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Eric: A Modest Webcomics Proposal, that doesn't involve eating babies. *pause* It's a Jonathan Swift reference. Honest.

More and more, when I need fast information on a topic, I turn to Wikipedia. I like Wikipedia. I like the concept behind Wikipedia. I like the open source methodology of Wikipedia. Me like Wiki.

For those who don't know, Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia that anyone -- anyone -- can edit and write for, as easily as they click on hotlinks. As a result, esoteric subject matter can get in-depth coverage thanks to the Web's ability to create support groups for anything, erroneous information can be corrected in a robust way, and obsolescence is fought by the power of dynamic realtime corrections. This is an amazing resource and an amazing tool, and I'm a big big fan of it.

I don't think Wikipedia is a replacement for traditional encyclopedias yet, mind. I've read all the debates and comparisons between Wikipedia and, say, Britannica.com. I know the theories that make Wikipedia stronger than the old school editorially-driven encyclopedia model (as a fast review, the theory is that with many thousands of eyes watching Wikipedia, erroneous information will be corrected much faster and more completely than with the top-down editorial model of a traditional encyclopedia), and I think in the end they'll prove conclusive, but they're not there yet. Like many other people, I tried the "Wikipedia Challenge" that proponents have been shouting at those people who say "but if anyone can edit the entries, they'll throw in a lot of bias or false information." That challenge, in short, is "pick any 1/2/5/10 pages in Wikipedia, insert false information, and see how long it takes for it to be corrected." The subchallenge is "take any three topics and compare the Britannica's entries to Wikipedia's and see what's better and more complete.

Nine times out of ten, the information is corrected in record time... because nine times out of ten, the corrector picks subjects he knows a lot about, which (given the nature of the Web and the sort of person attracted to Wikipedia) tends to be a subject geeks like you or I hold near and dear to our hearts, and therefore receive huge corrections in nothing flat. Thesis proven.

Except, of course, this is the web, and computer geeks/open source proponents/anime fans/the like thrive on it. If you insert errors into entries on Ethernet, Sakura Cardcaptors, Sluggy Freelance and Libertarianism, you're damn right they'll be noticed and corrected in no time. People online live these topics. This also tends to color the subchallenge. A very typical subchallenge was found in a Freedom to Tinker post Edward Felton did, comparing six different entries in the Britannica and in Wikipedia. Wikipedia came out very very well in these entries, which sounds really good until you realize the entries were: Princeton University (which would have a large body of computer literate people interested in it), Princeton Township (which is a legitimate advantage to Wikipedia, IMO), Edward Felton himself (frankly, I don't expect to see an Eric A. Burns entry in either source, but I recognize it'd be a Hell of a lot easier to get into Wiki than the Britiannica. I'll give that a nod, though), Virtual Memory, Public-key Cryptography, and the Microsoft Antitrust Case.

Honestly, the only decent test in the above are the Princeton pieces, and I'll admit freely they did well. But a computer proponent with a web presence, a hardware/software specification, a method of encrypting information particularly over computers, and the war against Microsoft are undoubtedly playing to Wikipedia's strengths. It's like claiming the Catholic Encyclopedia is superior to Funk and Wagnell's because it has better information about the Saints in it.

For my own test, I made a couple of modifications to the entry on Fort Kent, Maine -- my hometown, which I know quite a bit about, and none of the rest of you have ever even heard of. To me, this was a more robust test. Fort Kent is an obscure topic, but has a couple of historical notes that make it possible someone would want information on it (including three tourist attractions, an Olympic Training Center involving the twin Northern Maine passions of guns and snow, a dogsled race, the northernmost terminus of U.S. Route One, and a War we once "fought" with Canada. Yes, we were in a War with Canada. No, no one got hurt). I think Fort Kent is a better test than Princeton because it's much more obscure -- few people have a driving reason to care about it unless they live there or lived there, as I did.

Well, the Britannica Entry was significantly better and more fleshed out than the Wikipedia entry. I did quite a bit to correct that, though, using Wikipedia's innate power to flesh out entries. I put in information about the Historic Landmark in town (the Blockhouse), the Biathlon training center, the Can-Am dogsled race, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the "Bloodless Aroostook War" (Wikipedia has a good entry on the Aroostook War, I should mention), the textile industry, the potato farming industry, MBNA's recent call center (which essentially saved the town, I should add), and the shipbuilding industry.

