User:Johan G/Essays/Essay:The FlightGear Wiki — Its structure, content and ease of use

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This is a user essay and not a part of the official wiki.
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A issues things have bothered me since maybe not my first visits on this wiki, but at least since my first attempts to do meaningful contributions to it. Some of them may be related to that I, at least in the past, would edit in both the English and Swedish Wikipedia now and then, maybe once or twice a week at least in the Swedish one.

While I in this essay will be critical to several aspects of the FlightGear Wiki, I will also try to suggest solutions. If possible I will try to suggest solutions that adds as little work as possible for everyone involved, even including me of course.

My issues are related to

  • the lack of an obvious starting point for those contributing to the wiki or contemplating to do so,
  • the general lack of structure in the wiki and
  • the ease of use of the wiki.

My issues

I will elaborate on those somewhat interrelated issues mentioned and split them up further. But let us begin with the first issue, which I feel is very important.

An obvious starting point

When I first visited the wiki I was looking for something related to using or modifying aircraft. I did not find what I was looking for immediately, but I did not expect to do that as I was completely new to the wiki. I would expect it to take a few hours to get a good feel for a web site in order to find information comfortably.

However, when I a few months later was contemplating whether it was time to start editing some pages or not I was stumped. I usually want to get a feel for a community before I enter it. What is acceptable manners, how is the jargon, how is the place organised, is there a user hierarchy, how is the general workflow, is there an amount of bureaucracy etc. I might be a bit shy at times, and I want to make meaningful contributions with a minimum of work for others, as well as getting the most out of it. In most language versions of Wikipedia there is a "Village pump" where people have a more or less general and more or less heated discussion about the wikipedia in question.

At that time, and as I am writing this there is a box named portals to the left containing three items User, Developer and Pilot. If I wanted to get a feel for the community behind the FlightGear Wiki the pilot portal obviously was not relevant, but the developer portal was not a wiki developer portal and neither was the user developer portal a wiki user portal. In the end there was only really Recent changes left that I could think of.

To sum it up. Potential editors has no obvious place to start, except for Help:Contents. I do not think it is sufficient. It is more to meaningful contribution than just adding content.

The structure, content and ease of use of the wiki

My main issue here is how hard it sometimes is to find relevant information when one needs it and the fact that it usually is there. The wiki is not all that well organised, sometimes with documents spread out that is not well linked together by either wiki links, category structures or anything else for that matter.

There is also the issue of where to find information on how to best contribute to the wiki. Personally I am a bit reluctant to do so if I am not 75% sure or so that my contributions will be meaningful or of it takes to much time to learn much enough about the community and wiki to get that confident.

These issues are more complicated to describe in detail, but relates both to the portals, the somewhat unintuitive category structure and how it is used, the mix of descriptions of different FlightGear versions in a single wiki page and finally the documentation on how to edit the wiki. I think many of those issues can be handled by better documentation, both in the form of style manuals and in the form of documentation of templates and wiki usage in general.

The ephemeral nature of the wiki

\E*phem"er*al\, n. Anything lasting but a day, or a brief time; an ephemeral plant, insect, etc. [1913 Webster]

What about the future then?

I have lately realised that most of the editors of the wiki have not wrapped their heads around the fact that what they just added someone might have a look at two years forward in time, wondering why they did that edit or even policy change, or that someone stuck with a too slow computer might not be able to run the latest version of FlightGear. This is noticeable in several areas:

  • Looking at page histories or Special:RecentChanges one quickly realises how few uses the edit summaries, you would have too look at the diffs to see what is done.
  • The talk pages are "interesting" to follow up as many (most?) editors do not sign their comments. This leads to two things:
    • Several editors comments tend to be added after another without any way of separating them but stepping through the diffs.
    • Sometimes those long sections get chopped up making it even more difficult to follow a discussion.
  • In addition to above mentioned talk page problems, they have historically not been archived. Instead solved issues, and I guess abandoned ambitions as well, has been deleted, even partially, and can only be found by stepping through the diffs.
  • There is no regard for the older FlightGear versions in various aspects, all of which will make it difficult, probably sometimes impossible to use the wiki to find solutions to problems if you are stuck with a computer that is to slow for the latest release of FlightGear.
    • Files, not links to files, with screenshots from one version of FlightGear get replaced with screenshots from the latest version of FlightGear.
    • Instead of mentioning differences with older versions of FlightGear or documenting them in another place, the information on a page get updated to the standards of the last version of FlightGear. Trying to follow up on that is not possible for a non wiki-savvy person for reasons mentioned above.

