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Why I am suspicious of subpages

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Tuesday, June 12, 1:03 PM -- I am suspicious of subpages. Often, I don't much like them. My basic reason is philosophically interesting, I think. It is not because I am opposed to conceptual hierarchies. (I like those! They're interesting!) So what is the reason?

For the purposes of this discussion, let's speak of "main pages" and "subpages," as well as "main topics" and "subtopics." If I create [[Alaska/Anchorage]], then I make [[Anchorage]] a subpage (of [[Alaska]]), and the topic, Anchorage, is (as I will explain) treated as a subtopic (of Alaska). Moreover, [[Alaska]] is the main page, and Alaska is treated as the main topic.

Usually, when a topic explained on a subpage of a main page, it is also treated as a subtopic of a main topic (where the main topic is, of course, the topic of the main page). Exactly how the topic is "treated" as a subtopic is an inexact matter, I suppose having to do with psychology and probability. If I see that "XYZ" is made a subpage of "ABC", then, probably, it will seem to me that I am invited to consider the topic XYZ as an aspect of ABC as a more general topic.

Anchorage is definitely an Alaskan city, and no false information is conveyed by treating Anchorage as a subtopic of Alaska. So that's not the problem. The problem is that Anchorage is not merely an Alaskan city: it is also an American city; it is also a city of Alaska's south-central region; it is a city of the far north; it is a very new city; it is an earthquake-prone city; etc. There are very many different categorizations of topics that are possible, each of them correct, but each of them also--in its own usually innocuous way--as prejudicial as the next.

Almost every topic we might find can be regarded as a subtopic of some other topic. Perhaps the topics "thing" and "item" are the exceptions (if we can talk about nonexistent and even impossible things and items). Alaska itself is an American state. Shall we then create [[States of the U.S.A./Alaska]]? Shall we make [[Number/1]]--but if so, why not [[Universal/Number]]?

But in some cases--e.g., the Poker pages--the use of subpages seems to be justified and helpful. So why is that? And what would distinguish the poker pages from other pages? I think it's because everything that Lee Crocker has put in his poker pages is, after all, about poker, and--more importantly--is not about anything else. All of those subpages really are best thought of and considered in the context of the game of poker. This situation is more the exception than the rule. But I can imagine other sets of subpages, for example, for Dungeons and Dragons, for Star Wars, and for many other topics about which there is much detail, but it is all detail best considered in the single context of the main topic. There isn't any particularly good reason to consider "Jabba the Hut" apart from the Star Wars universe; there isn't much use to talking about "Texas Hold 'Em" outside the context of poker (I guess--not knowing too much about poker).

There are, of course, other very good reasons not to use subpages. But the above is a rough explanation of why I am "philosophically" opposed to them. I could go on, but I'm out of time.  :-)

P.S. This very article appears on a subpage. Oh, the irony!


The difficulty is though that wiki operates on very limited name space, and name clashes are going to be inevitable. Subpages provide a system somewhat like dewey decimal, which can be subcategories arbitarily. The problem that you are describing arises because of the granularity of the linking scheme. Pages have to be a certain size or the become unreadable (and the wikipedia becomes wikidictionary). So it is likely that an article will cover several topics. The problem is that you can not link to parts of the article. If you could then the Anchorage article could still be linked from Alaska, but you would link in only that section which related to Anchorage as an Alaskan city.

Ultimately you are trying to model an semantically complex problem, with a trivial modelling scheme (which is wiki linking model). In the end you get lots of ad hoc solutions arising, none of them very satisfying...Phil Lord

Agreed, but the simplest solution, which is probably the best we'll be able to do, is forthcoming: the use of parentheses in titles. Then we'll be able to write Nirvana (rock band) and Nirvana (religion). --LMS

Perhaps I am being dense here. In what way are parenthesis notable different from a slash? Except that they are not going to be interpreted by wiki so will not appear in the hyperlinks in the footer? Phil Lord

You're not being dense, but perhaps you're just asking me to think through what you could easily think through yourself.  :-) They are not interpreted as hyperlinks in the footer, and moreover, when you are on the subpage, you do not have the psychological experience of looking at a "part" or "subtopic" of an article about the main topic. The parentheses are well-understood to be a way of identifying the sense of the words not in parentheses. --LMS

Thats a little bit subtle for me I am afraid. I don't think that there is a standard way in English of disambiguating synonyms. And personally it would appear to me that loosing the footer hyperlinks is a disadvantage. It would seem to me that having followed a link to "Nirvana (rock band)", you might indeed be interested to know what a "rock band" actually are. And of course suggests a standardised way of disambiguating. Why not Nirvana (music), or Nirvana (20th century) or so on? Having a page actually there, which is linked to can help decide the best one to use. Phil Lord

You're doing a fine job of playing devil's advocate; why don't you write an essay of your own, and I'll respond? --LMS

I'm not trying to play devil's advocate honestly...If you want to remove this stuff to a /Talk to leave your esssy clear thats fine by me. What I am trying to do is think of a good way of disambiguating terms using the limited technology that wiki provides. You may be right about subpages of course, but its good to think through the possibilities.

