h2g2 and Wikipedia

 by Martin Belam, 14 March 2005

Frankie Roberto's post about the future of h2g2 pointed me in the direction of this article about the site's future, which includes some points about what the differences are between h2g2 and Wikipedia.

"We are a collaborative online guide to Life the Universe and Everything, but you knew that already.

In this respect we appear to be the same as Wikipedia, and this illusion is a dangerous thing. The BBC have a history of closing sites which duplicate something which is being done elsewhere on-line. For that reason it is important to understand the ways in which we are different from Wikipedia, particularly because Wikipedia has better brand recognition and a wider reach then h2g2.

This has prompted me to re-visit a post I wrote but never published from August last year, when Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley from Wikipedia visited the BBC at Bush House.

Both of the sites aim to be a user-generated, peer-reviewed, community driven encyclopedia - one of all human knowledge, and the other with the modest aim of cataloguing life, the universe, and everything. Both have faced some similar issues with moderation, accuracy, legality and how to muster an army of volunteers to produce something that isn't just a web site, but is a useful part of the web.

Angela gave an outline of some of the features and problems Wikipedia had encountered by using the wiki format - obviously the low barrier to entry encourages casual(-ish) participation, but is potentially at a cost of quality, and provides an equally low barrier of entry to spam, flaming and defacers. Jimmy said that in the early days he could barely sleep at night imagining that someone was wrecking and deleting the site as he lay awake in bed. He felt, though, that because they had laudable aims they were not a real target for the internet community that wanted to deface and hack corporate sites, and that they had a sufficient network of volunteer sysadmins around the world to provide adequate cover against disgruntled anti-Wikipedians.

h2g2 offers more of a closed model, with an enforced registration system before users can participate, but even so Wikipedia is an interesting contrast to the BBC approach to community spaces online. Over the last couple of years in our social spaces we have only gradually been able to make a move towards firstly the post-moderated model, then to the reactively moderated model. h2g2 was one of the first (if not the first - my memory doesn't serve me so well here) BBC online social space to have a community trusted with reactive moderation.

For Wikipedia, Angela identified one specific issue that had to be overcome socially, which was the feeling that articles were "My Prose" and that edits or over-writing were an intrusion on something 'owned' by the original author. Having been sub-edited myself I can empathise a little with that argument - internally at the BBC I always veer towards annotating our internal wiki pages, rather than simply over-writing. This is a big difference with h2g2, where there is an explicitly named connection between the author and the article on the site, and even when an article has passed through peer review, the original article is still available with its definitive ownership claim. At the end of today's session with Jimmy and Angela there were some interesting questions raised about who actually owns the copyright on the material on Wikipedia - h2g2 is less ambiguous, with a disclaimer on every page distancing the BBC from the work by stating that:

Most of the content on h2g2 is created by h2g2's Researchers, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced.

However the house rules go much further and state that:

It's important to note that you still own the copyright to everything you contribute to h2g2. This means you are perfectly free to take what you have written and re-publish it somewhere else.

All you do in contributing to h2g2 is to grant us the right to publish. In other words, anything you create on h2g2 is done under the condition that you grant us a non-exclusive licence to distribute and edit the material in any way that we want, and in any media. (See the Terms and Conditions for the full terms of our rights.) As we may wish to distribute the Guide in various formats over time, we need to be sure that we have the right to publish everything that's on h2g2.

A notable similarity between Wikipedia and h2g2 is the way the chatter is separate from the articles. In h2g2 (and also on the other sites the BBC has spun-off from the same DNA software, iCan, Collective, and WWII People's War) people add comments to articles as a thread on the page, rather than being able to directly edit the original. Wikipedia offers the split between the article and discussion namespace for the same item. That seems a fundamental distinction between the purpose of pages which is key to the success of both a wiki and a community site. In Wikipedia's case that doesn't explicitly prohibit the addition of comment or annotation to an article, but it does mean that it can be easily frowned upon by the community, since the discussion space is available.

Jimmy argued that whilst they had undeniably hit problems with rogue and troublesome users "by treating each case as gently as possible" the community had been able to build up a set of wikiquette rules which fostered a useful community spirit.

