This originated as my answer to a question on the Quora question and answer site: "In what general knowledge domains do alternatives to Wikipedia exist that are significantly superior?". Of course there are examples of much better specialist encyclopedias for various knowledge domains. But you can also do better than Wikipedia using content derived from Wikipedia itself. I think my own new wikis are an example of this, for a simple reason. Because we can fix various errors that can't be fixed there and add new content that can't be added there.
Probably many of you have heard of stories about people who try to fix errors in Wikipedia and are kept out by a few editors with fixed ideas who always reject their corrections. It's not hard to improve in topic areas where Wikipedia has many errors, significant material is ignored and deleted, and it's out of date. Sadly, that is happening in many areas of the vast encyclopedia, though much of it is still excellent.
I've divided this article into sections:
- Our new encyclopedias
- New skins, and cool features like embedded YouTube videos, and embedded zoomable Google maps with place markers
- Our encyclopedia of Buddhism doing well - with exponential growth over first year
- Want to have a go? Try Miraheze - they make it so easy (donation supported)
- Wikipedia's problem of attracting and keeping good editors
- What happened to me - how I got indef blocked for an article on one of NASA's top science objectives for Mars - the bizarre sanction processes of WP:ANIs
- Thanks to the editors who indef blocked me for the inspiration of these new encyclopedias
- Encyclopedia of Astrobiology - about the search for life outside of our planet Earth. Includes the possibility of present day and past life on Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and Titan, with the Venus upper atmosphere, Ceres and a few other places an outside possibility in our solar system.
- Microtonal Music wiki - about music that uses notes that fall between the keys of the Western twelve equal tuning system, instruments and tuning systems, and the people and cultures that use them.
- Doomsday debunked wiki - for people scared of fake and exaggerated doomsday scenarios such as the Clathrate gun hypothesis, - Megatsunami and Nibiru Cataclysm . It’s a companion wiki to our Doomsday Debunked Facebook support group to help these people, often very young, who are sometimes so scared they are suicidal.
- Encyclopedia of Buddhism - Explains the basic concepts of Buddhism in a manner that is of interest to both the general public and Buddhist practitioners, and respectfully and without bias presents the distinctions between the major traditions within Buddhism - set up by Dorje108 with me as co-admin.
They are actually based on the Wikipedia content (as we are permitted to do so long as we attribute them). But it’s just so hard sometimes to fix mistakes in Wikipedia. The reason is entirely social, the decision processes, and especially the sanctioning processes. I’m a good example here. After a decade of working in Wikipedia, normally trouble free, but every year or so running into trouble when I tried to fix something major - I suddenly and unexpectedly got indef blocked a couple of weeks ago. So I can't edit Wikipedia, and most of these encyclopedias actually arose as my response to that. More on that later.
So - why are these new encyclopedias better?
- Encyclopedia of Astrobiology - we can cover the search for Possible Present Day Habitats For Life On Mars. This is objective B of NASA's first science goal. Yet, wikipedia editors who are about a decade out of date delete nearly all material on this topic from Wikipedia. Whether these habitats exist and are habitable and inhabited is one of the major questions of our day in Astrobiology. If anyone searches for those topics, perhaps after listening to the latest NASA press conference on a recent discovery, they will find nothing in Wikipedia - it doesn't even appear in the search results. Because the material has been deleted.
- Microtonal Music wiki - there are several microtonal theorists that the microtonal composers, musicians and other theorists recognizes as being authoritative, careful, thorough, but they don’t publish in academic journals. Wikipedia editors don’t recognize most of the work of these modern experts as sources. Editing it ourselves, we know who are the good sources and can rely on those without having to explain to others, for instance why the Erv Wilson archives are regarded as authoritative on many tuning systems used by modern microtonal composers such as combination product sets, moments of symmetry, the scale tree and golden horograms, or why we regard anything written by Margo Schulter as authoritative on early microtonal music, or by Paul Erlich on his theory of Harmonic Entropy or by the professional mathematician Gene Ward Smith on the higher mathematics and algebra of tuning theory, and so on
We can also ask experts on the topic of an article to vet it, and make sure it is accurate. For instance the article on the early microtonal synthesizer, the the Motorola Scalatron is vetted by George Secor, who invented and designed its microtonal keyboard, and the article on the Sagittal notation, for microtonal music scores is vetted by one of its authors Dave Keenan.
- Doomsday debunked wiki - we can immediately fix errors in Wikipedia articles and update them e.g. our updated version of the Clathrate gun hypothesis article to include the latest results review of the hypothesis by the USGS and the IPCC and the new 2018 research by the Arctic clathrates research group CAGE. I did this so that I can have fixed versions of the articles to share with scared members of the group - but being more accurate it's possible they can go above Wikipedia eventually in the search results too. This is my list of things to fix in the article, back when I could still edit Wikipedia. I have done all those fixes and more in the new version. The Wikipedia article remains unfixed.
