Welcome to Wikipedia with a cup of tea and all your questions answered - at the Teahouse
Although you may not have come across the Teahouse yet, this new project is a bold initiative by the Wikimedia Foundation for welcoming new editors, helping them, and persuading them to stay with the project. Brainstormed on Meta and launched on 15 February this year, the whole concept is a way of helping newer editors and editor retention. Teahouse hosts both invite selected new editors to visit the Teahouse and help out at the questions page to which new editors have been invited. Invited editors become "guests" at the Teahouse with their own profile, just like the hosts. The project was developed with the support of the foundation as a pilot for this type of editor welcoming. Updates and discussion are at the Meta page.
We interviewed users SarahStierch, current Wikipedian in Residence at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and a Community Fellow for the Wikimedia Foundation, and Jonathan Morgan, a WMF research fellow and a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington; both are designers and concept thinkers for the Teahouse. We also interviewed Writ Keeper, one of the most active hosts.
What was the initial idea for the Teahouse? Who came up with the spark and helped develop it into the fully functioning project it is today?
- SarahStierch: In October 2011 I visited the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco to present on the results of my Wikimedia and Women Survey. After presenting, we had a round table discussion which involved staff and community members in which we discussed ideas on how to inspire more women to become editors to Wikipedia, and how to also retain editors. During this conversation, the idea of a "coffee shop," emerged. The concept stuck with me, and while crafting a fellowship proposal, it was decided it would be a great starting point for my fellowship. When the fellowship was accepted, Siko introduced me to Jonathan and then the Teahouse was born!
- Jtmorgan: Siko Bouterse (Head of Community Fellowships at WMF) first mentioned the idea of creating a place for new editors, similar to the Cafe dos Novatos on Portugese Wikipedia. I had been doing a lot of research on the new editor experience as part of the 2011 Wikimedia Summer of Research. Pretty soon Siko introduced Sarah and me, and the three of us started bouncing ideas around. Once we had developed our use cases, wireframes and workflows, Heather Walls (she of the mega graphic design chops) made the space itself incredibly compelling, welcoming and shiny.
Do you find your experiences working at the Teahouse good fun, or are there times you get a little frustrated and forget the patience needed to work with new users? Do you enjoy yourself generally?
- SarahStierch: The Teahouse is one of those spaces, where when you participate with the hosts and new editors you get a real satisfaction out of it – especially when the new editors continue to grow and thrive and thank you for your help. While sometimes things can be frustrating, it's just the growing pains of a new space like the Teahouse. It has been pretty surprising to me how much I have learned from our hosts, too. No matter how long you've been editing Wikipedia, it's amazing what you still don't know! It's also nice when a new editor you helped checks in with you (or you check in with them and they reply) and a kitten suddenly appears on your talk page! :)
- Jtmorgan: I enjoy it most when I get to interact with new users, and with hosts. I'm a pretty new Wikipedian in some ways too, so I've learned a lot from our hosts over the last 8 weeks. But it's gratifying to realize that even I can help out new editors. Right now, I do a lot of the 'back end' stuff, so I don't interact with new editors as much as I'd like. Once the pilot is over, I look forward to having more time to just be a host.
- Writ Keeper: It's usually pretty fun. The nice thing about the Teahouse (or rather, one of them) is that, as a question/answer forum geared towards new users, our guests can't really do any damage as they're learning. It seems to me that a lot of the frustration expressed about new users is the damage they do to existing content while they're learning the ropes; in the Teahouse, there's nothing they can really break, so we don't really have much to get frustrated about. As for me, it wasn't so long ago that I was a new user myself, so I still have memories of what it was like to be new (and indeed, in many areas, I still am new). That helps to temper a lot of annoyance I may have with understanding of their position. Also, the Teahouse gives me a good excuse to mess around with JS and the like, which is always fun. :)
One of the main goals of the Teahouse is to improve editor retention and levels of satisfaction with the community greeting them as they start on the wiki. Based on the data gathered and displayed at meta:Research:Teahouse/Metrics, do you think you are achieving these goals or are they slipping slightly? Expand your thoughts on how you think the project is performing.
- Jtmorgan: We're definitely having a positive impact on the new editors who show up and ask questions. According to our survey results, Teahouse visitors enjoy and benefit from the experience, and initial results on retention suggest that Teahouse visitors tend to stick around Wikipedia longer than new editors who didn't visit, that they contribute more content more frequently, and that the content they contribute to articles is reverted less often. We'll be analyzing the impact on new editor retention on an even larger sample soon. The challenge so far has been getting people 'in the door.' Our primary recruitment strategy is active outreach: identifying batches of new editors who might benefit from Teahouse support, and inviting them personally. And I think that this active, individual approach is vitally important: new editors often perceive Wikipedia as a kind of sterile, anonymous place when they first join, so receiving messages from actual people may in itself be a compelling reason to stick around for a bit. But all that inviting is hard work, especially considering that only about 5% of invitees actually show up. Part of the difficulty is kind of built-in: we're inviting very new editors because research has shown that early intervention is key to retention, but most new accounts only amass a few edits before they're abandoned. So, long story short, we're succeeding with those who come, but we are actively looking for additional avenues for inviting new editors or publicizing Teahouse so that we can have a greater overall impact.
Do you feel happy with the attitude exhibited in the main Teahouse forums: Talk:Teahouse, the questions page, maybe even the IRC channel (#wikipedia-teahouse connect)? Do you think the hosts are as friendly as possible with guests, or perhaps that guests are sometimes a bit of hard work on purpose to tire out the hosts. Have you had any problems with trolls at all?
- Jtmorgan: The hosts are just amazingly patient with guests, even when that means answering the "same" question over and over again... because of course from the guest's point of view their question is unique! We've had a few disruptions, but they've been handled well so far.
