Templatology, an essay

Templates are one of MediaWiki’s most versatile features. I was thinking about them recently because of a discussion with other editors about whether a particular template should even exist, and if so, what should its wording be. Templates are a now ubiquitous part of English Wikipedia articles and MediaWiki wikis everywhere, so it may be interesting to look at how they have evolved. (Warning: this is quite long.)

What is a template?

Templates are a feature that provide “boilerplate” text or style, whenever you want to have a standard look or text across more than one page. In MediaWiki, to put a template called “foo” (that is, you would find it in the wiki at [[template:foo]]) on any page, you would put {{foo}}. They can also take “parameters”, or particular values that you can change for each time it is used: {{foo|parameter value 1|parameter value 2}}.

Various types of templates are referred to by other names, including infoboxes, naxboxes, notices and warnings, which more reflect the purpose of those templates.

Another name used is “tag”. When a template is used on a page, it creates a link in the database between the page name and the template. This means one use of templates is to mark pages that you want to group together for some reason. These grouped pages can then be found listed at Special:Whatlinkshere/Template:Foo. If you only wanted to use a template for this grouping purpose, you could make the template so it actually had no visible content. However categories usually make more sense for this purpose.

A history of templates

Templates as we know them today were first introduced in August 2004, MediaWiki v1.3, along with categories and the MonoBook skin still used today. Before this they were in the MediaWiki namespace with the “system messages” or user interface messages. With this move they also got the feature of “parameters”.

The first revision of the Help:Template page on meta was in June 2004 (I suppose by this stage they already had the practice of running the latest MediaWiki version live for Wikimedia sites, rather than the latest release which is typically after). The opening paragraph is now cute:

Templates, or custom messages, have grown from humble beginnings as an afterthought in a localisation feature. They are now used in almost 10% of pages in the English Wikipedia database.

I asked Duesentrieb to run a query like this, and apparently there are 229,686 en.wp main namespace non-redirect pages without templates – a very neat 10%. So from 10% usage to 90% usage in less than four years. Pretty impressive, especially given there is no edict mandating their use.

However, this is actually getting well ahead of ourselves. There is an interesting post from Larry Sanger in May 2001 called Do we need templates ?:

From: “Krzysztof P. Jasiutowicz”
> Do we need templates of pages ?
> Groups of pages – rock bands, biographies, film entries share common
> features and therefore want some kind of templates.
> Pages of the same category edited by different people tend to follow
> sometimes incompatible patterns or disagree with each other.

One of the reasons that Wikipedia works—why it is developing so quickly and is so attractive to contributors (compelling, one might say…) is that anyone can come in and contribute in practically any fashion. Instigating templates has a number of implications for how we might begin to think of Wikipedia: it would become a collection of standardized information rather than a collection of information that people just happen to feel inspired to input. Who is interested in inputting “standardized information”? Maybe some people, but surely not nearly as many as those who are interested in inputting whatever information they know.

Suppose we were to require (somehow) that everyone writing about the countries of the world input the information in exactly the format of the CIA Factbook. Who, honestly, would want to do that? And on the other hand, who would want to contribute a lot of generally accurate, useful information that will eventually add up to weighty, detailed articles, not necessarily all in the same format?

If I finish the quote here we can all enjoy a guffaw about how things have changed. I think his answer to the question Who is interested in inputting “standardized information”? has been shown to be wrong. Empty edit boxes freak people out. Structured stuff where you just fill out a missing bit here or there is much easier to deal with. (This is also why bots have been so successful in “seeding” wikis. It’s much easier to correct something that’s wrong, rather than write a correct paragraph from a blank slate.)

However, a fairer quote would include the following, where Larry clearly recognises that “it’s early days yet”:

Eventually, I suspect, we’re going to have huge amounts of information, and it will be possible for people to go in and render related entries in a similar format. It’s generally better to impose order after creation, in a way that reflects the natural categories of things as information is given. […] [I]n a constantly-growing, constantly-improving encyclopedia, why not just let people add whatever information they want, and when it’s reached a certain level of maturity, only then start imposing some uniformity on the way similar information is presented?

