Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year in Review

We're getting to the bitter end of the 2008 calendar year, so now seems as good a time as any to recap the year and try to put it into perspective. Here's a brief overview of what 2008 brought to English Wikibooks:

  • Added only 3 new administrators, but removed a whopping 13 of them for a net total of -10 administrators. With all the new anti-vandalism measures in place, there just doesn't seem to be a huge demand for new admins, and we've seen very few requests or nominations for the position in the last year. Many of the requests we do see are for rollbacker access instead of admin access for fighting vandalism anyway. Page deletion is really just no big deal.
  • Added 1 new bureaucrat and 1 new checkuser. They were the same person, Mike.lifeguard. He's been a huge help at Wikibooks for a while now, and is a huge positive influence on the site.
  • Added many editors, reviewers, patrollers and rollbackers. I'm not counting them all, but there were several in each category.
  • Added 8 new featured books. The first wave of books came in 2007 when we first created the program, and I expected we would have a much slower rate of approval as time went on.
  • We've been getting around 350,000 - 450,000 page hits per day on average, according to http://wikistics.falsikon.de/.
  • Our other stats appear to have stopped updating in May 2008, so I don't have any good numbers from there.
In some respects it was a relatively slow year for us, but in others it was quite exciting. We are seeing a little bit less community participation then in the past, but more people are concentrating on their books and building excellent content. There will be plenty of time in 2009 to talk about why things are trending in this way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

All I want for Christmas

It's that time of year again, where we wrap up one year, and start setting our goals for the upcoming year. The fact that it's almost a major gift-giving holiday means that, like everybody else, I'm putting together a wishlist. Some things on the list are very practical, and some are more fantastic. Without further ado, here is my wishlist of 12 things I want for Wikibooks in the upcoming year:
  1. Replace our old print versions and PDF versions with Collections. We've got javascript tools to help automate the process, and we're working on helpful documentation and templates to facilitate the process. What we need most is manpower to create collections pages and start marking the out-of-date print versions and PDF files for deletion. 2009 will be the year of the collection, mark my words.
  2. Fix our damn documentation! Our whole Help: namespace is a disorganized and out-of-date mess. Our help books, Using Wikibooks and Editing Wikitext are developing nicely and are primed to become our primary help resources. I'm hoping that with few exceptions most of our Help: pages can be deleted or redirected to pages that are more current and are better maintained.
  3. While we're at it, we need to clean up our sloppy category system and rethink the way we use categories to keep pages organized. Currently, they're just used as the unseen backend for our DPL-driven Subject pages.
  4. Higher quality. We have a lot of books with a lot of content. We even have a featured books program now that helps us to pick and promote the best of the bunch. However, we judge "featured" books by relative standards. What we need are absolute quality criteria for judging books, and we need honest and unbiased external reviews to see if books meet those criteria. We need feedback from subject matter experts and potential readers to help make our books better. We need to identify the holes in our bookshelves, especially in the "core" subjects and start writing the books to fill them.
  5. Usability. This topic is in vogue throughout the WMF, and Wikibooks is no exception. We need massive usability improvements as much or more then any other project. The barrier to entry is just too high to attract the kinds of contributors we need for long-term growth. I've done some javascript work that I'm proud of, but we need so much more on so many levels.
  6. Curricula. And this is something we could work on together with the Wikiversity folks. We have lots of books targeted to specific reading audience, we need to start arranging them by grade level into meaningful curricula for students. You should be able to search by grade level and see a list of books which are written for your level.
  7. Outreach. We need more active participants, and especially more people at the admin-level or higher. We need to attract more contributors who can help make the other things in this list happen.
  8. Issue tracking. This is purely an idea from my own imagination, but I would like to have some kind of issue tracking system for our books. This would allow us to find tasks and report them into a queue. Interested contributors could search through the list of open tasks, take ownership of them, and work to complete them. Having a list of finite tasks and tasklets will help people to get started more quickly and gives people progress milestones. Knowing that your work is needed and that you are making real progress on things is a huge benefit to productivity and morale. I would absolutely love it if Wikibooks had an issue tracking system like Bugzilla, even if we had to roll our own with Javascript or maintain our own separate server to host it.
  9. Wikibookians.org, where we could host things like an issue tracker, but also an @wikibookians.org mail server for our members. We could host advertisements for our books on PediaPress (and on Amazon if we can get them to appear there too), we could host book-related blogs and software tools that are more involved then the JavaScripts we're able to make on the wiki. I've wanted this for a long time, and 2009 could very well be the year I put it together.
  10. Institutional support. We need to get schools and universities involved, not just as readers but as content contributors and guidance providers. We don't just write books according to our own whims and ship them out, we need to write books to particular standards. We need something like a "Wikibooks advisory board" (even an informal one) that could help guide us in making important decisions for the site and improving our books in specific ways.
  11. Partnerships. We've worked with groups like the UNDP in the past when they donated a series of their e-books to Wikibooks. We need to expand that, and develop partnerships with other organizations as well. Wikibooks would be a great place for hosting things like software tutorials and documentation, or other free ebooks. Why maintain your own server for ebooks and documentation when you can host it at Wikibooks for free? I bet we could find several groups who fit this bill. I call this idea "Wikibooks as a service".
  12. Design. We're working on finding a new logo, and we might even succeed this time. I would like other improvements to our site design that includes improvements to our site CSS and JS, improvement of many of our interface messages and design improvements to our main page, our main discussion pages, our policy pages, our subject pages, etc. This is not to mention the aesthetic improvements that each individual books need.
This is my Christmas wishlist for Wikibooks, what kinds of things do other people want for the project?

