31 Oct 2007

On Wikipedia and Being "Encyclopediac"

I have a love/hate relationship with Wikipedia. On one hand, it’s a great project, and I use it – mostly as a ‘casual reference’ for settling friendly arguments or digging up little gems of information – all the time. But on the other hand, sometimes I’m pained by Wikipedia, because I can’t help but look at it and see how much potential it has, for going above and beyond what it is right now. And that’s frustrating.

There have been lots of criticisms of Wikipedia since its inception, and I’m not going to go over the well-trod ground of reliability or factual correctness. Wikipedia is “good enough,” apparently, for lots of people to use, and that’s what matters.

No, what gets me about Wikipedia is its desire to be ‘encyclopediac,’ manifested in its ‘notability’ requirements for articles. I think this is a huge misstep.

Our notions of what an “encyclopedia” is – for all but the very youngest among us – is driven by memories of the old, dead-tree variety. Paper encyclopedias, by their very nature, couldn’t contain everything about everything; it would just be impractical. There isn’t enough paper to print such a beast, and even if there was, certainly you couldn’t economically mass-produce it. So when we think about an encyclopedia, we think about a series of relatively short, introductory articles, on key topics. The best encyclopedias had the most and longest articles – the greatest breadth and depth of content – but they were still limited.

But that’s not what it has to be. That’s a limitation borne of physical restrictions, which don’t necessarily exist in the digital electronic realm, particularly with the ever-falling price of bandwidth and mass storage.

The Wikipedia Gods seem to get this, to a certain extent. One of WP’s tenets is that it’s ‘not paper.’ But despite this, it still sticks to certain key assumptions about what is fit for an encyclopedia, about what an encyclopedia is, that are based on analog premises and ideas.

Put simply, there’s no reason to reject any content that’s well-written and well-researched, on ‘notability’ grounds. There’s just no reason to do it. There is no such thing as bad information, as long as it’s correct.

There are better ways to keep the main namespace clear, and the signal-to-noise ratio high, than by constantly destroying information. Articles that get crufty can (and should!) be rewritten and pared down; cruft can be left in the historical versions for those that want to find it. Articles that get top-heavy with trivia or ‘popular culture’ sections can move the extra content to sub-pages within the main article’s namespace, to preserve the cleanliness of the main page, without deleting anything. The result would be a resource with much more depth in its articles, and potentially much more breadth as well.

Wikipedia as it currently exists strikes me as a terrible waste of potential. Within a generation, Wikipedia and other online resources like it are going to own the concept of ‘encyclopedia’ within the public consciousness. Young people growing up today will probably never think of a stack of large books when they hear that word – yet the online resources are being designed with constraints thoughtlessly inherited from their dead-tree ancestors.

I love Wikipedia for what it is, but sometimes I can’t help but hate it for what it is, too, because of the gap between what it is and what it could and can be.

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