And that seems to be more or less what happened. I’m not great at this online ethnography biz, so I don’t have any other choice quotes from 2001 to 2004, although I expect there was further discussion about templates and their appropriateness.

What’s interesting is how far they’ve spread. While first imagined as kind of article skeleton structure, they’re now just as widely used in all kinds of talk pages, user pages, maintenance and communication tasks.

A taxonomy of templates

There are some broad classes of templates that can be described:

Now into the user realm —

Any other clear classes I missed? (There are a few I can think of which are pretty boring, hence not here.)

Template complexity

This is what you see when you edit the article on the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. Note how the template takes up the entire first screen, and it’s not even done! For a newbie it must be pretty bizarre — although frankly this one’s formatted quite well. But if you’re just trying to get into the guts of it (and remember newbies may not know about section editing), it’s quite “WRONG WAY, GO BACK”.

So there is the complexity of templates — and typically these infobox ones — within articles. Maybe one day MediaWiki will get some whiz-bang “template adder” for articles and all that ugly template code won’t appear in the edit box. That would be nice.

Then there is the complexity of trying to edit the templates themselves. This is nothing short of a nightmare. Template syntax is approaching a very ugly programming language, especially if you throw in parser functions. The migration to the new preprocessor (Feb 2008) has shown deeply nested templates all over the place.

I don’t really see a solution to this, unfortunately. People can’t help themselves “improving” stuff. Here is one way things get complex real fast:

  1. There are two or more functions that display different content but in a similar context.
  2. Someone decides to combine in them in a single template that takes a parameter, which says which content to display. The old templates get deleted/redirected.
  3. Helloooo, complexity.

Repeat this a few different times, at a few different levels, in a few different contexts, and suddenly you’ll find it all very difficult to try and untangle.

Convenience becomes necessity

All templates begin life because someone finds it easier to make a boilerplate and post that, rather than posting something longer, and having to look it up each time.

However once a template exists, the expectation soon develops that whenever it is applicable, it should be used, and the plain text equivalent should not. Even if previously, you could take or leave the plain text equivalent.

I don’t know why this happens, but it does — without fail.

Templates in user communication

This is actually the crux of what I intended to write about. :) In my 2007 Wikimania presentation I talked quite a bit about the wording, attitude and intent of the English Wikipedia user talk templates. I complained that the wording was often officious, scolding and impersonal, and they were not likely to encourage people to become part of the community.

In hindsight, maybe I had the wrong idea about them all along. John Broughton says this in Wikipedia:The Missing Manual (my review):

The primary purpose of a warning about vandalism or spam, perhaps counter-intuitively, is not to get the problem editor to change her ways. (It would be nice if they did so, but troublemakers aren’t like [sic] to reform themselves just because someone asked nicely.) Rather, when you and other editors post a series of increasingly strong warnings, you’re building a documented case for blocking a user account from further disruptive editing. If the warning leads to the editor changing his ways before blocking is necessary, great – but don’t hold your breath.

(Yes, the gender did change in the middle of that paragraph. :) Srsly, accept singular they already!)

If this is a widespread attitude, that you have to wait until someone receives a level 4 template before it’s legitimate to block them, then it’s not too surprising that there is so much trouble with “gaming” on en.wp. That IS a game, isn’t it? It’s hard for me to not see that situation as leading to punitive block. It’s certainly not leading to a preventative one!

I guess my problem with user warning templates is I have a feeling they don’t work. I have a feeling they don’t improve a situation. I have a feeling they don’t get read — users don’t pay attention to their content.

If there was evidence that anyone read them, learned something from them, or some situation was averted — that would be nice. [Of course such evidence would be anecdotal. That’s all we have when it comes to user interactions.]