One contrast I find is that whilst Wikipedia has in place policies to keep the content 'encyclopedic', (for example by classifying very small entries as stumps), h2g2 seemingly by its very nature has tended to concentrate on the niche, the quirky, the obscure, the cult and the downright bizarre - for example, where else would you find that one of the most active places was a campaign to rename Thursday "Thing"? The classification of articles in h2g2 revolves around Douglas Adam's genius concept of life, the universe and everything, but it makes it hard to navigate through the guide. Whilst Wikipedia suffers from some of the navigational woes that seem inherent in the wiki as a data repository, it has some very sound classification concepts. One of my favourites is the fact that every day of the year - like today - has its' own hub page, as does every year. This kind of "On This Day" approach to an encyclopedia is a great strength, and an interesting way to enable the use of serendipity to browse the content.

One of the cornerstones of making the Wikipedia community work collaboratively on contentious subjects has been a policy of "A Neutral Point of View". This is something all of the BBC staff in the room could empathise with the ideal of. The aim editorially for Wikipedia is to produce an article that could be agreed upon by people who were both for or against an idea / conflict / political viewpoint / religion etc. Jimmy pointed out that this works very well in practice, since most people with a strongly held conviction think that they are right, and that presented with the facts nobody could draw any other conclusion than the beliefs they themselves hold. Therefore you can get two opponents agreeing on one description of an issue which both of them think will naturally lead the reader to draw the conclusions they expect and want them to.

h2g2 is different from this, where Point of View holding is considered "a good thing", as pointed out by this quote in the h2g2 article:

"Wikki's ... entry on Middletown, Pennsylvania tells you the size of the town in square miles and population. It also breaks it down into socio-economic statistics like the median income for a household in the borough is $35,425, and the median income for a family is $43,661... Our entry tells you where to eat, what to order, which bar has the best jukebox and what you can do while you're in town"

I was struck by Jimmy Wales' real determination to see this work made available offline - although I do wonder whether an offline port of the wiki experience could really fully do it justice. I guess even a wikipedia frozen in time on a CD-Rom given away free is still collective knowledge distributed to places it might otherwise never reach, but that would push Wikipedia into being something much closer to the Edited Guide on h2g2. Jimmy also mentioned a couple of side projects to have come out of Wikipedia that I hadn't really paid attention to before - Wikisource, Wikiquote and Wiktionary - all of which look worth investigating.

I also got to wondering how national and linguistic differences had shaped the articles across Wikipedia. Jimmy explained that whilst some translation of articles between languages did occur, it wasn't all that often, and it certainly wasn't done automatically with "rotten meat" translation. It seemed to me that I would expect the articles in Polish to reflect a reasonably cohesive Polish cultural view of the world, the French less so, given the wider spread of the language, and the English version of wikipedia the least cohesive, as the far flung ex-colonies of Great Britain argued the toss over a definition of such divisive subjects as the American Civil War, the Slave Trade, the Great Trek, Rhodesia, and British India.

Then again, if the policy of NPOV can allow articles about the Middle East or the theory of evolution / revelation of Creation to flourish, I am sure it can foster an understanding of issues that cross both the Atlantic and the Pacific for the English speaking world. Jimmy did also observe that whatever the differences of contributors culturally, socially, or linguistically, they were still essentially geeks who loved the idea of giving away knowledge for free!

By contrast h2g2, like the majority of BBC online social spaces is resolute in only allowing contributions in English. Restrictions on the language you can post in have their advantages though - it isn't entirely clear to me what the value is of the Klingon version of wikipedia.

I have to finish with one quote from Jimmy in answer to a question, an acknowledgment that having been the leader in getting a community up and running:

"I can only lead where the community wants to go"

My bet is that Douglas Adams felt the same about hootoo.

1 Comment

I was searching for something completely different and somehow found myself here.

But I started the 'The Campaign to rename Thursday, 'Thing' which you so generously mention in your article.

RH AKA Clive the flying ostrich, founder of Thingism on h2g2. :)

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