Did you see the intentional error put into the above? Here's a hint -- Fort Kent is on the Northernmost Tip of Maine. It's significantly farther away from the ocean than Albany, New York. Hear of any ships being built in Albany, recently?

No, no one caught the error. I waited two weeks, and corrected it myself. Thereby "proving" that Wikipedia isn't perfect yet. The other significant issue it's facing, from where I sit, is the area where two strong opinions, neither of them "wrong," duke it out for supremacy in an entry. The Lyndon LaRouche editorial discussion showed to distinction the ways in which diametrically opposed viewpoints can clash. (Snowspinner, you have my eternal respect, just so you know -- I was following this debate as a lurker before you ever commented on Websnark).

But to be honest, these issues aren't dealbreakers. If you go into Wikipedia with your eyes open, it is one of if not the most powerful, most potentially significant tools being built on the web. It's one of those things that couldn't possibly exist without an Internet, and it's one of those things that not only uses the web's strengths to good advantage, but also doesn't bog down with meaningless kipple. There's no Flash animation or needless frames on Wikipedia -- just information and lots of it, and an easy chance for you to make a difference.

And that brings me, all these words later, to lay this here proposal on you, the Websnark audience. I hope it's a proposal that will spread far beyond these borders, because I think it could be of tremendous benefit to the webcomics community as a whole:

I think every webcomic with more than 100 strips worth of archives on the web should have an entry in Wikipedia, and I think the Webcartoonist should not be the person writing the entry.

The reasons are simple -- Wikipedia is capable of storing and presenting vast amounts of information. That information is of particular benefit to the webusing public. The consumers of webcomics by their definition are the webusing public, and Wikipedia becomes an obvious resource that they could fall back on for information on their strips. There is a clear convergence of population and, leveraged properly, a clear opportunity for both Webartists and for Wikipedia itself.

For the webcartoonist, a Wikipedia entry becomes a convenient location for hard information about the strip, the main characters, and the like. If you need a good example of how this can be effective, have a look at the Megatokyo entry. As you know, one of my issues with Megatokyo is its density of story (what I call the "Megatokyo for Dummies" effect) and its lack of a cast page (despite a very involved cast). Well, both of these are addressed here, along with a good discussion of what Megatokyo is and what it is not, a summary of some of the complaints people have with the webcomic, and a summary of what people truly love about it. A link on Megatokyo's front page to this entry would go a long way to correcting some of the areas it's weaker in, and the effort needed on Gallagher's part would be minimal.

Note, by the way, that someone actually wrote a more in-depth entry on Tohya Miho, which is just plain silly. Unless a character is so universal that it becomes ubiquitous outside of its source work, it doesn't need more than the article itself could provide. On the other hand, that's an opinion on my part.

The Webcartoonist shouldn't write his own entry because he's not going to have the proper distance from his own work to properly describe it for an encyclopedia entry. He may include thematic elements and future revelations that one day might be made clear, but simply aren't in the work as it stands, thereby confusing the issue. By putting out a call to his fandom, however, and finding someone who can spearhead the creation of the entry, the Webcartoonist can get the ball rolling and, with a little work, get his dedicated fanbase working on updating and correcting the entry over time. This is also why I say 100 strips, though one could also limit the entry by amount of time worked on the strip. If you have twelve strips on the internet, and "big big plans" past that, you're not at the point where an encyclopedia entry can do you any good. Wait until you've got enough to talk about before you unleash your fanbase.

Wikipedia benefits by many additional links to the Encyclopedia, of course. The more links in (to articles of interest to the readers), the more likely Wikipedia becomes a first reference for other matters and materials, which in turn means more eyes looking at the content, which leads to more editors, more corrections, more content being generated... it's all good.

Please note, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a collection of fan pages. While there is always bias in an entry, whoever writes a given Webcomic's entry should strive to be as objective as possible. Don't feel you have to be all intellectual, but you should be concise and factual. If enough people are drawn to the entry, the more intellectual stuff will come with time all on its own.

