Over the past few years I have done a lot of observation and thinking about RationalWiki and its role in our stated mission. One of the big questions we as a site have to be able to answer is “why RationalWiki?” Why should someone sign up and contribute to us? Why should someone use us as a resource? Why should someone support us?
These big questions often revolve around other potential sources of information. It takes the form of “Why contribute to RationalWiki when Wikipedia is bigger and better and with a wider audience?” Or “Why should I support RationalWiki when there are all ready far more established skeptical organizations and resources on the Internet?”
To answer these questions we have to identify where RationalWiki's niche is in the information super highway. This discussion by its very nature will need to talk about our “competition” but this should not be construed as implying that we are in direct competition with other sources. In fact, I am a strong supporter of most, if not all, of these other sources. However, in understanding what RationalWiki brings to the table we have to talk about where we compete with them, and where we do not. Where they are stronger, and where we are stronger.
- 1 RationalWiki's strengths
- 2 RationalWiki's weaknesses
- 3 Article effectiveness
- 4 So why RationalWiki?
- RationalWiki is fast – Our time from inception of an idea to full publication can be a matter of seconds, or on average an hour or so. It is tough to beat this kind of turn around time, both for current events and more general production.
- RationalWiki is collaborative – Our articles draw easily upon multiple people with multiple areas of expertise. Multiple brains coming up with multiple good ideas. And the collaborative editing process is fun in and of itself.
- RationalWiki has no practical space limitations – For all intents and purposes our article space is limitless. We also have only a few limits on inclusion of material, mostly focused around on/off mission. Space limitations, or lack of notability or third party sources is not a limit on what we cover
- RationalWiki is a volunteer project – This is great for several reasons, it means that anyone at any time can come over and start contributing, updating or fixing errors and it also keeps our overhead down to merely technical infrastructure and cost for content production.
- RationalWiki's resources are limited – We are limited in terms of our man power and financial resources. We don't have millions of editors to produce content, or millions of dollars to expand infrastructure, launch public relations campaigns, or hold conferences with invited speakers in Hawaii.
- RationalWiki's reputation is spotty – We have to be willing to look at how others view us. Our reputation is spotty, we are seen as the “anti-conservapedia” which might limit participation or how serious our articles on other topics are taken. Also many people view us as essentially an Uncyclopedia with a topic.
- RationalWiki is not a search engine power house – The majority of our pages return relatively low on search queries, particularly when covered heavily by other major power houses of information.
- RationalWiki is a volunteer project – When you're not paying people to create content, you're limited in what you can do, by what people are willing to do for free.
An article can be said to be effective when it becomes the go to source for a topic. Sometimes the topic of an article is relatively popular and it gets a lot of page views, sometimes its popularity is very limited but when someone wants information on it they come across our articles early on in their research. The goal of this section is to discuss general categories of articles and how effective they are relative to other sources of information. They will be ordered from least effective to most effective, though things can get a big muddy, so its a rough approximation.
The big static topics
These are topics that don't change much and have been popular concepts, sometimes for thousands of years. They can range from general science topics related loosely to our mission such as evolution to extremely on mission topics that just have been covered extensively everywhere such as cold reading or pseudoscience. It can also cover general reasoning articles such as one on logic or cognitive bias.
Many of these articles are great sources of information and should be encouraged as RationalWiki will have something unique to say about them. But their effectiveness is limited by the fact that everyone else has already talked about them. Wikipedia will probably have a better article about the topic, as will the Standford philosophy encyclopedia, or things like the skeptics encyclopedia.
These are a bit tricky though, since when someone discovers the site they are also the first topics that someone is likely to search for. So they need to be covered, and covered well. But its a double edge sword because people can essentially say “well its not bad but its nothing new.”
Mission friendly static sub-topics
A bit unwieldy of a title but these are heavily on mission sub-topics of the bigger static topics. A good example of this might be our common descent article which is a solid on mission article that is a sub-topic of the more general evolution article. Another good example of this might be our water memory article. Another source for these article are articles about a specific logical fallacy such as our no true Scotsman article.
These articles tend to be more effective than the big static topics because there are too many to be covered by other skeptical resources. These alternative resources often have to focus on the bigger topics and take a more general approach because they are written by only a few people, often paid, and are space limited. This means that our primary competition is only other Web 2.0 type media like blogs, forums, and of course wikipedia.
Some of these sub-topics can rank pretty high on search terms, and are often fairly popular topics that people will be researching.
