The importance of Wikipedia, from a user-experience perspective.

by phil on Tuesday Aug 15, 2006 5:45 PM

A new kind of learning is dawning. Instead of learning core chunks of information, we are learning meta-information. The hyperlinks are becoming more important to us than the content at the end of those hyperlinks. Bookmarking should have a different connotation that involves a mental process. I read Wikipedia not to learn anything, but to remember that so-and-so keyword yielded x-y-z kind of results.

Bill Gates asked for it, and he got it: "information at your fingertips." He actually got it more than he wanted. While he just wanted people to use PCs, information is actually, in a way, literally at your fingertips. In about 2 seconds of keystrokes, I can jump to and scan in a Wikipedia article. Wasn't it like the information was floating right above my fingernails? It's as if I just had to do some finger movements, and that information jumped from the edges of my fingers, through the nerves into my arm, up my spine and into my head. Searching for information on the web is almost getting as fast as ordinary human recall.

In the grand scheme of things, searching for information on Wikipedia is a categorically different user experience than Googling. Googling is more like foraging, Wikipedia is more like recall. This has a lot to do with the consistency of the information on Wikipedia, which is similar to the consistency of an encyclopedia. In an encyclopedia, when you look up a famous historical figure, you know what kind of information you're going to get. Same with Wikipedia. Googling, on the other hand, is still extremely inconsistent. Google searches the entire Web, which has no rules. On Wikipedia, poorly written content gets marked with "this needs a cleanup." Eventually, most of the content becomes Wikipedian. Web content, on the other hand, doesn't become more Googly.

The nature of these two mediums can be described using probability: On Wikipedia, since you know beforehand what you're going to get, the usage is more probabilistic; Google, on the other hand, is more possibilistic.

Some computer Geeks will try to liken Google to a command prompt, where what you type determines what you get. But because Google is so indeterministic, it is not really a command prompt. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is. My use-case confirms this. I've set up Firefox to have "Wikipedia ____keyword____" a command I type in the URL field. Lately, it's dawned on me how spontaneous a look-up is. Someone called me on the phone and asked me a question, and I didn't even respond back with, "hold on, let me look it up." My fingers just twitched into action, like a reflex, and within seconds I was conversant.

Marshall McLuhan, the great theorist on media studies, likens mediums as an extension of the human body: cameras are just mechanical eyes, and cars are just mechanical legs. The world of new mediums is exploding with new possibilities right now, and so is our relationship with the machine.


Oh man said on October 8, 2007 11:39 AM:

thank you.

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