Wikipedia and Other Wikis

Network effects & benefits of gritting one’s teeth & submitting to a Wikipedia’s rules, rather than using Wikia or one’s own site.
Wikipedia, technology, design
2009-01-272012-05-12 finished certainty: highly likely importance: 7


“You also raise an inter­est­ing point about spe­cial­ized wikis. Don’t they rep­re­sent a threat to the mass-­mar­ket Wikipedia? In other words, as power Wikipedi­ans divert their atten­tion to the spe­cial­ized wik­is, this reduces the atten­tion paid to the main site.”1

As Wikipedia takes a dele­tion­ist turn, mov­ing con­tent and con­trib­u­tors to spe­cial­ized wikis cer­tainly does seem like an attrac­tive move. If Wikipedia (WP) does­n’t appre­ci­ate you, take your efforts to a wiki which will! And if you start your own, you can be Admin­is­tra­tor, Bureau­crat, Stew­ard, and pol­icy writer all rolled up in one. But this is a rosy dream for most.

The fun­da­men­tal fact is: Spe­cial­ized wikis can com­pete effec­tively with WP, but only if the WP let them. It is WP’s game to lose. The other wiki can win if cer­tain con­di­tions con­trolled by WP are cleared.

The advantages

The advan­tages of doing all your work on WP should­n’t be under­es­ti­mat­ed: access to a large pool of com­pe­tent edi­tors, with low tran­si­tion costs - for exam­ple, it would be free for me to switch from work­ing on, say, medieval his­tory arti­cles to work­ing on Star Wars arti­cles, because the meth­ods, orga­ni­za­tion, tem­plates, cus­toms and so on are mostly iden­ti­cal; because my account and rep­u­ta­tion fol­low me there; because all my cus­tomiza­tions and per­sonal tools like cus­tom JavaScript or text edi­tors will be equally applic­a­ble in the new area, and so on.

This is not true if the medieval arti­cles and Star Wars arti­cle are on entirely sep­a­rate wikis. A skilled WP edi­tor switched to another wiki will flail around: why is Medi­aWiki act­ing this way, where did that option go, who on earth approved these pic­tures, and how do I get the table of con­tents back?

There are also net­work effects to con­sider - pretty much every arti­cle sooner or later needs to link out of its spe­cial­ized area to more gen­er­al­ist arti­cles. If the sep­a­rate wikis have inter­wiki link­ing set up, it isn’t all that much harder to link to arti­cles on other wikis than it is to link to an arti­cle on the home wiki, but that’s an eso­teric and not pop­u­larly well known fea­ture, and even at its best still adds fric­tion to the work. And there are many other sub­tler advan­tages hard to enu­mer­ate and appre­ci­ate until one works on a small & non-Wikipedia wiki.2

Necessary conditions

So the only way a spe­cial­ist wiki can sur­vive or thrive is if it is on a topic Wikipedia refuses to cov­er.

Examples

I was involved in the Star Wars area of the Eng­lish WP for a long time, and it did well, until it began to do too well: edi­tors from other areas saw the detail and pro­fu­sion of arti­cles in the SW area, and began mov­ing to trim them down dras­ti­cally and raise stan­dards for the sur­viv­ing arti­cles. In other words, WP in a very real & impor­tant sense just decided to stop car­ry­ing SW arti­cles.3

This rejec­tion prompted most of the hard­core SW edi­tors to fork and begin build­ing (a SW wiki hosted on Wikia) using the base of SW arti­cles from WP. Now their resource is so good that SW edit­ing is mostly dead on WP, with the excep­tion of a few edi­tors like Deckiller who focus on orga­niz­ing and remov­ing and improv­ing what’s left, and occa­sion­ally bor­row­ing arti­cles from Wook­ieepe­dia on the notable new or miss­ing stuff. A sim­i­lar exam­ple hap­pened on the Pol­ish Wikipedia with rail­road arti­cles4.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Wik­i­books works because the Wikipedias refuse to carry detailed ‘how to’ man­u­als and expos­i­tory works, but peo­ple want to work on text­books any­way. (They aren’t so good at fin­ish­ing them, though.)

In con­trast, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons does­n’t have the mind-bog­glingly vast col­lec­tion of media and users that it ought to have, because edi­tors can still upload every­thing to their Wikipedia - they haven’t been forced out to Com­mons5.

Potential wikis

Fre­quently in com­mu­ni­ties, I see pro­pos­als which go ‘let’s cre­ate our own Wikipedia about our favorite sub­ject, X!’ The pro­posers see clearly that there’s a body of knowl­edge which can be writ­ten down con­cisely and pol­ished as a stan­dard com­mu­ni­ty-wide ref­er­ence (like the old FAQs that Usenet groups would main­tain); but what they don’t see is that they are try­ing to com­pete directly with WP and are doomed. As the Zaw­in­ski quote about reg­exps goes, now the pro­posers have two prob­lems.

I saw this recently on Imminst.org, one of the largest com­mu­ni­ties devoted to dis­cus­sion of sup­ple­ments and sub­stances which enhance men­tal per­for­mance - since WP only cov­ers s to the extent that infor­ma­tion appears in peer-re­viewed stud­ies, they should start their own wiki and write bet­ter arti­cles. Such a pro­posal is pretty much doomed, although since nootrop­ics hob­by­ists (like myself; see my own ) are heav­ily aca­d­e­mic and techie-ori­ent­ed, such doom may be very slow and drawn out and waste a lot of effort before finally expir­ing.

