May 6, 2009

Wikinography Part 4: Let’s Talk (User pages and more)

Over the past few months I had become aware of something called a ‘talk’ page. Talk pages are always ‘attached’ to an associated article page, and their subject matter is meant to be the deliberation and nuts-and-bolt development of that article. In this way, while the main article title may be ‘Anthropology’, the associated talk page would be ‘Talk:Anthropology’. The article itself stands as the accomplishment, the general front face of Wikipedia at any given time. On the other hand the talk page, at least by design, is a tool for that accomplishment, a means to create that end.

The talk page is also referred to as the ‘discussion page’, and this is an apt description. By examining any given article’s talk page, one can see the diverseness of its historical evolution, and the conflict mediation that had to occur during the path to its present incarnation. To give you an idea of the volume of discourse this can produce, many of these talk pages are so vast that they feature a ‘Talk archive’. In the case of the article on the recently inaugurated Presidnet Obama, the archive has fifty-two archived talk pages, each one of which is no less than the equivalent of thirty printed pages.

In some cases these talk pages are linked not to an article page but instead to a user. I decided to take advantage of my own and make it a grounds for discussion amongst the editors I contacted as informants. I was surprised to find it (pictured right) swelling quickly to a cumbersome mass in the days following my registration as a unique user. Indeed, it grew almost immediately to a size that, at least for me, felt unmanageable.

As for the user pages themselves, the most concise description is that of a multipurpose space of identification. When I say identification I mean both attributed and self-inscribed, and I say multipurpose because they inhabit both a stylistic/personal space, relatively remote from the formal purposes of Wikipedia, as well as information that functions core to those purposes.

The functional aspects of user pages are often an editor’s interests or technical specifications[2], and both kinds of information are frequently identified in the form of a ‘babel box’. For instance, taking my cue from many prolific editors, such as Casliber, I added some boxes to my own user description (pictured on the next page).

According to Wikipedia’s own description, Babel boxes were originally intended to indicate language comprehension, which helped to augment discourse and facilitate translation projects. Somehow over time the function of the babel clearly expanded to include all sorts, ranging from project affiliation to social occupation — even frivolous humor.

2. In this case interests can be interpreted as a function because it may indicate an expertise on or ready availability for certain article topics.


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