- Writ Keeper: For the most part, yes, I'd say that the attitude in the Teahouse places are about as relaxed and friendly as we'd like it to be. I do sometimes worry a bit about host fatigue, though; as time goes on, and as we keep answering the same questions, I'm a little concerned we'll start to rely on "canned" answers, drop the personalized greetings and name recognition, and generally just lose the human touch, which in my opinion is the most important aspect of the Teahouse. I know I've answered questions about named ref tags at least three or four times, sometimes when the last answer is only a few scrolls down the page. It's just something we have to cope with as best we can, though; I know that nothing turns me off of a new web community quite like a peremptory demand to "search the archive, nub".
- I don't know that we've had any trolls per se, but we've had one or two people who are obviously block-evading socks, only at the Teahouse to vent about the "abusive admins". My strategy has generally to try to engage them on their talk page (with as much
good faith as humanly possible) to get them off the main Teahouse pages and avoid their impact on new users; it usually works pretty well. Tiring, though.
The Teahouse helps new editors be bold
with a cup of tea!
Tell us about the most difficult question you've had to answer at the questions page. How tricky was it to explain, or perhaps you didn't know.
- SarahStierch: Ah, for me COI is actually one of the most fun things, but, perhaps my role as a GLAM WIKIpedian has helped me sculpt my own responses for that one (in response to Jonathan's response). I think the hardest for me is of course formatting and scripts and techy things that are just over my head. But that's what Writ, Jonathan and the rest of the gang helps me with (and I'm grateful for it!). I've actually had a lot of fun working with new editors to help them craft articles, and when they take the constructive criticism and execute it into the article and the article is then kept on Wikipedia – it's very satisfying. But yes, if there is something I just don't have the patience for (!!) or know about, I know there is another host that will come along and lend a hand.
- Jtmorgan: It's hard for me to explain issues around COI to people. We get a lot of questions of the "why was my article rejected?" variety, many of which have a probable COI component. For my part, I feel like engaging editors who have potential COI and trying to re-focus that energy in a more productive direction is really important, because these are people who are already interested in investing time in writing an encyclopedia article. However, it's sometimes not easy to explain to them that there probably shouldn't be an article about their high school, grandfather or patented viral marketing strategy. Or, even if that topic is notable enough for inclusion, that they aren't the person to write it.
- Writ Keeper: Fortunately, we have a good number of hosts; if there's a question I don't understand, I can generally wait until someone who knows more to answer it instead. Probably the toughest one for me was a user who was asking about how to reply to a question they had asked previously. I was puzzled on how to explain it in terms that the user wouldn't find equally unhelpful; I guess it just never occurred to me that something that seemed so obvious to me would cause such difficulty in someone else. That's pretty much the biggest problem in the process of helping new users as it stands today; all of this stuff is so old-hat to us that we never even think of explaining it to anyone else. Hopefully, the Teahouse can help these users ask the questions they'd otherwise be unable (or too embarrassed) to ask. My favorite quote of them all, as displayed on my user page, is from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and I think it describes this phenomenon perfectly: "How can a man who's warm understand a man who's cold?" I think that's the real challenge of the Teahouse.
How could I get involved, where should I go?
- SarahStierch: What Jonathan said, and also, help us invite new editors! Writ created great scripts that you can add (sort of like Twinkle) to invite new editors. You can learn more about the invite process here.
- Jtmorgan: Easy one! Well, pretty easy anyway. Go to the host lounge and/or your hosts and give our materials a quick once-over. Check out the questions and answers on the Q&A board, talk to a host, etc. If Teahouse seems like a project you want to spend some time on, add yourself to the host list, create a host profile and start inviting and answering! The only reason we ask that editors do a little 'homework' before diving in is that probably the most important aspect of the Teahouse interface is the way hosts interact with guests. We really, really believe in this whole "prompt welcome/friendly tone/detailed and personalized response/direct followup" model we've developed for Q&A board interactions. We also believe that direct outreach to those who might need help, rather than an "if you build it, they will come" strategy, works best for engaging new editors—so it's important that at least a good chunk of us hosts are actively inviting people. Take away those two things, and the Teahouse is just another Q&A board, and you start to wonder why the project is even necessary. So while we welcome 'drop in' assistance from interested Wikipedians, you can make a much more valuable contribution to the project if you acquaint yourself a little with the project's philosophy, service model and 'responsibilities' beforehand.
Anything else you'd like to add?
- SarahStierch: The Teahouse has been a unique and valuable learning experience for me, as a community member and a fellow. A big thank you to the hosts who have joined the project during this pilot period, all the Wikipedians who have contributed to conversations on the talk pages and helped us to improve the project, as well as those who have been patient with us explaining "why we do what we do" in regards to the Teahouse. Also, big thanks to my team mates at the Teahouse – Jonathan, Siko, and Heather – your insight, friendship, wikiness and ideas have been invaluable. And of course – all the new editors who have enjoyed a cup of tea (or two!) and have helped make the Teahouse what it is, and what it is becoming.
- Jtmorgan: A thank you to all of our incredibly talented and dedicated hosts. Seriously, you gals and guys have taught me so much in the last eight weeks! About a month ago, I had a group of my undergraduate students visit the Teahouse 'undercover' in the context of an assignment I was having them do on Wikipedia. Every single one of them said that the best thing about Teahouse, even more than the content of the answers they received, was the way the hosts answered their questions! It took a lot of the intimidation out of the new editor experience for them, and our survey results indicate a similar impact on other visitors. That is all your doing. Thanks!
The pilot phase of the Teahouse project ends this month. A report on activities and success metrics will follow.
Get your lightsabers ready for next week's Report. Until then, use the force in the archive.