Topic Maps, an ISO standard for semantic networks, relies on authorities to create and maintain Published Subject Indicators (PSIs), uniquely linking single topics to single subjects out there in the real world. TopicMaps.Org has eg. published indicators for languages and countries. But who gets to claim authority over a particular set of topics? Conflicts between people and organizations with opposing interests are unavoidable, especially for more controversial topics. I believe Wikipedia may provide a solution, by acting a democratic and deliberated set of PSI’s for every topic worth writing about. The authority to create and maintain PSI’s is then effectively granted to the global Internet community as a whole, since everybody is essentially allowed to edit the content of Wikipedia.
The problem with authority becomes evident with controversy. Who gets to decide on the truth when (groups of) people disagree? This is an inevitable problem for Wikipedia, as it is for any organization in charge of a communication channel. Wikipedia’s solution is as elegant as it is un-complicated. Whenever a conflict over an article occurs, that article is marked with a warning about it’s controversial content (like this article on the 2008 South Ossetia war). The article authors are then responsible for working towards a version of the article that everybody involved can agree upon. This deliberative and democratic mechanism seems to be built into the very core of Wikipedia.
I believe Topic Maps can draw benefits from Wikipedia’s democratic mechanisms, by making Wikipedia the universal authority of Topic Map PSI’s. If your topic map needs a new topic, check for an existing article on Wikipedia. If it doesn’t exist, author a new article, and use it’s URL as your new topic PSI. If nobody feels a need to modify your contribution, congratulations! Your new topic PSI has earned it’s right to exist. Should someone disagree with you, however, you need to engage in a little deliberative democracy in order to establish a common understanding. Once that agreement is reached, we’re all better off.
Wikipedia sports many of the features defined for the Topic Maps standard. Each article can serve as a topic definition, and each article URL can the thought of as that topic’s PSI. When topic maps that contain common topics are merged, Wikipedia’s disambiguation mechanism supports the requirement that merged topics must include the union of the individual topics. Even scoping can be handled using a more flexible approach to subdomains, not unlike how it is used for languages today (eg. http://no.wikipedia.org for Norwegian).
Is the Topic Maps community willing to adopt Wikipedia as it’s democratic and user-generated repository of topic PSI’s? What actions must Wikipedia take to fully accommodate for the needs of topic map author out there in the trenches? Let your voice be heard.