Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
October 27th, 2013


Barriers to entry

In the current issue of MIT Technology Review, Tom Simonite sounds the alarm over Wikipedia’s “decline”. The story of Wikipedia’s decline and/or demise has been published ad nauseum since the project’s inception, only for Wikipedia to grow in popularity still. However, Simonite doesn’t argue that Wikipedia’s days are numbered – in fact, quite the opposite. Instead, he claims that its potential for improvement in breadth and quality is being undermined by its core of experienced editors. It isn’t only red tape and “policy creep” that stunts the project, but also, more importantly, an unwillingness to make the site’s editing tools more accessible to the general public:

But in the topsy-turvy world of the encyclopedia anyone can edit, it’s not a fringe opinion that making editing easier is a waste of time. The characteristics of a dedicated volunteer editor—[Sue] Gardner lists “fussy,” “persnickety,” and “intellectually self-confident”—are not those that urge the acceptance of changes like Visual Editor [sic].

After the foundation made Visual Editor the default way to edit entries, Wikipedians rebelled and complained of bugs in the software. In September, a Request for Comment, a survey of the community, concluded that the new interface should be hidden by default. The foundation initially refused, but in September a community–elected administrator released a modification to Wikipedia’s code to hide Visual Editor. The foundation gave in. It made Visual Editor opt-in rather than opt-out—meaning that the flagship project to help newcomers is in fact invisible to newcomers, unless they dig through account settings to switch the new interface on.

As a hard-core Wikipedia editor, I live and breathe the “wikitext” syntax from which VisualEditor is supposed to shield new editors. So I can sympathize with editors who fear that novices, newly armed with VisualEditor, will run roughshod over the markup we painstakingly tweak. But as an administrator with responsibility for some of the Wikimedia Foundation’s other wikis, I understand the need to lower Wikipedia’s barriers to entry. There’s nothing inherent about encyclopedia writing that should require above-average computing skills.

It’s frankly no fun to write documentation on wikitext or the many templates that a typical Wikipedia article requires. Normal sites have a getting started guide that looks something like:

  1. Register – it’s free!
  2. Type something into a big box and hit save.
  3. Profit (socially)!

By contrast, prospective Wikipedians must learn the basics of an ad-hoc computer language that verges on Turing completeness, navigate confusing, long-winded notability guidelines – where’s the decision tree? – and potentially run through a gauntlet of social norms.

In time, documentation can be improved. But the bigger issue to me is that the community is unwilling to accept VisualEditor, which represents a huge step forward in usability. The Wikimedia Foundation has been quite transparent and accommodating in the tool’s development and roll-out. But perhaps part of the problem is that VisualEditor was developed the way software is usually developed: on a deadline. So there are bugs, certainly, but why throw out a solid version 1 in search of something perfect?

The paradigm of WYSIWYG editing is sound. It’s a basic computing skill, nowadays taught in primary school in place of cursive writing. Good people with good intentions, good ideas, and good writing skills may nonetheless be unable to grok wikitext. Why exclude them?

The new interface is attractive and totally optional. Experienced editors will always be able to edit wikitext. The controversy is only about making VisualEditor the default editor going forward. Wikipedia won’t grow its contributor base through appeals to civic duty alone; it has to show the world that editing is easy to get right, quickly. Relegating VisualEditor to a preferences page – itself in need of a revamp – creates unnecessary hoops around the site’s single most important function.

Wikipedia has plenty of time to improve its back-office procedures, but I fear this is the last chance to modernize editing. VisualEditor has been quite possibly the Wikimedia Foundation largest undertaking, and it’s is far and away better than any community-developed wiki editor to date. But after seeing it acrimoniously dispatched by the community, will the Foundation’s donors ever again support an attempt at making Wikipedia usable?

Onerous barriers to entry contradict Wikipedia’s ethos of accessibility. Without accessibility, Wikipedia is just another website.


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  1. While some of the Wikimedia Foundation’s English-language projects resist attempts to modernize the editing experience, the Vietnamese-language projects are moving full steam ahead.

  2. After OpenStreetMap gets vandalized, the lesson is to focus on chasing away bad people and building good content.


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