Going deep with Depths of Wikipedia's Annie Rauwerda
A conversation (disambiguation)
Annie Rauwerda is the weirdo (non-derogatory) behind Depths of Wikipedia, the Instagram/Twitter/TikTok/liveshow phenomenon that scours the corners of everyone’s favorite free encyclopedia, surfacing Blobjects, Victorian headless portraits, the shared etymology of fajita and fascism, and that time Gorbachev was in a Pizza Hut commercial. We spoke during Annie’s 36-hour road trip about the demand for chunks of deep sea internet cable, why you should always cut open the Mexican jumping bean, what Wikipedia doesn’t want you to know, and posting in search of community.
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Where are you headed?
It's a big journey. Since I graduated in May, I haven't been in the same city for more than two weeks. I've been all over doing live shows, and I was able to pay off my college debt off of that. And then I thought, okay, I can start having a normal life with roots somewhere, or I can just be a little bit nomadic and have my roommates cat-sit for a while. So right now I'm driving to Ann Arbor to pick up my cat, and then I’m off to Los Angeles to visit friends.
This is the same cat that used to belong to Caroline Calloway?
Oh, wow, you've really done the research.
It blew my mind when I found that out.
There are a few people that are a part of the wonderful Venn Diagram of people that know who I am and people that know who Caroline Calloway is. It either blows your mind or it’s completely irrelevant to your life. The overlap of that diagram is a great place to be; that's where I live too.
How are you passing the time in the car?
I've been working my way through the audiobook Tubes by Andrew Blum. It was written close to a decade ago, and it's about the physical infrastructure behind the internet. It's wild to think about how fragile the whole digital world is. You can just snip some cables and cut off massive groups of people from the most important networks and communication channels that we have.
And you own a chunk of undersea internet cable, right?
Yea. I posted a meme on Twitter that said "naked. high. thinking about the deep sea internet cables again." And somebody responded that he works for SubCom, a company that makes a lot of these cables, and he shipped me one from New Hampshire. All I had to do was pay for shipping. I made some TikToks and tweets about it. I've gotten a ton of mileage out of this tiny little cable. It's inspired me to learn more about it. I don't want to be a fake fan over here, so that's why I'm reading the book.
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I feel like someone could make a lot of money selling deep sea cable jewelry or something.
People have been blowing up my inbox asking me to spill the beans on who gave me the cable but I don't want to blow up his spot, because he said he wasn't sure if he was allowed to send it to me or not. And so I respect his privacy. But there's absolutely a demand.
Do you think there's a connection with your obsession with internet infrastructure and your obsession with like, charting the editing of the queen's Wikipedia page after her death?
Oh, for sure. I'm really interested in the behind the scenes of the internet. There’s a great XKCD comic joking that all of our modern web infrastructure is held up by some delicate software someone in Nebraska has been holding together with duct tape since 2003. There’s crucial work that powers everything we do being maintained by unsung heroes of the internet that don't get the recognition they deserve. Sometimes we forget how fragile the internet is.
I noticed that we both independently came up with similar titles for our projects, or at least draw on similar metaphors: Deep Sea Diving on the Internet / Depths of Wikipedia. What do you think the fact that we both see the internet in terms of bodies of water and deepness says about the internet?
Everything is better when you know more about it. I didn't like hockey for a long time, but then it became interesting to me once I knew about the players and the history of the sport. I was studying neuroscience and I would wonder how I was possibly going to memorize these random proteins and enzymes. But if you dive in more than you have to, then that contextualizes and adds color in a way that helps you understand it at a different level.
And the same is true with the internet. If you're scrolling through social media, you're probably gleaning a bunch of fun and interesting surface-level content. But when you're digging through these murky back waters, researching backstories, looking at old newspaper archives, or just visiting odd, old archived web pages that haven't been viewed by very many eyes, that's really fun. It feels like treasure hunting: the internet is just so unfathomably large, and there are so many corners of it that haven't really been explored in a long time. And to me, that's very exciting.
I always think back to this story about the Surrealists André Breton and Roger Caillois getting into a heated argument about whether to cut open a Mexican jumping bean to see how it worked. Breton thought doing so would ruin the magic and "deface the poetic." Caillois didn't understand why research and poetry couldn't coexist and thought that even more magic could be unlocked by digging deeper. It led to Caillois leaving the Surrealist movement.
I'm with Caillois. You always find more exciting mysteries when you cut the bean open. I'm all about cutting open the bean. I LOVE INFO. Put that in the interview: I love info!
