Widundancy

Not so long ago, I gave a scathing review of the Citizendium, Wikipedia-co-founder Larry Sangers expert-guided alternative. I still don’t believe in the project, but I’ve given quite a bit of thought as to why I don’t believe in it.

I love Wikipedia. Everything about it, even how Wikipedia refuses to censor images of Muhammed in the face of very angry people. I genuinely believe that with Wikipedia, we have a shot at bringing enlightenment to the world in a sweeping, world-changing way. In fact, I love Wikipedia so much that whenever someone tries to challenge the project, I’m immediately skeptical and negative towards the would-be usurpers. Then again, I occasionally visit both Wookieepedia and Memory Alpha, the Star Wars and Star Trek wikis. There simply exists content that doesn’t fit into an encyclopedia, content that, instead fits into either of the aforementioned wikis. Irony. Flip-flopping. Hypocrisy. I should know better.

Wikipedia is not the be-all, end-all wiki. It’s certainly a good shot at an end-all online-encyclopedia. It’s quite possibly even the best thing to happen to the Internet since Al Gore. But it will never have room for a dedicated article on Anbo-jyutsu. Clearly, we need places like Memory Alpha and Wookieepedia.

But seriously.

Redundancy is everywhere. It’s evident in movies, music, books, wikis, cars, governments, ideas and toilets. Possibly more things. Redundancy is here to stay: why not embrace it? The wiki is just a tool that can be used to edit pages collectively, usually in a meritocracy. The result, in my experience, is a better quality of pages, and a depth of content not seen in many other website setups.

Wikipedia is a wiki, but it’s an encyclopedia first. You can’t browse Wikipedia without encountering a myriad of badges and boilerplates: “Article may contain original research”, “Citation needed”, “Neutrality disputed”. These badges are inventions of Wikipedia, the purpose being to ensure that people work towards encyclopedic content. Rules are in place, and there is a very definite and accurate definition of what Wikipedia is not. Sadly (or not?), Anbo-jyutsu doesn’t make that cut. Incidentally, that leaves room for Wookieepedia and Memory Alpha. And Citizendium?

There’s the matter of community support. Clearly, Star * cultural phenomenons can garner dedicated followers yearning for text written in the realm that exists outside the limits of an encyclopedia. But what exactly, short of being pop culture, does it require for a wiki to gain a following? Does it need a poetic raison d’etre? A design that doesn’t look exactly like Wikipedias? Maybe it just needs a critical mass of content indexed by Google to get the proverbial Sisyphean rock to the top of the mountain? Maybe people that aren’t part of our little Club of the Initiated won’t care whether the content comes from Wookieepedia, Wikipedia or even Citizendium, as long as it holds answers to their questions.

Maybe the real problem isn’t that of wiki reduncancy. Maybe the problem is Wikipedias: how do we keep ourselves encyclopedic?

3 thoughts on “Widundancy”

  1. David Gerard says:

    The main difference between Wikipedia and the specialist wikis like Memory Alpha is what’s acceptable in sourcing. English Wikipedia fairly early on adopted the rule “No original research” to keep physics cranks at bay, but it turns out that’s a succinct way to ensure some sort of verifiability for content. Other Wikipedias, particularly tiny ones, may be looser on this rule, and Memory Alpha will presumably allow whatever can be sourced to a particular piece of Star Trek fiction. Other specialist wikis may welcome original research in a suitable way.

    Citizendium is not like the specialist wikis – it’s a different project to achieve a similar end. That said, there’s got to be more than one way to do this – every different language Wikipedia is a separate project with a separate community, who will be approaching the goal of “write an encyclopedia” with different tiny decisions. A comparison may be free Unix-like operating systems – we have Linux, it’s popular, we don’t need FreeBSD and OpenBSD and OpenSolaris and so forth, but there’s more than one way to do all manner of things and it’s useful and important to try them. Citizendium is getting much more toward being itself than “not-Wikipedia”, and it’s small but has an active community and is ticking along quite nicely and writing some good stuff. Different open source or open content projects in a given area aren’t a problem, but good for generating new ideas and new approaches.

  2. Tristan says:

    Like in the economy, I think competition between similar products or services can only lead to making them better. All the Wikis will compete for users (who are their editors and content procurers) and the better communities will win the game, get more support, and end up succeeding (or getting closer anyway). The rest may serve their purpose for a different smaller population (like Wookieepedia and Memory Alpha you mentioned) or they may just die out never having reached that critical mass necessary to be useful to the general population.

    I like David’s comparison to Linux/Unix variants–some are very popular, like Ubuntu, some are popular in smaller circles (all the big names, FreeBSD, OpenSolaris, Fedora, Suse, Gentoo, etc.), and there are literally thousands of smaller packages that fill a niche gap or that are just redundant. But is that bad? No, not necessarily. When Ubuntu first entered the scene I thought “oh, great, another Linux distro,” but since then they’ve grown so much that they’re actually the closest Linux has ever been to a consistent desktop experience, and probably the best chance yet at popularizing the use of Linux. Pretty cool.

    Same goes for business–you’ve got thousands of companies that all do the same thing. Look at all the Web 2.0 startups. Twitter vs. Pownce, for example. Why have both? Why have AMD and Intel? Why have ATI and nVidia? Why Zenphoto and Gallery2 and Coppermine? Aren’t they just redundant? 😉

  3. Tristan says:

    (Passed my edit time limit… so continuing here) But, to answer your question, maybe keeping things encyclopedic isn’t always the answer. If it’s what people want, and what the community wants, then “encyclopedic” will win, but if someone comes up with a Wiki that’s non-encyclopedic that gives some kind of value, that can have a place as well. But if a Wiki is meant to be an encyclopedia, then the community can easily control that, as we’ve seen with Wikipedia.

    And regarding Citizendium, I don’t believe in it either. I think they’re missing the point of Wikipedia and why it works–the low barrier to entry allows for some amazing results from the long tail–the 95% of users who edit one or two articles a month, or less, but still contribute a great deal to the project because there are so many of them. Citizendium basically takes them out of the picture and gives a lot less people a lot more responsibility to know a lot more stuff, which doesn’t make much sense to me. It’s possible, but it won’t be as easy as Wikipedia was, and I still think that Wikipedia had the model right to begin with. But, let the competition determine the outcome, that’s what I think is great about redundancy.

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