Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wikipedia Needs More Trivia

The "... in popular culture" sections and articles on Wikipedia used to be called "Trivia," but were so overwhelmingly lists of pop-culture references that the convention was altered. These days there are articles like Zombies in popular culture which typically start off well, but quickly descend into cobbled-together lists of movies, books, comics and video games that may or may not relate to, or represent the state of the genre being discussed. At one time, I worked on the  Lovecraftian horror article, and while I tried to make it an article about the genre and its evolution over time, it was continuously inundated by well-meaning editors who would add lists of genre works to the article.

To combat this, Wikipedia really should embrace both styles, and integrate them more deeply. I'd love to see the template mechanism enhanced so that trivia could be encapsulated as template-like objects. (more...)

For example, one could write a trivia template for the zombies in the Harry Potter series:

{{trivia in | Zombies in popular culture}} [[J.K. Rowling]] includes zombies, known as [[Inferius|Inferi]], in {{triva link | Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince}}, the sixth {{trivia type | book}} of her Harry Potter series.  The Inferi are dead humans who are re-animated by Dark Magic.

This notation combines metadata with a simple prose description of the trivia in question. It can easily be rendered using MediaWiki's standard template tools, but with some additional software support, it could be pulled in to the article in a constructive way that doesn't interfere with the body of the article. For example, as a side-bar that allows users to navigate various media in a JavaScript-driven interface, drilling down on a "books" section to find one of them is in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," and further to find the text above.

All of this serves to further illuminate the topic without turning an otherwise well-written article into a cesspool of "my favorite video game had zombies too!" Additional metadata that might be useful could include a time-frame, level of popularity / sales, genre and even free-form tagging. These could all be incorporated into the UI for such trivia sidebars.

Benefits of such a system also include:
  • Separate edit histories for each bit of trivia, allowing readers to easily determine how a particular bit of trivia has changed over time.
  • The ability to discuss and individually tag specific bits of trivia.
  • Some trivia might be re-used in many articles, allowing more modular edits.
  • Further expansion might even allow for the modularization of non-trivial facts. Many of the side-bars on pages like that for Obama could be modularized into free-floating factoids that could be maintained independently.
This would introduce new problems, of course. A mechanism would be needed that allowed viewers of pages using such transcluded facts to browse the combined edit history of an article and its contributing trivia/facts to better patrol changes to the article. That's not impossible, or even particularly hard to do, but it would be a basic requirement (and one of the reasons that templates containing article text are discouraged now).