News and notes
Flow placed on ice
Flow no longer in active development
The Wikimedia Foundation collaboration team announced this week, both on Wikipedia and on the WikiTech-l mailing list, that Flow will no longer be under active development.
This news will come as a bombshell for the experienced Wikimedians who have been watching the development cycle of this project. The chaotic and disorganized nature of talk page discussions on the English Wikipedia have long concerned Wikimedians and Foundation staff alike—in a Signpost editorial published just under two months ago I wrote:
||[Talkpages] have been around from the very beginning, but having never really substantially improved in almost a decade and a half they are today often regarded as something of a technical black sheep. There's already been one failed initiative to replace them, LiquidThreads, and another effort, Flow, has now been underway for some time, with a small number of pages currently serving as testbeds on the English Wikipedia and elsewhere. Communication using talk-pages is conceptually easy, if often messy in execution. Yet few talkpages are widely watched, and therefore, read, and so despite efforts like feedback request service there remain only a couple of on-wiki discussion points with an audience wide enough to get a point across: the village pumps come to mind, as does Jimmy Wales' talk page.
The greatest advantage of the talk pages is the fact that, being the basic venue for inter-user communication, they are accessible to all Wikipedians. The greatest disadvantage is one of presentation: lengthy posts are quickly snowballed by other lengthy posts in response, some of which are insightful, many of which are not. The lack of a visual distinction between the original author of the post and replies thereof, the blowback of the community's antiquated discussion model, causes talk page discussions to quickly degenerate into unreadability. The first and last few replies in a comment chain are far and away the most important ones, no matter the weight of their actual content, for little reason more than that they are what is most immediately read.
|— Resident Mario, "So you want to get your message out. Where do you turn?"
Flow has been a controversial endeavor by the Foundation to thoroughly rework talk page mechanics and formatting. Its roots lay in the earlier LiquidThreads, a technical effort by WMF developers that eventually fell flat through a combination of poor technical implementation and poor community reception. At the risk of raising the eyebrows of some of our readers, the best write-up of how LiquidThreads came and went and what its relationship to Flow has been comes from Wikipediocracy: "The dream that died: Erik Möller and the WMF’s decade-long struggle for the perfect discussion system".
According to (Fuzheado), the Flow team gave an upbeat presentation on Flow's development status (video) at Wikimania just six weeks ago (though there was "hard questioning by the audience about whether the community would accept it"). Reactions are a mix of frustration that yet another effort to fix such an entrenched problem has failed and of relief that the controversial project—in the eyes of many, one of the surviving technical white elephants of the pre-Lila Tretikov era—is now apparently finito.
Flow isn't actually officially dead, according to the careful wording of the announcement. Rather, it is now out of active development pending "changes in that long-term plan". What is sidelining it now is that "article and project talk pages are used for a number of important and complex processes that those tools aren't able to handle, making Flow unsuitable for deployment on those kinds of pages." As one user pointed out:
||The problems they outline were pretty much exactly what everyone said to them when Flow was started—you need to be able to cut and paste slabs of wikitext (or, presumably, parsoid HTML5 or whatever VE actually copies to the clipboard) from the article to the talk page, and after VE's disastrous premature introduction this was the precise thing people worried about.
The rest of the announcement clarifies the situation:
||To better address the needs of our core contributors, we're now focusing our strategy on the curation, collaboration, and admin processes that take place on a variety of pages. Many of these processes use complex workarounds—templates, categories, transclusions, and lots of instructions—that turn blank wikitext talk pages into structured workflows. There are gadgets and user scripts on the larger wikis to help with some of these workflows, but these tools aren't standardized or universally available.
As these workflows grow in complexity, they become more difficult for the next generation of editors to learn and use. This has increased the workload on the people who maintain those systems today. Complex workflows are also difficult to adapt to other languages, because a wiki with thousands of articles may not need the kind of complexity that comes with managing a wiki with millions of articles. We've talked about this kind of structured workflow support at Wikimania, in user research sessions, and on wikis. It's an important area that needs a lot of discussion, exploration, and work.
