How best to read Wikipedia

This is a tutorial on how best to read Wikipedia. Now when I say “read”, I’m using it in the same sense that one might read a novel or a textbook. If you’re just looking up a single thing, you don’t need the tutorial; just go to the relevant article, read it, and by done with it. But if you want to read lots of different articles and learn all sorts of new things, then this tutorial is for you. When I’m bored I end up reading Wikipedia, sometimes for hours on end. Here’s what I’ve found is the best, most efficient way to read it.

1. Use a modern browser. You’re going to need Mozilla Firefox, or if you really have no other option, version 7 of Internet Explorer or later. Internet Explorer versions 6 and prior simply won’t do, because tabbed browsing is essential for properly reading Wikipedia, and they lack it. I still highly recommend Firefox over Internet Explorer, though, because Firefox has integrated browsing recovery, meaning that if your system crashes (or your battery runs out or whatever) while you have a bunch of tabs open in Firefox, you can restore the session upon rebooting your computer and recover everything you were looking at. It’s very convenient because reading Wikipedia can become a long endeavor that spans many days with many sessions, and you don’t want to lose what you were reading.

2. Register an account. You should register an account and remain logged in while reading Wikipedia because doing this will give you access to many features (some of which will be explained in the steps below) that make reading Wikipedia much better.

3. Install Navigation Popups. Now that you’re registered and logged in, you’re going to want to install Lupin’s Navigation Popups extension for Wikipedia. This is a JavaScript extension that must be installed for each individual user account. To install it, paste Special:Mypage/monobook.js into the Search box in the sidebar on Wikipedia, hit “Go”, click the edit tab at the top of the window, paste {{subst:navpop}} into the large text box, and hit “Save Page”. Now you need to bypass your cache while reloading; to do this, press Shift-Ctrl-R in Mozilla Firefox or Ctrl-F5 in Internet Explorer. Now Popups is installed.

Popups is a very useful extension that gives you a brief summary about the subject of an article simply by hovering your mouse over it. For instance, let’s say I’m reading the article on Evolution and I come across the linked word “Prokaryote” that I’m not familiar with. I can simply hover my cursor over the link and Navigation Popups automatically gets the introductory paragraph and the first image from the article, and displays them in the form of a popup. Oftentimes, this is enough information to explain a concept without having to click through and read another whole article. Here’s what Popups looks like in action:

Navigation popups on the Evolution article

Use Navigation Popups to screen the articles that you end up reading. If you see everything you need to know about a subject in the Popups window, or if it’s just not interesting to you, skip the full article. Popups saves you time.

4. Use tabs. Open up new articles that you want to read as tabs. This way, you will get to them later without interrupting the article that you are currently reading. In Firefox, holding Ctrl while clicking on a link will open it in a new tab, or, if your mouse has three buttons, pressing the third button may often open in a new tab as well. Even if you have a scroll wheel mouse, it’s likely that the wheel can be pressed in and used as a third button. You may need to slightly configure Firefox by selecting the Tools menu, selecting Options, clicking the Tabs tab, and specify that “New pages should be opened in: a new tab” and turn off the option for “When I open a link in a new tab, switch to it immediately”. This way you can open up new tabs in the background, as many as you want, for each interesting link you find in the current article that you are reading. And you won’t be interrupting your reading.

When I’m reading Wikipedia I tend to simply follow whatever links interest me, which results in a rapid divergence of subject area. Recently I started by reading the article on the golden age of animation and ended up reading articles on various squatter collectives and nomad peoples. That’s the awesomeness of Wikipedia: it covers every conceivable subject matter. Because articles tend to have lots of links on them, I usually end up opening up more than one article for each article that I read, resulting in an increasing number of tabs across the screen of things I’m trying to get to reading. This can basically go on indefinitely, with my “to read” queue growing exponentially. I try to keep the number of tabs manageable by only opening up the really interesting articles once my number of open tabs exceeds thirty.

5. Add pages you read to your watchlist. See the tab labeled “Watch” at the top of every article? That adds the article you are reading to your watchlist. After reading each article I add it to my watchlist. You should too. It helps to keep track of everything you’ve read, and after you’ve been reading and learning from Wikipedia for awhile, you’ll end up with quite the impressive list of subjects you’ve read about on your watchlist. You can view recent edits to articles on your watchlist by clicking the “my watchlist” link in the upper right part of the page, and from there, you can click through to see every page that’s on your watchlist. If you end up becoming a frequent editor, your watchlist will help you to track changes that are made to the articles you’ve read, changes that you might be interested in looking at, especially if they’ve increased the depth of coverage of the article.

6. Edit! Remember, Wikipedia is written by volunteers, people just like you and me. One of the ways you can help pay back the huge fount of information you’re receiving for free is by editing Wikipedia to improve it and help it grow. Every little fix matters and could potentially benefit thousands of people (on the more well-read articles). Start off by just fixing the little errors that you see, like spelling and grammar errors. As you get more comfortable with it, start making larger changes; if you happen to know something about a subject that isn’t in the article, go ahead and add it. Over time you’ll get more experience with all of the idiosyncrasies of Wikipedia editing, and who knows, after spending enough time reading and editing, you may eventually become an administrator like me.

3 Responses to “How best to read Wikipedia”

  1. Darmok Says:

    I can’t recall: have you ever seen this XKCD comic? It definitely fits your post.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Darmok: Yup, I have seen that comic, and I was even thinking of linking to it from this post, but then forgot.

  3. dewdew Says:

    It’s best to read and edit Wikipedia with Mozilla Firefox because that browser doesn’t automatically reload the page when you use the “back” function (to go back to previously viewed pages). I briefly check the contribution history before seriously reading an article to see whether or not an IP was the last person to contribute (if so, then I compare the revisions). Then I use the “go back” function to view the page without it reloading it in case someone else has made another edit in that brief amount of time. I used to do so using MSN Explorer, but then it updated so that it reloads the page when going back (I learned this to my dismay when I went back to an edit page I hadn’t saved yet; now I have to preview the page first when using that browser).