- Encyclopedia of Buddhism - we can use Buddhists scholars, including Buddhist monks and nuns as our main sources on what Buddhists believe. Dorej108 and I were astonished that this is even a question for the other editors there. Having to justify quoting from one of the many books by the Dalai Lama, when their value is questioned on the basis that he is a Buddhist and a monk‽!
You may not know, but the Dalai Lama is regarded as a highly qualified Tibetan scholar by Tibetans - he got his Geshe Lharampa higher degree with honours aged only 23. This normally requires 16 years of study. Also, unusually, he is fully qualified in all four of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
There are many other great sources like that, a Therevadhan example would be Walpola Rahula, author of “What the Buddha Taught”.
Removing this material had a startling effect on the content. After those rewrites in 2015, for a Buddhist, it was like a Christian coming in and re-reading an article only to see that all mentions of the resurrection of Jesus have been removed on the basis that it’s only Christians who believe in this, and that the articles should reflect views on Christianity and the life of Jesus by non Christians. Non Buddhists may not notice as you don’t know what the central ideas are, such as the Four Noble Truths, one of the central ideas in Buddhism and the topic of Buddha's first teaching after his awakening to full enlightenment, to the five ascetics.
There are many small encyclopedias of course now, some editable by the general public, some only editable by a group of people who know each other and work together. Some of those editors may well have started off in Wikipedia like myself.
New skins, and cool features like embedded YouTube videos, and embedded zoomable Google maps with place markers
It is also easy to improve on the visual presentation of Wikipedia. Compare the skinning and layout of my wikis with wikipedia. All I’ve done is to use a more modern skin for the default, You can get these new skins from MediaWiki.
You can also add new cool features like embedded YouTube videos. I’ve got one at the start of my
Also several in the
- Carl Sagan article
These are all topic areas where there are numerous videos on YouTube by content experts who are also engaging and often entertaining in the way they present the material. So I think this has potential to be a unique “selling point” of our encyclopedias
Perhaps these videos are going to make the biggest difference in the Microtonal wiki, will be able to do it so people can just click and hear examples of the microtonal music right on the page. Try for example the musical examples on these pages:
Wikipedia will probably never add this, although it is an easy feature to add to the MediaWiki software.
It’s much the same for astrobiology though - anyone interested in the subject is likely also to be interested in the video presentations by astrobiologists talking about their research, the micro-organisms and habitats they study, the latest findings and discoveries from Mars etc.
For Buddhism then anyone interested in the topic is likely to be keen to hear the Buddhist teachers themselves and what they have to say - and nowadays you can listen to the best teachers in Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Therevadhan Buddhism on YouTube, along also with the historians, archaeologists, translators, etc. While working on it, I’ve found that just about all the living teachers and a fair few of the teachers who died in the recent past have YouTube videos of their teachings.
You can embed Google Maps too. Here is a page in the Doomsday Debunked wiki with a map showing the position of the seven biggest supervolcanoes in the world:
It’s a zoomable map - and you can also show it full screen as well. Wikipedia could add this as an option for its articles easily but is not likely to do so. As an independent project, then it’s just a case of going and clicking on the check box “maps” in the mediawiki host I use which provides automatic addition of extensions - and there they are. The article is here
- Why we'd have centuries of warning of a supervolcano eruption - with zoomable map of top seven supervolcanoes
Most of these new wikis were started only a few weeks ago, so it's far too soon to tell how they will work out. However, our Encyclopedia of Buddhism has been up since 2015, though most of the work on it was done in in the last year.
It’s early days yet but our encyclopedia is doing pretty well by way of traffic. For the last year it’s followed what looks like an exponential growth pattern. These are unique visits per month
Months since January 2015 on horizontal axis and visitor numbers on vertical axis.
On a log plot scatter diagram with regression line:
Months since January 2015 on horizontal axis and log10 of visitor numbers on vertical axis (the vertical axis shows the power of 10, so 1 means 10 visitors, and 2 means 100 visitors).
So, though we have only reached a bit over 640 unique visits per month, the line suggests a trend of a ten fold increase per year. That’s faster than the early growth of Wikipedia when traffic increased ten-fold every 17.5 months approx. It is far too soon to tell where it is headed, but our website is slowly moving up in the google search results with many phrases on the first page. Our top performing phrase “rice seedling sutra” is second on its page after Rigpa wiki. See my blog post: Growth in web traffic to our Encyclopedia of Buddhism
I’ve only just started on these new wikis, - the Encyclopedia of Buddhism has been going for some time but the others, just a few weeks. However, I’ve spent more time editing these wikis in the last few weeks than I probably spent on Wikipedia in several years! They are all work in progress, with most pages not even vetted, but we already have fixed a fair few things in them all. You can do so many things so quickly. Especially compared to the ages it takes on Wikipedia sometimes, just to convince other editors, who often know nothing about the topic.
