By Gregory Kohs
This article first appeared at Examiner.com
If you’re not one of the 34,000 or so people who edit the English Wikipedia at least five times per month, you may not have noticed the change that has taken place on the massive encyclopedia, but a highly controversial change has indeed been implemented by Wikipedia’s management team. In the past two weeks, a new “Visual Editor” has been deployed on Wikipedia, which purportedly enables users who want to change text in the encyclopedia to do so more easily and directly, without diving into the arcane “wikitext” markup language that has stymied many users for years. The problem is, the new software is riddled with flaws, and as of yesterday (July 19), the Wikimedia Foundation employee in charge of the deployment, Oliver Keyes, is apparently trying to hide the fact that the “old” platform was more effective at engaging editors than the new platform. Keyes rejects calls from the community to take down the Visual Editor until it can be fixed properly.
For anyone following the Wikimedia Foundation’s management over the past few years, it is clear that reversing the slow decline in editor engagement on the various language Wikipedias has been the top priority. Without volunteers beavering away at Wikipedia’s mountain of information, the Foundation knows that cash donations could be the next thing to suffer. However, rather than admit that the hostile personality culture that permeates the back pages of Wikipedia may be the thing most eroding editor retention, the Foundation has instead fixated on the editing software interface as the key problem. It was believed that a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) document interface would fatten the ranks of people willing to dive into Wikipedia and add to and change its content. Indeed, as far back as January 2009, the Wikimedia Foundation entered into a suspiciously friendly office space rental deal with Wikia, Inc. — the for-profit enterprise co-founded by the Foundation’s own founder, Jimmy Wales. A key reason for renting from Wikia (at a rate higher than the lowest bidders) was, according to Foundation staff member Brion Vibber, as follows:
“The fact that Wikia also has software developers working on MediaWiki usability is a big plus as well — being physically close to Wikia’s office makes technical collaboration with their team easier.”
What’s wrong with Visual Editor?
While it’s very simple to see from public commentary on Visual Editor that the beta deployment is causing all sorts of problems for users, Examiner turned to an expert in mission critical software programming for his view. Going by the pseudonym, Vigilant, he says that he has over three decades of programming experience, running teams in Silicon Valley, Russia, India, and China for clients in aerospace, automotive, and semiconductor fields. Vigilant has over a million lines of code with his name behind them. We asked how many different bugs have been reported on Visual Editor, but it’s difficult to determine an exact count, as the Wikimedia “Bugzilla server” will clear out duplicate or solved bugs; however, at this writing, there are still 567 bug reports that are still open (unsolved). We asked Vigilant what he thinks are the worst problems with Visual Editor:
“I’m not an editor of Wikipedia, merely a critic. My views on this are inconsequential when compared to the line editors’ views. But, what I am hearing most about are:
- An inability to add references easily. This drives the veteran editors nuts since it means that what they write in the article body cannot be backed up with documented information.
- An inability to add various types of secondary information. Pictures are handled poorly, tables of information cannot be added or easily edited, and math symbols are just not handled at all. This drastically limits what type of article an editor can even edit with the Visual Editor.
- The Visual Editor mangles text without warning and in unforeseeable ways. Add a space at the beginning of a section, sometimes you get a tag that prevents the first line from being edited. Add punctuation after a link, you get an extended character set pawn. It’s not just one bug, it’s a general failure to understand how token parsing works, on top of a failure to understand what they were building.”
It sounds pretty serious. Who, then, did the Wikimedia Foundation put in charge of this Visual Editor roll-out to the Wikipedia community?
His name is Oliver Keyes
Oliver Keyes is the Community Liaison for Product Development at the Wikimedia Foundation. Trained in Law, and with work experience only with the UK’s Liberal Democrats, Keyes became a Wikipedian in 2006. It is said that an early version of his Wikipedia user page read, “I’m Autistic, having Aspergers Syndrome, i have an IQ of 145, an Eidetic memory to do with sounds and am lucky enough to suffer from Bipolar disorder.” That version of the page was later erased from the public record. He wanted so badly to become a Wikipedia administrator, that he underwent six failed requests for admin rights before finally succeeding on the seventh try. He doesn’t seem to have any significant experience in engineering, software, or online user experience design. He does, however, go by the online nickname “Ironholds”. And that is where we get into some interesting territory.
Ironholds hangs out in quasi-formally sanctioned Internet Relay Chat (IRC) forums dedicated to Wikipedia administrators and users. On numerous occasions, chat logs reveal that Ironholds has a rather frightening way of conducting himself with regard to other Wikipedians.
For example, he made a joke in the Wikipedia admins IRC channel about lighting another editor on fire.
#wikipedia-en-admins on 26 June wrote:
01:12 < TParis> Ironholds: You silly guy
01:12 < TParis> You gotta revdel the edit in the middle too: <a wikipedia link>
01:12 < TParis> *shakes head* Can’t ever give you OS tools…
01:15 < Ironholds> TParis: oh, sod off. Kiefer needs his rubdown.
01:15 < TParis> Well, you grab the oil, I’ll meet you there.
01:17 < Ironholds> only if I’m allowed to bring a lighter.
To demonstrate his Community Liaison skills, there’s this example:
[12:19:35 A] <Sophiie> hi, can a page be undeleted just to see what it once was?
[12:19:47 A] <Ironholds> Sophiie, fuck off and die
[12:19:50 A] <Ironholds> thank you
And in what has to be one of the most disturbing thoughts ever to emerge on a Wikipedia-related site, Oliver Keyes once had this to say about a woman:
[19:58] <Ironholds> You should however have instead taken your pen, punched a hole in her windpipe and looked on as her attempts to wave for help got increasingly feeble.
Mr. Keyes did not respond to Examiner’s request to interview him; however, he has said that these IRC quotes need to be judged “in context”.
Making things worse
As one of Wikipedia’s most active users, Adam Cuerden, says:
“The WMF’s communication was terrible. Absolutely unforgivable, and gave the very strong impression the WMF didn’t care. …Yes, users were angry. They had a right to be: their site was being damaged. Unfortunately, fuel was poured on those flames.”
For whatever it’s worth, the usage statistics seem to indicate that the new Visual Editor is having the exact opposite effect of what it was hoped to do. It is not boosting editing activity, it is diminishing it. Since Visual Editor was implemented, total daily article edits — both by registered users and anonymous IP editors — are down by 4.5% overall.
In their defense, the Wikimedia Foundation’s senior leadership does plan “new participation vectors”, and they are “looking for force multipliers on uploads”. That will hopefully do the trick.