Future Tense

The Very Respectful Wikipedia Battles Over “OK Boomer”

After a teenager from Austria launched the Wikipedia entry, the editing debates began.

Photo illustration of opposing hands directing mouses to an Edit button.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by richard johnson/iStock/Getty Images Plus and thawornnurak/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

If you asked Google “What is OK Boomer?” sometime during the last week of November, one top result read as follows: “ ‘OK Boomer’ is an ageist catchphrase and internet meme that gained popularity throughout 2019, used to dismiss or mock attitudes stereotypically attributed to the baby boomer generation.”

The source for this definition was the then-current English language version of the OK Boomer Wikipedia page, which delivers information to Google’s Q&A boxes as well as digital assistants like Siri and Alexa. In other words, the knowledge from the online encyclopedia branched out to the wider net, which helps explain why the editors working behind the scenes of the OK Boomer Wikipedia article feel so strongly about its content.

According to both the Wikipedia entry and the primary sources supporting it, “OK Boomer” first took off in January on video-sharing service TikTok as a response to a gray-haired man saying, “The millennials and Generation Z have Peter Pan syndrome, they don’t ever want to grow up.” As Taylor Lorenz wrote for the New York Times in October, as the catchphrase entered more common parlance, it “has become Generation Z’s endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids.” And also not-quite-kids: New Zealand MP Chlöe Swarbrick, 25, used it when her remarks about climate change were interrupted by an opposition politician. Swarbrick later wrote for the Guardian that she considered the catchphrase an “innocuous two-word meme” that was “symbolic of the collective exhaustion of multiple generations.”

Swarbrick and her peers might think the meme is innocuous, but others are concerned that it’s contributing to an all-out intergenerational war. That’s where the subject’s Wikipedia entry could potentially shed some light. The online encyclopedia has been known in the past for its infamous edit warring, where editors delete changes and try to hijack a page to slant the encyclopedic summaries toward a subjective point of view. It seemed worth investigating the OK Boomer Wikipedia page to see if there were in fact signs of a fully digital, young-versus-old bloodbath. What I found instead was a generally respectful editorial process and a few young people who were contributing in good faith.

The Wikipedia user Linguaddict drafted the first version of the OK Boomer Wikipedia page on Nov. 4. The article’s prospects were touch-and-go there at the beginning. Two editors declined the article, with one saying that it should instead be a subsection on the Baby Boomer entry, and the other that the neologism failed to meet Wikipedia’s infamous notability guidelines. But within two days, the article was accepted. Since its official publication on Nov. 6, the entry has received more than 700,000 page views on Wikipedia directly, and it’s had even greater reach through search engine results and the digital assistants that sample from the site’s publicly-available content.

The biggest controversy behind the OK Boomer Wikipedia page involves the issue of ageism. As I mentioned above, in late November, the introduction to the article declared outright that the catchphrase was ageist, and for a time, the words “ ‘OK Boomer is an ageist catchphrase” filtered into the Google search results. Today, the intro to the page has been revised to state: “It is considered by some to be ageist.”

I tried to reach out to the most active editors on the page to get a sense for why they were volunteering their time on this. When I contacted Linguaddict for this piece, he identified himself as Michael Frank, a 15-year-old high school student based in Vienna, Austria. In addition to being the author of the original OK Boomer page, Frank is also the page’s most prolific contributor—with 118 edits to date. “When the meme really skyrocketed in notability and it had no presence on Wikipedia yet, I felt the need to inform the masses, to clearly define what ‘OK Boomer’ is and to highlight the generational conflict that’s happening,” Frank said in an email. One of the page’s other top contributors by edit count identified themselves as a teen based in New Zealand. There are no age restrictions for editing, and this isn’t the first time I have observed members of Gen Z doing a lot of the heavy lifting on Wikipedia: I wrote last year about two teenagers who updated Wikipedia articles for all 472 stations of the New York subway system.

Yet I struggled to find older editors who would talk to me about the OK Boomer page. Some I reached out to said they didn’t want to comment on this potentially divisive topic. Others said they generally shied away from media coverage. It’s difficult to confirm the age of any specific Wikipedia contributor, especially if they elect not to disclose that information. But it struck me as odd how certain editors usually made the exact same type of contribution: inserting and reinserting the word ageist throughout the article. Were real-life baby boomers repeatedly editing the “OK Boomer” Wikipedia page to ensure the topic was cast in a bad light? I wish I knew.

Frank told me that he believes the editorial compromise “It is considered by some to be ageist” is an improvement because it’s more objective. There are multiple schools of thought as to whether the term is ageist, he said, and it’s best to leave the ultimate decision to the reader. “I often throw [OK Boomer] around lightheartedly with my friends with no ill-intent,” Frank wrote, adding that he considers the catchphrase to be more jocular.

Still, the issue of ageism has flared up repeatedly on the talk page behind the OK Boomer article, where editors discuss proposed revisions. Occasional vandalism to the article’s text (for instance, “ageist? Are you serious? OK Boomer”) has been quickly removed by patrolling bots and vigilant human editors. The page has been classified as an open task for WikiProject Ageing and Culture, which encourages editors to collaborate on pages related to aging. On the other hand, several editors seem to think the issue of ageism has been given undue weight within the short article. “ ‘it is considered by some to be ageist’ is stated THREE times [in this article]” wrote one exasperated editor. The current version says it twice, with the second instance noting that some consider the term “highly” ageist. The New Zealand teenager who has been active on the page pointed out that the “it is considered by” language might break Wikipedia’s guideline against weasel words (not to mention that it’s an awkward use of passive voice).

A few people on the article’s talk page expressed concern that “OK Boomer” is regularly directed at members of Gen X—generally thought to be born between the years 1965 and 1980—who do not fall within the definition of baby boomers. Gen X has so often been ignored by the media, but at least some friendly Wikipedians are trying to keep them from being hit by the intergenerational crossfire. Similarly, the New Zealand teen mentioned conversations outside of Wikipedia in which older generations refer to kids as millennials (who are now in their 20s through late 30s) when they really mean Gen Z. Other generational complaints have also come out: The young Kiwi editor complained about how Gen Z has been maligned for relying on emoji and memes. “It’s just that younger people have a different internet vernacular,” wrote the teenager. “The stereotype about [us] not liking text is quite wrong.”

One theme that came up repeatedly in my discussions with the two teenagers is that they don’t hate or even dislike their elders. “I hold considerable respect for older people,” Frank wrote, adding that his parents were both very proud that he was contributing to public knowledge on Wikipedia.

Overall, the two young Wikipedia editors who have been active on the OK Boomer Wikipedia page said that the editorial disputes on the article have not been overly hostile. The article ultimately characterizes public reception to the catchphrase as “mixed” and cites several boomer-critical and boomer-sympathetic references. And since the page is a compromise based on crowdsourcing, nobody appears to be completely happy with the current version. For instance, the “Reception” section of the OK Boomer article describes how one conservative radio host generated controversy by Tweeting that “boomer” was the new “n-word of ageism.” The New Zealander told me that the comparison between the word boomer and the racial slur may have too much coverage.

After reading through the OK Boomer Wikipedia page and its behind-the-scenes editorial history, I was struck by how different the article is from the #OkBoomer tweets and TikTok videos. The TikToks range from silly to politically poignant—but they are anything but neutral, which is what Wikipedia aspires to be as a project. For me, it’s a reminder of how good Wikipedia volunteers are trying to accurately reflect topics and neutrally document their related conflicts. And Gen Z has made very clear that they will be involved in this process of producing knowledge—not only for generational flashpoints like climate change and gun control, but for their own notable neologism.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.