A Wiki for Questions

by weathersystems4 min read11th May 202118 comments

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World Modeling
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Q&A sites

Sites like stackexchange, r/askscience, quora, and lesswrong.com/questions all have a similar format. One person asks a question. Everyone gives their own answer. You can vote on answers to (hopefully) raise the best answer to the top. When the answer becomes out of date, if you're lucky, the original author will update their comment.

There are some benefits with this approach.  

Competition

Each answer competes with the other answers for top position. This competition does a decent job at sorting out the good from the bad answers.

Reward

These sites usually have some sort of karma system where you get cred for writing better answers. Maybe that reward system motivates people to answer questions more often? Seems at least possible.

Ease

The format is very easy to understand. If you have a question, ask it. If you know an answer to a question and want to help out, you give your answer. There is no complicated coordination required. If you're reading through the answers and think one is best, upvote.

There are also some key problems with this approach.

Duplicate questions

All those sites have many duplicate questions. Even stackexchange only flags duplicates without removing them. Duplicate questions make searching for answers inefficient. They also make writing answers inefficient, as you may be covering the same ground someone else has on a duplicate question.

Duplicate answers

Even on a single question post, you'll have many different answers. One per commenter. The asker of the question or (more importantly) the person who finds this post from google, is left to sort through the answers and make a judgement call on which one is best. That shouldn't be the job of the person who writes or reads the question. Presumably they're not experts on the topic... as they're the ones who don't know the answer. 

There is the voting mechanism, true, but it's not perfect. I often find the best answer on a stackoverflow post is the 5th one down, mostly because it's more up to date. Which brings me to...

Stale questions and answers

Answerers often can update their answers over time, but most don't (god bless the few who do). But it's not the answerers' fault for not keeping their comment up to date. They just tried to answer someone's question, they didn't sign on for maintaining their post for the rest of time. Because answers are very often stale, you can't really trust any one answer too much, even assuming the top answer was very high quality when it was written.

Only one person can update an answer

This one may be harder to see as a problem. The problem of stale answers is due in large part because only one person can edit each answer. If we could all edit the top answer, stale answers would be more likely to be updated. 

But there are other problems an answer might have besides being stale. It might be a bit strangely worded, too short or too long, inaccurate, or missing important details. Often people will comment suggested changes to answers. Sometimes the answerer updates their answer and sometimes not. If not, you may not see the crucial flaw in the answer unless you read all the comments. Often it would be better if people could just update the answer directly.

[note: Nathan Arthur pointed out in the comments that on stackexchange people can actually update other people's answers]

The Question Wiki

To me a much more natural format for collective question answering is a wiki. The question would be the title of the page, and the body of the page would be the "answer". Any duplicate questions would be merged. Any duplicate answers would be merged.

The page could more easily be kept up to date as anyone could update it. And anyone could improve it, even in very minor ways. Because there would only be one response to the question, that forces us to synthesize different people's arguments, evidence, and opinions so the future reader doesn't have to. Where views diverge, we'd lay out the different viewpoints and how they relate to each other.

Some subset of the questions would be open questions. In that case each page would track relevant sources, related questions, possible/proposed answers, possible experiments to decide between the answers etc. Basically the page would distill where the frontier of knowledge is on that question, and possible ways to push that frontier forward.

You could still have individual comments, just in the discussion page related to the question. I'm imagining this would be essentially the same setup as the polymath project, only completely general (that is, not limited to math questions).

I think there are some downsides to this format, mainly the costs of coordination. You'll probably need more bureaucracy, more rules and norms. My guess is that it would be worth it though.

So I made this wiki: openquestions.wiki. The wiki is already useful, in the sense that I've been getting use out of it as a way to organize my own questions I'm interested in. Whether the thing gets much use from people besides me is yet to be seen. I give it about a 15% chance that more than a few hundred people will regularly use it.

Not everything is worked out yet. What questions should be allowed on the site? Should the site continue to exist or be merged with other similar projects (maybe Wikiversity)? What should the rules be? How do we know when to merge two question pages? These and many more questions will need to be answered. My idea is that those just become their own wiki pages to be answered collectively.

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Should the site continue to exist or be merged with other similar projects (maybe Wikiversity)?

I find it unlikely that the project would best exist outside of Wikimedia. 

I agree. My two questions with regards to that are:
 

  1. Would they accept this as a sister project? The last time they took on a sister project was something like 10 years ago (iirc)
  2. Would it be better placed as it's own Wikimedia project or could it be merged with Wikiversity?

