Will Hopkins ’11 looks back fondly on the endless conversations he had with peers during his time at Swarthmore – discussions that rarely reached clear conclusions. They were multi-faceted, contentious, and always exciting. Today, Hopkins is employed at Google and has been editing Wikipedia articles in his free time for the past three years, a hobby that dovetails nicely with the collaborative nature of knowledge he experienced at Swarthmore.
I met Hopkins at the 2013 Philadelphia Wiknic, a picnic and socializing event for Wikipedia editors and enthusiasts. A diverse group of passionate people had assembled on a smoldering Saturday in Penn Park in late June, bearing tupperware and Frisbees.
The Wikipedia page about the Wiknic had promised that “Things we might do” would include both “Plant the seed for future Philadelphia area meetups or chapters” and “Plan to take over the world.” Although I can’t say whether either of these goals was reached, wiknic-ers certainly benefitted from the convergence of their distinct backgrounds and passions. They came from as far as France and ranged in age from college students to our 74 year-old facilitator, David Thomsen, who arrived hoisting a homemade flag made of a “Wikipedia Editor” baseball cap tied to a metal pole.
Hopkins, who majored in English and Psychology, was introduced to Wikipedia editing during the summer after his freshman year when he worked with Mathematics Professor Eugene Klotz on a math wiki. “I started dong more edits two years ago, and a couple of months ago I started getting into some projects […],” he said. “I started being interested in developing some topics and communities on Wikipedia.” Hopkins mainly contributes to articles about politics or psychology, and he has been an active member on Wikipedia’s “talk pages,” where different users can communicate behind the scenes.
Sitting down to watermelon and peanut butter cookies beneath two weeping willows, we wiknic-ers began to do some talking in person. As the conversation went on, spanning everything from the nature of knowledge to the caliber of cookie, something felt familiar. Perhaps it was because the Wikipedia community, especially when gathered around a table at mealtime, reminded me of the Swarthmore community that I know, at least in terms of passion, closeness, and commitment to collaboration.
Those debates that Hopkins looks back on with such fondness required him and his peers to fill in the gaps of each other’s understanding and arguments, adding their own knowledge and perspectives like individual rubber bands to a larger rubber band ball. “My classmates and I argued frequently about an astoundingly wide variety of topics,” he said. “Those arguments occurred in classes and leisure time alike, and every one of my professors stressed the constructed nature of knowledge arising from just those kinds of discussions. “
He cites Swarthmore’s seminars, especially, as being “the perfect playground in which to discuss and learn from one another.” Like the rubber band ball, students at Swarthmore build upon each other’s ideas and form a greater – and bouncier – whole from their collaborative efforts. “Wikipedia and wikis in general come from a similar spirit,” Hopkins said.
“The idea of Wikipedia represents democratization of knowledge – the idea that no one person can own it or the interpretation of it […],” he said. “[F]acts are arrived at by the community. Wikipedia […] is a consensus. It’s a group interpretation.” Swarthmore, too, also values community input over the power of a single voice, a parallel that Hopkins himself has identified.
Not only is collaborative knowledge integral to both Wikipedia and Swarthmore, but the nature of the topics explored by both communities is often narrow. “Swarthmore encouraged deep interest in eccentric topics,” Hopkins said. While a Sharples conversation might revolve around the etymology of the word “sabotage,” Wikipedia’s entries, too, seem to cover every imaginable topic, no matter how out of the mainstream or how miniscule. There are entries for everything from tongue piercings to hot air balloon (the object, the rock opera, and the song each have their own page).
“Eccentric interests are fun,” Hopkins said. “They keep you from falling into a rut. Many people tout the benefits of hobbies for staying creative, and I think that makes a lot of sense. […] Finding people with like interests can help you develop skills, as well as providing a different perspective.”
Eccentricity is valuable especially when a diverse community has a variety of niche passions and knowledge. Wikipedians, much like Swarthmore students, tend to make the most of what each member has to offer. Hopkins, for instance, found his place at Swarthmore as the head of the Psi Phi club and a member of the Drama Board.
Thomsen, our facilitator, has mainly focused his efforts on articles regarding bridges, ranging in location from the nearby Schuylkill River to Guyana. He has come in contact with a much wider spread of knowledge, however, through gatherings like the Wiknic. “I have been to Wikipedia meet-ups in New York City and in Washington and then the international convention, and as you meet people, many of them can teach you things you had no idea of,” Thomsen said. “Obviously, everyone has their specialties, and you can try to recruit them to fix Guyana articles, or whatever it is.”
No Wikipedia article, and no idea or theory in academia, is the result of an individual effort. Swarthmore and Wikipedia both aim to craft communal knowledge bases that are constantly in ecstatic flux. Hopkins will continue to support this ideal with his work at Google and his interactions with others, taking with him the lessons he has learned from these two dynamic centers of knowledge.
As he puts it, “Whenever I have trouble understanding someone else’s view on a topic, I remember that knowledge and perspectives are stitched together from many, many people and that all I can do is contribute as best I can.”