In the early dial-up days of 2005, the internet was so different than what we see today. I had to wait until the weekends to get myself in front of a computer connected to the web. It was the time YouTube was a little startup that was just launched. Wikipedia was a new type of collaborative encyclopedia, competing with Britannica. Khan Academy hadn’t been founded yet. Encarta was the only cool encyclopedia in school computers.
Now it seems all magical to look how these things have evolved. Wikipedia surpassed Britannica, influencing the 244-year-old encyclopedia giant to go online only. Khan Academy has colourfully embraced the infrastructure of YouTube and had made itself as one of the best video educational resources on the web. Well, for Encarta… it’s a different story!
But if there is one resourceful platform that hasn’t evolved, it is the discussion boards. They hardly have seen any variations! While there are new platforms like the adorable Flarum and Discourse that try to make forums more interesting with modern gamification and rewarding features, the core concept is the simple ‘ask, answer, and discuss’ idea. And it simply doesn’t work well for science!
The problem is that we try to cram everything (the question/topic, the answer, and the discussion) into a web page in a regular discussion stream! For forums that are focused on science, this shouldn’t be the case. Science forums are where the curiosity thrives, and perhaps the anchoring happens for most of the learners at their nascent stage. It’s one of the two places on the internet where science meets the art of storytelling. But this beautiful amalgamation goes stale when discussions and un-editable misinformation cling along and ruin the essence.
However, there are Q&A sites like Stack Exchange trying to fix this issue by distinguishing the storytelling part (ask and answer part) from the discourse, and keeping the science clean and accurate for the curious to read. Then there are problematic communities like Reddit’s AskScience, where a similar goal is practised at heart, only to be lost within a petty hive mind of bigots. Sites and platforms like these still face major unavoidable problems.
- Lack of consistency.
- Limited collaboration.
- Intermediary discussions, breaking the content flow.
For example, when you analyse a thread from any forums, you could find too many answers trying to explain the same fundamental idea. And in between, you can find questions that break the flow apart and introduce more queries into the mix and add more complexity.
So to fix these issues, or in other words, to provide a better alternative, last year around April, I started working on a project to build a collaborative platform that would separate the topic from discussions, and still retain the connection. It wasn’t an easy task at first. I researched some ideas for a while and came up with a simple Django application, which resembled a wikified forum. Replacing it with MediaWiki, I started testing with some content formats, and finally stumbled onto the delightful FAQs.
FAQs are the only solution to avoid duplication. And with an explanation put above it, it would be the right format for any topic that would have a constant flow of it. A wiki about DNA on Wikipedia could beautifully explain what DNA is to everyone on the planet. It is an article, and it does what it does best! And I just applied the same format of the article for Q&A, and it seems to work better than the forum format. I have created Swyde with that idea in mind. Here is a page about DNA on Swyde that I wrote a few days ago that could help you see the idea in action.
So the case here is if a learner is to search for “What is the difference between DNA and RNA?”, a collaboratively refined answer along with all the other related frequently asked questions, with a concise explanation of the topic at the top, all seamlessly embedded in a single page with internal links to all the subtopics would be the best resource on the web. Along with the associated page for discussions, the content flow of the topic and Q&A is uninterrupted. It is also editable by anyone! And it’s run on MediaWiki, an environment that the world had created for itself! How awesome is that!
At the moment, I have been creating some random topics at Swyde in my free time. Along with that, I am also customizing a few aspects of the forked MediaWiki engine to add more features to augment this way of Q&A storytelling experience. If you are interested, you can go ahead and start contributing right away.
Swyde is my effort to make the Q&A on the internet better and fresh in a non-repetitive manner. I’d love to hear your opinions and feedbacks on this, and it really could help the project. If you prefer an open discussion, you can find me on Swyde here. Or you can shoot me a mail to [email protected]. I’m also available on Twitter.
You can know more about Swyde here (you bet! FAQs!).