Special: Lessons from the dead and dying
With Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and other gloomy celebrations this week, we're taking a look at Wikipedia's dead and dying. For some dead WikiProjects, the sole purpose of their life was simply to serve as a warning to others. Some of these projects may still be salvageable, but for most, a revival is unlikely. Here are some projects that never got off the ground and the lessons that can be gleaned from their follies:
Set clear, attainable goals and follow through
WikiProject Contents had a simple goal when it was created: build a useful table of contents for a book that has no page numbers and is still being written. The project was spawned from comments in 2001 by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and other editors calling for a way to organize Wikipedia's content from a top-down approach. Should articles be organized by topic or discipline? Should Wikipedia catalog material using the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress Classification, or Open Directory Project? Should content be navigable through category lists, topic maps, or an old-fashioned alphabetical list of every Wikipedia article? To be fair, Wikipedia had a much smaller collection of articles back then, so the idea of sifting through lists of articles didn't seem as absurd as it does today with the English Wikipedia sporting over 4 million articles. WikiProject Contents made for an interesting discussion board, but no plan of action or timetable for changes ever materialized.
As they talked, other projects sprouted and made their own decisions. Topic-specific WikiProjects categorized their own articles, created portals to serve as gateways to their unique fields, and introduced a variety of templates and metadata to make it all navigable. Meanwhile, the internet continued to evolve, leaving WikiProject Contents stuck in the past. Users simply searched for the information they needed rather than scrolling through long lists of articles. People discovered new things by following wikilinks rather than hunting through a complex classification system. An article's traffic was affected more by current events, social media posts, and Google Doodles than by people trying to read everything about Zoology by starting from the most general article and moving to specifics.
To stay relevant, WikiProject Contents tried to take up other pursuits like improving infoboxes and series templates, duplicating the efforts of other projects. It became unclear exactly what WikiProject Contents was intended for, leading one editor to mistakenly merge the project with Wikipedia's main page, resulting in the inactive WikiProject Contents becoming Wikipedia's most-watched project, an odd distinction that remains to this day.
Not every subject needs a project
At first glance, WikiProject Life on Mars appears to be way ahead of its time... since we have yet to discover life on Mars. But the project has nothing to do with the red planet. WikiProject Life on Mars was created to focus on a short-lived television series, its spinoff, and foreign adaptations. But can a scope this narrow support life at a full-fledged WikiProject? Apparently not.
This is where task forces come into play. Initially devised by WikiProject Military History as an organizational tool (hence the military term), task forces are now widespread and serve as subdivisions within WikiProjects that allow for editors to focus on a narrower topic while still tapping the resources and user-base of the larger WikiProject.
In the realm of television, there are dozens of dead projects covering programs past and present. The larger, more active projects tend to cover television programs and franchises that have been going for many years, if not multiple generations. Wikipedia does not need a WikiProject for every television show that has ever been aired, nor is it beneficial for dead projects to sit around giving the illusion that the articles under that project's scope are being watched and maintained. Collaborating at WikiProject Television or WikiProject British TV will get more attention and if Wikipedia really needs a space for your favorite television show, it should really be a task force.
WikiProjects are not a joke
Let's talk about WikiProject Nudity. The project's flesh-colored page was created in 2008 on April Fools Day. The first two editors listed on the project's membership page noted beside their names "no, it is not a joke! :)" and "this is the best april fools wikiproject ever." That's about as close as the project got to collaboration. The project's page has remained essentially unchanged since that first day.
Despite the lack of committed editors, WikiProject Nudity is actually a fairly well constructed project. The project's scope "aims to improve Wikipedia's coverage of nudity and naturism related topics," with a respectable 219 articles tagged under the project's scope, including 2 Good Articles. The project's templates and categories remain functional. Clear connections were created between the project and Wikipedia's policy of rejecting censorship, meaning that the project had the potential to serve as a forum for discussion of Wikipedia policies rather than just a collection of articles about a single topic. Sadly, new editors have been posting questions on the project's talk page for years without any replies. Had WikiProject Nudity been created by a dedicated group of mature editors, it might have actually served a purpose. Ultimately, a WikiProject is not a page, nor is it a grouping of articles. A WikiProject is a community of editors working together to make Wikipedia better.
Don't form a clique
The history of Esperanza is best told by those who lived through that turbulent time in Wikipedia's past. But since few people want to talk about it today, editors unfamiliar with Esperanza should check out what remains of this project's page and the decent synopsis of the project's demise published by the Signpost in 2007. Esperanza's story is one of good intentions gone awry. A thriving community where members could interact and grow became embroiled in internal politics, incivility, and secretive associations. Called a clique and a cabal (among other things), Esperanza was torn apart to form a variety of independent initiatives, most of which have failed over the past few years.
As noted in the above discussion of WikiProject Nudity, a true WikiProject is a community of editors, just like Esperanza aspired to be. However, Wikipedians have expectations as to how a community conducts itself. Wikipedia's communities are dedicated to openness and transparency. Anyone can contribute and discussions are not hidden behind closed doors. If a project grows large enough to need elected leadership, it is important that these leaders serve as coordinators for their communities rather than rulers of a fiefdom. Additionally, the programs sponsored by a WikiProject should in some way benefit Wikipedia's efforts toward building an encyclopedia, rather than serving merely as chat rooms and miscellaneous diversions. This doesn't mean that all WikiProjects are devoid of fun and friendship, but those pursuits must not become a project's overriding purpose.
Don't be all talk and no action
Articles should be articles. Essays should be essays. WikiProjects should be WikiProjects. When someone gets confused, you end up with something like WikiProject Common Sense.
The project began with the noble goal of bringing common sense to all the articles and talkpages of Wikipedia. That's before they defined exactly what they meant by "common sense." The project's goals reads more like an essay covering senseless bickering on talkpages, treating people with respect, and not claiming that one's side is the truth. Rather than spreading common sense, WikiProject Common Sense became an essay about dispute resolution. But that's as far as the project got.
It's fine for a project to describe their ideal world, but the project won't go anywhere if they don't have a plan to achieve it. Join WikiProjects to improve Wikipedia. If you just want to vent, consider jotting your ideas in user space and then share them with WikiProject Essays.
Next week's article should be accessible to all. Until then, navigate our extensive archive.
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