Interviews/Jack Herrick

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How familiar are you with the WMF strategic planning process?

I consider myself a Wikipedian, so I try to keep far more abreast of Wikipedia than most people. I was able to learn a little about the strategy process at Wikimania this year in Argentina.

What about your background and how came to start wikiHow?

I’m an entrepreneur. For many years, I’ve been trying to build the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual. I wanted to create a multilingual, knowledge source providing a practical education on how to do any topic. Before wikiHow, I used to run eHow, and as I was running that I became a little distraught. You couldn’t accomplish my long term goal with the eHow model of professionally edited and professionally written content. The business model there breaks if you try to do high quality and high quantity. I discovered Wikipedia and I was like “Wow. This is the answer to that problem.” They had done what I wanted to do. So I moved on from eHow and started spending a lot of time trying to learn about wikis and trying to figure out how I could do the same thing for how-to. In the process I fell in love with Wikipedia and the culture and the community.

Is Wikipedia the reason you chose MediaWiki for wikiHow?

MediaWiki was one of several platforms we looked at. The fact that Wikipedia had already proved that it scaled and that all of the problems we would have the future (vandalism, trolls, etc) had already been identified and addressed. It has worked really well. Obviously there are things we wish it did better, but overall it’s very, very good software. The people who diss on it don’t understand the subtle beauties of the software.

What are your concerns about MediaWiki?

Good things: its architecture supports participation in ways that aren’t always obvious. If you are technically savvy, you can look at what is working well in other places and copy that. Editing up through all the various realms in which MediaWiki works. Most software is not built for such wide participation.

Limitations: In my mind the biggest limitation is difficulty to use. If someone did this analysis, they would find that if you took 100 people and tried to get them to actually use MediaWiki with a minimal amount of training, it’s got to be less than 10 who would be successful. Compare that with Google Docs or something. The bar of using MediaWiki is just so much higher.

We really want the world contributing to the world’s knowledge bases, and right now we don’t really have that. We have people who are tech savvy contributing to the world’s knowledge bases.

I have two different analyses that touch on this:

  1. Unlike Wikipedia, wikiHow has two ways to edit – guided editor and advanced editing. Advanced editing is the MediaWiki standard, and guided is a slightly easier to use version. We did a study where we said “What happens when we take away the guided editor?” We took about 50 articles and pushed them to only open in advance editing. Came back a year later, and saw how the number of edits compared. We got something like 30-50% more edits with guided editor.
  2. The other thing we did was a lot less scientific: I asked folks at various wikis what their “edit abandonment rate” is. In other words, of all the people who press edit, what % end up pressing save? What we found is that on wikiHow about 30% of edits get saved, so we have 70% edit abandonment. The founder of Wikitravel told me at one point that they have 90% edit abandonment, and they use standard MediaWiki. Erik Zachte said 16 to 25% for Wikipedia. At Wikia – they added WYSIWIG and save rate went up to 80-90%.

Who pushes advances in MediaWiki forward? Does anyone at wikiHow work on that?

At wikiHow we have 3 engineers right now, all working on MediaWiki. Travis is the only committer in MediaWiki, but they all try to contribute back to the project by making extensions when possible. Whenever we can, we specifically try and architect wikiHow in a way that is a MediaWiki extension so we can share it with other MediaWiki sites. Sometimes that isn’t always possible. So about 50% of our advancements are patches. It’s technically easier and faster to make a patch than to make an extension. But then the innovations can’t be easily shared, which is a shame for us and the rest of the mediawiki ecosystem.

MediaWiki is on an update cycle of about once a quarter. Since we have so many custom patches at this point, it’s a pain to update so we only do it about once a year. The core of MediaWiki is really controlled by the Foundation.

Wikipedia is by its nature a very conservative project. The innovation on the edge probably won’t happen at Wikipedia. And it probably shouldn’t. But it’s a tragedy that we can’t capture more of the innovations from others working on Mediawiki and bring them back the core.

How does wikiHow’s community compare to Wikipedia's?

There are a lot of differences. Exaggerated press reports about the death of the Wikipedia community have gotten more ink recently, but accounts of community being a difficult place to work have been around for at least 3 years. At wikiHow we have tried to give our community a different feel. We are 2 orders of magnitude smaller, so it may be hard to compare. But if you go talk to our community members, you will hear about a family feeling: community, friendly, open, welcoming, pleasant place to collaborate. Our ratio of men to women is far more skewed towards normal than Wikipedia. Our % of admins who we can identify, 43% are female. And that’s the people who make it to the highest level of wikiHow.

I think we do a lot of things to make it quite different. Writing about how-to reduces a lot of the conflict. Topics are easier to agree on. So we may have an unfair advantage in that department. We try to build tools to make it so that people can communicate more. For example our talk pages are more usable for the average internet user. It’s a big comment box. We’ve also tried to enable that into other aspects as well. Recent changes patrol – you can leave editors messages without ever leaving recent changes. If you have editors actually communicating, it stops feeling like a video game and more like collaboration.

We hired communications coaches and had classes on line and over the phone so that people could learn ways to collaborate that are more compassionate. We also tried something called No Template November. During No Template November, our power editors voluntarily agreed to not use templates on talk pages. And that was one of the better things we did. It was extremely successful because it forces conversation and makes the community more personable. We are going to try to do more things like that.

What about social networking functionality?

We’ve taken the first step in creating social networking capabilities and created profiles. This allows people to capture things they’ve done in one page, completed by machines. We have not done friending, following, those sorts of things. And I have mixed emotions about that type of functionality. If you talk about people who are really into wiki, they build great friendships on wikis. And I think if you talk to them, the friendships they build are much stronger than for other online communities. The collaboration is different. When wikis are working at their best, they resemble real human collaboration and emotions better than other contrived so-called social software features. More realistic and tied to what people actually want to do with each other. So I’m a little scared of overlaying these real interactions with the more contrived social software functionality.

How do you communicate reputation in a way that is really easy?

Reputation on wikiHow is intrinsic like on Wikipedia. So we haven’t tried to bust this door down and figure it out. That’s not to say it’s not do-able. There are some external measures already available (admin status, # of edits, etc). There might be some better and more artful ways to do it.

Any pushback around ads from the wikiHow community? Wikipedia and wikiHow are very different in this regard. The no-ads nonprofit model wasn’t going to work for wikiHow. So from day one, we had ads and I explained why there are ads here. We’ve been very clear that we were a for-profit and not a non-profit. We are wikiHow.com, not wikiHow.org.

Yet, we’ve also worked to make sure the ads don’t interfere with our mission. For example, we are the most popular website that is “advertising optional.” If you register and log in you don’t see ads at all. And even if you aren’t logged in, there are little buttons to hide ads. In return for showing ads, we have a dependable revenue source that we’ve been able to use to invest back into the product. We don’t have to ask for donations and we aren’t at the mercy of a bad fundraising climate.

Now there are people who don’t want to work on a website that makes money and has ads, so we do lose some contributors. That is the cost of showing ads.

Final thoughts?

I’m really glad Wikipedia is doing this. I think Wikipedia has the potential to be a mass movement of arguably billions of people collaborating on the project in a meaningful way. Wikipedia has already changed the world, but there is even more that can be done. I think the community is setting its goals too low right now by not trying to innovate aggressively. I’d encourage folks to roll up our sleeves and do as much as we can to think about solutions that can get us to a billion people collaborating to share knowledge.