401px-wikimedia_foundation_rgb_logo_with_textsvgThe Wikimedia Foundation, the parent non-profit of Wikipedia and many other free culture projects, just received a grant of $890,000 from the Stanton Foundation. According to the Q & A the Foundation has provided, the primary mission of the project that the grant will fund is:

* user testing designed to identify the most common barriers to entry for first-time writers, and
* a series of improvements to the MediaWiki interface, including improvements to issues identified through user testing and a focus on hiding complex elements of the user interface from people who don’t use them.

What exactly these improvements will be are yet to be determined (changes will begin to be tested mid-2009), but are said to include everything from making the edit button more visible to hiding or altering complex wiki markup for templates, tables and the like.

Why this is necessary

Wikipedia is a project that welcomes contributions from anyone and everyone interested in participating, and this openness is the key factor that makes the encyclopedia tick. However, like any new social software, Wikipedia has always taken some time to learn. Along with our exponential growth has come a significant increase in this learning curve, thus preventing some with the desire to help out from doing so.

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While it is true that the vast majority of contributions on the site come from a dedicated core group of editors (less than 1% of all contributors, in fact), people do leave the project or fall behind in contributing when offline life intervenes or they lose interest. Like any online community, new contributors must be welcomed in to the site in order to keep the ecosystem healthy.

What it means for you, even if you don’t edit Wikipedia

Not only does this mean good things to come for Wikipedia and its encyclopedia articles, but it has the potential to benefit literally thousands of other projects. MediaWiki, the free and open source software originally written for Wikipedia, has been downloaded by millions. Until now, a lot of the best work in MediaWiki design for skins and so forth have been done outside the development team that works directly on Wikipedia. Somewhat ironically, the biggest and most popular wiki in the world has lagged behind slightly in the area of UI.

These funds have the potential to change that. Just like everything else, all of the new development enabled by this grant will be free and open source, meaning that anyone interested in using, running, or starting a wiki can benefit from this.

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