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The goal of subject wikis

Having described the history of subject wikis in a previous post, I can now get to describing what I consider the ultimate goal, mission, and vision, of subject wikis.

This is emphatically not my first attempt at formulating a general goal for subject wikis. In March 2008, shortly before I booked the domain and moved the wikis, I brainstormed myself about subject wikis. I came up with a long and enthusiastic statement of purpose for the subject wikis. This was on paper, while I was waiting for an appearance by Bill Gates. later, I refined these ideas and wrote up a short private file describing the mission. Since then, I thought considerably, but somehow, didn’t get around to posting the mission statement publicly.

Prior to the general development of subject wikis, I had composed separate pages on Groupprops comparing Groupprops against other online math resources: Groupprops versus Wikipedia, Groupprops versus Mathworld, and Groupprops versus Planetmath. In addition, I had also written up a purpose statement and a what makes us special page. These pages are still present and haven’t been replaced by more generic pages on the subject wikis framework, largely because my new expanded insights are not mature enough yet. (After I’m done with this blog post, I might find them mature enough).

My basic description of the goal is as follows: I want to appeal to two fundamental attributes of people. These are curiosity, which makes them ask questions and seek answers, and laziness (or, more politely, thriftiness and economy), which makes them seek to minimize the effort they put in to get answers. I want to provide a knowledge resource that caters to people’s curiosity two-fold: it answers their immediate questions, but opens the fount further by raising several more questions and stimulating them further. At the same time I want to appeal to their laziness by providing everything: all the resources, all the details, and a big picture at the same time, while simultaneously giving them information on how they can get answers even faster.

Curiosity and laziness. Satisfaction and stimulation. Satisfy the user’s curiosity, stimulating it further. Satisfy the person’s desire for laziness and economy, and stimulate the person’s interest in learning quicker and more efficient ways to learn.

I first formulated this goal explicitly in March 2008. This explicit formulation led to many changes in the way I worked on the subject wikis. I realized, for instance, that if people are to be encouraged to explore with their given level of laziness, they need to be given easy options. This led me to create the careful text box quotations at the top that link to related articles in a systematic fashion. People, following their curiosity and using the easy links out of laziness, would soon “learn” the pattern of organization and develop a deeper intuition. See, for instance, an entry such as characteristic subgroup, where the boxes at the top provide many useful links. I also realized that working on good and easy-to-use, inviting overall organization was important.

Satisfying and stimulating curiosity and laziness does not completely define subject wikis. (In fact, the motto is so generic it could apply to anything such as food, sex, news, or entertainment). Rather, there is something more that describes subject wikis. These are fundamentally user-driven tools. By this, I mean that the path of exploration is chosen entirely by the user, at the user’s will, at any time and in any manner of the user’s choosing. For this, the tool itself should be available all the time, easy to locate, reliable both in terms of content and presentation, and helpful but not intrusive.

Some of the specific principles derived from this include: a high level of modularization with articles as the basic units combined with pinpoint referencing: it is easy and quick to get an answer to a specific question. Each topic has its separate article, achieving a high level of granularity and modularity. Pinpoint referencing is achieved by canonical naming (the name of a page on a topic is precisely that topic), good redirection and disambiguation, excellent search features, and good-quality categorization. Another principle is strong internal linking: pages are linked to closely related pages in a way that symbolizes and explains the manner of the relationship. This allows for easier location of new facts, stimulation of curiosity, and expansion of knowledge. Yet another principle is standardization: standardization of page format for similar pages, leading to predictability and reliability. A principle that is important and not obvious is genericity: individual subject wiki pages should largely make sense as independent entry points into the wiki, so that people coming from outside can go straight there. While they should link to other subject wiki entries, they should not be dependent on them in a strong sense. Most important, there should be no forced sequencing of the entries as in a textbook, where future entries depend on earlier ones.

The genericity is described by the different between building a road network and a bus system. A road network serves all directions — it allows for a plethora of routes that users can choose, whether by foot or car or bus. On top of this, a bus route system can be introduced — this route system operates buses along specific routes, and people who want to go along those routes can take the buses. However, the robust and generic road network allows people to freely choose other routes. This is the core of the idea of being user-driven: the users choose their direction.

Ultimately, this genericity, combined with the ease of use that comes from modularity and pinpoint, can make subject wikis a useful starting point for learning, research and exploration, stimulating and satisfying curiosity, and its much-maligned cousin, laziness.

Before ending, I’d like to end with an illustrative anecdote. All too often, it happens that in the middle of a mathematical discussion, one of the persons takes out his or her IPhone or goes to his or her laptop and checks up the Wikipedia entry. This is usually better than nothing, but Wikipedia doesn’t usually stimulate the conversation in the sense of vetting and further stimulating the curiosity of the curious people while answering their immediate questions. I think of each such occasion as an opportunity partly lost.

Nearly a year ago, two friends of mine were enjoying the University’s Happy Hour and talking about some math when they wondered how exactly the Artin-Tate lemma (a result in commutative algebra) is proven. They were having difficulty reconstructing some point in the proof. Well, one of my friends had an IPhone, and he whipped it out, did a Google Search, and landed at the Commalg entry (actually, they landed at the entry on the old version at Wiki-site, which still seems to be the top entry on a Google Search). Reading this entry helped them fill in the gap. The goal of subject wikis is to do this on a substantially wider scale, daring people to be more curious and ask more questions with the confidence that the answer, along with rewards in the form of more knowledge and more questions, are just a mouse click away.