Wikipedia: the Missing Manual

O’Reilly sent me a copy of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (also amazon) for review. Really I am a bad person for such a task — they should give it to newbies and encourage them to dive in, see how they go, and then report how they feel about the book. But I guess there is some value in a perspective that learned it the hard way first (or at least, blog buzz).

Is this book needed or necessary? Yes. Wikis are very good at two tasks, at least: writing an encyclopedia and writing documentation. Interestingly, Wikipedia fails massively at the latter. Well, not so much at the writing of it as the organising, culling and simplifying of it.

I suppose it is not helped that policies, guidelines, manual of style, essays and wikiprojects all share the same space. Perhaps it would be useful to create new namespaces for some of these – at least MOS and wikiprojects. Essays could be folded back into user subpages (like userbox templates were). When they are all cited as if they held equivalent weight (I was surprised to learn WP:COOL was only an essay), it makes it extremely difficult to get a grasp on what you’re supposed to know.

Another idea might be to explicitly flag versions of policies and guidelines for “experience”, e.g. everything with a “experience rating 1” would be expected to be read by newbies. “5” would be howtos for bureaucrats, arbcom and Mechanics.

But because devoting oneself to organising and sorting projectspace has bad consequences for encyclopedia involvement, I don’t think it will happen.

On first read I got quite a kick out of seeing the familiar screenshots and policy statements in dead-tree format. Yeah — “we made it”. Chapter 15, on uploading images, was especially dear to my heart as I helped design the current upload forms. (With any luck those screenshots will soon be out of date, actually. A vastly improved JavaScript modified form is in the works.)

We made it all right… Wikipedia is now an institution, there’s no doubt about it. Not looking so radical now.

There are two major omission from this book and one of them is related to this. There is not a single mention of the policy Ignore all rules. That’s right, Wikipedia’s first ever rule doesn’t rate a mention in a book devoted to the minutiae of how to get an enhanced watchlist and get an article deleted. It’s really quite strange. The author John Broughton would undoubtedly be familiar with it, having authored the Editor’s index to Wikipedia. One can only assume he thinks it’s on the way out. Then, Wikipedia will be a much less interesting community.

The other major omission is an explanation or discussion of the concept of free content. “Free content” scores one reference in the book’s index, to a section “Uploading a Non-free Image” in the “Adding Images” chapter. He refers to the WMF licensing policy and says,

Free content is any work that doesn’t require permission or payment for any use, including commercial. At most, free content requires attribution: crediting the person who created the image. Free content also has no restrictions on redistribution of the image by others.

Well, for a start, this is just wrong. Free content can also require ShareAlike use, which is a “restriction on redistribution”.

He then breezes over Wikipedia’s fair use policy. Considering how much trouble people have with it, I think it would be better to cover it thoroughly or not at all. Simply reciting the conditions that must be met is not that enlightening. Better would be a full expanded explanation of the ideas of free software, free culture, freedom for users, copyleft, etc.

Aside from these two gaping holes, I can’t really fault Broughton’s writing, which is refreshingly free of cynicism. If he sometimes belabors a point of process, it is actually a good indication that that process is due for massive simplification. Adding references, for example. He goes into great detail about article deletion nominations; I thought these could all be done more or less by magic JavaScript now? That would seem a much better option to explain, IMO.

The organisation of the book’s content is not bad, although I don’t understand why the appendices “A Tour of the Wikipedia Page” and “Reader’s Guide to Wikipedia” don’t lead the book rather than being hidden at the back. This book would also become 20% cooler if the inside of the covers had the MediaWiki syntax cheatsheet and a list of frequent shortcuts/policies and guidelines printed inside them. That would be so much cooler!

Physically, the book is a little crowded. The pages need to be bigger, or the margins smaller, to allow the many screenshots to take up more space. I am not sure the frequent “note” and “tip” asides wouldn’t be better worked into the main text. (Hey, just like trivia sections!) And unfortunately the binding is cheap. Having finished reading it, my index pages are now falling out. That’s disappointing, but a book like this is not really intended to be a tome for all time anyway, so it’s not that surprising.

Sooner or later I will post my smaller nitpicks to the publisher’s errata page, but they’re just small fry.

There is a pretty nice piece in the New York Times only just about this book – The Charms of Wikipedia. The author is clearly pretty enthralled with Wikipedia. Hey, more power to him. The real test is if this book can convert a Wikipedia skeptic, or maybe tame a troublesome user.

Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, Ben Yates, and SJ Klein (four upstanding Wikipedians all) are working on a book called How Wikipedia Works. (see also meta) Reportedly they will license it under the GFDL. This is excellent news.

I hope Broughton’s book is not only massively successful, but that it inspires a host of measured, high-quality documentation of all the Wikimedia projects, and then some.

03 March, 2008 • ,



I noticed the omission of a discussion of “ignore all rules” too. My guess is that this is one of those advanced topics that you don’t want to introduce to beginners & end up confusing them. (“But if I can ignore all rules, why should I follow this procedure? Why can’t I just do it how I think it should be done?”) But as a creative writing teacher once told me many years ago, the most difficult topics to write are often the most important ones.

On the other hand, I don’t know if flagging each section with a value to indicate which audience should to read it would be that helpful. I’ve been contributing to Wikipedia for over five now, & I encountered some introductory level material that I didn’t know; almost all of us Wikipedians are self-taught, which means we know little about what we are not interested in, thus leading to gaps in our knowledge.

In any case, I agree with you that this is a solid book, & should be read by everyone interested either in Wikipedia or wikis in general.


llywrch · 4. March 2008, 02:33


On the other hand, I don’t know if flagging each section with a value to indicate which audience should to read it would be that helpful.

I actually meant maybe Wikipedia should do that, not this book. (I also learned a couple of “beginner” things from the book.)

pfctdayelise · 4. March 2008, 12:35


O’Reilly contacted me to say they were aware of a gluing problem in “some copies of the first print run”. This should be solved now, so hopefully now there won’t be any books with pages falling out.

pfctdayelise · 19. March 2008, 12:41

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