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Wikipedia is too hard: A suggestion

Frequently we consult encyclopedias because a concept came up in conversation or in something we’re reading, and we need to know just enough about it to be able to move on. But it seems to me that more and more frequently Wikipedia’s explanations are too hard and too detailed for this.

For example, if Planck’s Constant came up in something I was reading and I needed to know just enough to make sense of it, here’s how Wikipedia begins its explanation:

Wikipedia first paragraph about Planck's Constant

That may be fine for a physics student, but I need something more like this:

Simple Wikipedia's Planck Constant explanation

Much better.

That happens to come from the Simple Wikipedia. If the article you’re looking at has the address, replace the “en” with “simple” ( and often you’ll get a far more intelligible answer. Well, “often” means 113,937 articles in English so far.

One of the reasons Simple Wikipedia’s opening paragraphs are clearer than Regular Old Wikipedia’s is that Regular’s explanations often think that links replace explanations: you don’t have to explain “proportionality constant” if you link it to its Wikipedia article. That’s great for browsing on a quiet Sunday afternoon, but not great if you’re looking up something in service of understanding something else. Linking instead of explaining seems to me to be lazy.

So here’s a request for someone to write a browser extension that, when you hover over a link in a WP page, pops up the first paragraph of the linked article. If there’s a Simple WP version, it should pop up that first paragraph. Getting an explanation without leaving the page is not just a convenience. It would help preserve the reading experience and improve comprehension.

If this also encouraged writing first paragraphs that are clear enough that they let us get a quick hit of understanding and then move on, so much the better.

In fact, if I were King of Wikipedia, I’d take the first paragraphs of all 113,937 Simple Wikipedia articles and make them the first paragraph of the articles of which they are the simplifications. And then I would retire to my Wiki Castle and drink some wiki mead.

As i was poking around for a bad example of a first paragraph, I came across many good examples. Here’s just one:

In the late 19th century, luminiferous aether, æther or ether, meaning light-bearing aether, was the postulated medium for the propagation of light. It was invoked to explain the ability of the apparently wave-based light to propagate through empty space, something that waves should not be able to do.

Got it! Thank you, Wikipedia!

6 Responses to “Wikipedia is too hard: A suggestion”

  1. I think that one reason for this is that it’s much easier to add to an article than to edit it. Very often you can skip down several paragraphs and find an easy-to-understand definition that someone added at one point. It’s sort of scary to delete or move existing paragraphs, so the person adding the simple definition just adds it down below.

  2. Could be. You’re certainly right that it’s easier to edit than create. Creating a new article is a pretty daunting task these days, both because the quality requirement are so high and because the rules have gotten so complex; the complexity of the rules helps to keep the quality high.

    Still, I wish there were more of an emphasis on getting that first paragraph right. Or maybe there is. Wikipedia is a pretty awesomely self-knowing and self-critical place.

  3. Linking rather than explaining is an informed kind of laziness because it is important to maintainability. If you duplicate an explanation rather than link to it, your duplication is liable to go out of date as the (unreferenced) explanation gets updated over time. Duplication (or in the end multiplication many times) is a direct route to information rot.

  4. […] the opening paragraph looks like it was written for somebody who knows a lot more than you do? Look up something like Planck’s Constant and you’ll see the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia version looks like it was intended for a […]

  5. Great point, Jeremy.

    That makes getting the first paragraph right even more important. It’s also an argument in favor of popping that first paragraph up when hovering over a link.

  6. Great thoughts and ideas.

    And how did you know we went to NJ’s only meadery Melovino) yesterday and tasted some. It was actually quite good and, according to them, is the first alcoholic beverage and the only one that can be made by nature alone.

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