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wiki:style

Style

So you want to contribute? Great! This Wiki is a collaborative effort, and we'd love to see some fresh ideas. See Getting Started for how to set up an account and get going.

Our Wiki is what it is because of our voice and our viewpoint. These things are touched on in the home page and are implicitly present in the content. You presumably like our voice and generally agree with our view or you wouldn't want to contribute, but as a contributor you must explicitly consider voice and viewpoint in what you write. We see more than enough pompous bloviation and combative dialog, and are working to create something different. We aim to serve up clear thinking with a consistent spin.

Our Voice

The first thing to get used to is writing using first person plural (the royal we.) We sit somewhere between Wikipedia and a blog, and by saying “we” instead of using passive voice or “I” we instantly create a huge cognitive distance between us and both Wikipedia and a blog. Don't feel too self-conscious about putting in your opinions as “we”—it's hard to see how it's going to sound until you write it, and expressing an opinion is the first step in consensus among the contributors. However, you'll find that constantly writing “we” does serve as a valuable reminder to try to say things in a way that invites consensus. Imagine how Thomas Jefferson felt when he wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”

We are striving to articulate a particular story of the human condition and to explore the implications of this view for how we should behave. What does it mean? What should we do about it? We hope that our views and story will evolve in unexpected ways as we gain contributors.

Our use of “we” hints at the two conflicting core principles of our voice, which are: Don't Inflame and Don't Waffle. We use a neutral non-inflammatory voice similar to Wikipedia, but we aren't striving to make a balanced consensus presentation of all points of view. We try to avoid pushing people's hot-buttons so that we create an environment of open-minded inquiry, but we also know that some things are true and some aren't, and we aren't shy about saying it.

Don't Inflame

The basic principle of not inflaming is to assume that any long-deadlocked argument (either intellectual or political) has good points on both sides. In the rare cases where new evidence is strongly favoring the factual correctness of one side it still says something important about the human condition that so many perceive or wish it otherwise—we respect human perceptions and desires. Part of this is avoiding unconscious use of key words or tag phrases that are customarily associated with one side of the debate. For example, any use of the word “utopia” is strongly associated with conservative arguments against social change. This is a form of deliberate waffling, but in this case the end justifies the means.

Politics is of course the motherlode of uninformed deadlocked debate. There definitely are political and policy implications arising from our viewpoint and our findings, but we are politically homeless: we have no political party and don't occupy any recognized political position. To prevent our message from being lost in the “pigeon-hole and forget” filter of political perception, we avoid advocating public policy, instead recommending personal policies that you and your friends can adopt to make the world a better place.

Don't Waffle

This is mainly a matter of writing style, for which The Elements of Style is an excellent guide. In particular, we mean use the active voice, put statements in positive form, and omit needless words. See also the Wikipedia policy on weasel words.

Our Viewpoint

An important aspect of our viewpoint is that we take the long view. In order to avoid dating your writing avoid saying things like “recently X has happened to the economy.” You could say “the liquidity crisis of 2008” or whatever.

We also take a wide view, emphasizing universals of the human condition, though this is more of an aspiration than a fact. We try to move beyond “the way we live” and “the people we know”. Our best antidote to the narrowness of personal view is to recruit more contributors.

This viewpoint is very different from the typical blog, where the emphasis is on personal reactions to current events.

Discussion and Reflections

If you find that you really need to say “I”, then we have two mechanisms for incorporating first-person perspectives:

  • Discussion is lightweight, and functions much like in any blog. Just remember that although discussion is fun, the goal is to arrive at consensus and fold the content back into the main article.
  • Reflections are a unique feature of this wiki, and are an excellent way for bringing the meaning and feeling of life into discussion that might otherwise seem vague or cold. These subjective experiences are the most important thing in life, yet direct description often fails us. A story from our life or an artwork such as a poem or photo can reach these places.

External Resources

Because we're trying to synthesize all humanly relevant knowledge we can't possibly restate or even summarize it all. For matters of fact and summaries of peripheral controversies we freely refer to external sources, especially Wikipedia. For issues of interpretation that we care about but just haven't written about yet we make a stub page with a bit of spin and some external links (or just use an undefined internal link.)

We do link to other web resources, but we like Wikipedia for two reasons: technically, we can be reasonably sure that links to Wikipedia won't be broken, and semantically we trust Wikipedia's non-partisan voice to not contribute unintended spin to our efforts. Of course, Wikipedia's quality is variable, so read any article before you reference it.

Comparison to Wikipedia

We greatly admire Wikipedia, but we are trying to do something different. To use a metaphor from mathematical optimization, we are trying to explore a different corner of the multidimensional space of content policies. In a fascinating example of Cultural Evolution, Wikipedia has socially constructed a viewpoint that is highly optimized for collaborative construction of knowledge, but the need for consensus has put meaning out of bounds. We would like to keep what is good about Wikipedia, but complement it by analyzing vitally important matters that we care about passionately.

Optimization theory tells us that the way to find another local maximum is to do almost everything the same as Wikipedia, but pick a few areas to do something quite different. For example, the Wikipedia style recommendation to avoid weasel words is very similar to our don't waffle policy. We also mostly agree about words to watch, but we completely ignore the admonitions to avoid editorializing (notably, interestingly, it should be noted, clearly, of course, fortunately, happily, unfortunately, tragically, untimely) and using synonyms for said that connote reliability or importance (reveal, point out, expose, find, note, observe, insist, surmise, claim, admit, confess, deny.) Unfortunately, Wikipedia insists that bias is the root of all evil, whereas we see it as the rules we live by — our goals are different.

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wiki/style.txt · Last modified: 2011/03/01 08:06 by ram