So, do you want to have a go yourself? Miraheze is a great way to get started, as they make it so easy. It is free, supported by donations. It's open to anyone so long as it doesn't have commercial activity as its primary purpose (you are permitted to do a wiki associated with a commercial product such as, say, a wiki about the fictional world and characters of a book). So any encyclopedia would surely automatically qualify.
I have no affiliation with Miraheze. I am just a satisfied user of their services.
MediaWiki is often tricky to set up but they just give you a fully functional wiki with most of the extensions you need already included - and you can add others just by checking boxes in a form. It's run by volunteers, and the web hosting is supported by donations, started up as an Indiegogo project.
I’ve talked about how it’s done using Miraheze here in an article in my user space on their website:
- 4.1 Importing pages and auto-attributing Wikipedia
- 4.2 Importing wanted pages and templates
- 4.3 Script modules and lua errors
- 4.4 Importing categories - especially, hidden categories
- 4.5 commons.css and commons.js
- 4.6 Google search console
And if you worry that nobody will find your pages - if you write good pages, then they will very gradually rise in the search results and people will start to find your wiki.
If it's good, it's likely to follow an exponential growth pattern, as many websites do, like our Encyclopedia of Buddhism. If so it will start slowly but you will have a doubling time, or a tenfold increase time.
For as long as it is doing that you have no idea where it will head to. It's bound to fluctuate a lot, so if you get double the traffic one day than another, it doesn't mean much. But if it has stayed at about the same level for some months, that may be as far as it is going to go for now. To go further you may need to improve it in some way, tell more people about it (in a natural organic way), fix some issue with it, or it gets picked up by some major website or something goes viral.
And - if you have imported a couple of hundred articles from Wikipedia, and it seems daunting to look after them all - well - Wikipedia is actually far more stretched than you are. If you have 200 articles and are ready to spend a fair bit of time each day for a while until it is in good shape - you are way over the bar compared to Wikipedia with perhaps one active editor to over 20,000 articles for editors that do 30 edits a day or more, as we'll see in a moment.
The main thing Wikipedia’s got going for it is that it’s got everything in the same encyclopedia, but that’s also a disadvantage too, because it lacks an overall vision. Yes, many topic areas of Wikipedia have lots of great content. And yes, there are some topics that are excellent and actively maintained by good editors. For instance, astronomy is generally good and it’s also good on space flights and space technology.
However, I found in my days working there that in many topic areas, you hardly ever meet anyone reasonably knowledgeable, nowadays. The few you meet often say they no longer actively edit it much. The figures bear this out too. Wikipedia needs its editors more than ever, but as its number of articles increased from 1.5 million in 2007 to 5.7 million today, the number of articles per active editor, those who do 5 edits a month, has increased six fold since 2007, to nearly 200. The number of articles per editor who do more than 8 edits a day is now 3,843. If you are a keen editor working on your new wiki, you may well do more than 30 edits a day, or 1000 a month. There are only 127 Wikipedia editors as active as that, more or less constant since 2007. They have more than 20,000 articles per editor in Wikipedia.
It's no surprise that you can post to talk pages of articles and get no response from the more active editors. See Techy calc details for the calculations, with sources.
Whole areas are like that. Including most of Astrobiology, Microtonal music, and Buddhism. Not just nobody left knowledgeable. Actively edited by people who delete things that should be kept, and introduce new mistakes. The articles were started by people who read the sources carefully, but they have left the project. Instead many of them are now edited by people who arbitrarily delete or rewrite things they don’t understand or think the article got wrong, often without checking the sources. There are many editors there who are very active but also hopeless at reading sources. Either they don’t read them at all, or their comprehension is very poor as they don’t seem to understand them and often get the ideas garbled or back to front or just plain off the wall and wrong. Write down their own ideas and add a cite to back it up which doesn’t say what they said.
You can’t run an encyclopedia like that indefinitely.
There are many areas that are still excellent. Astronomy is an example (with exception of astrobiology of Mars). So is theology. Buddhism is poor but theology and Christianity for the most part is excellent. My microtonal composer and theorist friends tell me many of the microtonal articles are full of errors. But many of the articles on maths are excellent (sometimes over technical for a newbie, but accurate).
People don't often search within Wikipedia itself, well anecdotally anyway in my own experience, I can't remember a single occasion when someone said "I don't know xyz, let's search Wikipedia". We "Google it" when we want to find an answer to something, not "Wikipedia it".
