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Wikipedia: How can we live 24 hours without you?

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Say you're in the mood to look up a factoid about something odd -- like, for instance, the history of Velcro. So you go to Google, ignore the weird bar over the logo, and type in "Velcro" and "Wiki." A Wikipedia link appears, and a click brings it up -- but it vanishes an instant later. Oh my God! Where has Wikipedia gone?

The answer is two screens away, following a page headed with the line "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge" and featuring prompts to "Learn more" and enter your ZIP code.

The first of these buttons takes users to an article about SOPA and PIPA -- the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act, which are currently being considered by elected reps in Washington. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and plenty of his web brethren -- including Google, whose black-barred logo represents the company's own protest -- object to the measures, feeling they're "badly drafted legislation that won't be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet."

Why? According to the piece, "They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won't have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn't being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won't show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression."

The second page, meanwhile, produces contact information for Congressional representatives -- in the case of Westword's 80203 ZIP, Diana DeGette, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. "Tell them you are their constituent, and you oppose SOPA and PIPA," the text urges.

Thousands upon thousands of people responding to Wikipedia's 24-hour blackout can be expected to do so. But in the meantime, information junkies like yours truly will be without one of our favorite sites on the planet for a whole day. And it won't be easy.

Yes, journalists are warned not to rely on Wikipedia, since there's no way to guarantee that the user-generated content is accurate -- and sometimes it's not. I remember looking up the Nirvana Wiki page in the late '90s and finding an entire paragraph detailing how Courtney Love killed Kurt Cobain. This material was promptly removed thanks, no doubt, to complaints from visitors, Wikipedia's de facto police squad. But if your timing is bad, you can still find bogus data. And in addition, some pages, particularly those about controversial issues or icons, boast an embedded agenda that requires active reading and interpretation, not blind acceptance. That's why reporters know to double-check everything on Wikipedia before relying on it.

And yet, as a first stop on the information highway, it's incredibly invaluable, especially when it comes to topics on the fringes. Last week, for instance, I stopped by Wax Trax to pick up some 45s for my vinyl jukebox, including several from '80s bands I barely remembered -- among them the Blow Monkeys and the Bolshoi. Afterward, I headed to my laptop, typed their names and the magic word "Wiki" into the search field, and voila!

Some people sneer at the thought of Bolshoi fans so rabid, even after all these years, that they'd take it upon themselves to gather all the material they can about the combo to share with the masses, but not me -- and my reasons go well beyond my view that their old single "Please" is super-catchy in a guilty-pleasure way. The world's better because we have somewhere to share our obsessions, and to discover that not everyone thinks they're silly. And Wikipedia is one of those places.

And so, as I blog my little heart out today, I'll have to resist the temptation to check Wikipedia pages about subjects on my radar -- including the bizarre death of George DeGrazio, which spurred me to look up Cinemark, owner of the Fort Collins theater whose bathroom wound up being the spot where this movie lover died.

It won't be easy -- but tomorrow, I'll appreciate being able to surf there that much more. Come back, Wikipedia! All is forgiven!

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