My suggestions

Based on above mentioned issues I have a few proposals or suggestions that I would like to discuss with as many of the current contributors of this wiki as possible.

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A wiki editor portal

I think there is a big need for a single starting point for those editing or contributing to the wiki. Based on the activity seen here it maybe will not be a place full of activity like the English Wikipedia's Village pump.

It could and should be a central place to discuss the wiki, finding documentation that helps contributing both in respect to wiki markup, content, style and structure.

I would like to discuss adding such a portal to see if there is interest for it, but as of now I am not aware of any central place that all users would see that the preferably visit now and then, except for possibly the Recent changes page. Also I do not know if adding a portal is just as easy as adding a new page or if there is more to it, in essence if it requires help from the administrator.

At first I think a simple page for discussions is enough.

Wiki markup documentation

I think there is a need for better documentation of the wiki markup. I do not see this as an urgent need though as I think that this is something that will grow over time.

I think documenting the wiki markup could, in time, be split up on several pages as follows.

  • Simple editing Just simple wiki markup, like text style, headers, links and images and adding edit summaries.
  • Advanced editing More complicated markup, like tables and more complex use of images.
  • Template usage Seeing just a template page is of no help if you can not make a template yourself. Better documentation could be made using subpages and template "magic". (also see below)
  • Simple template editing Making simple templates.
  • Advanced template editing Using "template magic" to make more advanced templates.

Manual of style

This is something which I think is much needed, but also something that will need discussion. In order to help people to find what they are looking for on the wiki consistency is key, which means that pages with similar content needs a standardised structure. This is not to confuse with how to use the wiki markup, as this has more to do with the general layout.

There can, in time, be several style manuals for different subjects, like aircraft pages, howtos, proposals and wish lists.

Creative use of subpages and templates

I see a few good uses of supbages and wp:transclusion of them into a main page using templates. This is a technique used on the English Wikipedia that if well implemented will make a few things a lot easier. I can easily see them being used for:

  • Template documentation
  • Archiving talk pages
  • Separating documentation of different FlightGear versions

Using this technique for template documentation can roughly be set up in the following way:

  1. A place holder for the template documentation template is added.
  2. An empty page with only section headings to used documenting a template is written as a subpage, possibly as a template.
  3. The template is then written in a way that makes it possible to use it like follows:
    1. When added to a template page it transcludes the documentation page and includes a link to edit the subpage named {{PAGENAME}}/documentation where it resides
    2. If that page does not exist, clicking that link will substitute (add) the empty page with only section headings.

If there is some support for this I will try to read in on it and implement it to the wiki. I was reading in on "template magic" before I, due to other reasons, almost entirely stopped editing mostly the Swedish Wikipedia.

Using subpages and templates to document different versions of FlightGear

A similar technique could be used to separate documentation of different FlightGear versions. Let us face the fact that many people use older versions of FlightGear, the will likely at some point want to read in on how to used their version and possibly also contribute to the wiki detailing that version. One way to make this possible is to use subpages for different versions. As there was many different versions of the CVS and GIT development builds in the past that might be tricky, though I think that fewer people use those than the official versions. The new release plan and the use of odd minor numbers for development versions and even numbers for release versions makes it easier to document upcoming versions.

I suggest that it would be quite possible to use a similar technique to document different FlightGear versions as the used documenting Wikipedia's templates. In essence there would be a subpage for each version, including the both current release and development versions. The documentation for the current release version could be included using a template that also could put links to previous versions on the top.

I do realise that this probably should not be used for all the documentation, but for some pages this would probably be a good idea. This could probably be a good way to structure other things as well, like change logs.