Wikipedia turned 20 years old this past January. Do you remember how you first heard of it? Or more to the point, do you remember when you actually started clicking on it when it came up in your search results? For me, Wikipedia first proved an essential resource for learning about music: on it I looked up my favorite bands, then found my way to entries about all the people, events, places, and things associated with them. (I then truly felt what it meant to go down an internet “rabbit hole.”) Having been intrigued by, for instance, the music of Brian Eno, I discovered through Wikipedia the world of ambient music, of which Eno’s work constitutes only one part.
Two decades on, Wikipedia itself has become ambient music. Listen to Wikipedia, writes co-creator Mahmoud Hashemi, “is a real-time auralization of Wikipedia growing, one edit at a time. The site is literally self-explanatory.” Even so, at that linked blog post Hashemi and his fellow developer Stephen LaPorte explain that “Bells are additions, strings are subtractions.”
Smaller edits sound higher ones, and larger edits lower ones. “There’s something reassuring about knowing that every user makes a noise, every edit has a voice in the roar. (Green circles are anonymous edits and purple circles are bots. White circles are brought to you by Registered Users Like You.)”
It all sounds a bit like — and looks even more like — Eno’s “generative music” apps. But Listen to Wikipedia adds a considerable verbal and intellectual dimension, labeling each edit that bubbles up with the name of the relevant page. Kawaii metal. Year of the Fifth Coalition. Tom Brady. Lee County, Texas. Do You Like Hitchcock? Justin Bieber discography. Geography of Gaelic games. California Democratic Party. Basketball at the 1988 Summer Olympics – Men’s tournament. All these names arose and vanished within about a minute’s viewing, as did many others of more deeply tantalizing obscurity. If you feel tempted to look them all up on Wikipedia itself, count yourself among those of us who’ve known, for twenty years now, where the internet’s real potential for addition lies. Explore Listen to Wikipedia here.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.