Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Candidates speak about Wikibooks

[[fr:b:User:Sub]] from the French Wikibooks, alerted us to some questions that he asked the board candidates specifically about Wikibooks. Some answers are missing, some are a little bit depressing, and some a brutally honest. Greg Kohs' answer, particularly, seems the meanest, here is an excerpt, where he talks about his observations in the [[US History]] book, one which is currently marked as a "featured book" on en.Wikibooks:
This chapter of UNITED STATES history includes multi-paragraph sections about Henning von Tresckow and Karl Dönitz, but no mention whatsoever of the Flying Tigers, the Doolittle raid, Aleutian Islands campaign, Rosie the Riveter, the Tuskegee Airmen, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, or rationing of consumer materials on the American homefront.

Am I the only one who finds this appalling? I would not want my daughter learning about the most significant events in American history this way.
He has a couple other criticisms of the book too, all of which are fair and deserved. He then goes on to discuss the culture of expert-exclusion that seems to be one of Wikimedia's hallmark features. I will posit that Wikibooks doesn't have that same problem, we have been not only tolerant but welcoming and encouraging to "experts". We've hosted a number of classroom-related projects, teachers and students working to produce very nice books. I've never heard a single disparaging remark from an expert about the culture of Wikibooks. In fact, the response has always been overwhelmingly positive.

I don't say this to try to disprove what Greg is saying above. I actually agree with him to a point and I don't take offense to people criticising the project. Wikibooks is young, but we are growing and improving. Perfection takes time, even wikipedia hasn't achieved it and they have us beat by two years and several million man-hours.

Writing a book is hard. Ignore the fact that your average book is just a tad longer then your average article (it's not uncommon for a mature book on Wikibooks to be several hundred pages long), there is a lot of stylistic issues that need to be dealt with. Beyond just having length, a book must be continuous: it must build logically from beginning to end, and it must teach along the way. We don't just present information, we must find ways to ensure the target audience can learn. Sometimes, this means we have to cover the same topics over and over again, in different ways for different people.

Wikibooks doesnt have the same mass as WP has, our authors are more spread out around the project. It's not uncommon for some of our users to toil in peace, not interacting with any other users at all. We tend to have about one active author per book, rarely a popular book can attract 2 or 3. This is a far cry from the "many hands" mantra that powers Wikipedia. Mistakes are easy to catch if you have dozens of people reading your book, harder if there are only a few, and near impossible if there is only one. People write what they know, and if a particular author doesn't have Rosy the Rivetter on the top of his head, it likely won't end up in the book.

This isn't a condemnation of Wikibooks, just an admission that we are small and need more people. Everybody needs more people, I read Larry Sanger's blog regularly and he's always trying to convince people to join Citizendium. I might even consider it too, if I had the time or the energy in me to participate in another project. From what I read and from what I hear in casual conversation, Wikibooks is a lot more similar to Citizendium then it is to Wikipedia.

Featured books on Wikibooks are designated rather informally. Sometimes a vote by as few as 4 or 5 people can seal the deal. Voter apathy plays a big part in this, many of our members would rather just write then discuss meta content all day. What we look for in our Featured Books is not perfection, that much should be obvious. We're looking for books which are comparatively good and which are a good model that other developing books can follow. The secret to our method is that books can be de-featured easily, and we do it regularly as the bar gets raised. As we increase our standards, new books rise to the occasion, and old books (like the US History book) fall out the bottom. Finding featured books that aren't good enough to be called "featured" anymore is not a condemnation of Wikibooks or our culture, it's an affirmation that our standards are higher now then they used to be. This is because our editors, while few, are hard working and dedicated. Perfection is the end goal, and Wikibooks is approaching it, slowly, incrementally. We do set reasonable interim goals for ourselves until we reach perfection, and we're not ashamed of that.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Wikibooks update, Week of June 9

Wikibooks has been slowly picking up lately, resurrecting itself from the slump we've been in for a few months now.
  • Our active membership is picking up again. As always, a large portion of our population is "silent" in that they focus on their books and don't get involved with the community discussions. This population is hard to measure, but I think it's the most important group that we have.
  • Some old faces are coming back from wikibreaks. As the semester ends (for students) or as the seasons change (for working adults) people who used to be very busy in real life suddenly find themselves less so. Of course, new groups of people are going to find summer to be their busy time, and they will temporarily disappear until fall.
  • We've got a new bureaucrat nomination, which is a relatively rare occurrence on en.wikibooks. Our "newest" bureaucrat was promoted back in April 2007, so I think it's high-time we had some fresh blood added to the mix.
  • SUL has increased our account-renaming load considerably, and we've created a dedicated page where such requests can be made. This is probably only a temporary measure, until the SUL account-conflict frenzy has died down.
  • Despite problems with copyright violations (a number of candidates were deleted) the new logo discussion for Wikibooks is continuing. There still seem to be some problems that will need to be worked through, however, so we aren't trying to follow any kind of strict timeline now.
  • We've been working on our desired custom FlaggedRevs configuration, and even though discussion is spread out all over creation, we're slowly coming to consensus on some of the outstanding details. Hopefully, we can reach agreement on the last few details and put in our bugzilla request soon. Being able to flag a particular stable revision of a book is going to be a big help for us to "sell" our books to teachers who need things to stay calm in order to use a book in their class.
That's probably not all the news there is to report, but it's everything I can think of off the top of my head. If you've never been to Wikibooks, or are just in the mood to try something new in the world of wiki, stop on by and see what we've got going on.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SUL Mania

en.wikibooks, like many other projects, is feeling the heat from the SUL-inspired usurpation mania. It seems I can't shake a stick without hitting a usurpation request somewhere. En.wikibooks has a page for all "administrative assistance". This covers everything from reports of vandalism, requests for rename, behavior problems, etc. We used to have multiple dedicated message boards, but these were all relatively low traffic, and admins hated having to keep them all on their watchlists. So, a while back, we merged all these pages into the single administrative assistance page. Now, we have a convenient single-point-of-contact where people can get all sorts of help from administrators.

This system works fine (and is a model of efficiency!) under normal use, but with the incoming wave of SUL name conflicts, we've become swamped. People post requests on the noticeboard. When they feel like we aren't responding fast enough, they post to our talk pages as well. I'm having to perform several renames every day, and it's wearing on my good nature. After all, I'm here to write books, not perform millions of renames. Plus, my time on wikibooks is limited each day, and I would like to spend that time writing.

I sent a message to our other three bureaucrats saying a few things:
  1. I wanted to create a sub-page for rename requests. This might only be a temporary thing, but it would help to streamline things, and keep the administrators noticeboard free from rename-related clutter. I have just created this page this morning.
  2. I think we need new bureaucrats. We only have 4, and not all of them are models of activity. Of course, a lot of our admin staff have been less active lately (we're in a bit of a seasonal slump right now). Either way, I think it's time we got some new blood into the mix.
  3. We needed to standardize some things. At the moment, we don't have pesky "rules" and "procedures" governing when and how a bcrat performs a rename or a usurpation. We leave this up to the best discretion of our bureaucrats. I generally like this state of affairs (it beats the nightmare of having to draft policy, heaven forbid), but a standard and efficient way to get this work done might be worthwhile. We still won't draft up a policy for it, but i would like to come to some general agreements between the bcrats nonetheless.
Yesterday, I got my account "Whiteknight" usurped at nl.wikipedia. To return the favor, I usurped two accounts for nl.wikipedians too. I've interacted with people from fr, vi, id, nl, and many other language projects. This is the most inter-language cooperation we've ever had!