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 Editthis.info 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 a broad context, and easing the reader into the subject.

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.

For instance, Wikipedia's page on normal subgroup begins as follows:

In abstract algebra, a normal subgroup is a subgroup ...

The initial In abstract algebra phrase is needed to set a context. A similar phrase is not employed in the group properties wiki definition of normal subgroup.

Specific organizational paradigms

Each subject wiki uses a number of organizational paradigms specifically suited for the needs of the subject matter, though general ideas of the type-based paradigm, property-theoretic paradigm, and relational paradigm are shared by a number of subject wikis. Even these general paradigms, however, require a cohesive and reasonably narrow subject matter domain.

The paradigms on subject wikis guide the use of semantic information and category information, and allow for specific automatically generated information (for instance, automatically listing examples related to a fact, or properties between two given properties). These paradigms are also responsible for very similar article structures for articles of the same type, but the article structures differ quite a bit for articles of different types. Once again, it is the focus on a narrow subject domain that permits the use of reasonably standard templates for articles of a given type.

No similar organizational paradigms are used on Wikipedia.

Differences in goals and policies

General-purpose versus specific-purpose

Wikipedia calls itself the free encyclopaedia that anybody can edit(Wikipedia Main Page). It plans to be an encyclopaedia of everything with a let's all get together and do it attitude. Of course, much of the structure and organization of the wiki is determined by a small core group, but much of the activity is also carried out by the large mass of ordinary users.

While the aim of Wikipedia is to be a general-purpose encyclopaedia, the subject wikis aim to be neither general-purpose nor encyclopedic. Rather, it aims to cover a very specific area of mathematics in a particular fashion.

What deserves an article

As mentioned above, each subject wiki has a clear notion of what deserves an article, which tends to mean that there are in general lots of articles. The policy on subject wikis (within the framework of material relevant to the subject) is more in line with, though hardly the same as, the separatism policy that some Wikipedians believe in, as opposed to the mergism policy that seems to be the more accepted one in Wikipedia, as it stands today.

Neutral point of view

Wikipedia claims to adhere to a neutral point of view policy, which basically means that all views are represented fairly, and are attributed to their adherents. Individual subject wikis follow no such policy. In fact, they usually represent definite and distinctive points of view, in terms of the choices made on how to structure individual articles and how to shape organizational paradigms for the subject wiki.

Original research policies

Wikipedia has an explicit ban on original research, with a clear emphasis that whatever is put should be from verifiable sources.

As a general rule, subject wikis does not require all articles to cite sources. Rather, we first try to get the definition and the facts there, and gradually fill in the best references for those facts.