Several weeks ago, the Wikimedia Foundation announced they had received a sizable grant to make the MediaWiki software Wikipedia and other sites use friendlier to edit. Whether it was being in a open frame of mind or just serendipity, I’ve discovered what I think is a perfect example of how we can open the door to less-technical writers.

Recently, I joined some members of the larger wiki community (something we like to call the Wiki Ohana) on a project for which we are using SocialText — who were the first to build an enterprise wiki platform — to organize the group effort.

Since other than a 14-day free trial, SocialText isn’t free software, I’d heard of their latest release (SocialText 3.0, launched in September), but hadn’t explored it until now. Despite some big improvements, it didn’t seem like anything light years ahead of other wiki providers. Until I actually gave editing a go, that is.

The central goal with the grant money is “a series of improvements to the MediaWiki interface” with a focus on “hiding complex elements of the user interface from people who don’t use them” (from the Foundation’s Q&A). Though the identification of the most common barriers to entry for Wikipedia editors will be determined through user testing, it is commonly understood to mean complex template and citation markup, as well as the possibility of WYSIWYG editing.

Below is the initial edit view for SocialText users. It looks like a fairly standard WYSIWYG editor the call Rich Text mode.

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But click the Wiki Text button to the right of Rich Text, and with a single action you have toggled to a fully featured view of the page’s underlying wiki markup. It wasn’t an instantaneous change from one view to the other, but this simple feature was fairly miraculous an effect for someone used to an “either/or” world of markup vs. WYSIWYG. The two options in edit mode have essentially solved the problem of catering to all experience levels.

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Also important to note is that that the Wiki Text editing mode wasn’t designed only with master editors in mind. Clicking the Edit Tips button pops up a concise, useful syntax list that can serve as either a short introduction or a refresher course on the SocialText markup language. Hiding the inumberable markup guide buttons that clutter the MediaWiki edit window is almost certainly one of the goals we have for the grant project.

My problem with hiding complexity and using pure WYSIWYG has always been that it makes editing easier for newbies, but cuts more advanced users off at the knees in terms of true power and flexibility. This was the one factor that stood in the back of my mind while reading the news of the grant. Turning a cold shoulder to the community of veteran editors that have made Wikipedia a success is the worst conceivable outcome to any sweeping changes to MediaWiki.

Seeing SocialText 3.0 has dispelled my fear that ease of use and power/flexibility was necessarily a 1:1 trade-off. Here’s hoping that the Foundation and the new developers they hire take a page from SocialText in their attempt to make editing more accessible to the general public, while continuing to enable veteran editors.

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