24 November 2004 [note: I was two months into Wikipedia at the time.]
I have been a wikipedian for long enough to be able to pretend that I understand how the Wikipedia actually works, and little enough to remember a time when Wikipedia was not part of my world. I guess that makes me, if definitely not neutral about the project, at least still far enough from it that I can take criticism without going bezerk (although as time goes by, this tends to be less and less true, I'll admit).
But still, when Robert McHenry, a Former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica, writes about Wikipedia, I am bound to react. The article is a few weeks old and it has taken me that long to write about it because I wanted to address the subject from another point of view. I will try to avoid getting too deep into the reliability of Wikipedia, many people have done it better than I ever will. There is one point though, that I found interesting, if handled poorly (comparison with a public restroom, I'll say !), the consideration for the reader.
Having contributed actively in the past two months to the French Wikipedia, I have come to realize that contributors (myself included) after a while seem to forget that they are not only writing for themselves, but mainly for the thousands [note: actually, it's more like millions today...] of people who will never click on that famous "edit" button, but will rather just read the article, or print it for future reference.
The span of attention of a reader on the internet is what ? five minutes at best, until their interest is diverted to yet a new page, a new idea, another thing. Of course, the student in search of information on a subject will tend to print and keep the article, but the occasional reader will just jump from page to page.
7 March 2006 So this was what I was going to write about then, a piece about the Wikipedia reader. Today, Tim Bartel (avatar) writes on the Foundation mailing list to tell us about a usability report made by www.openusability.org concerning the German Wikipedia. This report is the second of its kind, the first report (click at the bottom to get the pdf) dealt with finding information on the German Wikipedia, the second deals with editing the German Wikipedia. I was not aware of the first report, but it fits perfectly with what I was about to say in that post I never finished. Let me then try to catch my train of thought at the time.
It is interesting, first, to realize that I wrote this when I had only been a Wikipedia editor for two months. I am now a confirmed Wikipedia editor but I still have the same feeling that Wikipedia editors (the active ones) tend to completely forget that they are not working for themselves, but for a much larger audience. Readers. So I was saying. The span of attention of an internet reader is small, his need for information is great. Is Wikipedia designed for the larger crowd?
I believe that it isn't for many reasons. Most of them are expressed in the study so I will not go over them. I will however try and raise a broader interrogation on the matter.
First, although the study addresses only the German Wikipedia, I believe it applies to all Wikipedias, and to a braoder extent to all Wikimedia projects. As a matter of fact, of the three "big" Wikipedias I know (English, French and German), I've always thought the German one was the clearest and most accessible.
Second, this study was done with "captive" readers, ie. readers who were asked to read Wikipedia. However, most of our readers just stumble across Wikipedia by sheer luck. How do we keep them on Wikipedia, how do we make them editors (correcting mistakes, adding useful content...) and help broaden the pool of editors and therefore the reliability, the readibility and the usability of Wikipedia? There are a number of crucial points raised by both studies, which range from a clear categorization of articles, to a clear user interface, clear links, an ordered help section, through to the long-awaited single login. Many things that the daily editors either have forgotten (they know this stuff, they don't need to go back to the basics), have never really thought about, or on the contrary, have thought too much about (and the mix of different input with a lack of clear guidelines or guidance ends up in redundant pages or pages burdened with too much information).
Which brings me back to my earlier interrogation, What is the real mission of Wikipedia?. I tend to think that the lack of enlightenment as to the "mission" is highly reflected in the lack of order in the "usability". Since we don't really know where we are going or where we want to go, of course, we don't know how to get there and how to bring our readers there.
I am not sure whether I have an answer here. But I guess starting to really work on the usability and asking ourselves questions about how we present what we have to present is a way to start answering the interrogations about what we are presenting. However, can the active editors really do this? Are they not too involved, both timely and emotionally, in the projects to actually be of good counsel? I'd say no. Editors are good at writing an encyclopedia and contributing to other projects, only a minority is good at making it widely available, in a simple and straightforward way, to the general public. And that is good. To each their own.
I am thinking however, that this is exactly the kind of task (trying to improve the usability, provide editors with directions as to how to that can be achieved) the Wikimedia Foundation and the local chapters should be working on. Promoting the Wikimedia projects is a noble and beautiful task. Trying to involve universities, librarians, academics is even better. But if we forget that those people are first and foremost readers and basic users of the sites, and that Wikipedia and the sister projects are a mess to get into, we've somehow failed before we even started. The organisation behind the projects should be the one launching audits and studies, making data available to researchers and statisticians interested in the matter. They should do so in order to be able to provide those who "make" the Wikimedia projects (the contributors) with ideas, analysis and possible solutions as to how they can go about it, making the content available to a wider audience in a responsible and clear fashion.