Saturday, December 21, 2013

Solving the Wikipedia problem

Today I was reading an AMA discussion on reddit from a Wikipedia admin. Much of the conversation centered around either delitionism (editors and admins on Wikipedia who want to delete lots of pages that they don't consider important) or the creeping vandalism of special interests. I've long thought that both problems could be solved by creating a new service to replace Wikipedia, so let me put my thoughts down in writing.

First off, let me say that Wikipedia is a wonderful tool and I'm glad it exists. I also want to say that many, many editors of Wikipedia have done a phenomenal job, and they should be commended.

That said, delitionism is insanity and needs to be stopped. Wikiepdia's value was in the desire to encompass all of human knowledge, and that includes obscure Pokemon powers along with the atomic weight of Hydrogen.

Here is what I think we need:

First off, I don't think MediaWiki can be the engine of what Wikipedia should be. A new engine should possess a fully consistent and well defined language for describing page content, inclusion, typesetting markup and so on. Its syntax might be very similar to MediaWiki's, perhaps even very nearly a superset, but it needs to be designed from the ground up.

Everything should be fair game, and when I say this, I don't just mean every top-level page name, but ever perspective on every page. Conservapedia should not have needed to be a separate site. Much as I might disagree with the Conservapedia founders, I think they should have been able to do what they did in the context of Wikipedia.

A point of view should not be excluded universally, but rather, should be the entry point. The "liberal academic historian" POV should be a valid point to start from as should the "avid baseball card collector" POV or the "anti-government conspiracy theorist" POV. From these points of view, much of the content is the same, but its presentation and emphasis differs.

Because content is similar, the smallest units of content ("details" or "facts" if you will) should be individually maintainable, sourced and tracked. Including such details into an article should be the task of someone with a point of view to service. This requires a good deal of technical engineering and thought, but I remain optimistic that it is workable.

Being preemptive is typically a bad idea. For example, removing images because they might not stand up to fair use doctrine scrutiny should be the last resort. In most cases, waiting until someone has a problem with the content should be preferred.

Curatorship should be embraced. Stephen Hawking's version of the page for Hydrogen should be embraced, as should the official U.S. Government version as should the armature astronomer version. Not only is the POV valuable, but the desire to curate and maintain these articles should be deeply encouraged. In some cases, this will lead to versions of Wikipedia being merely "blogs" but that's not a bad thing. It will also lead to the obsolescence of some Wikipedia sister projects (e.g. Wiktionary).