The Friday Fillip: Wikipedia Portals

I’ve used Wikipedia since its inception but only came across its portals the other day. Remember portals? They were like books — no, more like books of notes for books — in which the portaler structured a topic and linked out to webpages chosen to be relevant and interesting (“curated” we would have said last year). I suppose that they fell into disuse for a bunch of reasons, two of which would be Google and link rot: In a somewhat scary way, a Google search result is a kind of portal, especially when supplemented by a Knowledge Graph, itself a mini-portal of the kind confronting Alice before she drank the Kool-Aid. And link rot, the other side of which is perpetual site maintenance, will rapidly erode any portal’s usefulness.

Too, there’s the tendency — I’ve certainly noted it in myself — to think one already knows the big picture and, when wanting to learn something, aiming for as narrow a target as possible, which is generally to say a simple Wikipedia page, or, indeed, only a part of one.

Still, I’m surprised to find yet another instance of the seemingly indefatigable Wikipedia crowd-energy at work. There are 1,133 Wikipedia Portals, of which 166 are “Featured”, meaning they’ve met certain standards (“useful . . . attractive . . . ergonomic . . . well-maintained” among others). There’s no overarching organization, though, that directs the creation or improvement of this or that portal, so topics range from the somewhat abstruse (e.g. Biological warfare) to the vast (e.g. Africa).

Let me pick for a sample the modest and straightforward portal on Mahayana Buddhism. There’s a succinct summary at the outset and, logically, a link to the relevant Wikipedia page. Then you’re offered excerpts of a “Selected article,” drawn in this case from another Wikipedia page on the “Diamon Sutra,” and a selected biography of a representative of the religion, here one Nagarjuna, whose life and teachings are explored on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. These “selections” continue (picture, artwork, scripture, quote, practice, school, news item . . . ), each offering a foretaste of the webpage source, which is typically, but not exclusively, Wikipedia.

There is a wide range of other featured portals, not all of them keyed to highschool / undergrad levels of learning — at least not so far as my limited knowledge goes. Some, like the portal on statistics , for example, move a bit awkwardly from intro level material to advanced level stuff without the gently rolling, elongated learning curve you’d really like to see. Others, like the portal on philosophy of science, seem to offer you more gently graded sets of steps, referring you to various relevant Wikipedia categories, which in turn branch into dozens of particular pages, much more like the table of contents of a text. Still others are testaments to enthusiasms, such as the portal on cricket, which may explain the game to you but will certainly offer you all the minutiae you can handle and more, as it drills ever deeper into the willow-bat world.

But take a walk on the wild side and have a look at all thousand-plus portals. The directory offers you the start dates for the portals, and it’s easy enough when you get to one you fancy to click on the “View History” tab to see how well it’s been updated. And when you’ve stimulated your creativity to a sufficient pitch, consider creating a portal of your own. This page will help you get started. I know for a fact that in Slaw’s readership there is a very large contingent of assemblers, explainers, organizers, arrangers, and generally helpful people; this is a perfect outlet for these energies.

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