So what should Imminst forum-­go­ers do? As above, they should cover what WP won’t. In this case, any Imminst wiki would at the begin­ning of each arti­cle point to WP’s arti­cle for all the impor­tant back­ground, and then imme­di­ately pro­ceed to non-RS or peer reviewed mate­ri­al: what does the mass of anec­dotes say this nootropic does, what nasty effects have peo­ple report­ed, where can one buy it and for how much, what does it syn­er­gize with (‘stack with’), what novel con­clu­sions have we drawn from the research lit­er­a­ture and gen­eral bio­log­i­cal novel (strin­gently banned on WP as ‘orig­i­nal research’), and so on. The instant any­one adds RS or peer review mate­ri­al, if pos­si­ble, it should be removed and inserted into the main WP arti­cle. If an Imminst wiki tried to write its own Wikipedia style, it dooms itself to writ­ing stale half-assed arti­cles which no one will read. (WP is so pop­u­lar that even highly niche areas can kept up to date by ran­dom anony­mous edi­tors with­out any reg­u­lar edi­tors spe­cial­iz­ing in the sub­ject area.)

As time pass­es, a cleav­age will develop - if you want back­ground infor­ma­tion, you go to Wikipedia; if you want in-depth and prac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion, you go to the Imminst wiki. This is a sus­tain­able and use­ful sit­u­a­tion.

Panspermia

To sum­ma­rize, if Wikipedia allows some­thing, the ben­e­fits of doing that some­thing on that Wikipedia are so com­pelling that rival wikis find it hard to com­pete and likely will with­er. But if WP cracks down on some­thing, then that crack­down some­times pro­vide a seed of con­tent for a new wiki to grow around and also a embry­onic com­mu­nity of edi­tors who want to work on that topic and have given up on doing so in WP.


  1. “Wikipedia Will Fail in Four Years”, by Eric Gold­man↩︎

  2. Who will main­tain the spam fil­ters? Will there be enough edi­tors to update all the arti­cles? Or enough to defeat trolls? Con­ser­va­pe­dia is famous for hav­ing true believ­ers edit­ing but also so many trolls and satirists that the for­mer might ought to con­sider it an abject fail­ure rather than a suc­cess.↩︎

  3. To give an idea of how wide­spread the purge was: under my orig­i­nal account, I had some­where around 6000 deleted edits; most of them were to Star Wars arti­cles.↩︎

  4. Marcin Cies­lak, 2012-03-06, “[Foun­da­tion-l] Pre-wikis vs. matur­ing Wikipedia: tak­ing away ded­i­cated edi­tors?”:

    I researched recently some mate­r­ial related to a recent cat­a­strophic event in Pol­ish rail­way his­tory and I found out that vol­un­teers who tra­di­tion­ally dealt with rail­way mat­ters on Pol­ish Wikipedia have vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared.

    I remem­ber that com­mu­nity being strong few years ago, and now we found out that even some basic infor­ma­tion about infra­struc­ture is left unchanged.

    Few peo­ple who still main­tain that stuff on the Pol­ish Wikipedia showed me that at least two other Medi­aWik­i-based projects have been started to fill the gap: [2][3] The lat­ter greets you even with a very nice shot of the rail­way junc­tion that was instru­men­tal in a recent rail­way crash.

    One of the projects got started by expe­ri­enced Wikipedia edi­tors. They still copy some of their con­tent to the Pol­ish Wikipedia, but only after it matures; I asked them about the rea­sons to go out­side of the Wikipedia and they said:

    • They have to do lots of orig­i­nal research; it is impos­si­ble to fol­low devel­op­ment of the rail­way infra­struc­ture and oper­a­tions using only high qual­ity pub­lished sources;

    • They got bit­ten a bit by the “nota­bil­ity” dis­cus­sions in their field; they want to doc­u­ment every track, every junc­tion and every loco­mo­tive and they are tired of dis­cussing how “notable” a par­tic­u­lar piece of rail­way equip­ment really is.

    I would have said it’s just a sin­gle case, but I’ve seen some suc­cess­ful web por­tals being launched by peo­ple inter­ested in his­to­ry; what is dif­fer­ent from many his­tory research and fan pages is that I’ve also seen some active mem­bers of Wikipedia com­mu­nity becom­ing more and more active on those inde­pen­dent sites.

    …In gen­er­al, I think this is noth­ing new. There are thou­sands of fan wikis on places like Wikia, where cer­tainly some con­trib­u­tors copy over some mature con­tent to Wikipedia, should licens­ing allow that.

    But maybe there is some trend that could prob­a­bly be bet­ter researched…

    ↩︎
  5. In part this is because dis­abling ‘local uploads’ entails for­bid­ding any use of ‘fair use’ pic­tures. When you con­sider the fact that the impor­tant pho­tos for 99.9% of inter­est­ing global events for approx­i­mately the last cen­tury can only be used under the fair use doc­trine, you begin to com­pre­hend what a loss in arti­cle qual­ity a dis­abling of local uploads would entail. Now, in the­ory one could keep local uploads enabled for fair use and force all the Free images over to Com­mons (prob­a­bly via an aggres­sive cam­paign of dele­tion-­tag­ging and auto­mated uploads to Com­mon­s), but the Cabals fear that this would lead to indis­crim­i­nate and legally dan­ger­ous overuse of fair use. So there are few prospects that this stale­mate will change any time soon on the Eng­lish WP.↩︎