Starting in October, Flow will not be in active development, as we shift the team's focus to these other priorities. We'll be helping core contributors reduce the stress of an ever-growing workload, and helping the next generation of contributors participate in those processes. Further development on these projects will be driven by the needs expressed by wiki communities.
Flow will be maintained and supported, and communities that are excited about Flow discussions will be able to use it. There are places where the discussion features are working well, with communities that are enthusiastic about them: on user talk pages, help pages, and forum/village pump-style discussion spaces. By the end of September, we'll have an opt-in Beta feature available to communities that want it, allowing users to enable Flow on their own user talk pages.
|— Danny Horn, Collaboration team reprioritization
In the opinions of some Wikimedians, the root problem of the Wikimedia projects isn't individual problems like talk pages or templates, but rather the technical debt of a decade and a half of disorganized organic growth; the Foundation's first round of attempts at comprehensive technical improvements fell flat not because they were poorly thought out per se, but because they failed to take into account the extraordinary complexity of the use cases to which Wikimedians have adopted wikicode. SUL finalization is now complete, but plenty of other core improvements, like interwiki transclusion (to centralize template complexity) and further development of Echo notifications (to unify notification streams), remain to complete. Such core improvements may eventually make more ambitious projects like Flow manageable.
In March, the WMF kicked off strategic planning consultation with the Wikimedia community. The first strategic plan was the Foundation's Goliath growth projection project, begun in 2009 and published in 2011 (Signpost coverage here, here, and elsewhere), yet it ultimately proved flat-footed at best. The Foundation began this process of self-definition anew this year (as part of a general shift towards an increasing focus on impact and impact metrics), starting with a large-scale community consultation. As we reported at the time, the WMF is trying to make the document into "what will become a discipline of ongoing strategic inquiry, assessment, and alignment. This more agile, adaptable process will directly inform and update our priorities and goals and help us maintain a strategic direction that is consistent with the Wikimedia vision, supports the Wikimedia projects, and is sensitive to the changing global environment."
The Foundation has finished digesting the outcomes of the consultation, and chief operating officer Terence Gilbey has published a blog post highlighting the findings. Part of this month's metrics meeting was dedicated to these findings, and a full deck of slides—119 pages of them—is is available on Commons.
The consultation was organized around two questions:
||1. What major trends would you identify in addition to mobile and the next billion users?
2. Based on the future trends that you think are important, what would thriving and healthy Wikimedia projects look like?
Gilbey highlights the following findings:
* Mobile and app: Mobile-related comments reveal an opportunity to improve our existing mobile offerings for both editors and readers and raise awareness about our native apps. Participants (mostly anonymous users) urged us to “make an app,” when one is already available for iOS and Android devices. We also saw comments that stressed the importance of mobile editing, formatting for smaller (mobile) screen sizes, article summaries for different usage patterns, and the value of “going mobile.”
- Editing and collaboration: In this category, we find requests to make editing simpler, ideas for enhancing collaboration among editors, suggestions for editing tools, and proposals to build editor rating and qualification programs. This is one of the few categories in which logged-in comments, at 56%, outnumber comments from anonymous and new users. This category provides valuable insight for improvements in editor support including Wikipedia’s visual editor and future projects in the newly created Community tech team, as well as potential new editor support initiatives.
- Rich content: Participants requested more rich content on Wikimedia sites, suggesting more video, audio, and images. 80% of these comments were submitted by anonymous and new users. One US-based participant commented: “is there any major website in the world with less video?”
- Volunteer community: We saw a particular interest in improving “community climate” in this category, with a focus on interpersonal dynamics and culture. Participants identified a need to increase diversity (in particular, gender diversity), improve processes and workflows, and address bureaucracy-related challenges. This is another category in which logged-in comments, at 54%, outnumber comments provided by anonymous and new users.
- Wikimedia Foundation feedback: This category focused on the relationship between the Wikimedia Foundation and the volunteer community and includes suggestions of how the Foundation might change its practices and priorities to align with the volunteer community. These comments are from mostly logged-in users (88%), most of them highly experienced users with an average edit count of more than 64,000 edits. Suggestions included providing better support to editors in a variety of ways and continuing to ask for feedback from core community members.