So, they search Google most often. If Wikipedia's pages are poor in a topic, then I am sure they will go down in the search ranks as they already do in some cases where their articles are very poor, or non existent. I don’t think many would go to the third or fourth result on a page never mind the second or third page of search results looking for something by Wikipedia in preference to whatever comes top in the results. And if something has been deleted from Wikipedia altogether, like the search for present day habitats on Mars, then it can’t appear in the Google search results - but people will of course still search for material on this topic. So they will end up finding it elsewhere, perhaps your new wiki if it is good.
It may continue to do well in topic areas where it is better managed. But there are now many smaller encyclopedias based on Wikipedia content, as well as independent wikis, and I think this trend is likely to continue.
Anyway I said in the intro that I think a lot of the reason for the deterioration of Wikipedia content is social and to do with the sanctioning processes there. So, I'd like to end by recounting my story, in short, so you can see what the problem is. Maybe there is a way forward. I do want Wikipedia to remain the good encyclopedia it's been for the last few years. I was working to do that right up until they blocked me, mainly focusing on fixing errors, minor and major. I'd fix two or three a week, just in the process of normal browsing, perhaps 100 a year, with a very occasional major article.
What happened to me - how I got indef blocked for an article on one of NASA's top science objectives for Mars - the bizarre sanction processes of WP:ANI
I was trying to appeal a Buddhism topic ban, which I expected to be a straightforward process. However, it "boomeranged" horribly with some of the editors who responded deciding mid-appeal to delete an article I wrote on the unrelated topic of astrobiology. It was an earlier version of my: Possible Present Day Habitats For Life On Mars. This is one of the main objectives of NASA and ESA but the editors voting to delete it didn’t believe that this could be a significant topic in modern astrobiology. None of them read the sources I gave to show its significance, such as NASA’s document about their Mars science goals as far as I could tell. They found out about it during the appeal because I presented it as an example of my best work in Wikipedia as part of my appeal, to show that I was an editor in good standing outside the topic area.
I had run into this before, in 2013, editors deleting this material on the basis that they thought Mars couldn't possibly have such habitats, so the material didn't belong in Wikipedia. . However, it had remained stable for over a year, and I hadn't noticed that material on this topic had been once more removed from other areas of Wikipedia. I never guessed they would react by deleting it.
This is what I see now when I try to edit Wikipedia
This means I can’t edit it any more, in any topic area, nor post to any of their forums or talk pages in the English Wikipedia, or talk pages of other editors. I can't even edit my own user page there. The only page I can edit is my talk page. I can appeal in six months but I don’t know if I’ll bother now, especially as it may not be an easy one to get lifted.
I got sanctioned at WP:ANI - their community sanction process. It's like something out of a book by Lewis Carroll. Anyone can nominate any other editor in Wikiopedia to be sanctioned at any time, without any warning or build up. You are in the middle of a conversation somewhere and then suddenly get an alert that someone has taken out a case against you. Also, they don't wait for you to turn up before voting on the sanctions against you. I got there within an hour of the notice being placed on my talk page, and already had one vote to indef block me, before they heard anything from me. From then on, the way it continues is like something out of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. It’s like the episode with the Queen of Hearts, as it is presented in the original manuscript "Alice's Adventures Under Ground", , “No!” said the Queen, “first the sentence, and then the evidence!”
“Now for the evidence,” said the King, “and then the sentence”. “No!” said the Queen, “first the sentence, and then the evidence!” “Nonsense!” cried Alice, so loudly that everybody jumped, “the idea of having the sentence first!”
King and Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll's original manuscript "Alice's Adventures Under Ground" - the Queen is the one who shouts "off with his head". The published "Alice in Wonderland" modifies this to “first the sentence, and then the verdict!”, but the original manuscript is closer to how it is done in these Wikipedia sanction debates.
Alice's Adventures Under Ground - Lewis Carroll - British Library - original MS for Alice in Wonderland
In that boomerang sanction, they went right back to my fourth ever edit 10 years ago when I contributed an article on my own software after it had just had a major review in the top UK musician gear magazine Sound on Sound. You are not supposed to do that, it's called a "conflict of interest" but as a newbie editor back then of course I didn't know. Many newbies start out in that way. It's also only discouraged, not prohibited. But these debates get very emotional - like the Queen of Hearts they are motivated far more by Pathos, emotion, than by Logos - logic and evidence.
I think this sanctioning process is a major contributor to the way that Wikipedia is currently slowly deteriorating, sadly, in many topic areas. It will take a fair while - there is so much content there that’s good and it took a decade to reach its current level of excellence. However, I think they need to find a way to reverse this trend. Or maybe - its time for it to split up into lots of smaller encyclopedias?
Anyway, I have those editors who indef blocked me on Wikipedia to thank for the inspiration of these new wikis! Without them, they would never have happened. It's a lot of fun to do, you get involved in the creative process, much more, and the editing process is so much nicer and easier and friendlier. And hopefully they will be useful to others.