Thursday, January 8, 2009

Guest Blog: Mike.lifeguard

The following is a guest blog post sent in by our own Mike.lifeguard. I've been trying to solicit posts from him for a while, and am thrilled that he finally sent one in. The post he sent me was originally in wikitext and I tried to convert it for blogger but I might have missed some things. If anybody else wants to post some guest commentary here about Wikibooks or Books or Wikimedia, let me know. - WK

I've been considering writing a guest blog entry for Andrew for a while now. I happened upon [[w:Wikipedia:If you could re-write the rules]], which inspired me to re-read All I Want For Christmas again & consider what I would like to see happen in the next year in terms of re-writing how we do things on Wikibooks. I've limited myself to three suggestions, but they are all on a single theme: community, which has been an ongoing topic of conversation and consternation since Wikimania 2008 to present, in particular on [[mail:foundation-l]].

We need to recognize that the community is what makes or breaks the project. I've been in contact with Sue Gardner about this, and Andrew and I had a good conversation on IRC which led to What if we... As a small project, manpower is scarce, and we've not reached critical mass yet. We need to make outreach, marketing and retention an ongoing priority at the community level. The Foundation could certainly help by focusing more broadly on all the projects (yes, I know Wikipedia is the cash cow) - and a Wikibooks Chapter might be worth creating if that level of organization is required in the future. We need to ensure the project is viable in terms of new users coming in, and retention of existing users. As well, we need to think about how to get mid- to long-term users to help with administration - we need more admin powerhouses. This also ties in with the Stanton Usability Grant since there are technical things we could do to get more editors, and some are Wikibooks-specific.

  1. Keep being nice. This is what lead me from Wikipedia to Wikibooks. Since then, I've found a home on two other projects, neither of which are the English Wikipedia. Though Commons and Meta have their ups and downs (currently both experiencing a down IMO), they are full of nice people who do good work. We should learn from the mistakes of English Wikipedia, as well as the examples of Meta and Commons, which have tried to do the same, largely. In some respects they've done well, and we should emulate that. Some stuff they've tried hasn't worked; let that serve as an example for us. Instead of don't bite the newbies, we should simply not bite. I could spell out examples where this could be applied, but I think they're obvious enough already.
  2. Fix the documentation in both the Wikibooks and Help namespaces. The distinction is often muddled. As well, we should have a textbook on how to use Wikibooks. Some amazing work has been done on this recently by Whiteknight and Armchair, but more is needed. We should merge existing help documentation into the relevant textbooks, and move the texts into the help namespace. Wikibookians are good at writing textbooks, and especially technical textbooks or the sort which explain how to use Wikibooks and MediaWiki at various levels: end-user, community member, administrator, devloper, sysadmin.
  3. Explore alternative methods of documentation. Recently, one of Meta's best admins has essentially left the project - he was active in managing spam, so his departure dealth a huge blow to the tiny team of users who do that work. It's highly technical, difficult, thankless (actually, we get yelled at and harrassed more than we get thanked) and oft-invisible work. So, it's unsurprising that very few (read: none) wish to join us. However, I have been asked on multiple occasions to mentor people who wanted to learn about this area - I know what I'm doing and I know how to teach (having done so on both accounts for quite some time). We have lots of text documentation (and it's not even that out-of-date!), but almost nobody reads it. For those who do, it's dense reading - very easy to get lost & discouraged without someone helping you along as I had done with several users. I remembered Ben Yates' screencasts almost immediately. Despite losing my voice entirely earlier in the day, I made a ''huge'' 22-min screencast running through some basics. The 67.04 MB upload took about a half-hour - Brion was amazed it worked at all. The screencast had been downloaded from 100 times by the end of the day, and at least 4 times from Meta (which doesn't keep track, but I know because people told me).

Describe, Demonstrate, Do: This is a basic technique for instruction in lifeguarding (yes, I'm really a lifeguard), and other practical endeavours like using Wikibooks are little different. ''Demonstrate'' is the key that we're missing in all our attempts to teach people how to use Wikibooks so far. It should hardly be surprising, then, that users find the bar to contribute here higher than elsewhere and thus our community is not flourishing as it could otherwise.

Screencasts will be one of my ongoing projects for the year, I think. I hope to create a series of screencasts for starting your first textbook and other beginner stuff for Wikibooks, but also some of the more involved administrative areas (the spam blacklist will certainly be one). The first two suggestions require the community to be on-board, but this is one I can pursue alone and, critically, for free. Given reports from several users, I think this will be a very productive medium to experiment with. Hopefully we can work together on my other suggestions to strengthen the community for the long-term.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, Mike. I look forward to seeing some screencasts!! I love them and think they are a great teaching tool and way to draw people in.