terça-feira, 10 de fevereiro de 2009

A better tool for collaborative creation of books

Despite some controversies about Wikipedia trustworthiness and policies, the fact is that it is the best tool we have to collaboratively build and organize human knowledge. The whole idea of the project invites people to collaborate. Even people like me, who rarely edit an entry, feel comfortable to do so, when we think the intervention will add value to the content.

However, I really feel uncomfortable when doing more profound edits, such as a major article reestructuring or rewriting, deleting or moving large blocks of text, changing the sequence of sections or the overall structure of an existing entry. I feel like being disrespectful to all the people who built this text as it is, before me. And even believing that the text and sequence I have in mind is better than what is already there, I don't make the changes.

This kind of feeling causes the evolutionary process to halt in a certain maturity level of each entry. Stubs will be heavily edited, but larger articles tends to stay stable, even if its structure is not good yet. The content will continue to evolve, with localized edits and insertions, but the outlook tends to freeze.

Ok... many will say that this stabilization is natural, and even good for the overall process. We don't want that entries keep changing forever! - If you agree, look at Wikibooks.

Unlike Wikipedia, which is an outstanding success - with millions of mature, high-quality articles, and a large number of active, engaged collaborators, Wikibooks is almost a failure. I couldn't find a single high-quality book, in a reasonable state of maturity. Why is that?

In my opinion, a book requires a larger commitment with the structure than an encyclopedia article. Books are written to be didactic, while an encyclopedia entry has only to be informative, and accurate. The focus of the encyclopedia is largely on the content, while the relevance of a book depends on both its content and structure.

Not being able to try, experiment and play with the structure, with the same freedom as with the content, the collaborators will not feel comfortable to engage, and leave. That's why Wikipedia has many more active collaborators than Wikibooks.

What is the problem?

wikipedia and wikibooks use the same underlying software - the MediaWiki. Although it has proven to be extraordinary for building a free encyclopedia, it's not performing well for creating books. MediaWiki does not separate content from structure and formatting. These three distinct things are tied together, in the same file, as a messy stream of texts and tags. For one-page articles, it may be acceptable, even practical; for larger things, like a book, dealing with the structure, content and formatting becomes clumsy.

Imagine you are a potential collaborator of a wikibook. You largely agree with the accuracy of the content, but you dislikes the sequence of things. What do you do? Will you feel encouraged to collaborate, with contents, even if you disagrees with structure? Will you change the structure, probably starting an edit-war? or will you simply leave, and let this book as it is, possibly starting you own book stub, with the sequence you have in mind?

What is the solution?

Imagine a tool that allows the separation of content, format and structure. Each paragraph, table, equation or image being a unit of content, identifiable by a reference, and a meaningful title. Each of these units has its own versioning history, allowing each user to decide wether to stuck with a version or another.

Now imagine that each user may have his own view for all this content. The view is just a personal way to look at the content, linking it together, organizing it, giving it a sequence, a structure. Each view is also a unit of content, with its own id , title and history. So, a sequence of paragraphs will form a section (a view), a sequence of sections will form a chapter (a view of views), a sequence of chapters will form a book. Anyone who disagrees with one particular organization is free to create your own view, but reusing the same content.

Some will say that this is possible to do in MediaWiki, and I agree, but it is not a feature, it is a hack. Definitely, MediaWiki is not built to work in this way.

What do you think about it? is this a good idea or not? is there some tool like that? can MediaWiki be changed to behave like that?

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