Winning at Wikipedia

August 1st, 2017

Imagine you had a magic book, one that can answer your questions in every topic you can think of. The book is like a companion or tutor that can personalize its content based on your knowledge. As your knowledge grows, the book will adjust to help you reach even further. This kind of magic sounds reasonable to me. There are already apps that perform many of the functions described. What we need is a Magic Book Operating System.

A modern operating system has certain feature requirements, such as access to maps or a personal digital assistant that takes voice commands and suggests content based on user behavior. There are many examples of magic books in fiction, such as Pokemon’s Pokedex or Penny’s computer in Inspector Gadget. Typically they have a voice activated personal assistant that condenses information and answers questions. Let’s call our personal assistant Domino, who would be helpful for voice search, but wouldn’t comment on life choices. Additionally, there would need to be an interactive graphical interface.

I imagine the User Interface (UI) of a Magic Book would look a lot like Wikipedia. It would have a series of topics, arranged by categories that lead to articles full of information, and links between related articles. The difference between an ordinary tablet and a Magic Book is that the latter is tailored to you. If a first grader asks what a giraffe is, it might show them drawings and animations. If I ask, it should tell me that they are ungulates.

It would require a staggering amount of information to accommodate the different types of people who might read a Magic Book. This reveals two design problems. First, a Magic Book needs to find out what the reader knows and then it must aggregate information that the reader is prepared for. It would be necessary to provide a certification system as well as a massive pool of expository content.

The Primer, a quiz game by Moonlight Press, is an example of how to build a crowd-driven certification system. Players write questions on each topic, and other players answer them. Those answers are then sorted and voted on by the community to determine their veracity. A player with a high Calculus level could be given a different explanation of how a trebuchet works than someone who only knows Algebra. By digging even deeper into The Primer’s dataset, a Magic Book could even sort through what kind of Algebra topics the player is most knowledgeable in. With only 90 topics there are an infinite number of possible explanations that could be tailored to an individual. Even if there was only 10 versions of each, that’s still the equivalent of building Wikipedia 10 times at different skill levels. Although, it’s already been built once, so it’s 10% of the way there. If we need 9 more, let’s take a look at how the first one was built and maintained.

The common understanding of Wikipedia is that it is a collaborative endeavor, but when you look closer it becomes clear there is an underlying competition that keeps it going. People are attached to what they make, even if it’s an edit, and they will protect their creations against those that might take them away. Users of Wikipedia are playing a game of influence, where informational articles are the lands to conquer and shaky alliances are built and destroyed over rhetorical minutia.

Wikipedia has two types of players: Passives and Editors. I’m a Passive. Most people are. Passives search for information in specific subjects, or click to whatever sounds interesting. Meanwhile, Editors are competing for resources. Their goal is to create new content and protect the existing content they think is correct. They patrol articles they have claimed for vandalism and inaccuracies. Since there is a finite number of topics to write about and only one article allowed per topic, a growing list of users must compete over a limited amount of territory. The articles Passives read are the result of a constant battle between Editors.

This relationship is very common in online games. 90% of the games content – whether it’s items in an auction house or political intrigue among guilds – is created by 10% of the players.  If that 10% gets bored, then flow of new content stops. In Wikipedia’s case, if the top contributing editors all stopped playing, then graffiti would spread throughout the articles. That constant churn of information is what spots and eliminates inaccuracies quickly.

Wikipedia is slowing down. It’s not convincing enough Passives to convert into Editors. If a brand new Editor wants to contribute some information on Buttons, there are enough Editors with a vested interest in the Buttons article that an outsider’s voice can be easily shouted down. This is because there can be only one Wikipedia article on each topic.

In games that have player-vs-player combat, the best players will sometimes run out of content and take out their boredom on beginners. Bullies in the best armor can attack brand new players who are still learning how to play the game. They need a new frontier to focus their talents. This is the problem with Buttons. Most of the basic topics have already been covered. For Wikipedia to grow in players, it needs to grow in land to fight over.

This need for more writing opportunities could be what powers our Magic Book, because one explanation of how to make a button is not enough. It needs one for a first grader, or an expert in Engineering, or someone who doesn’t know what plastic is made from. That’s what makes the Magic Book OS so magical. Everyone who reads it improves it. And just by asking questions, they’ve changed from a Passive player into an Active one.

If all it takes to make a magic book is to play The Primer and explain what Buttons are to a fifth grader, that sounds like a pretty cheap price to pay. But you can’t crowdsource from one person, it takes a community. If you can build a wiki and want to play too, let me know. We can make a little magic.