Life

I Look For the Weirdest and Wildest Things on Wikipedia. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

From a tortoise that saved his species by having lots of sex to killings attributed to a Frank Sinatra song, “Depths of Wikipedia” digs up the most bizarre Wiki facts.
SJ
Mumbai, IN
Depth Of Wikipedia
Image by Jordan Lee

Like most kids who grew up with the internet, Annie Rauwerda was allowed to log on as long as it was for educational reasons. Her time online was strictly monitored by her parents, who were OK with their daughter absorbing the ocean of information that surfing online offered, without going down the rabbit hole that social networking and online gaming came with. 

As a result, Rauwerda spent much of her childhood on Wikipedia, the crowdsourced online encyclopaedia that sheds light on everything from historical figures to how the high-five gained popularity. That’s where her enchantment with the open-source platform began. 

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“Sometimes, I would make up assignments on topics like Mongolia so I could spend more time on Wikipedia, and then even turn them into powerpoint presentations,” Michigan-based Rauwerda, now 22, told VICE. 

Rauwerda always had an affinity for the free online learning resource. Today, she’s turned that deep fascination into Depths of Wikipedia, an Instagram account with more than half a million followers, where she turns the weirdest, wildest and most unexpected Wiki facts into bite-sized content for the social media generation. 

“It started with me just wanting to dump all the screenshots I had in my phone’s camera roll to make it less messy,” she said. When the pandemic and its mandatory quarantines first began to overturn our lives, Rauwerda made her first post, documenting how scientific research had found that Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain ride was helping patients pass their kidney stones.

“I made my first post in April 2020. By July, I had gained more than 3,000 followers. That’s when I realised that other people were also interested in these facts.” 

From the origin story of “exploding trousers,” where an agricultural weed would cause farmers’ trousers to burst into flames, to the explanation of “Nuclear Gandhi,” an urban legend and internet meme that claims Mahatma Gandhi went nuclear crazy, to a list of unexplained sounds like “bloop,” @depthsofwikipedia scours the free online resource to find content that can leave you shocked, awed or in splits. Though there are older pages that post about the freakiest shit found on Wikipedia – such as the 48,000 member-strong Facebook group Cool Freaks’ Wikipedia Club – Rauwerda’s account is a Gen Z interpretation that combines meme culture with knowledge. Her posts often incorporate Gen Z humour defined by post-irony, a state where earnest and ironic sentiments are muddled, and meta-irony by presenting facts as is and allowing her audience to interpret it in their own way. 

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Some of the Gen Z creator’s favourite posts include a topic on Timothy Dexter, a man who made his money off sarcastic dares and nonsensical businesses; a list of Donald Trump’s nicknames from Boot-edge-edge to Lyin' Ted to Disaster from Alaska; the bald-hairy pattern of Russian readers; and guerrilla gardening, where people sneak onto abandoned properties to plant gardens. 

“I always try to find things that are funny, unexpected but also relatable,” Rauwerda said, explaining how she chooses what goes on her page. Rauwerda added that the key to making her content go viral was picking out topics that people were already familiar with, but tapping into specific aspects of these topics that remain relatively unknown. “So it would be things like a square watermelon, or maybe even a picture of a cow that reads ‘this healthy cow lying on her back is not immobilised.’” 

In the initial days of the page, Rauwerda built an audience by following meme pages and influencers. “I would follow a bunch of random Instagram accounts and then unfollow them. But the page really blew up after I got into kind of a beef with Caroline Calloway, a New York-based influencer, a few months into the page.” 

Calloway came across a post on Rauwerda’s page, where she had posted a screenshot of the influencer’s Wikipedia page that listed her job as “nothing.” “I posted it because I found it funny. She then reposted it on her story and called it ‘ridiculous’. Eventually, someone edited her Wikipedia page to change her job listing, and I posted about that as well. After that, she became a super big fan and began resharing other posts as well.” 

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Today, @depthsofwikipedia’s 528,000-strong community includes celebrities like Emma Roberts, John Mayer, Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Wilde and Troye Sivan. The massive popularity of the page on Instagram also pushed Rauwerda to start her own TikTok channel, where she reacts to some of the weirder entries on Wikipedia. “One of my most viral posts on Instagram was about Diego the tortoise, who saved his species by having too much sex,” she said. 

Rauwerda explained that while she has figured out the formula for what works on Instagram (“anything unexpected or even a little naughty”), she is still learning the ropes of TikTok. With over 9.7 million views, her most popular TikTok was about anti-Barney humour, a topic that talked about how school kids across the world were dissing the popular purple dinosaur from the kids television show Barney & Friends. “These kids would sing their own version of the show’s theme song, which said ‘I hate you, you hate me, let’s go kill Barney’. More than 30,000 people commented to say that they had never heard about this, even though it’s a thing that’s been around since before we even had the internet!” 

Rauwerda stressed that though her page was dedicated to finding the dumbest or funniest facts on Wikipedia, it was also a way to raise awareness for a meme-obsessed audience. While she doesn’t follow any specific process to find her content, she admitted that it involves spending at least an hour a day on Wikipedia, time she also dedicates to editing entries on the online resource.

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“Wikipedia is just this massive source of facts, and since it is crowdsourced, the posts have a lot more personality than a platform like Britannica,” she said. 

While most of us are probably acquainted with Wikipedia as a quick hack that totally saves our asses when we have a looming assignment, Rauwerda’s relationship with the online resource is rooted in one of its more offbeat aspects: Wikiracing. 

“Wikiracing is when you basically compete with others to see how many hyperlinks on Wikipedia you can click in a specific time frame,” she explained. “In sixth grade, my friends and I would spend hours Wikiracing each other, and though it didn’t give me time to read topics in detail, I would learn so much just by skimming through them. We would start at a topic like the ‘pope mobile’ and end up at a list of penguins, so it’s difficult not to get lost in a topic.” 

Endless hours of Wikiracing made Rauwerda a pro on the online platform, enabling her to navigate the rabbit hole of information to find the most striking facts. 

Today, Rauwerda is part of the worldwide volunteer community of Wikipedia editors, and has also hosted an edit-a-thon, an event where she teaches prospective Wiki editors how to accurately describe topics on the online platform. “I think the staff at Wikipedia likes me. After my Instagram account went viral, Wikipedia even gave me a hat that says ‘As Seen on Wikipedia.’ There’s no bad blood between us, thankfully.” 

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Rauwerda also insisted that since Wikipedia is a volunteer-based project, she doesn’t like to profit off her content. “Having said that, I do get paid from Instagram and TikTok creator funds, and sometimes when a post does really well, I’ll print it out on mugs and sell them,” she said. 

Annie Rauwerda Depths of Wikipedia.jpg

Currently, Rauwerda is a student of neuroscience at the University of Michigan, though she admitted to being more interested in a future career in teaching, freelance writing or hosting comedy shows. She is also in the process of turning her learnings from Wikipedia into a trivia-style comedy show, believing that through this format, she can raise awareness among an internet-obsessed audience. 

“There’s this trend on Twitter especially where brands will speak in overly casual tones, post cringe content and shitpost like they’re 19-year-olds to be more relatable to their audience,” she said. “I think for nonprofits to do something similar and tap into the social media generation, they too need to embrace meme culture but with facts, the way Depths of Wikipedia does.” 

Follow Shamani on Instagram and Twitter.