Monday, October 27, 2008

Building a tower of Babel

MediaWiki is a big undertaking. It is ever growing in functionality, it is increasing its pull of developers coming to the platform. There are an increasing number of websites outside of the Wikimedia Foundation using it for the many qualities of the software and consequently there is an increased need for supporting this great platform.

When Wikipedia started, like at the start of the building of the tower of Babel, everybody spoke the same language and there was one God. Now there are many languages and many people decry a lack of faith and a lack of community. At the same time, the English language Wikipedia alone has grown to a staggering 2.6 million articles, there are many sister projects in other languages and sister projects with other aims and, the WMF has grown into a multi million dollar organisation.

All projects have their own momentum and each project has its own issues but when new functionality is added to MediaWiki, it is immediately there for all to use. The people localising at Betawiki have an increasingly hard time to keep up because of the size of the software and the increase in development.

The problem is that when the user interface is too hard to use, people will not use it. There are several issues that are a factor.
  • insufficient localisaton
  • inconsistent terminology
When the localisation is not sufficient, when people do not know this other language, they cannot edit. When the words used for a specific action differ from application to application, people will be confused and will not edit. There are solutions but they require a lot of attention and investment.

The first thing we could do is reduce what needs to be localised. This may mean that MediaWiki becomes more modular and that these modules can be turned on when needed. A good example is the "Flagged Revisions". Another strategy would be to first localise the messages that have proven to be stable; those would be messages that have not changed since the previous release.

We need localisation, any localisation and inconsistent terminology is only a problem when there is such initial localisation. The problem is that even with consistency within MediaWiki there is still a problem when it is not the same terminology as used in the other software people use.

So what can we do to make things better. The WMF should invest in the tooling at Betawiki. There are several plans already that will improve the Betawiki functionality, they will improve efficiency and this is likely to increase the throughput of translators. For me the biggest advantage of such an investment is that the WMF will become more aware of what it is to support software and projects for 297 languages.
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