Last year a new movement strategy for Wikimedia was decided and part of it is the desire to add new forms of content.

One new project that's at the moment in the process of formation is Wikifunctions. 

I don't know Wikiversity well. Given that WikiJournals decided to work within that umbrellla, it might make sense to do this also under it's umbrella. 

There's Wikispore that was created as a testbed for new Wikis. 

Thanks. I'd heard of wikispore, but not wikifunctions. That looks cool.

Small projects = few contributions. Large projects = lots of drama. Humans are an asset and a liability.

For me it is a surprise that large projects, such as Stack Exchange or Wikipedia, do not collapse immediately under their own weight. Could this be a survivor bias? Maybe the reason I know about these projects is because these are the ones that did not collapse... How many similar projects have failed?

Stack Exchange does many things wrong, and it is obvious how a smart and dedicated person could do it better. It is not obvious whether the alternative could grow large enough to be comparable to Stack Exchange and still remain good.

Ya I think you're basically right here. Which is why I'm not really hoping to "grow large enough to be comparable to Stack Exchange and still remain good." In fact even growing large enough and being sucky seems very hard.

My goal is just to make something that's useful to individuals. I figure if I get use out of the thing when working alone, maybe other people would too.

StackExchange only flags duplicates, that's true, but the reason is so that search is more efficient, not less. The duplicate serves as a signpost pointing to the canonical question.

Also, StackExchange does indeed allow edits to answers by people other than the original poster. Those with less than a certain amount of reputation can only propose an edit and someone else has to approve it, and those who have a higher level of reputation can edit any answer and have the edit immediately go into effect.

StackExchange only flags duplicates, that's true, but the reason is so that search is more efficient, not less. The duplicate serves as a signpost pointing to the canonical question.


Ya I get that. But why keep all the answers and stuff from the duplicates? My idea with the question wiki was to keep the duplicate question page (because maybe it's worded a bit differently and would show up differently in searches), have a pointer to the canonical question, and remove the rest of the content on that page, combining it with the canonical question page.

Also, StackExchange does indeed allow edits to answers by people other than the original poster. Those with less than a certain amount of reputation can only propose an edit and someone else has to approve it, and those who have a higher level of reputation can edit any answer and have the edit immediately go into effect.

Huh. That's new to me. Thanks for the info. That may affect my view on the need for the question wiki. I'll have to think about it. Maybe I gotta take a closer look at stackexchange.

You may also be interested in the StackOverflow Documentation project (now defunct). I think it attempted to do something closer to what you're suggesting.

Thx. I'll check it out.

I've also been working on a wiki-based question and answer site for the past few months (stampy.ai), with the much more limited scope of AI existential safety. Happy to share my thoughts, I'm messaging you an invite link to the Discord we've been using.

I like this idea.

Is it possible to integrate other sources as some sort of module / building block?

  • Perhaps wikipedia as "Basics"?
  • or youtube to show an experiment?
  • papers: I imagine that for most questions you also would need studies/papers. For some problems ("Is smoking healthy?") there are studies pro and contra. (In this example the pros are obviously paid by tabacco companies.)
    But it is difficult for non-professionals to sort through studies and find relevant ones. (And prove why those are the relevant ones.)

I'm not sure I'm getting your question.

I think mediawiki (the software that runs both wikipedia and this question wiki) only allows text by default. But there's no reason why the pages can't just link to relevant sources. And in fact probably some questions should be answered with just one link to the relevant wikipedia page. 

Ideally pages should synthesize relevant sources but I think just listing sources is better than nothing.

MediaWiki supports plugins, so in theory you could write your own plugin with any functionality you need... in practice, this could turn out to be a lot of work.

It's a cool idea, but the network effect is an unfortunate obstacle. 

By "network effect" do you mean this? I take the network effect to be a problem here only if the wiki requires a large amount of people to be useful. 

My hope is that the wiki should be useful even for a very small number of people. For example, I get use out of it myself just as a place to put some notes that I want to show to people and as a way of organizing my own questions.

It could very well be useful for that, but most people want to reach a larger audience when asking questions. 

Ah ya I see what you're saying. Ya that's definitely right. Certainly the most common kind of question asker online just wants to ask the highest number of the most qualified people their question and that's it. Unless/until the site has a large user base that won't really be possible on the wiki.

Still, I think as long as the thing is useful to some people it may be able to grow. But it may be useful to organize my thoughts better on exactly what the value is for single users.

One example that comes to mind is the polymath project. They found it useful to start a wiki to organize their projects. If anyone else wants to come along and do a similar thing, they can just use this wiki instead of making their own.