Hurray, it's Wikipedia Day!Every year on the 15th of January, Wikipedians of all stripes stop for a moment to celebrate Wikipedia Day, the anniversary of the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit going public. This time around, the eighth most popular website in the world turns eight, and somehow it just feels extra special.

We’ve had our fair share of scandals and trolls still haunting the environs, but in retrospect, it’s been an unthinkably brilliant year for the free encyclopedia. Why am I so excited? Let me count the ways. Eight in fact…

  1. We didn’t reach another full million like in 2007, but we have nearly  2.7 million articles. At the current rate of increase, we should have our three millionth article well before the end of ’09.
  2. You can now be knighted for editing Wikipedia. Seriously. Florence Devouard, who rose from within the ranks of everyday contributors to become the Chair of our Board of Trustees, was awarded the French National Order of Merit by President Sarkozy in May.
  3. In middle of a total economic meltdown, 125,000 people still found Wikipedia valuable enough to donate more than six million dollars.
  4. In addition to the six million dollars Wikipedia raised to cover operating costs, we received a special grant from the Stanton Foundation of $890,000 to make it easier for anyone to edit.
  5. Academics, who have either banned Wikipedia outright or simply ignored it in the past, are now engaging with us in new and interesting ways. A prime example are any scientists submitting work to RNA Biology, who must now simultaneously publish in Wikipedia.
  6. Educators aren’t just softening to Wikipedia, they’re actually having their students help write it in droves. Both higher and lower education has been working in Wikipedia for a while, but 2008 was a landmark year. Case in point: a University of British Columbia project contributed the 2,000th Featured Article (our best peer-reviewed work), in addition to hundreds of other great articles written by students at the request of profs.
  7. The worst scandal about founder Jimmy Wales was some boring garbage about his ex-girlfriend. It would seem people still respect the man enough for his personal appeal to mean something come fundraising time, and to read his CNN editorial with Andrea Weckerle about Obama’s CTO.  Either way, if your founder isn’t killing everyone’s confidence by stepping down due to failing health, you’re in good shape (no pun intended).
  8. We’re not even close to being done. Normally, volunteers might be reluctant to admit that their mission is perpetually incomplete, but (in case you hadn’t noticed) Wikipedia is different. Not only are 10 million pages in 260 languages not enough to satiate our geeky lust for information, but we admit from the start that Wikipedia will never be finished. An encyclopedia already so big that you could never finish it, but still not complete? Now that’s exciting. Happy birthday Wikipedia, and here’s to another productive year ahead.


It's so weird to see these in Portland, that people come out of their homes in below-freezing temps. to take photos of them.

It's so weird to see these in Portland, that people come out of their homes in below-freezing temps. to take photos of them.

It has been a banner year for the Collaboration of the Week at WikiProject Oregon.

With 32 seven-day collaborations, more than 60 articles have been worked on. There have been nearly a dozen Did You Know? entries from COTW appear on the front page of Wikipedia, and two Good Articles have been produced. Now, you have a chance to participate in one of the last Collaborations of 2008.

For Portland residents in particular, the weather these past weeks has been pretty unusual in Oregon. With freezing rain and much more snow than we’re used to, it seemed like the perfect time to have fun with Snow Bunny, the article for a recreation area on the south face of Mt. Hood. We’re also continuing to improve WikiProject Oregon’s already pretty spectacular political coverage with a focus on Margaret Carter, a Democratic member of the Oregon State Senate.

Please join us on improving these articles however you can. Even just a quick stop by to fix a typo or make discussion page suggestion would be a big help to all Oregonians. In the meantime, stay warm and dry!

Arbitration Committee elections 2008

Wikipedia is a cooperative project run on consensus, not voting. Everyday decisions about the content of articles and other activity is left up to whomever is interested in participating. But while we are neither a democracy nor a bureaucracy, we do hold semi-formal elections for a handful of key positions within the community.

One of these is the Arbitration Committee (called ArbCom for short). Today, the December 2008 elections for the Committee ended with the appointment of ten new members by Jimmy Wales.

For those not familiar with it already, ArbCom is a panel of users (currently about 17) who together make binding decisions to resolve disputes on Wikipedia. They are the absolute last resort in the dispute resolution process, and even have the power to overturn decisions by our founder. For WikiProject Oregon in-specific, we are proud to say that no conflict within our project has ever had to be resolved by ArbCom.