Friday, December 19, 2008


I was talking to Pharos today, and he mentioned something that I've been mulling over for a while now in the back of my mind but never took the time to say: We at Wikibooks have a problem with our nomenclature.

Things were easy when we were just an e-book site, because we could extend the "book" metaphor to our creations with ease. A book is broken into little chunks which could be equally referred to as "chapters" or "pages". Wiki wasn't paper, after all, so it didn't matter if one of our "pages" was far longer then a single printed page would be coming out of your printer. The point was moot.

Things are a little bit different now though, because Wiki can indeed become paper in a very real way. All of a sudden we have an insurmountable wall of dense terminology where every word seems to have multiple meanings. Keep in mind that every "book" on our site has two possible incarnations: the on-wiki version and the printed PediaPress version (and even the downloadable PDF version, but let's ignore that for now).

With these two incarnations in mind, what do the words "book", "chapter", "page", "section", "unit", "module", and "heading" mean? If we keep up the metaphor and say the things on our website are "books", then what are those things that PediaPress are printing? A "page" on wiki takes up multiple "pages" in the printed book. A "chapter" in the book is made up of multiple chunks of stuff that we used to call "chapters" on the wiki. In short, we have a terminology nightmare on our hands, and as a result our best tutorials about the subject have descended into opaque and indecipherable jibberish where words are used in multiple different ways, often in a single paragraph or sentence.

And don't even get me started on the difficulty in trying to file bug reports with the PediaPress people, trying to explain how certain "features" in a published book correspond to wikitext syntax in certain places on the wiki. The fact that we've had any meaningful discussions with them is a testament to the sheer courtesy, patience and willpower that the wonderful PediaPress developers have shown. If it's this hard for us to do, I can't even imagine how confused our poor new users are becoming by this all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wikibooks mentioned in books

Darklama alerted me yesterday to this cool link:


The word "Wikibooks" appears in 155 book search results. At least on of these books that I have see, "Wikijunior Big Cats" was actually written on en.Wikibooks, and is displayed here on Google. Quite an interesting list. Can anybody else find places where Wikibooks turns up in cool searches or places?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What if we...

Mike.lifeguard posed an interesting question today in #wikibooks: What ideas for outreach do you have for a group of Wikibookians who have some money available? Quite a loaded question, and we've done (and are still doing) a lot of brainstorming. It's basically a moot question because we don't have any money for anything, but still an interesting mental exercise. Here are some ideas we threw out about what we could do for outreach with a little bit of money:
  1. Contract out some UI improvement work to professional programmers and web designers to improve Wikibooks
  2. Buy a handful of our best books from PediaPress, and donate them to schools and libraries.
  3. Buy commodity laptops, and use them to host workshops for interested groups.
  4. Buy pro-Wikibooks advertisements in magazines for professional educators
  5. Offer prizes to students who donate their appropriate and well-written school papers to Wikibooks after school is over. These papers could make excellent starting points for new books.
  6. Try to convince more teachers to assign writing and editing tasks on Wikibooks
  7. Buy one give one: An event where for every PediaPress-printed book we sell, we donate one to a group in need
  8. Offer bounties to authors to write specific pages or to edit pages in specific ways
  9. Contact publishers and authors to purchase the rights to out-of-print books and have them uploaded to WB for improvement
  10. Purchase rights to use standardized educational curricula (which are often, unfortunately, copyrighted)
  11. Pay to have some of our best books reviewed, edited, and revised by professional editors
  12. Professionally publish some of our better books
These are just a few of the ideas that came out in the brainstorm. What ideas do other people have?

Visual Book Designer Released

Today I've finally released the next version of my Visual Book Designer gadget. It's a visual outlining tool for designing new books and manipulating existing books. This isn't a major release in that the basic architecture and operation of the gadget hasn't changed in any significant way. However, a number of new features have been added. Here's a brief list:
  • Added support for collections. You can create a collection (personal or public) from your new book outline, or you can load the TOC of an existing book and create a collection from that.
  • Added AJAX automation, although right now it's for admins only because it's like a beta test and could be very disruptive. You click the Create link, and the gadget will automatically create all the pages in your outline using any text you've specified.
  • Simplified adding subpages and page headings, so you don't have to use an edit box. Just click the [ + ] link to add a new subpage or heading to the outline.
  • Smoothed out the interface a little.

