Infoboxes: time for a fresh look?
- Brianboulton is a British Wikipedian and has been editing since 2007. Aside from his prolific reviewing at peer review and featured article candidacies, he has contributed to 73 featured articles on the English Wikipedia.
- This week sees the return of the dispatches section, which was last published in 2010. Volunteers with a proposal for a future dispatch can note it on the Signpost's talk page or email the editor.
What are infoboxes for? As a regular reviewer at PR and FAC I look at a lot of articles, which means that I see plenty of infoboxes. They have been a feature of WP articles for years now, and it seems obvious that they can provide a useful service to readers who want a few specific facts about a subject, rather than an in-depth study. What is the population of Salzburg? Who was Henry II of England married to? How many first-class wickets did Jack Hobbs take? The infoboxes are there to give these answers.
The initial MOS guideline on infoboxes was posted on 10 March 2006; by 1 January 2007 a number of WP projects were incorporating them into articles, and on that date the WP:Infobox project was started, designed to foster encyclopedia-wide cooperation. The project page summarises the nature of infoboxes as: "a quick and convenient summary of the key facts about a subject, in a consistent format and layout". The particular words "quick", "convenient", and "key facts" all imply a degree of selectivity in information. The MOS guideline gives broadly the same message, while adding a significant rider: "The less information [the infobox] contains, the more effectively it serves that purpose".
The fundamental idea is clear: keep the box simple, and limit it to essentials. At some point down the line, however, these basic principles seem to have been abandoned, in favour of an approach akin to "the more the merrier". As I go through my reviewing duties I can't help noticing just how big some infoboxes have become, how much room they take up and how much detail is crammed into them. Some are simply enormous; far from being convenient, quick-reference points conveniently placed in the top right-hand corner of their parent article, they have become huge columns reaching deep into the body of the article. Apart from anything else, this can foul up presentation by squeezing the text and mispositioning images. In some cases, the article itself appears to be almost subordinate to the box.
Let's look at a few specifics. Articles on countries are, I imagine, frequently consulted by casual readers in search of basic facts: location, population, capital city, language, currency, form of government. Unfortunately, most "country" articles have infoboxes which go way beyond the provision of these essentials. Denmark is one example, typical of many. Its infobox includes mottoes, anthem titles and translations, two sets of GDP calculations, Gini ranking, HDI ranking, ISO code and much else besides. Some of this information will require the use of links, often to articles that aren't at all easy to follow – try this one. While all these extra facts obviously are relevant, few of them could be said to represent the "key" information on the subject. Another problem area that I encounter in my reviewing travels is political biographies, where infoboxes are often of inordinate length and complexity. Way back in 2008 I cut my reviewing teeth on the Shimon Peres article, and I commented then that the infobox was confusing and overcomplicated with detail. It still is, and the same criticism can be made of most articles for statesmen who enjoyed long and active careers. Winston Churchill is another example. A particular issue is the dubious practice of recording in the infobox not only every political office ever held by the subject, but also the names of each predecessor and successor in these offices. Much of this information is entirely inconsequential; is it a key fact that Lord Weir preceded Winston as Secretary for Air in 1919?
Infoboxes should not be the repositories of any odd bits of information related to the subject. Indeed, sometimes information that is not just inessential but downright absurd finds its way into them. I had reason recently to look at the London Coliseum article, where the infobox is relatively short. Among the "essential" information it provides are the theatre's geographic co-ordinates! In what sense is this "key information" about the theatre? It is about as pointless as it gets. I thought this might be a once-off aberration, a case of editorial over-enthusiasm, so I checked the articles for other well-known buildings—the Eiffel Tower, and St Paul's Cathedral—and found that these landmarks, too, have their co-ordinates proudly displayed in their infoboxes, as does the Empire State Building, whose infobox records the co-ordinates twice, for no clear reason. I am sure that a general audit of infoboxes would throw up many similar instances of redundant or insignificant information.
The issue of concern is the extent to which infoboxes are becoming generally less efficient in fulfilling the function for which they were initially introduced. I believe it is time to reconsider the tendency towards overdetailing that has developed in recent years, and to look for a new approach. In the short term we could reestablish first principles by the adoption of a mechanistic formula whereby the number of parameters in any one infobox are limited to, say, eight (or even six). This is not a revolutionary idea; it is similar in purpose to the existing MOS guideline that restricts the number of paragraphs in an article's lead, with the aim of keeping the lead in brief summary form. If infoboxes were likewise limited, editors' minds would focus on what really needed to be included, rather than on how to extend the box. In the longer term, however, an altogether more fundamental change might be considered, along the lines of an idea that has already been floated by Dr. Blofeld: the development of a Micropedia version of the encyclopedia, that would obviate the need for infoboxes altogether. Now, that would indeed be revolutionary.
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