Please welcome these new members of the Committee, and give them the big thanks they deserve for pledging their time to make sure that the biggest encyclopedia in history functions smoothly. I’ve listed them below according to the vote tally. Feel free to peruse their candidacy statements to get a feel for what they’ll bring to the job.

In part one on this topic, I spoke ecstatically about how Wikipedia, in our quest to be more user friendly, could find some inspiration in SocialText’s ability for both WYSIWYG and wiki text editing of a document. Upon further exploration, I’ve found that a few other enterprise wiki software providers, such as Atlassian’s Confluence platform, include dual Rich Text/Wiki Text editing modes. Wikia is also testing a new Rich Text editor of their own, but it is pure WYSIWYG, rather than an optional mode one can choose in the editing window. which, as Angela has kindly pointed out in the comments, also has optional rich text or wiki text editing capability .

But whether it’s SocialText, Wikia or Atlassian, the larger point still stands.

MediaWiki development has done a fabulous job of scaling to meet the crushing demand of some of the biggest wiki communities in the world. A rich ecosystem of useful extensions has sprung up as well, much like the garden of delights to be found among Firefox add-ons.

But the one area that enterprise development has outstripped MediaWiki is in catering to those who need a dead simple wiki. (In all fairness, MediaWiki does have a WYSIWYG extension, but I personally find it to be unsatisfactory, and it is rarely used.)

Why is the enterprise so much better at producing wikis for the neophyte? Because their customers absolutely demand it.

When you’re dealing with a company full of people who almost never step outside the box of Microsoft Office and email, just introducing the idea of a collaborative workspace is like pulling teeth. If there is any real technical hurdle at all, then you can expect your product to fall flat.

I am a drunken cheerleader for commons-based peer production wherever it appears. But within the wiki community, ease of use is the one realm where the profit motive has admittedly produced better results. I say we take it as an opportunity to recognize the success of others, so that we may duplicate it.

With that frame of mind, I’d love to hear what your favorite usability features from enterprise wikis are, and how they might help Wikipedia.

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.

So often I hear very smart, capable members of the social media community saying that they use and enjoy Wikipedia, but that (beyond the occasional spelling fix) they never really dive head first in to editing articles. Many more social medians who have created and edited articles are largely inactive within the broader community of the site. There are many valid reasons for this, including the learning curve caused by the MediaWiki software, and the many archane rules and customs of the Wikipedia community.

But catching up on my watchlist (a personal log of changes to the pages I care about) today, I realized that there is a way you all can help Wikipedia out for once without having to deal with the headache of becoming “a Wikipedian.”

Let me explain.

The situation

Most people know that Wikipedia operates on a system of constant peer review. Some are even aware that some of our content is deliberately put through a formal peer review process. One of these processes to assesses articles is the one for Good Articles, which is to say work that is praiseworthy, but doesn’t meet the stringent standards that qualify an article to be named our absolute best content.

Now we come to the part where you can join in.

The article about the Evolutionary history of life is nominated as a Good Article, and is awaiting an experienced editor to review it.

But therein, as the Bard would say, lies the rub. The evolutionary history of life is one of those broad, vital subjects in a specialized field that takes either many hands or one very expert one in order to bring it to fruition encyclopedically. This is why the article has languished, waiting to be reviewed, since October.

How you can help

To make a long story (slightly) short, if you can just take 15 minutes to read the article and contribute your thoughts, I can transmit them to the primary authors of the article with zero need for you to edit anything. You get to help out a key article with little effort, and I can rest easier knowing that an essential topic got a better treatment than I alone could give it.

If you’re willing, you might also take a look at the detailed criteria for Good Articles before you read in order to get a frame of reference. If not, no worries. No matter how small, any feedback you can give will help.

For those interested in helping out, please contact me either through Twitter or simply email me your notes at: steven [at] aboutus.org

Update:

Through a very kind friend, John T. Bonner, a professor at Princeton’s Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, gave us some helpful notes on the article. We’re grateful that he could a little time out of the busy holiday schedule to look at the article, and look forward to including his feedback in the review!

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.

Don't forget that our 2008 fundraiser is still underway. Click to learn more about donating.

Like the direction this is going? The 2008 fundraiser is still underway.

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.