No, this is a fine place to talk. Anyway, you're making an argument, and I am interested in having it spelled out more clearly, that's all: you seem to be suggesting that there is no useful distinction between subpages and titles with disambiguating parentheses. That just strikes me as a nonstarter, as obviously wrong. But I could be wrong about that... --LMS

A topic like Pearl Harbor can be a main topic, but when it is a subtopic under World War II then the page is only about Pearl Harbor in the context of World War II. I think that is desirable. There should also be a Pearl Harbor main topic page, which describes where Pearl Harbor is, what it is used for, its historical significance, etc.

Likewise World War II/Douglas MacArthur would be a different subject then Douglas MacArthur. The first would be about World War Two, and specifically MacArthur's role in the war, the second about MacArthur, his whole life.

Other good examples are the Pelvis and Penis pages, which in their current form should be subpages under Human anatomy, but aren't.

So a subtopic is desirable only in those cases where it can be meaningful discussed within the context of the main topic. - TS

Well, I think we disagree about the application of the principles that it seems we agree on. I don't think any of the pages you list above are very good examples where subpages are advisable, though I guess they aren't bad examples, either. E.g., The Invasion of Pearl Harbor is (I guess--I'm no historian) usually considered in the overall context of World War II, but it is also considered in the context of U.S. history, of world history--why not World History/World War II? Why not Wars/World War II? Why not World Wars/II? Why not Pacific Theater/Pearl Harbor? Do you get my point?

I don't know whether pelvis and penis are too "humano-centric" :-), but if so, I would rather they not be subpages under human anatomy. They should be under human pelvis and human penis or perhaps pelvis (human) and penis (human). After all, Tim, why shouldn't we have one central page, Penis, and several subpages: Penis/Human, Penis/Giraffe, Penis/Rat, etc. --LMS

Maybe another explanation for why I used subpages for the poker stuff might be useful: I don't like using subpages to impose category schemes or to force associations between things that might be independent. Using the subpage technique for disambiguation definitely has the potential dowside of limiting the scope of the page to the context of its parent. Sometimes, though, that limitation is actually quite useful, and it doesn't interfere with making top-level pages on related subjects as well. It's not that I think things like "Texas hold'em" only make sense as a subtopic of poker (in fact, I made that a top-level page as well), but because there were many other terms of art like "raise", "fold", "position", "agression", etc., that have specific meanings in the context of poker that bear little or no relation to their general meaning. Even mentioning these specific meanings at a top-level page seems like an exercise of lexicography by shovel, just confusing more than enlightening. Making them subpages not only disambiguates in the same way that "Raise (poker)" would, but it makes it convenient to make cross-links in other pages within the same context of poker. It is not that I'm imposing any category structure, it's that I'm recognizing a "field of study" or "context" under which there are lots of ordinary words with unusual meanings. That's why, for example, the top-level "Texas hold'em" page (which I think should exist as its own topic) redirects into "Poker/Texas holdem", so the latter page can put brackets around things like "/Raise" and know that they will link to the right place. Ease of content creation and editing is an important reason that good content gets created here, and I wanted to preserve that. I can see other uses for this technique; for example "Law" might be a context that could benefit from this easy crosslinking. "Mathematics" is another. "Derivative", for example, means something much different to a mathematician than it does to a Wall street investor. Top-level pages can certainly be created to link into the subpages where the topic is considered important enough in its own right, or when that makes it easier to link to the page from articles outside the context. --LDC

I'm kinda new to the wiki world, but I was wondering if you/we/somone could develop a way to link backwards, instead of forward... ie, an article on Pearl Harbor could have special syntax in the article marking off a section that belongs to World War II/Pearl Harbor which would automatically place a link in the footnotes of World War II, iff the article doesn't already link to it. Make sense? --DGM

ZWiki arranges pages hierarchially and has a backlink feature. By clicking on the title of a page you can see a list of pages with links to that page. --Antti Kaihola

I think this is a very useful feature (I recently changed all the links to Augustine to Augustine of Hippo in order to accommodate the fact that the relevant data was moved. A back link feature would be very helpful, but I don't think it would solve the primary problem which is placing things on sub pages makes it seem like everything on that sub page really ought to be a subtopic of the main page. MRC

The biggest problem I've seen with subpages is that they can't have their own /Talk pages. Wiki only seems to allow one level of subdirectory. This is a bummer, as TopicX/SubtopicA and TopicX/SubtopicB might involve two totally different threads of discussion. Dumping it all onto TopicX/Talk is yucky. I'm relatively new to this, so if there's a way to do what I just described, please erase my silly comment. MDG

The behavior you describe is intentional, and in fact is counted on by a number of pages (my Poker pages, for example). There's a convention here that if it becomes necessary to have separate /Talk pages for subtopics (and if this happens, reconsider whether subpages are appropriate in the first place), Use "TopicX/SubtopicA Talk" and "TopicX/SubtopicB Talk", and make the appropriate links on those pages. --LDC

Folksonomy, tagging as in flickr - is that a way forward (perhaps it is already implemented somehow in Wikipedia... I am new to this)

I once pondered the advantages of hierarchical categorization versus topically or relationally tagged categorization, and came to the conclusion that it might be a good idea to use both. I'm not sure Wikimedia projects are set up this way, but I have seen other systems that are. If tags were to be used here, though, we should standardize them; all the folksonomic endeavors I've seen allow you to make up your own tags, which is not suitable for a factual reference. Maybe something like the Library of Congress Classification would be a good start for tagging. B7T 16:48, 8 May 2006 (UTC)[reply]

See also: