Wikipedia blacked out its English-language site yesterday along with other major websites. It was a protest against Web censorship and a demonstration of its effects. Wikipedia's participation was a big win for the movement opposing SOPA/PIPA, the twin anti-piracy bills in Congress. Wikipedia is a resource millions use every day and most take for granted. It's the fifth most popular website in the world.

Wikimedia Foundation says the blackout reached 162 million people. Of those, 8 million used Wikipedia's tool to look up their congressional representatives. The blackout generated three trending Twitter topics when it started at midnight Eastern Time on Wednesday. Twitter also revealed frustration and lack of understanding of the blackout. But this was all by design. Censorship is frustrating. Wikipedians wanted a campaign that was both symbolic and effective, and that's what its staff delivered.

Wikipedians Blacked Themselves Out

Wikimedia Foundation has been tracking SOPA/PIPA as a threat since the hearings in November. After the first official markup of SOPA in December, Wikimedia published its first public stance against the bill, saying it would "hurt the free web and Wikipedia." At that point, the staff and the worldwide community of volunteers began to discuss some kind of concerted response.

The effort got its own dedicated Wikipedia page where the community hashed out the details. At the end of the process, volunteers examined the results. They presented a request to the Wikimedia Foundation proposing the community's vision of the blackout: Shut down English Wikipedia, leaving the mobile version accessible, but blocking access to all pages on the desktop except those for SOPA (the House version) and PIPA (the Senate version).

"It was challenging" for the organization to follow the will of a huge community, says Jay Walsh, Wikimedia's head of communications, "but they also helped us to keep it simple." The staff continued working with the community right up to the blackout figuring out how to word the messages. The final message was three sentences long and not specific. "Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet," it said. There was a link to learn more, but this basic explanation was all the landing page displayed.

This Is The World We Might Find Ourselves Living In

"We were presenting information, but we were also presenting a reality," Walsh says. "The community knew that a protest like this would establish that reality: This is the world we might find ourselves living in." For the millions of people who use Wikipedia every day, that was bound to be frustrating, but that was exactly the point.

Two days before the blackout, Wikimedia's executive director, Sue Gardner, posted the announcement of the blackout on the Wikimedia blog to prepare the community. It explains how Wikipedians arrived at the decision to protest and anticipated some criticism. "In making this decision, Wikipedians will be criticized for seeming to abandon neutrality to take a political position," Gardner wrote. "But although Wikipedia's articles are neutral, its existence is not."

That post received over 12,000 comments. "I'm used to seeing so much dreck [in online comments]," Walsh says, "and yeah, a lot of people were angry and thought this wasn't going to work." Many of the criticisms were thoughtful, arguing that a blackout wouldn't work. Others expressed dismay that Wikipedia would be offline, even for a day (and despite the fact that using the mobile version or turning off Javascript would bring it right back). The most salient message Walsh got from the comments was "I hate that this has to happen, but I get it."

A Protest & A Demonstration

Not everyone got it. Once the blackout went up, a brilliant Twitter curator named @herpderpedia tracked confused and outraged tweets about it all day. "I think there's a lot of ignorance," Walsh says, "a lot of misunderstanding." People use Wikipedia as a utility, and the blackout was an effort to show users that it's not that simple. "And we're not saying, 'Don't take Wikipedia for granted,'" Walsh says. "We're saying there's more to it. You can continue to take Wikipedia for granted, but it has to exist in a legislative environment where it can work."

"This effort was about getting people to fight this bill," Walsh says, "but it also has resulted in people taking a little bit more interest in what SOPA/PIPA might do to the Internet as a whole."

Wikipedia's blackout didn't have to drive every single user to study the bills and understand them. It only had to engage a few and cause the rest to make a lot of noise. By demonstrating the frustration of an Internet blackout, the issue attracted more attention than a more straightforward campaign would have gotten.

5% of the people who hit Wikipedia's blackout page looked up their representatives' contact information. That's 8 million people. Surely not all of them called, faxed or emailed. But ProPublica tracked members of Congress on their positions on SOPA/PIPA between yesterday and today, and look at the difference. The tactics employed yesterday by Wikipedia and other sites moved the needle.