In the spirit of going deep, let's say as a thought experiment that there was a whole entire Wikipedia-sized resource just about Depths of Wikipedia that had pages about every aspect of your life, the historical events that led up to the creation of the account, and the process of posting to it. And let's say that a particularly obsessive person started a Depths of Depths of Wikipedia account to share the deepest cuts. What are some of the things you think that account would post?
Wow, the last time I heard the phrase of Depths of Depths of Wikipedia, it was a sex joke. So I'm just thinking about that right now.
I post from horrible places; I tend to have really just like cluttered and unaesthetic living spaces, and it's something that I'm a little bit insecure about. And so I have NEVER posted my room. It would be very eye opening if you could see through my back-facing camera on my front-facing TikToks, that I’m on a twin bed with no bed frame in a really messy room with no wall art, with assignments and flashcards taped to the wall so that I see them. (In my head, if I tape my notes to the wall then I'll internalize the information.) Only close friends know that about me.
That feels apt because part of what I love so much about the account is that Wikipedia hides all of the human labor and the messiness that goes into its creation. As I see it, Depths of Wikipedia is a celebration of the more unpolished rough edges of Wikipedia, which reminds you that there are actual people behind it.
Do you think Wikipedia's lens on the world has a bias towards what is interesting or against it?
I think that Wikipedia has a bias towards what is interesting because the people that are writing Wikipedia aren't getting paid. And so they just edit the things that they think are interesting. So you'll see some bloated coverage of obsessed-about topics like chess and trains.
There's an awesome guy who lives in Seattle who has written dozens, maybe hundreds of articles about different interstates. And so the Wikipedia coverage of interstates in the American Northwest is really thorough, whereas other things are not.
But of course, there's a bunch of boring shit on Wikipedia as well, because people are very diligent, and there are people out there that find a lot of things interesting.
People tend to think of Wikipedia as an objective resource, but I think you'll agree that like any knowledge system it has its biases and points of view about the world and how knowledge should be voiced and organized. What is something Wikipedia does not want us to know, either explicitly or implicitly?
Wikipedia is a reflection of whatever the media is covering, because you can't write a Wikipedia article without good sources. I was at a conference and a librarian from Ghana was talking about the oral history that is so important in her culture, and how Wikipedia is still working on developing good processes for citing oral history. It's of course also well documented that Wikipedia has fewer female editors and biographies of women.
To confront the issues of misogyny today, you really have to recognize misogyny of the past, because you can't write a good biography of female scientists if she was never covered by sources that are reliable. And so that's just an ongoing problem Wikipedia is aware of and working on.
The people that write encyclopedia articles for free for everyone for fun are not representative of the world at at all; they are weird. Like, that is a very weird thing to do for fun. And so that itself is a bias too.
The fact that Wikipedia underprivileges oral history is really interesting to me. I haven't thought about that.
As somebody who has recently been listening to a lot of audiobooks, I don't always consider that reading. It feels like cheating. But I saw this interaction on Twitter that made me rethink that: if you listen to some old book like the Bible, or Chaucer, you're consuming it the way that most people in history have. And of course, you would never say a blind person listening to an audiobook isn't reading.
I'm thinking about how for most of the history of Western Philosophy, speech has been valued over writing because it is supposedly closer to thought. But maybe based on what you're saying that's been reversed in certain spheres.
I think it was Socrates who warned that the invention of writing would make us lazy.
The kinds of TikToks that you make fit into a kind of oral tradition, don't they? Is there a distinction in your mind between people online who curate and people who create? And do you feel more naturally drawn to the curation side of the spectrum?
That's such an interesting question. I think of myself as more of a curator than a creator. But the longer I've been curating, the more I'm realizing that they're really not different. When you're writing a novel, song, or Wikipedia article, drawing a picture, or shooting a YouTube video essay, you're not creating something out of thin air. You have all these ideas that are some amalgamation of the art that you've consumed in the past. And you're just putting it together in a new way. And that's curating.
Depths of Wikipedia now has like a lot of different manifestations. It's on Instagram, Twitter, and Tiktok. You have the live show; you write articles. How do you approach these platforms differently?
I'm in this unique position, because full-time internet creators are a relatively new phenomenon. A lot of people started on YouTube, and they were YouTubers. The platform was right there in their name. And then you had Instagram influencers, and even the word influencer emerged amid Instagram beauty trends. Now a lot of people use the word "creator," which is sometimes maddeningly vague, but it reflects the way that internet creators spread themselves between a ton of different platforms.
