Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Imperial Life in the Emerald Wiki

I just finished reading "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," all about how the U.S. bungled the Iraq reconstruction by becoming ensconsed in the Green Zone and debating endlessly.

In real life you meet all sorts of people at school, or the gas station, or walking around. Online, everything's a room with a bouncer; there are all sorts of opportunities for closed circles, and sometimes I worry about getting too caught up in wikipolitical minutia.

Don't get me wrong -- if Wikipedia was anything at all like the U.S. Bagdhad presence I'd be off storming St. Petersburg or something. Er ... the St. Petersburg with palms, not the one with statues of Lenin. But there are all sorts of real-world wiki issues that aren't given enough attention -- "stupid user stories" are usually bad design stories.

This California newsman thought that "there's no way to tell who wrote the [Wikipedia] entry or how many people contributed to it" until one of his readers corrected him -- and he works for the media! How many regular people know how to check an article's contributors?

Put yourself in your parents' shoes: you're reading a page about Thailand that you found through Google, and you see a square that says "history". You click the square expecting to read about the history of Thailand and suddenly you're faced with a long, mysterious list of nonsensical words and numbers. You click the back button.

People are not born knowing how Wikipedia works, or what IANAL stands for, or the intended purpose of a program called Gimp.

The "history" problem could have been solved years ago by picking a better name for the tab -- even "article history" would be an improvement, and I thought of that in 5 seconds. "Previous versions of this article"? It would be a simple change, uncontroversial, easy to implement. But it would affect the experience of ordinary Wikipedia users way more than Merging Two of the Official Rules would, and how many megabytes of text were devoted to debating that?

The U.S. presence in Bagdhad had almost no Araibic-fluent staff, and they had no idea what was going on around them. We web-savy folk don't understand how ordinary people see the internet: the only way to really know is to show people the site, sit back, and see what they do.

I've watched web-designer friends click on the wrong edit-this-section link. The only wikipedia usability study that I know of identified the problem in Feb. 2006 and found that new users would often do the same thing -- and then they'd be so confused that they'd delete all the text in the section because it looked nonsensical to them. (How's that for vandalism?) It took a year to move the links a quarter-inch and fix the problem.

Right now there's not much mediawiki usability testing going on (Wikia's doing some, but it takes a long time to trickle back up), and not many people care. This is a problem.

1 comment:

AxelBoldt said...

It should be called "Revisions", not "History". Scholarpedia got it right.