Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Wikipedia is not a cesspool of poison-penned libelists. It is not a tabloid. Should they chance upon vandalism, most people will be smart enough to figure out that "alex smith = gay!" isn't the fourth step of the Krebs cycle.

But Wikipedia does have a problem (well, a few) : while bushels of isolated facts stick to an article like bugs to flypaper, the regular wear and tear of wiki life (revert wars, adding detail, etc.) tends to atrophy an article's readability until, like beach footprints, it's reduced to a barely-differentiated indent. (Well, not an indent. I should stop being so metaphorical.)

Articles that have the most frequent edits are the ones most likely to suffer. (In a cruel twist of fate, these tend to be articles that are (or were) the best -- once an article passes a certain quality threshold, it draws visitors from all over.)

If you've been editing wikipedia long enough (and I have) it's a familiar feeling: you go through an article, nipping and tucking until it's brilliant and clear and readable, then you check back 3 months later and it's descended back into the fog.

So what to do?

Stable Pages

There's been a lot of talk about stable versions lately. They'll probably be implemented soon, which is a good thing. Here's how they work:

The very best wikipedia articles are doubled up: one version remains in the Standard Wikipedia, subject to immediate edits by whomever, and the other is preserved, temporarily, under glass, viewable but not editable. This preserved version is updated all at once, periodically.

As someone in the mailing list put it: as long as we're forever pushing the boulder up the hill, why not put a wedge behind it once in awhile?

One of the more important functions of a stable page will be serve as a label for the temporary high water mark -- instead of having to dive back into the history to see whether an article's gotten worse since being featured on the front page, you just have to compare the live and stable versions side-by-side. And there's a definite, well-defined goal for each page, a version number (as it were): Good changes can be periodically reincorporated en mass when the stable page is updated.

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