- Content quality (accuracy): These comments emphasized the importance of content accuracy, trustworthiness, and reliability. Comments focused on citation quality, the use of expert editors, and even restricting editing (so that “not everyone can edit”). Most (73%) of comments in this category were from anonymous and new users, signaling an opportunity to communicate to readers about the accuracy and trustworthiness of the content within Wikipedia and sister projects.
- Education and universities: These comments reflected both a concern about the perception of Wikipedia as a (non)credible source for academic inquiry, and also recognition of the growing opportunity for Wikimedia to extend its content, brand, and global presence into online education by developing courses, curricula, and partnering with other online educational resources. 76% of the comments in this category came from anonymous and new users, whereas only 24% originated from logged-in users.
- Translation and languages: We saw a collective interest in this category from logged-in, anonymous, and new users. Key suggestions included a focus increasing translation capabilities and tool, expanding into more languages, and developing the ability to easily translate across projects. These comments validate the need for the Content Translation tool, which is now available on 224 language-versions of Wikipedia as a beta feature.
In related news, the Foundation is now engaging in what it calls a community capacity development project. According to an an email to the mailing list posted by the WMF's senior program officer, emerging Wikimedia communities Asaf Bartov, the Foundation is allocating staff time to "deliberate capacity-development projects with interested communities in six capacity areas: community governance; conflict management; on-wiki technical skills; new contributor engagement and growth; partnerships; [and] communications". "Community capacity" is defined as "the ability of a community to achieve ... very diverse [goals that] span issues that affect one or all Wikimedia communities." It is, in effect, a trial of a more hands-on approach on the part of the Wikimedia Foundation in recruiting ideas from the community, following along the lines of earlier breakout efforts, most prominently this year's "Inspire" campaign.
Philippe Beaudette, the now-outgoing director of community advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation.
- Philippe Beaudette leaving the Foundation: Long-time Wikimedian and director of community advocacy Philippe Beaudette is leaving the Foundation. Beaudette was brought on in 2009 as a facilitator for the Strategic Planning project that was ongoing at the time—by his own count, he was employee number 16—making him one of the most senior of the officers still with the WMF. In the intervening six years, Beaudette served variously as facilitator of strategic planning, head of fundraising (as part of the 2010 Annual Giving campaign), and head of Legal And Community Advocacy. Beaudette has been an administrator on the English Wikipedia since 2007.
- IEG round: The Individual Engagement Grants grantmaking program is holding a submission round from August 31 to September 29. The IEG program is the funding platform of choice for small individual or team-based research, development, and engagement projects. Two of the program's grant officers will he holding Google Hangouts—the first on September 8, to answer proposal questions and to help polish grants that could benefit from feedback and development at the IdeaLab.
- Metrics: The next WMF Metrics and activities meeting will be on Thursday, September 3.
- Develop the Digital Library Card Platform: The Wikimedia Library program has been growing at a fast clip and now finds itself in need of a stronger core platform. Last week saw the announcement of the opening of a position for a developer experienced with web applications and open-development frameworks who can build a Wikimedia Library "Digital Library Card Platform tool". A lengthier description as well as a point of contact for interested parties is available here.
- Mobile legalese: The WMF has published a set of guidelines for mobile developers using the Wikimedia trademark, presented in condensed form in a recent blog post.
- August in Edu: The August edition of the Education Newsletter has now been published.
- RfC on the 2015 ArbCom election: A request for comment on the upcoming Arbitration Committee election has been opened. The RfC was created to "provide an opportunity to amend the structure, rules, and procedures of the December 2015 English Wikipedia Arbitration Committee election and resolve any issues not covered by existing rules."
- WLM banner saga continues: A referral for comment has been spun up on the meta-wiki regarding the time conflict between Foundation fundraising and the Wiki Loves Monuments movement. Given the lopsided nature of the vote, as well as the loaded questions being asked by the RfC organizers, your author considers it yet more evidence of the inflammatory feedback loop between Foundation non-communication and community worked-up-ness. For more coverage see this week's Discussion report.
- New administrators: Wbm1058 is this week's newest administrator.
- 100K: The Belarusian Wikipedia reached 100,000 articles this week. Keeping in the tradition of things the encyclopedia uploaded a unique 100,000-themed take on the Wikipedia logo.
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