Image deletion notification templates

When an uploaded file is nominated for deletion or is actually deleted, it is commonly considered courtesy to inform the uploader, via a template to their user talk page. If they didn’t receive this, they would have no idea their upload had been deleted until they tried to go look at it, which is a pretty nasty surprise. It’s now quite common to visit a user talk page and see a dozen odd notices about missing information on files. Because they are often placed by bots, many can pile up without a human there to notice, “OK, this person seriously doesn’t get this concept, time for a chat”. This is even more true on Commons.

These templates perform two functions: notification + admonishment. They would be better if they were simplified to a single line and only used for notification. Admonishment is something that should be between two humans.

Templates on Commons

There is one benefit to templates that I cannot ignore on Commons and it is that of translation. Translated templates may mean two users can “communicate” (of a fashion) despite not having any language in common.

Templates are for the benefit of the poster, not the receiver

The benefits are

Just as automated phone answering services are for the benefit of the company, not the caller.

Receiving a form reprimand is patronising. I am not the only one who has this emotional reaction – as Wikipedia has Don’t template the regulars.

It follows from this that templates are patronising to newbies too. I guess the only reason this is considered acceptable is that as they’re newbies, they won’t realise this template is a form response. (Well, except for how it’s totally generically worded, yeah.) So, since we’re all equal ‘n all, go ahead and template the regulars.

(So far there is no essay Don’t template the newbies. Instead, treat everyone equally badly. ;))

It would be very valuable to see an in-person observational study of people’s reactions as they learn to edit Wikipedia, including how they react to templates. Maybe the vast majority appreciate the “official” warning as it gives them some direction. Maybe they really do pay attention to them.

Maybe the problem is not the tool, but the way it’s being used. Maybe the only thing to do is take a sharp knife to the language that is used, and help resist the idea of messages as block precipitators, rather than messages as useful informers and educators.

10 March, 2008 • ,

Comment

1

== Convenience becomes necessity ==
I suppose this happens to help standardize these messages. For example, the short disambiguiation notes (templates like {{for}}) look exactly the same as if they were hardcoded (even if by “coded” we mean only “italicized”), but if e.g. for some reason the community decides to add a small icon on these messages, we only have to change the template, instead of all the articles.

== Image deletion notification templates ==
This really needs to be worked out, indeed. Just yesterday I had to remove two image deletion warning templates from magnus’ upload bot’s talk page, because the javascript added them automatically, instead of the real uploader.
And I hate when I see a user’s talk page full of warning templates with red links referring to images that don’t even exist anymore! Maybe Commons DeLinker should hide these templates when removing instances of the images that are deleted…

== Templates are for the benefit of the poster, not the receiver ==
This obviously should be reverted. The wording should be friendlier (it doesn’t make vandals change their mind anyway, at least it should be friendly and useful to the people who care to read it)

Waldir · 11. March 2008, 04:45

2

The main difference between newbies and regulars is that there are much more newbies and most of them dont stay, so you would have to spend time and emotional energy on someone knowing that 9 from 10 times he wont edit more, wont even read your message. This can be pretty disheartening IMO.

As for the difficulty of editing, there is a cool gadget called Vorlagenmeister in the German Wikipedia, which makes it much easier.

Tgr · 12. March 2008, 06:49

3

I find it kinda funny that Waldir used
"==" in his posting of a comment… I expect many of use let wikimarkup leak into other realms.

~~~~
(oops!)

Lar · 12. March 2008, 11:12

4

Tgr, if they won’t even read the message, what is the point of leaving it? It’s not necessary to acknowledge every thing a person does, is it?

Vorlagen-Meister looks pretty cool, I wonder if anyone has ported it for English yet.

pfctdayelise · 12. March 2008, 11:15

5

This was partially translated, and partially adapted, to the Spanish Wikipedia: Templatología (versión eswiki) by drini. Spanish screenshots and all. Awesome.

pfctdayelise · 26. March 2008, 22:33

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