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Revolting peasants force Wikipedia to cut'n'paste Visual Editor into the bin

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Wiki Man?

Wikipedia has turned off its unpopular Visual Editor as the default text editing kit for English-language entries on its online encyclopaedia.

This follows an unprecedented challenge to the Wikimedia Foundation's authority by its own volunteer users.

Development of the customised, expensive WYSIWYG editor, funded by donations, hasn't produced the desired results. At the behest of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) - the rapidly expanding non-profit that collects donations and disperses the resulting warchest - the unpopular editing kit was introduced as the default English editing tool in July.

Volunteer editors voted overwhelmingly to revert back to the older and more primitive editor while bugs were ironed out, but the High Priesthood told them to get stuffed.

This week the community staged a rebellion after discovering that Wikipedia procedures allow it to ignore top-down WMF decrees and start the ball rolling on introducing their own editing kit without the foundation's consent. This allowed them to implement their own solution that bypassed the hated Visual Editor environment. For an hour, the technical alternative was live.

Then the WMF relented, finally agreeing to turn off the new editor as the default, and changing it so users must "opt-in" to use it for the English-language Wiki.

Strategic bungle

The Visual Editor was regarded as a key strategic initiative for the Wikimedia Foundation. It was intended to expand the dwindling number of volunteer editors by making it easier to contribute to the site, thus making Wikipedia more inclusive. Operating the editing system today requires a knowledge of arcane markup and even more arcane procedures.

Yet the Visual Editor (VE) was seriously buggy: Wikipedians discovered it had thrown their work away or mangled edits. Others complained that valuable donation money had been spent on the new setup: "three years of wasted resources" down the pan, in their words.

However Wikipedia is not a true democracy - and the volunteer editors ran into an unmovable object. Or rather, two: both co-founder Jimmy Wales and Erik Möller, who runs engineering at WMF, insisted that the VE remain the default, bugs or no bugs.

"WMF cooperation isn't actually required to implement the consensus at the RFC [request for comments level], though. It's fully within any admin's power to replace MediaWiki:common.js with User:Kww/common3.js. That would have the effect of requiring an opt-in to use VE (using the existing preference), and would remove access to VE from IP editors, just as the RFC required," noted editor 'Kww' who provided an alternative editing kit to the foundation's VE. A poll received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and the change went live to put Kww's system in place instead of Visual Editor.

This put the Wikimedia Foundation in an unprecedented position. It could continue to defy the wishes of the community, or it could cave. It chose to cave.

Not that the engineering team responsible for the VE appear to be in any mood to repent:

"We will continue to develop VisualEditor for all wikis, working with those in opt-out mode and users from those opt-in wikis who give their feedback," pledged product manager James Forrester.

"Tempers around VisualEditor have been vitriolic for some time, and we seek a return to a calmer, more collegial working environment. We continue to believe that this is a mistake: removing site functionality from new users who have expressed that VisualEditor makes their initial edits easier. We believe that the English Wikipedia will, in the long run, be damaged by this decision, but we cannot justify continuing to exhaust staff time (read: donors' funds) to [sic]this issue."

Engineering absorbs the lion's share of the Wikimedia Foundation's budget, which is raised from an aggressive donations drive each year and topped up with contributions from the wealthy. The WMF earmarked funding for 94 engineering staff on its 2012-13 budget plan, out of 174 Wikimedia Foundations jobs in all. (In 2009-10 there were 22 posts in Engineering.) The days when Wikipedia was a few idealists struggling to pay the bills are long gone. ®

Bootnote

In case the Wiki thread goes AWOL (heaven forfend!), Vulture Central's backroom gremlins have kindly screenshotted it and preserved it in chunks for posterity: Wiki 1, Wiki 2, Wiki 3, Wiki 4, Wiki 5, Wiki 6, Wiki 7, Wiki 8.

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