Subwiki:Subwiki versus Wikipedia

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This page discusses some important differences between subject wikis and Wikipedia.

About Wikipedia and similarities between subject wikis and Wikipedia

Quick introduction

For many people using the Internet, "Wikipedia" is synonymous with "wiki" and also with the general appearance of a Wikipedia page. Thus, a lot of users who come to subject wiki pages simply think they have come to Wikipedia or some offshoot of Wikipedia.

Before proceeding, it is important to clarify some distinctions. "Wikipedia" is a specific wiki-based multilingual encyclopedia (since you're reading this, you have probably used the English-language version and possibly many other language versions). Each language Wikipedia can be viewed as a separate encyclopedia aiming to cover the entire range of encyclopedia-worthy knowledge. All the Wikipedias use a certain software called MediaWiki, which can be downloaded here. This software can also be used by other sister wikis to Wikipedia, such as Wikisource, wikis independent of Wikipedia, such as those hosted at Wikia or Wiki-site or or independent wikis such as Wikitravel, Wikileaks or SourceWatch.

Just because different wikis use the same underlying software and thus often have similar page layouts does not mean that they host similar content or are organized similarly. The differences between different wikis could be as small as the difference between different newspapers or as large as the difference between a newspaper and an academic journal.

(To confuse matters further, MediaWiki is not the only software used to power wikis. You can see a fairly long list at the wiki software page or the comparison of wiki software page on Wikipedia. One example is PmWiki.)

Distinctive features of Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a wiki-based encyclopedia. Both the choice of content and organization of content reflect the goal of being an encyclopedia. Specifically, pages on topics in Wikipedia have to meet criteria of notability and facts in these pages must meet criteria of verifiability. There are also guidelines against putting original research on Wikipedia, reflecting the fact that encyclopedias are secondary and tertiary sources of knowledge rather than primary sources.

Two related reasons for the use of MediaWiki or similar software to maintain linked content

There are many reasons for choosing MediaWiki to organize, store, and maintain linked content on the web, but we focus here on two of them:

  • The organizational advantage, which is the advantage of being able to maintain and organize a large amount of related content and the way the pieces of the content are interrelated.
  • The collaboration advantage, which is the idea that the content can be edited collaboratively by large numbers of people.

These are both related. The organizational advantage includes significant modularization, which allows different people to edit different pieces, making collaboration easier. Similarly, more collaboration helps with more organization.

However, it is important to note that these two kinds of advantages, though related, are distinct. Further, some projects use MediaWiki or other wiki software primarily for the collaborative advantage -- the fact that large numbers of people can edit the same page, create new pages, etc. Here, wikis compete with mailing lists, discussion forums, and blog discussion threads. They have their advantages and disadvantages in these respects. Some of the earliest wikis, including Ward Cunningham's WikiWikiWeb and MeatBallWiki were focused on carrying out such discussions as a process to create new ideas.

Other projects use MediaWiki primarily for the organizational advantage. In some of these cases, the greater ease of collaboration is crucial but still instrumental and not the final goal. In others, large-scale collaboration may be desirable but not crucial, and in yet others, large-scale collaboration may not be desirable. For instance, in the case of Wikipedia, the reason for using MediaWiki was to create a better-organized encyclopedia by combining the ease of organizing with the possibility of large-scale collaboration. Something similar is true for Wikitravel.

The extent to which large-scale collaboration is crucial to the success of something like Wikipedia, and whether the collaborative process as it has currently developed on Wikipedia is intrinsic to its mission, are moot points.

The key differences between subject wikis and Wikipedia

First impressions

Wikipedia pages are typically designed well for accidental landing -- landing by people who aren't familiar with the topic and landed there by accident following links. In particular, Wikipedia pages start by setting the outermost context, then setting a further inner context, then setting a further inner context, and so on.

Subject wiki pages are designed for people who have some familiarity with the topic area, so less effort is spent at the beginning of the page clarifying the general background.