my personal account to the page. It wasn’t really a big decision—I think I wanted personal credit for what I was doing and also wanted to show that I was a real person. Looking back I definitely started getting more conversational DMs once I humanized the page. 

Aashna: Wikipedia is very much defined by its community, so I imagine you’ve had some really random conversations. What are some DM highlights, like messages that led to friendships or collaborations?

Annie: I’ve honestly met a ton of cool people through the account. It’s been a really amazing way to feel connected to people in the midst of a pandemic. Some people send articles they’d like me to post, other people send random messages—it’s really a coin toss. I think the coolest thing is when the DM conversations manifest into real friendships or relationships; I’ve gotten close to a lot of different meme admins, I’ve had fun dates with followers, and I also recently chatted with my celebrity crush John Mayer, who follows the account. 

Aashna: Are you serious? Middle school Aash is freaking out right now. 

Annie’s Bookmarks and YouTube History

Aashna: Wikipedia doesn’t really run out of articles and the world doesn’t run out of weird people, so how do you decide what to post? Where has your inspiration come from lately? 

Annie: I’d say the breakdown is 60% from DM submissions, 20% things that I search for and organically find on Wikipedia, and then 20% from Wikipedia’s list of unusual articles

Aashna: Are there other places like the list of unusual articles that you frequent for inspiration? I’m curious to know what websites you have bookmarked on your browser.  

Annie: My bookmarks change a lot, but currently I’m really into this series of human biology lectures on YouTube. For general inspiration, I like the websites  Sad Lunch Break and The Pudding for curated data visualization projects. In my pre-COVID life I was a pilates instructor, so I have a master spreadsheet of all my favorite flows which I would use when I was planning classes. I also have a few random bookmarked job postings that I ought to apply for. 

Aashna: What do you see Depths of Wikipedia growing into? 

Annie: It’s hard to picture more than two months into the future, but I do have a few developments coming up. I’m going to start selling mugs and stickers with prints of some of the best posts. Also, I’m excited to start working more with Wikipedia, starting with a virtual edit-a-thon I’m co-sponsoring with Wikimedia NYC from January 7th to 10th.

Aashna: Tell me more about the edit-a-thon—how does it work? 

Annie: Some Wikimedia people will be leading optional live intro-to-editing workshops, which will be recorded and available to all. I’ll put out a list of recommended articles to edit, but really the whole event is just a push to get people to start editing Wikipedia. At the end of the weekend we’ll have a live showcase of the articles that were created or significantly changed. Wikimedia and I are new to the virtual edit-a-thon format, so we’ll see how this goes!

Illustration by Julia Tabor