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Wikipedia commentary Save the subpages

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I looked through LMS' arguments against subpages, and as far as I can tell these are all based on the idea that a fixed hierarchial arrangement of material is a bad thing. I tend to agree that such a fixed hierarchy is unhelpfull. However, it seems to me that to argue that subpages should be destroyed based on this involves the strong assumption that all pages contain wikipedia material, and they do not and should not. Talk pages are the main exception, but others have appeared - Alternate and Old, for instance. Moreover, occasionally one might find material which is length enough to deserve its own page but still sufficiently tied to the article not to warrant its own, and here I am thinking of bibliographies and lists of further reading.

All of these things can be done without subpages. However, subpages are convenient for the job, as the save one the trouble of retyping the name of the article and of back-linking from the page. It doesn't sound like much work, but it adds up, and we already have a feature that helps us with it. Also, I think subpages make the distinction between content and meta-content immediately apparent: articles should never be subpages, so a subpage is instantly recognizable as something else. In short, I think the articles presented do not mean that subpages are a bad thing, but that subpages misused are a bad thing.

Misuse of a feature seems like something a wiki should stop with social norms, not by taking the feature away (that's after all why most wikis don't support HTML, and I think we all want to see that stay), or by trying to force it to be used properly. After all, if good reasons are presented for prohibiting a certain activity, it will be prevented, and then if circumstances change - admittedly unlikely, but why not allow for the possibility - it will be permitted again. That sort of flexibility is in large part why wikis work.

One more thing to consider is what will happen to pages which describe a fictional world, as Middle Earth, where the subpages have relevance only or primarily inside that domain, and potentially conflict with other things. Yes, one could go through and put everything as Elf (Middle Earth), but then every time a person wanted to link the word they would have to type [ [Elf (Middle Earth)|Elf] ] rather than just /Elf, which would probably get very old very fast. Convenience of this type is not a necessity but should not be underestimated.

Larry, did I miss some critical section of your arguments, or is there something obviously wrong in the above that I am not catching?

Here's my take on it all - ManningBartlett

"Sort-of save the subpages", by Manning

Executive summary

  • Subpages as a whole need to be eliminated, as they are being used for conflicting purposes.
  • The wiki software needs to be able to define a "page type". Two page types can immediately be identified - wikipages (eg. real articles like Alaska) and metapages (eg. ManningBartlett/To_Do).
  • The distinction in page types is expressed in the behaviour of the Search engine - metapages are ignored by the engine.

The article

The current subpage system has the following restrictions:

A main page is restricted to a hierarchical depth of 1. Hence Topic/subtopic A and Topic/subtopic B are possible. Topic/subtopic A/sub-subtopic C is not possible.

Subpages are identified in the code by the forward slash symbol. (I personally regard the change of coding from page/sub-page to page -- subpage as irrelevant as nothing functionally different has occurred.)

My observations:

Sub-topics have four main uses in the Wikipedia. I have broken them into two categories - those "about" but not "of" the Encyclopedia, and those which are actually part of the content of the Encyclopedia. They are treated separately.

Subpages "about" the Wikipedia (defined as "metapages")

1: Subpages that provide a discussion/developmental forum such as "/Talk"

2: As an organisational tool for personal use. Witness the numerous "to do" lists (etc) on pages such as mine, Larry's and many others.

The first two categories are arguably not a part of the Wikipedia. Were we writing a "traditional" encyclopedia, these subpages would constitute the personal files, notes and inter-department memos that are a necessary aspect of the Encyclopedia project, but not of the Encyclopedia itself. Loosely adapting a technical term, this is metapages (pages about the pages).

From reading Larry's notes [1] and the comments of others it would seem that many accept and support this usage. If we were to produce a "hard copy" version of the Wikipedia (read DVD or similar) we would logically exclude all of these pages from the finished product, just as the publishers of Brittanica do not include the "inter-department memos" in their finished product.

Sub-pages "within" the Wikipedia

1: to serve as an improper cross-reference to related material.
2: to serve as an proper cross-reference to related material.

OK - now we enter a realm of opinion as to what is proper and/or improper. Hopefully all would agree that Australia/Sydney is improper, as Sydney deserves to be a main article.

Let's take a slightly more vague example: "Philosophers/Wittgenstein". To me, this is identical to the above. Wittgenstein deserves his own entry.

OK, let's make it harder: "Wittgenstein/Philosophical thinking".
The alternatives are

  • "Wittgenstein - Philosophical thinking" (a separate page),
  • "Wittgenstein" and a heading somewhere down the page reading "Philosophical thinking".

My vote is for "Wittgenstein - Philosophical thinking" as a separate page, and appropriate cross-links on the biography page. My reasoning follows.

Hierarchical thought - implicit vs explicit.

This is an explicit hierarchy:

  • Australia
See also : Wikipedia commentaryAustralia/Sydney
See also : Wikipedia commentaryAustralia/Sydney/Public transport system

This is an implicit hierarchy:

  • Australia
See also : Wikipedia commentarySydney, Australia
See also : Wikipedia commentarySydney, Australia - public transport system

Each page in this latter hierarchy is a separate page, yet they are all logically associated. So what we are arguing about is not whether subpages should exist, but about the choice between an implicit or an explicit heirarchy.

"Hierarchy" (at least in the information management industry) has a very rigid definition - "one parent, one or more children". The reality is, however, that no article in the Wikipedia is in a hierarchy.

So lets meet a (potentially new) term) - Heterarchy. Descendants with multiple parents are in "heterarchies (for a lovely diagram of a heterarchy see [2]) I am contending that ALL articles in the Wikipedia are heterarchical in nature. Hence Sydney is a descendant category of Australia, Regional capitals (and not national, dammit), Lord Sydney, New South Wales, Olympics, etc etc etc.

I challenge anyone to find a heirarchy in the Wikipedia (in the sense of "one parent").

During the creation of an article I am COMPLETELY in favour of "chunkifying" an article into "metapages" of the type described earlier. (Note - metapages get ignored by the search engine). This gives me a development environment, and also prevents me from creating endless duplicate pages on the same topic (one person creates Sydney as a child category of Olympics, another creates Olympics as a child of Sydney, etc).

However, even in this context the administrator should have the facility to a) retrieve all attached metapages, and b) convert any he/she sees fit to actual pages and c) using a script, correct the link entries on the originating pages.

Even an article such as "Wittgenstein - Bibliography" deserves to be on it's own - after all this is a child category of "Bibliographies" as well.

Most people's objection to the removal of subpages involves arguments along the lines of "but it belongs together!" Here we are thinking in terms of a paper encyclopedia instead of a naturally heterarchical medium like the Wiki environment. Yes they do belong together, but this doesn't mean they need to be linked via subpages - after all it is in reality just a bunch of ones and zeros on a hard drive somewhere.

The chief obstacle to removing the subpages is the fact that we cannot put commas, dashes and other punctuation into page titles. When that is repaired, I can see the need for subpages being removed entirely, except with regards to the metapages defined earlier.

OK, I think I'm done for now.

Two notes. One, as argued above, that a feature is being used for conflicting purposes is not an argument to trash the feature, it is an argument to stop using it for one or the other purpose. Two, some pages actually do associate to one and only one other. Bibliography pages might not, although I really don't see how the references of one page matter at all to another, but Talk and Alternate pages certainly do. Such things don't need subpages, but they are more conveniently placed there - for instance moving is easier when the links don't need to be renamed - and I think this convenience is being neglected.

Minor correction: we can use commas and dashes in titles, at least with the current software. We cannot use most other punctuation including apostraphes and parentheses.

See also : Wikipedia commentary