You never know when the ground is going to drop underneath your feet. Elon bought Twitter and I’m losing several thousand followers because people are deleting their accounts. People are spending less time on Instagram because of their new focus on reels. And TikTok feels like it can be banned by the U.S. government at any moment. So it makes no sense to focus on a single app.
I do things really differently depending on the platform. On Twitter, I'll throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. On Instagram, I care a little bit more about quality, because the grid feels like a museum to me. When I'm on TikTok, I try to be a little bit meatier with my storytelling and pack a punch. My rule of thumb is simply: could somebody regurgitate this story at a dinner party, and would they want to?
Do you find it exhausting or freeing to spread yourself between so many platforms?
Oh my gosh, no. My life is literally a joke. My life is awesome. I wake up every day and I get to be a Wikipedia influencer. Are you kidding me? This is the best thing ever. And I'm not exhausted in the slightest.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously talked about how her life as a mother and her professional life fueled each other. That's how I feel about different platforms: if I get sick of one, I have somewhere else to go.
I don't have negative emotions about any of this, but I attribute that to staying independent. I have found the experience of having a manager to be absolutely excruciating, horrible, joyless. I'm sure that I could be making a lot of money if I explored that, but for now it's just me.
What's your relationship as a user of platforms with the Algorithm?
For me, the Algorithm can serve me up some piping hot content. But for democracy, I worry.
I log onto any social media platform and I see a lot of young, urban, politically left, well-educated people. And it's awesome. But then I log into my 16-year-old brother's TikTok, and he's seeing horrific things, annoying teenagers spewing pseudoscience. It's so startling to see how the same app can be so drastically different to different people.
Sometimes it's important to see things that you don't like. I watch Jeopardy every night, and I find it interesting to see ads that were not tailored to me. That's so rare nowadays.
Read next: I trained the TikTok algorithm to show me videos I would hate
I'm interested in the super specific mechanics of how you dive this deeply into Wikipedia. Obviously your audience sends you ideas. But let's say you were locked out of your dms, and didn't have access to weird Wikipedia Facebook groups or subreddits and you wanted to sit down and find something new to post about. What strategies would you use?
I would probably look up something that I think is deeply interesting, and then see where it links me to. Or I would start editing those pages, because once you look at some things through the frame of "how can this be improved," you start to see a lot that wasn't initially interesting.
I also consume a lot of media, listen to a ton of podcasts, and spend time on Reddit. The things that stick with me are often on Wikipedia. And if not, I can add them.
You've said in a past interview that "making TikToks is the most embarrassing thing that can be done" because it "seems like everyone's trying to go viral and trying to go viral is embarrassing." I wonder if in some ways what draws you to Wikipedia is that it's a foil to this.
What's really refreshing about Wikipedia is that it's a place on the internet where people are going out of their way not to go viral. People are adding very constructive information that's going to help real people, and they're specifically staying very anonymous. They are not doing it for glory. To me, that's really cool and really inspiring.
Read next: Wikipedia | don't look a gift sea snail in the mouth
What's next for you?
I'm taking it one day at a time. I like my life a lot. I like that I can get paid to do live shows. I want to do more freelance writing.
I would love to make a docuseries about the metaphorical guy in Nebraska who is holding the entire internet together. I want to find those people and put them in front of a camera because in my experience, the people that are just spending a ton of time doing work for everyone for free tend to be deeply interesting. They deserve a little glory even if they don't want it.
I also love kids and would love to work with them more. I used to work at a school and do a lot of tutoring. It was really hard work but I think about it all the time; I miss them a lot. 10+11 year olds are so fucking funny. Maybe I should restart Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.
I would watch that in a heartbeat.
My final question: in your ideal world, what does the future of the internet look like?
The internet has changed so much as I've changed. And sometimes it's hard to tell who has changed. When I was in middle school, I was online all the time and it made me sad. I would just look at my friends hanging out without me, and at all of those horrible eating disorder Instagram accounts. That was a dark era of Annie online.
But as I got older I found these beautiful wonderful sub-communities with niche shared interests. That's what the internet is supposed to be about.
My general satisfaction from the internet has been correlated with how much I'm posting. When you're posting and putting a little bit of your self out there, you can meet people and make friends and gain acceptance. And to me, that's what makes it all worth it.
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