Back in January, when I was writing about going “too deep” when researching for fiction, I referenced Wikiwandering, a term so new I’m still having to explain it to a rough fifty percent of the people I talk to about it.
Wikiwandering or Wikiwalking is what happens when you access an informational website and, during the course of researching one thing, end up researching multiple others when you follow links in the text. It’s not confined to Wikipedia; it is infamously associated with TVTropes, where most people, once linked, can get lost for hours. It also surfaces frequently when using sites like Cracked, full of informational lists.
I decided I wanted to do a piece on Wikiwalking, which would ironically involve a lot of research. But it turns out very little has been written about it, or at least, very little that I could find.
What I was looking for in specific was a psychological or biological (or both) theory as to why we do it — why we find new information linked from known information almost irresistible. My own personal theory was that it had to do with acquiring new data; evolutionarily speaking that’s quite a good thing, and now more than ever we are socialised to want data.
I thought it might relate to the idea of uncovering secrets; when you see a link in an informational article, you don’t know what the link means, so clicking it gives you a sense of unveiling and discovery (this is worse in TV Tropes because the links usually have funny but not informative names). Really, discovering a secret and acquiring new data are very similar, however, and neither is necessarily an explanation. Why do we want to know secrets? Why do we want to learn so badly?
When I opened the floor for discussion on tumblr, I got some interesting suggestions. Some thought that perhaps the compulsion is linked to “continuity of definiton” — that the links answer questions which arise in the course of reading — or to tailored learning, because you control precisely what information you access, and that control is particularly easy to exert on heavily crosslinked sites. “Reward schedules” were also suggested: “Wiki gives you something of interest (a reward) just often enough, with just unpredictable enough of a schedule to increase reward seeking behavior.” But why do we consider new knowledge a reward?
Storytelling is a very low-risk way of providing/acquiring new data, as I’ve discussed, and while you may learn more by “doing”, the ratio of payoff to risk in “other people doing” is much lower. I’ve never seen much written on how to make nonfiction interesting, but most people are aware that conveying data in an entertaining fashion is more likely to keep people engaged. Sites like Groupon and Woot make “interesting” copy their stock in trade, occasionally to the point of obscuring actual necessary data (a complaint I will make in detail at some future point, probably).
So it seems as though it may be as simple as the human instinct to gain new knowledge, facilitated by an easy interconnected structure (and, in the case of TV Tropes, encouraged by a certain level of “secret keeping” in the form of obscurely-titled links).
I have a secondary theory, however.
It arises from some self-analysis done by TV Tropes, because it is such an addictive site; they’ve adopted the term “Browser Narcotic” to describe “Any website that results in you opening a dozen tabs in a single session and using up hours of your time”. The term comes from the alt text of an XKCD comic on the topic:
The key word here, I think, is narcotic.
A narcotic is an addictive drug, of course, but it’s also a self-medication, a soothing device (“Narcotic” in particular is clinically defined as a sedative compound). When I looked up WikiWander in a google search and got connected to a perhaps less than scientific definition I found what I think is another indicator: “Not only do you learn a lot, but it motivates you to do lots of things on a boring day.”
No it doesn’t. Wikiwalking teaches you a lot, but you don’t actually do lots of things. You do one thing: you learn.
But it feels like doing lots of things, which is the crux of the matter. When you research via Wikiwalk, you feel like you’re getting a lot accomplished because your brain is very active. You’re not “doing” a lot but you are “acting” a lot — opening browser windows, closing browser windows, switching back and forth between different kinds of learning as you move through different subjects. And who doesn’t feel a little ping of satisfaction when they can close a browser window, having wrung every ounce of knowledge from it?
“Browser narcotic” websites are self-medication — they make us feel accomplished even as we do very little. Part of that is undoubtedly because of all the learning, but I think part of it is because our brains are lighting up without us having to move around a lot.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. God knows, everyone needs a little self-medication now and again. And soothing through learning is a very low-risk, high-yield form of “wasting” time. But I’m satisfied with the thesis that browser narcotics are so addictive because they provide a sense of accomplishment and increased knowledge attached to an extremely low-expenditure, low-risk activity.
Evolutionarily, we were made for Wikiwalking.