Wikipedia and the "Informalation" Revolution

Wikipedia is one of the most extraordinary and fascinating websites you will ever see. It is a vast on-line encyclopedia of knowledge, with the distinguishing feature that any one can edit (and informally discuss) any of its topics. And edit they do: thousands of users (myself included) regularly create and update Wikipedia’s content. Changes are continually being made every minute of every day. In this sense, Wikipedia is a giant, living, breathing, and growing documentation lifeform.
Wikipedia was launched in 2001. It now contains over 1.6 million articles, over 660,000 of these in English. Encyclopædia Britannica, by comparison, as only 120,000 articles. But is “more” necessarily better?

Close Your Mouth and Open Your Mind
This is the great debate currently raging between Wikipedia’s advocates and its critics. Wikipedia’s supporters argue that an “open source” structure in which anyone can perform updates will lead to the highest quality of information. Wikipedia has similar structure to Linux, an open source operating system which anyone is free to modify. Supporters also point out that unlike traditional print encyclopedias, or even software-based ones such as Microsoft Encarta, Wikipedia is continually updated in real-time, therefore much of the information is extremely relevant and timely.

Wikipedia’s critics, including, not surprisingly, one of its main competitors, Encyclopædia Britannica, argue that Wikipedia’s information is unreliable, not formally fact-checked, and biased. However, despite these criticisms, Wikipedia remains a powerful and well-used source of information for thousands of individuals. As information developers, we should be heartened by the fact that so many people care enough about accurate and complete information that they are volunteering their time to create the largest encyclopedia in history.

Officially Unofficial
Wikipedia has proven that there is real demand for information outside of “official sources”. The need has always been here, as shown by the success of the “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” books – unofficial guides on a wide variety of topics. In addition, there are the thousands of other unofficial books, websites, discussion groups, newsgroups and so on that are a source of valuable information to millions. The fact that this information is not supplied by the traditional, formal or standard sources is irrelevant. People will take informal, unverified information over no information every time.

Since, we, as information developers, are the main creators of official information, we must be aware of this new tide of informal information, or “informalation”, as I like to call it. We cannot let ourselves fall into the trap, as Encyclopædia Britannica has done, of saying that informalation has little or no value, so it can just be ignored. The success of Wikipedia has shown we cannot ignore it.

An Official Spectrum
We must start by recognizing that although both official and informal information sources exist, much information actually falls on a spectrum between these two extremes. At one end is the official and formal documentation and information issued by a company. At the other end, is the unofficial information typically created by end users. Using Microsoft software as an example, we would have, from most formal to least:

  • Formal sources: documentation, online help, Knowledge Base
  • Less formal: Microsoft newsgroups, Dummies and Idiot’s books
  • Informal sources: user websites, personal notes, emails and discussions, information about “hacks” and workarounds

Most people will use many of these sources: it is rare that someone will use only the formal ones. As one moves from formal to less formal, the timeliness and quantity of information may increase, but the accuracy and quality may drop. This is the trade-off, though, that people are willing to make.

So, should we all stop being formal information developers and work for Wikipedia? Of course not – Wikipedia is a volunteer organization, and we still have to eat. Also, there will always be a requirement and demand for “official” information.

Free Range Documentation
Instead, we must recognize and accept the fact that no matter how good the documentation we create, and no matter how many others have reviewed it, if you were to take a document and distribute it to every one of your end users in such a way that they could easily change it, they would change it. It is simply impossible to create a document that cannot be further improved if everyone was allowed to be a reviewer. But wouldn’t this create total chaos? How could a company control and manage its documentation if everyone was allowed to change it?

Some companies, including Microsoft and Adobe, offer partial solutions by allowing and even actively encouraging feedback on specific on-line knowledge base topics. The problem is that the feedback is sent directly to the company, and no-one else can see it, unless and until the company decides to incorporate it into their documentation, and then re-post it. Another method companies use is to create various discussions groups. Some of these are formally supported, others or not. The problem is that it is often difficult to locate specific topics within these groups, but more importantly, there is no practical connection between the discussions in these groups and the source documentation. Both are completely independent of each another – changes in one area are not reflected in the other.

Formal vs. Informal Info – Can’t We All Just Get Along?
A better approach is to more formally recognize that informalation exists and has a purpose, and integrate it directly into our formal documentation. In much the same way that Wikipedia (although itself an “unofficial” information source) has both a formal topic listing, and a corresponding informal “discussion” page for each topic, I can imagine a future in which all formal documentation appears online with a corresponding “informalation” page. This page could include various user feedback and comments. Companies could still decide whether to display specific informalation pages, or even specific comments, or they could simply issue a warning saying that the information on the informalation page is not supported but is here for your informal reference only, and that you cannot hold the company liable in any way. This is much like the EULA (End User License Agreement) that you are supposed to read when installing software, but which nobody reads anyway!

Closing the Loop
Eventually, a process could be developed to automatically send the comments to the information developer, who would then update the source documentation accordingly. This is what is known as a “closed looped” system, in which the information is continually released, commented upon, updated based on these comments and then re-released in an endless loop. It embraces the Japanese principle of Kaizen, which roughly translates into “the science of continual improvement”.

The only hitch in this info-utopian vision is, of course, the time, effort and money it would require to create and maintain such a system. Currently, it may be suited only to companies that have a limited number of users. But it’s a start. The potential improvement to an information set would be enormous. Such a system may be years away, but Wikipedia may turn out to be the “killer app” of the Internet that inspired it all.

Wikiing the World
And for those of you who think that because Wikipedia only covers general knowledge so it won’t affect us, see Wikipedia sister projects, including a dictionary, textbooks, quotations, source texts, news and another type of book you may have heard of: user manuals.