We haven't had too many of these in our main space, as most of them have focused around conservapedia. The Lenski affair is a great example, as well as the Conservapedia Bible Project. These are topics that are happening right now, and play into our strength of a fast run around time and collaborative editing. We can get a general reference article about a topic turned around in a matter of hours and make up-to-the-second adjustments to its content.
However, effectiveness is a bit limited here for two reasons. The first is that current events are usually transitory and while an article might get a ton of hits while its happening its life time effectiveness goes down dramatically once the big uproar is over. The second is that big major events that get extensive coverage from the media and blogs by their very nature dilute us as the go to resource on the topic.
Notable, very on mission articles
These are articles that are very on mission, and notable per wikipedia standards but that are often too new or not big enough to be covered heavily but other static sources of information. These have a tendency to be articles on people more than anything. Such as Esther Hicks or William Dembski. However sometimes they can be conspiracy theories or woo such as Project Blue Beam.
As I said these articles are helped in their effectiveness by the fact that they are smaller topics, or newer topics that major sources of skeptical information can't really cover them. Since we don't have to cover them with a neutral point of view we are less in direct competition with wikipedia since we can offer two very different articles. Still, wikipedia will be the primary source of information for these topics since they do have an article on them.
Fringe notability articles
These are smaller topics that are often pretty popular but just barely fail to meet the notability requirements for a Wikipedia article. The classic example here is Poe's Law but also Gish Gallop is a good one that is covered in Wikipedia but folded into their general article on Duane Gish.
These topics are small enough or new enough that standard skeptical sources of information can't or haven't covered them, and the lack of notability means that we often become the go to source for these articles.
However, because these topics are still fairly popular other Web 2.0 sources cover them and we get a bit diluted by blog posts, forum posts and the like.
Non-notable mission articles
These are topics that completely fail the notability requirements for wikipedia and aren't popular enough to have extensive coverage in blogs and other Web 2.0 media. These can be specific people such as Seán Manchester or Andrew Moulden. Or specific woo topics such as homotoxicology.
Here we become often the only skeptical resource available on the topic. While not as popular in terms of page views as Poe's law, these pages have a chance to be extremely effective by offering specific refutations to material that would normal go ignored. We are often top or near top on google searches for these terms.
Specific scams, organizations, and people
These are probably some of our most effective articles, they go after a specific organization, scam or person that is being completely ignored elsewhere. While limited in page views the effectiveness of these articles can often be seen when I get an e-mail demanding a take down or change in content. The most recent example being our Dynamiclear article.
So why RationalWiki?
Lets revisit the earlier questions asked and try and answer them based on this discussion of our strengths and our effectiveness.
- Why should I contribute to RationalWiki, particularly when alternatives that are bigger and better?
- You should contribute to RationalWiki because your contributions can make a difference in making this world a little more rational. While alternatives exist they have some major weaknesses that are our strengths. Most of the skeptical alternatives are static resources that you can't change, update, add to or fix errors. They are what they are and can only be changed by a handful of people that no longer really work on them.
- Wikipedia is also seen as major competition, but it is highly limited. Yes, if you want to write a general purpose article on a 17th century enlightenment principle you would probably get higher profile coverage at Wikipedia. However, for major topics Wikipedia has already covered it, exhaustively. There may be no room for your contributions. More than that your limited in the tone you can use, it must remain neutral, and the biggest limitation is on notability and original research. Want to cover a specific psychic that really pisses you off? You can't unless the NY Time did a piece on them. Here at RationalWiki you can cover any one and we support original research.
- For specific scams, people and organizations that are fleecing the public and general making the world a worse place RationalWiki offers probably the single best infrastructure for fighting the fight for rationality.
- Why should I use RationalWiki as a resource?
- RationalWiki makes a good resource for many topics your just not going to find elsewhere, and even if you do the punches are pulled and the criticism diluted. We are also a collaborative project with many eyes and brains working to create new content without extensive topic limitation and to fix errors and update content on a timely basis.
- Why should I support RationalWiki?
- We are all ready highly effective at fighting irrationality, woo, quack medicine and other scams. We are a unique source on the Internet able to provide extremely fast turn around, we are not limited in tone or topic coverage like other resources. We are having a direct effect on a lot of the really nasty stuff out there.
- We are not going anywhere, and many of our big weaknesses can be lessened merely by existing over time. More people will come and contribute, our static topic articles will move the search engine ranks and we will have the chance to become the go to sources of information for many topics that we currently struggle with.
- And finally, some of our greatest limitations are in place, because we get little in terms of financial support. If more people did support us financially the sky is the limit for what we can accomplish.