Here's an image of the current interface. Basically, you just click on anything you want to change, input the new values, and save them. I've put in a lot of effort to make this user-friendly and interactive, so I would love to hear about any feedback that people have with this. Maybe I'll post a short tutorial about how to use the tool in the next few days. Eventually, I would like this, or something like it, to be featured prominently as a tool to help our users make new books. There's a long way to go before this is ready for always-on deployment, but it's a decent tool to use right now. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wikibooks in 2009

We're getting closer to 2009, a year that I hope will be a big one for Wikibooks. This time a year ago I was very hopeful that 2008 would be a big year, and in many ways it was. We got a few cool new extensions: The gadgets extension, the collections extension, and the flaggedrevs extension. From an anecdotal account, I don't think our "active community" grew or became any more active then it had been in 2007, but I feel like our overall number of contributors has grown. I will need to take a look at some statistics to confirm this. Expect a full statistical review of the 2008 year in an upcoming post.

I talked to Erik Moeller briefly tonight. He's spoken to the people at PediaPress and apparently they've sold 8 books so far. Hardly a mindblowing number, but still an interesting figure. I've bought 3 of those myself. Let's hope this number goes up in the coming year. He also talked a little bit about the usability initiative, and how Wikibooks could definitely benefit from some UI improvements. I'm a big proponent of an improved UI and improved usability, so I hope things improve in this area.

What will 2009 hold for Wikibooks? I have some personal predictions and hopes that I'll post in a few days. What I want is to hear some ideas from other people: What will 2009 bring for en.WB? What should we focus on for the year? Where should we set our sights, and how high should be our expectations? I would love to hear from people about this.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Gadgets Galore

Some of the folks at PediaPress have been working on a javascript tool to automatically create a collection from a book's table of contents. Today, after some testing, I turned this little tool into a gadget.

The gadget adds a nifty little "get collection" link in the upper-right corner of the screen. When you click the link, it scans the current page for links to subpages, and then opens an edit window with the generated collection text. It is quite a handy tool, I even used it today to create a collection from one of the books I've been working on. I do have my own tool that can create collections too, it's a little bit more involved but has a bit more power. I'll post an update about my javascript work later.

I also added the WikEd editor gadget to Wikibooks a while back. I dont remember if I made any kind of a fanfare about it at the time. However, I've been using it and am very impressed by it. It's not quite WYSIWYG, but the syntax highlighting is a really neat trick. As a programmer, I've become so accustomed to syntax highlighting that I can't remember how I edited wiki without it. I especially like the full-page editing mode too. Just the full-page mode and the syntax highlighting make this cool tool worth a test. The editor has a lot of other features that I don't use personaly, but I imagine they would be useful to some people.

Next time you're at Wikibooks, check out the Collections gadget and the WikEd editor gadget. Quite cool tools.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


A lot of talk about usability nowadays. Foundation even managed to pick up a sizable grant to try and improve our projects in this regard. I've been arguing that we need better editing tools for a while now, even going so far as to create some of my own tools to try and make things easier for new editors.

I'm a technically inclined person, so I personally don't find wikis too difficult to use. Of course, this is in comparison to some of the other work I've done in the past with HTML and LaTeX markup for documents. I also do a lot of coding work, so symbols and markup and parameters aren't anything new to me. But I'm one of a relatively rare breed of technically saavy people. The vast majorty of people in this world aren't as comfortable with plain-text editors and markup as I am. Hell, the vast majority of people in my family, and at my work, and from my school aren't comfortable with those things either. It's just not the kind of computing that people have been trained to expect.

Wikis are hard. They're hard for the radical conceptual reasons of openness and freedom and collaboration. But they're also hard for the technical reasons: strange and cluttered interface, and the ad hoc markup language. On top of the challenges inherent in MediaWiki, there are the challenges of writing a book, a whole book. It's a lot to deal with, and even if we write all sorts of documentation, it won't be enough. Books are big, they're structured, and they need a particular flow and cohesiveness to them that don't just happen when you click Save page.

Some people won't be able to find the documentation. Some people just wouldn't read it anyway. Nobody is going to read all of it. I haven't even read all of it, and I've personally written a good portion!

We need some form of WYSIWYG, even if it's very simple. There are too many people that just can't or just won't use Wikitext. We need automation, at least at Wikibooks. Books consist of multiple pages, collection pages, table of contents, introductions, and appendices. They have templates too, and categories. We need a button to "Create a book" given a few basic parameters that will create all these kinds of pages automatically and correctly. We need the software to take care of the technical and repetitive work, and leave the authors to do the basic book writing. We need the software to follow the rules, so the contributors don't have to read volumes of documentation just to learn them. If the software just does things the right way, the barrier to entry will be so much lower then it is now. Until we have that, the only people who will be writing books are the technically-saavy editors, a very small subset of the people who we would like to have writing books.

Monday, December 1, 2008

New Wikibooks Logo

I had planned on posting more updates about the logo selection process, but with all the other big things going on at WB, I completely forgot. Well, now it's over.

That's right. As quickly as it started, the vote for the new Wikibooks logo is over. 310 people voted in total, more then in my wildest dreams. Who would have thunk that we got higher voter turnout when I didn't post any updates on the blog, and very few reminders got sent to public forums like foundation-l. And yet, 310 people have spoken, and Wikibooks has a new logo. Here it is:

Already, Bastique is setting up a series of color alternatives. Once we pick the final color scheme (I'm hoping for red!) Wikibooks has a new logo.