Wikipedia is not paper

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Subtitled: Wikipedia Unbound

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Crystal wordprocessing.png This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

Although Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, it is not bound by the same constraints as a paper encyclopedia or even most online encyclopedias. The length, depth, and breadth of articles in Wikipedia is virtually infinite. As Wikipedia grows, so will computing power, storage capacity, and bandwidth. While there is a practical limit to all these at any given time, Wikipedia is not likely ever to outgrow them.

Founder Jimbo Wales has stated his desire that Wikipedia should not become yet another discussion forum. But it definitely is something different from a paper encyclopedia, and Wikipedians should take advantage of that fact.

No size limits[edit]

The most obvious difference is that there are, in principle, no size limits in the Wikipedia universe. It is quite possible, for example, that when you finish typing in everything you want to say about poker, there might well be over 100 pages, and enough text for a full-length book by itself. This would certainly never be tolerated in a paper encyclopedia, which is why Encyclopædia Britannica has such limited information on the topic (and on most other topics).

Plain text takes up an almost negligible amount of disk space. At seven letters per word, a 300 GB hard drive that costs around $40 US can hold 45 billion words, which amounts to 12.1 million words “per penny”. As of 2012, a 1 TB hard drive costs about the same amount that 300 GB used to cost when this article was first written. A 1 terabyte hard drive can hold 153.6 billion words (1000 GB = 1 TB), which amounts to 38.4 million words per penny (and growing).

The Nupedia FAQ rightly warned about taxing a reader's patience with rambling prose, but detailed subtopics and sub-subtopics enrich Wikipedia with information. There is no reason why there shouldn't be a page for every Simpsons character, and even a table listing every episode, all neatly cross-linked and introduced by a shorter central page. Every episode name in the list could link to a separate page for each of those episodes, with links to reviews and trivia. Each of the 100+ poker games can have its own page with rules, history, and strategy. Jimbo Wales has agreed: Hard disks are cheap. [citation needed]


Of course, a 100-page thesis on poker is useless to someone who merely needs an article summarizing the basic rules and history of the game. The purpose of a normal encyclopedia is to provide the reader a brief overview of the subject, while a reference book or text book can explain the details. Wikipedia can do both. Because Wikipedia is not on paper, it can provide summaries of all subjects of interest and also provide exhaustive detail on those subjects, conveniently linked, categorized, and searchable for readers who want more detail.

The key to avoiding information overload is to break an article down into more than one page (long articles require many sub-headings anyway). For example, Poker can be broken into a basic "Poker" article which is only one page (about 30 KB) and links to "History of poker", "Modern popularity of poker", and variations of the game, such as "Stud poker" and "Texas hold 'em". These will be much more searchable. As a more general example:

Acme, an overview

History of acme
Physical description of acme
Relationship with zeta

These can start out as section headings and be broken out into separate pages as the main article becomes too long.

On the other hand, Wikipedia is not a general knowledge base of any and all information, full of railroad timetables and comprehensive lists. But any encyclopedic subject of interest should be covered, in whatever depth is possible.

And, of course, Wikipedia is on the Internet, but Wikipedia is not the Internet. For the Internet is used for commerce, news, self-promotion, creative arts, useless rambling, pornography and a whole host of other things not suitable for an encyclopedia, even one as limitless as Wikipedia.

Style and functionality[edit]

Some standards of writing that apply to paper don't really apply to Wikipedia. Jimbo Wales has said that Wikipedia needs its own style standards, but these will evolve to suit its needs and abilities. He adds, "And of course, the open nature of the software means that enforcement only comes to the extent that we authors care to enforce it."

For example, CMS (The Chicago Manual of Style) tells the writer or editor to briefly gloss, or explain, the first use of an abbreviation (as just demonstrated with "CMS"). Jargon can be treated similarly. This treatment makes a lot of sense on paper: if an article mentions an arcane subject or if it uses an abbreviation or jargon, the reader may need to know more about it, and so giving a full name or a cross-reference will help find it. But Wikipedia has something even better than a parenthetical gloss of just a few words: an electronic link to a thorough treatment of the subject.

Paper-based publishing style:

It is unclear if IBM's code page 437 (a character code set)
was based on the VT-220 terminal (a computer input/output
device) of DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation), or if the
reverse was the case.

Wikipedia publishing style:

It is unclear if IBM's code page 437 was based on the VT220 terminal
of DEC, or if the reverse was the case.

Likewise, color is trivial on the Web, and almost everyone can access it. This is very expensive for paper, and so color doesn't get used much in paper publishing. Wikipedia should take advantage of this fact, especially with illustrative diagrams and photographs.

Animation and interactivity are impossible on paper. GIF animations and HTML interactivity are relatively easy to create for Wikipedia, and immensely valuable in demonstrating processes and actions. Care must be taken not to make animations ungainly or platform-specific, but standards for judicious use will be established as animation and interactivity become more common.

Due to the new parser functions, automatically updated time-dependent information such as age can be supplied.

The basic rule "Wikipedia is not paper" also applies to the titles of the articles. There is no reason to use the reverse naming in most cases, just because paper encyclopedias do that. The problem of category sorting in Wikipedia is solved by the engine and special sorting keys.

Timeliness and ease of editing[edit]

Although, as Jimbo Wales has said, it is best to write in a timeless fashion, because it is likely that many pages will grow gracefully old, Wikipedia allows readers to edit material that has become outdated or requires more detail. In this way, brief overviews can become detailed treatises (although they should still start with a brief overview).

The articles in a paper encyclopedia are all compiled and printed at roughly the same time, and old sets are generally replaced by whole new sets. But Wikipedia pages cannot assume that the reader will have any idea about the historical context in which the article is written, or the state of any article to which it refers.

Wikipedians must be careful, then, to imagine how an article might appear to someone reading it after changes have been made in articles to which it links. This is a rare instance of something that is actually more difficult in a wiki than on paper. Not only will a list of recent celebrity deaths obviously need to be rewritten once those deaths aren't recent anymore, but any article that links to it because a certain celebrity has just died may leave the reader wondering what the link was for, since the celebrity will no longer appear on that page.

The general recommendation is to just write time objectively. As a result, Wikipedians don't write, "today" or "recently" (even more so than paper encylopedia writers); they write absolute times when times are necessary and don't mention time at all when it isn't necessary. An exception is dynamic information such as age (see above).

Conversely, Jimbo Wales has said, Wikipedia can very quickly have a page on any hot topic that people may suddenly find interesting (provided it is not completely ephemeral). If something important happens in, say, East Timor, then Wikipedians can create an article for East Timor or, if one exists, update the article and put it on Wikipedia's main page. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger notes that this sort of basic background information about people and places in current events is sometimes much more important than the current events themselves.

Lastly, Wikipedia is a collaboration between all those who have something pertinent to contribute, so a Wikipedia article does not have an "author" in the traditional sense. This helps all authors feel free to edit, re-arrange, and build on others' work. This generally results in a better final product.


Wikipedia does not need trees to be cut down to print its pages or gasoline to be refined to deliver its content. It requires electrical energy, affordable computing infrastructure and world wide access to a planetary computing grid to meet its articulated goal of providing free access to human knowledge for all humans.

See also[edit]