[Foundation-l] Big problem to solve: good WYSIWYG on WMF wikis

David Gerard dgerard at gmail.com
Tue Dec 28 11:50:57 UTC 2010

[crossposted to foundation-l and wikitech-l]

"There has to be a vision though, of something better. Maybe something
that is an actual wiki, quick and easy, rather than the template
coding hell Wikipedia's turned into." - something Fred Bauder just
said on wikien-l.

Our current markup is one of our biggest barriers to participation.

AIUI, edit rates are about half what they were in 2005, even as our
fame has gone from "popular" through "famous" to "part of the
structure of the world." I submit that this is not a good or healthy
thing in any way and needs fixing.

People who can handle wikitext really just do not understand how
offputting the computer guacamole is to people who can cope with text
they can see.

We know this is a problem; WYSIWYG that works is something that's been
wanted here forever. There are various hideous technical nightmares in
its way, that make this a big and hairy problem, of the sort where the
hair has hair.

However, I submit that it's important enough we need to attack it with
actual resources anyway.

This is just one data point, where a Canadian government office got
*EIGHT TIMES* the participation in their intranet wiki by putting in a
(heavily locally patched) copy of FCKeditor:


"I have to disagree with you given my experience. In one government
department where MediaWiki was installed we saw the active user base
spike from about 1000 users to about 8000 users within a month of having
enabled FCKeditor. FCKeditor definitely has it's warts, but it very
closely matches the experience non-technical people have gotten used to
while using Word or WordPerfect. Leveraging skills people already have
cuts down on training costs and allows them to be productive almost


"Since a plethora of intelligent people with no desire to learn WikiCode
can now add content, the quality of posts has been in line with the
adoption of wiki use by these people. Thus one would say it has gone up.

"In the beginning there were some hard core users that learned WikiCode,
for the most part they have indicated that when the WYSIWYG fails, they
are able to switch to WikiCode mode to address the problem. This usually
occurs with complex table nesting which is something that few of the
users do anyways. Most document layouts are kept simple. Additionally,
we have a multilingual english/french wiki. As a result the browser
spell-check is insufficient for the most part (not to mention it has
issues with WikiCode). To address this a second spellcheck button was
added to the interface so that both english and french spellcheck could
be available within the same interface (via aspell backend)."

So, the payoffs could be ridiculously huge: eight times the number of
smart and knowledgeable people even being able to *fix typos* on
material they care about.

Here are some problems. (Off the top of my head; please do add more,
all you can think of.)

- The problem:

* Fidelity with the existing body of wikitext. No conversion flag day.
The current body exploits every possible edge case in the regular
expression guacamole we call a "parser". Tim said a few years ago that
any solution has to account for the existing body of text.

* Two-way fidelity. Those who know wikitext will demand to keep it and
will bitterly resist any attempt to take it away from them.

* FCKeditor (now CKeditor) in MediaWiki is all but unmaintained.

* There is no specification for wikitext. Well, there almost is -
compiled as C, it runs a bit slower than the existing PHP compiler.
But it's a start!

- Attempting to solve it:

* The best brains around Wikipedia, MediaWiki and WMF have dashed
their foreheads against this problem for at least the past five years
and have got *nowhere*. Tim has a whole section in the SVN repository
for "new parser attempts". Sheer brilliance isn't going to solve this

* Tim doesn't scale. Most of our other technical people don't scale.
*We have no resources and still run on almost nothing*.

($14m might sound like enough money to run a popular website, but for
comparison, I work as a sysadmin at a tiny, tiny publishing company
with more money and staff just in our department than that to do
*almost nothing* compared to what WMF achieves. WMF is an INCREDIBLY
efficient organisation.)

- Other attempts:

* Starting from a clear field makes it ridiculously easy. The
government example quoted above is one. Wikia wrote a good WYSIWYG
that works really nicely on new wikis (I'm speaking here as an
experienced wikitext user who happily fixes random typos on Wikia). Of
course, I noted that we can't start from a clear field - we have an
existing body of wikitext.

So, specification of the problem:

* We need good WYSIWYG. The government example suggests that a simple
word-processor-like interface would be enough to give tremendous
* It needs two-way fidelity with almost all existing wikitext.
* We can't throw away existing wikitext, much as we'd love to.
* It's going to cost money in programming the WYSIWYG.
* It's going to cost money in rationalising existing wikitext so that
the most unfeasible formations can be shunted off to legacy for
chewing on.
* It's going to cost money in usability testing and so on.
* It's going to cost money for all sorts of things I haven't even
thought of yet.

This is a problem that would pay off hugely to solve, and that will
take actual money thrown at it.

How would you attack this problem, given actual resources for grunt work?

- d.

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