I wrote the first version of the Wikipedia article about the toilet brush
I wrote the first version of the Wikipedia article about the toilet brush. I know. And no, I don’t know where my knighthood has got to either.
Before then, if you went to Wikipedia and searched for toilet brush, you were presented with an empty page saying that, if you were so inclined, you could create a new article.
Until that moment, around the world people were, staring, confused, at the upturned, spiky tree in the corner of their bathroom, unable to comprehend what it might be.
It’s changed, of course, in the intervening 13 years. But even now, the current version contains little remnants of the slightly facetious version I started with:
The toilet brush can be used to clean the upper area of the toilet, around the bowl. However, it cannot be used to clean very far into the toilet’s U-bend and should not be used to clean the toilet seat.
In East Anglia where I grew up, this is what ‘passes’ for humour. We’re a very scatological people.
I think about this page sometimes. And if I’m feeling low or in a self-flagellating mood, it occurs to me that this may be my greatest contribution to humanity.
In total, 73,000 people have read the page. A non-profit organisation is going to send a copy of Wikipedia to the Moon, etched onto sheets of metal. 50 people visit the toilet brush page every day. Every day! They arrive, ignorant of the history and details of the toilet brush, and leave knowing that originally brushes were made with badger hair and you shouldn’t leave “biological debris” on the bristles. (Another bit of facetious phrasing left over from an early version).
Creating a page like this is strange. It’s simultaneously trivial and amazing. Trivial, because, I mean, come on, it’s a freaking toilet brush. But also amazing because… how come it didn’t already exist. I mean, pretty much every house has one. It’s like owning the domain name blancmange.com: impressive and pointless in equal measures.
The scale of work that goes into everything these days terrifies me sometimes. It gives me a real existential angst.
Last week a 30-second mattress advert was filmed in the house opposite mine. I live in a quiet residential street. Just the sort of street people who sleep soundly on excellent mattresses live on, I guess.
The street was a bustle of activity. There was an articulated location lorry. A crane had hefted a high-wattage stage light way up into the air. A catering van was feeding hot dogs to the crew who had been there since the morning, toiling and sweating to make the actors look so comfortable. The council had approved the work and stuck up a little notice. A traffic warden had laid out special no parking cones. If you start following the trail back, this mattress advert must have been the work of thousands of people. You probably contributed to it somehow.
Wikipedia is the same. As a teenager, I might have spent ten minutes giggling to myself while I wrote about the toilet brush, but since then an army of helpers and tweakers have descended on the article. Pulling and massaging it into the shape it is now. And that’s just one fairly minor page on one website.
I feel like as a species we have got over our collective skepticism of Wikipedia. A decade ago, every time it’s name came up there was a chuckle — how can it be accurate? Anyone can edit it! Pranksters will fill it with nonsense. And even if they don’t, it’s massively skewed towards, say, Pokémon, rather than difficult medical topics or invertebrates.
And yes, there have been pranksters. On one notable occasion some wag edited all the hard work that had gone into the toilet brush page and added:
You wipe your bum with it
Cheeky beggar! Citation needed, I think.
But then a bot reverted it back and we all carried on with our lives.
And yes, maybe there is too much detail about every episode of The Simpsons and not enough about the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. But at this point we’re picking at the weeds around one of the wonders of the world. (Plus, some of those stories really aren’t much to write home about.)
Really, there are two parts to this wonder. Firstly, just the extent of it all. All those pages. All that information. And… it’s fine. I mean, there are weird bits of wording sometimes. But fears that it would be ravaged by word vandals hell bent on lawlessness haven’t come to pass. The general fineness of Wikipedia restores my faith in humanity. Which, I’m finding is increasingly rare these dates.
Secondly, the effort that went into Wikipedia is staggering. Millions, billions, probably trillions of person hours. I find it almost distressing to think of all that work. But the output that produced will live forever now, one way or the other. Maybe we won’t be able to read it anymore once society inevitably descends into chaos when a despotic leader nukes the planet over a mean headline in a newspaper. But Wikipedia will still be there, etched into pieces of metal on the moon.
And there, among all the Pokémon and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Venetian art and Family Guy references in popular culture and mathematical functions will be my article about the toilet brush. Protected for eternity.
We can’t always chose our legacies. But maybe that’s for the best anyway.