Distance on Wikipedia: The Philosophical Orbits of Hulk Hogan and Alf

At some point, it’s happened to pretty much all of us: You go to Wikipedia trying to settle an argument and find out what level of Thetanhood Tom Cruise is on these days, and 3 hours later you’re scrolling down the list of Cryptids and thinking “Hmmm, Montauk Monster. Sounds interesting.” It’s this incredible system of interlinking that can make Wikipedia so addictive, and it’s so easy to take trains of thought down utterly random tracks that I was a little surprised to learn that there’s a very consistent pattern in the chaos. If you follow that pattern, the Montauk Monster, and almost every other page for that matter, leads you sooner or later, to Philosophy.

The Montauk Monster, in all it’s philosophical glory.

The method is simple.  You go to any Wikipedia page and click the first non-italicized, non-parenthetical link, then repeat on the next page, and in most cases you’ll wind up at Philosophy in between 1 and 30 steps. Lists and extremely specific articles can take longer- the longest known chain to Philosophy is 1845 steps from a List of state leaders in 2011. Occasionally, a list will lead to a loop or a blank page that never brings you to philosophy, but the method works for 95% of all Wiki pages it’s been tested on. The pattern was first revealed in 2008, when someone posted a page about it on Wikipedia itself. Last year, creativeandcritical.net built a script for quickly testing links and storing statistics. And then today, somebody on one of Wired’s twitter feeds mentioned the phenomenon, and after a little investigation and experimentation with the script, I was hooked.

And, since every investigation needs a starting point, I chose to start with the high water mark of the 1980’s, and maybe when it’s all said and done, American Culture as a whole.  I myself wouldn’t say that for sure yet, but if you believe, as an awful lot of people seem to, that the country’s heading in the wrong direction, well, then this is what you’re fighting to preserve:

Did you know Andre the Giant is only 18 short steps away from Philosophy? The trail starts at French People, leads through Power and Authority, and then finally winds up where they almost all do, at Philosophy.  Well, it seems like 18 short steps until you learn that Hulk Hogan is only 16 steps away, but he is a REAL AMERICAN afterall, and it seems fitting that he would walk a slightly shorter path to glory than the man he once hoisted upon his shoulders and then threw down to usher in the era of Gordon Gekko (11 steps), Ibuprofen (10 steps) and Alf (16 steps). It also seems fitting in some way that the Hulkster, “Terry” Hogan, rests in the same distant orbit of Philosophy as Alf.  And this doesn’t even address Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who’s path from announcing that clip to Minnesota Governor (13 years), is ever so slightly shorter than his Wikipedia path to Philosophy (14 steps).

Sometimes there’s an appropriateness to the paths themselves.  On Alf’s own personal journey to the ways of philosophy, he passes through the pages of both Art and Human Behavior, which seems like an ironic statement on 80’s pop culture if ever there was one.  Last time I saw Mariah Carey she was, sure enough, both Singing and an Organism.  Those are also two Facts you can Experience at one of her shows.  But not everyone’s path to philosophical stardom runs as smoothly as Mimi’s 14 steps, though of course she hasn’t cured as many fevers as Ibuprofen or slept with Catherine Zeta-Jones as many times as the man who played Gordon Gekko has.

Sometimes the path detours in unexpected ways- if you wanted to riff on failure and loss with Steve Bartman, Alex S. Gozalez and the Chicago Cubs, think again, all three follow the same path where you wind up bouncing from Baseball to Grass and Flowering Plants before you finally loop around to the Philosophy finish line.  That finish line for all three is 20 links later, which in the unkindest cut of all, is the same number of steps away as the World Series.  Hmmm.  Maybe the system DOES work every time.

If you want to play around with the script yourself, the link is http://creativeandcritical.net/xkcdwiki/