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Let's make WikiProjects better

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By James Hare
WikiProject X's logo

I have edited Wikipedia off and on for the past ten years. For as long as I have been a Wikipedia editor, there have been WikiProjects: sub-groups of the larger Wikipedia community dedicated to a particular subject matter or a certain task. WikiProjects are all over the map: some of them are dedicated to highly specific subjects; others are dedicated to high-level concepts like "biographies." Some WikiProjects have a very specific focus on encyclopedic content; others, like the Department of Fun, provide support in more indirect ways. There is a WikiProject for pretty much everyone, and if there isn't one for you, you can easily start one. In fact, they are so easy to start that we currently have over 2,000 WikiProjects.

Unfortunately, a proliferation of WikiProjects does not mean a proliferation of activity. Many WikiProjects that get started end up becoming inactive. What's happening? Several factors are at play. WikiProjects require significant effort to maintain, so they decline after their maintainers move on to do other things. Some arguments have been made that WikiProjects become less relevant as some subject areas get more complete coverage on Wikipedia. Others have tied the decline of WikiProjects to an overall decline of participation on Wikipedia.

Whatever the cause, WikiProjects are failing to live up to their potential. The English-language Wikipedia is huge. As with any large community, it can be hard for any one person to feel like he or she belongs. By grouping people together by their interests, WikiProjects have the potential to make Wikipedians feel like they are a part of a close-knit community. They can help Wikipedians of all levels of experience navigate our policies and procedures, ensuring that they are confident in their editing and that there is less cleanup work for the administrators. They have the potential to provide the social support that encourages newcomers to stick around and build our encyclopedia.

The potential WikiProjects have encouraged me to start WikiProject X, a new project funded by a Wikimedia Foundation Individual Engagement Grant that focuses on figuring out what makes some WikiProjects work and not others. Our research will focus on current WikiProjects and the subject areas they cover, determining where WikiProjects provide adequate support to the editing community and where they do not. I plan on interviewing many Wikipedians, including people who don't normally get involved on WikiProjects. I want to know what resources you need to support your editing.

Isarra, a Wikipedian and experienced MediaWiki designer, will lead our design effort. We will be drawing from our research data and other sources of inspiration, including the Teahouse and other existing WikiProjects. We should begin to think beyond static pages and lists. WikiProjects should make you feel engaged. They should put relevant information front and center, and always feel up to date. They should be easy to maintain, and no one should have to re-invent the wheel. They should be a safe space for users. They should make editing Wikipedia an easier and more satisfying experience for everyone.

This benefits more than just online users. I run many in-person editing events with my local Wikimedia chapter, usually organized around a specific theme. The experience of having a knowledgeable Wikipedia editor walk you through the ropes is difficult to replicate online. At the same time, there is only so much you can accomplish at a single event. I would like to be able to refer the people we train at our events to a WikiProject, where they can pick up where they left off. This would help bridge the gap between offline and online, where offline event organizers work with online participants from around the world, complementing each other's efforts. Very few WikiProjects are currently equipped to pull this off, but with the right tools, more should be able to do this.

We want to hear your perspective on this endeavor. We are collecting stories at Wikipedia:WikiProject X/Stories and are recruiting people and WikiProjects for pilot testing at Wikipedia:WikiProject X/Pilots. You are also encouraged to sign up for our newsletter if you are interested in learning more.

James Hare is the current president of Wikimedia DC. He has edited Wikipedia since 2004.
The views expressed in these op-eds are those of the authors only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. Editors wishing to submit their own op-ed should email the Signpost's editor.
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