In my perfect world, these entries would have a short description of the premise, a light discussion on technique and classification, a list of the primary characters, a list of the secondary characters, and a very, very short synopsis of major events. The last bit, oddly enough, is the least important -- this isn't Cliff's Notes (or [Webcomic] for Dummies). If someone wants to know what happened in the webcomic, they should read the webcomic. But this would provide a good grounding in who the characters are and what, in general, is going on, with the potential to grow into a detailed critical analysis over time and with effort.

And that can only be to the good.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at November 1, 2004 10:53 AM


Comment from: Snowspinner posted at November 1, 2004 12:24 PM

First of all, I'll go ahead and risk my eternal respect by glowering at you for the Wikipedia challenge, which I tend to feel is in poor taste (to say nothing of against the Wikipedia policies).

That said, this is a great idea. A bit later today, I'll try to get a Wikiproject set up for this so that people can coordinate their efforts.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 1, 2004 12:28 PM

You can feel free to glower at me, Snowspinner. Part of the reason I went so obscure was to minimize harm. But the "wikipedia challenge" has been spread around way beyond me, and honestly every example of it I'd seen had played to Wiki's strengths. I'm not saying it was a good thing to do, just that it was done, and these were the results.

In the end, what would be healthiest for Wikipedia is moving away from "here's how we're better than traditional encyclopedias," and towards "here's how we rock!" Because that's incontrovertible, in my opinion.

And thanks for the Wikiproject!

Comment from: Snowspinner posted at November 1, 2004 12:56 PM

I don't disagree with you on that - I think there are ways that Wikipedia can't hope to compete with Britanica. Their editorial board will probably always have more academic credibility than ours. They will probably always produce more jobs than we do. They will always look nicer on a bookshelf.

But yes, I'm in no way convinced that the lack of credentialed peer review is a good thing for Wikipedia. It's a mixed blessing. It lets us have articles on webcomics probably a decade or two before Britannica will. It also means that our article on Fort Kent is more vulnerable to misinformation. As are, actually, our articles on some of the more obscure webcomics. So it goes.

In any case, I went ahead and did the Wikiproject early, because I have to get back to grad school work and this novel I'm supposedly writing this month. It's at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikiproject_Webcomics. Enjoy it. :)

Comment from: Eric the .5b posted at November 1, 2004 6:49 PM

I feel the need to faintly demur from your proposal. There are lots of topics that Wikipedia is weak on - as have been pointed out in a numbers of forums, a wide variety of topics not in the forefront of white-male-geek minds.

I know this place is about webcomics, and I for one am all about "do what seems important and interesting to you", and I'm sure as hell a whitish-male-geek. But...I have to think that if one wants to improve the Wikipedia, it might be better to try to get more people involved in adding and expanding entries on things currently given short shrift, instead of yet another few hundred well-detailed pages on geek interests.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 2, 2004 2:40 AM

Eric .5b: I'm not thinking these entries will "improve" Wikipedia, so much as draw more people to Wikipedia, get more people involved with Wikipedia, and the like.

On the other hand, I think these entries will be an extremely positive thing for the Webcomics community, and quite honestly that's why I proposed it.

Snowspinner: I honestly think that Wikipedia will eclipse the Britannica in use and functionality, as it matures. Britannica will (likely) never disappear, but it's never going to play to the web's strengths the way Wikipedia can.

Comment from: Kate Sith posted at November 2, 2004 5:57 PM


Comment from: Kate Sith posted at November 2, 2004 5:59 PM

(eep! It doesn't like carats, does it.)

I [heart] Jonathan Swift.

Comment from: cartoonlad posted at November 7, 2004 12:41 AM

One of my readers put up a Wikipedia page for PE(aott) and already it's being voted on for deletion because the site it's on isn't in the top 100,000 sites in Alexa. I find this an odd way to decide that a comic that has over six hundred strips in it's archives, is an active member of The Nice, and has been published online and off for five years now isn't worthy of being included in the wikipedia. I only say this because there doesn't seem to be an arbitrary cut off for, oh, town entries. For example, Bisbee, South Dakota, a town of 167 people, has its own page. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisbee%2C_North_Dakota

Now, I don't really care if PE(aott) is listed in the wikipedia or not. It just seems odd that an established comic strip is excluded from this free encyclopedia while a town that is comprised of 39 people isn't.

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