Talk pages consultation 2019/Phase 1 report

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The 2019 Talk pages consultation (TPC) has reached the end of Phase 1: a global consultation on how contributors use wiki talk pages, and the problems that people experience. This report summarizes what people have said and what we've learned, proposes a direction for the project, and proposes specific questions to explore in Phase 2.

by the Talk Pages Consultation team: Danny Horn, Benoît Evellin, Sherry Snyder, Thomas Meadows and Marshall Miller.


A wikitext talk page isn't made out of software; it's a collection of cultural conventions that are baffling to newcomers and annoying for experienced editors. Counting colons to indent a reply properly, using tildes to sign your name, having to watch an entire talk page instead of the section you're participating in, not having an easy reply link – these are headaches for everyone.

At the same time, there are many things that wikitext talk pages do well. The empty edit window has given people the freedom to invent templates and techniques that are extremely flexible and adaptable. Conversations can be reorganized by anyone, at any time. Links to diffs and old revisions show what's been done on a page, when, and by whom. The functionality that helped people collaborate on millions of encyclopedia articles for 17 years shouldn't be dismissed casually.

Wikimedia Foundation product teams have worked on on-wiki communication tools before, including LiquidThreads (started in 2006) and Flow/Structured Discussions (started in 2012). Both of these projects have been used successfully on many wikis, although they've also both been heavily criticized, and neither has gained wide acceptance on many of the largest wikis.

We want all contributors to be able to talk to each other on the wikis: to ask questions, to resolve differences, to organize projects, and to make decisions. Communication is vital for the depth and quality of our content, and the health of our communities. We believe that this project is essential for us to reach our goal of freely sharing the sum of all knowledge.

The global Talk pages consultation began in March 2019 with Phase 1 discussions hosted on 20 wikis and usergroup spaces. This included Wikipedias in 15 languages, as well as Commons, Wikidata, two Wiktionaries, and an in-person user meeting. These discussions were summarized by a member of each community, and the TPC team read all of the on-wiki discussions. The team also conducted two rounds of user tests on, with people who read Wikipedia a lot, but who haven't contributed because they don't know how.

Phase 1 ended at the end of April, with this report being published in May. Below is a brief summary of our findings, a proposal for the project direction, and a list of questions for Phase 2 discussions. This is followed by a longer and more detailed review of the discussions and user tests.

Summary of findings, and proposed direction

The basics

There's universal agreement that three basic elements of wikitext talk pages need to be improved: replying, indentation and signatures. For new users, these basic mechanics are confusing and off-putting. Even very experienced users sometimes make mistakes with indentation and signatures. To improve talk pages, we need to add an easy tool for replying, and make indentation and signatures automatic. (See #Indentation, #Replying and #Signatures below.)

Experienced contributors

Very active contributors who participate in complex discussions and workflows favor the flexibility of an open, unstructured wikitext talk page. For those users, an open wikitext page is liberating. It allows them to change the structure of a discussion or page to respond to the needs of the moment. They have a strong desire to keep continuity with the existing wikitext system. Editors agreed with this view at many wikis, including at wikis that have been using Flow. (See #Stability and #Wikitext below.)

There are many other features that experienced contributors would like to see added to talk pages, including:

  • The ability to watch specific discussions, so that users can follow one conversation instead of seeing notifications for every change made to an article or the rest of the talk page. (#Watchlist)
  • A more consistent archiving and search function, to help users find previous conversations on a specific topic. (See #Archiving and #Searching below.)
  • A more consistent notification (ping) function, to make it easy to alert specific people about a discussion, and easy to receive clear notifications both on- and off-wiki. (#Notifications)
  • A way to view the history of a specific conversation, especially if that conversation has moved to an archive. (#History)
  • The ability to use talk pages fluently on a mobile device. (#Mobile users)

At the English Wikipedia, some editors mentioned metadata templates. These are used on article talk pages to display instructions, warnings, quality ratings, WikiProject affiliations, and other information about the article. Other wikis use similar tools. This topic is important, but it didn't get specific attention in Phase 1. We'll ask for further information about it in Phase 2. (#Metadata)

New contributors

New contributors find unstructured wikitext talk pages confusing and difficult to use. The conversation tools that they've learned to use on the internet are very different from the tools that we provide. This difference discourages people from participating and becoming active community members.

In addition to the on-wiki discussions, we ran new user tests with ten potential newcomers. All of them are very familiar with reading Wikipedia and expressed interest in learning how to edit. In these tests, we observed the following:

  • All of the users struggled to find talk pages. Most thought that clicking "Edit source" in an article section heading would lead them to a discussion forum about that section. When we asked them where they would go to ask a question about editing the article, only one out of ten noticed the "Discussion" tab at the top left of the page (in English, a left-to-right wiki). They generally searched in the upper right of the page, thinking that the "Talk" link (for their own user talk pages) was the right place to ask a question.
  • When the test directed them to the "Discussion" tab, all of the users expected to see a typical message board or a discussion forum. Many were confused by the structure of the talk page. The similarity between the visual design of the article and the talk page led them to assume that each section in the article corresponded to a section on the talk page.
  • The users struggled with "the basics" described above: replying, indentation and signatures. Some users thought that the "(talk)" link in a user's signature was the reply button. Only three of ten could figure out how to add a signature. Most of the users could figure out how to use colons for indentation from looking at previous posts.
  • This test was done with copies of talk pages from the English Wikipedia. Article talk pages there often contain templates about the article (example). For most users, the templates at the top of the talk page seemed out of place. Several users became so focused on the template boxes that they didn't scroll down to the discussion without being prompted; they seemed to believe that the templates themselves were the full extent of the talk page. (See New user tests for more.)

These findings were echoed by comments in the on-wiki discussions. New users reported that responding on a talk page was confusing, and that confusion leads many users to give up. Many experienced users said that newcomers struggle with the current design and functionality, and that it can be a barrier to participation. (#Newcomers)

Major themes

During this process, two major themes have emerged.

  • Clear design and appropriate tools: Right now, article pages and talk pages are very similar in their appearance and functionality. That appearance is misleading and makes it more difficult for people to learn how to use talk pages correctly. People are meant to use a talk page in a different way than an article; it's a different form of content. A core principle of product design is that the tool should help the user understand what they're supposed to do. It should be easy to use a product correctly. A good product design minimizes the opportunities for users to make mistakes. While experienced wiki contributors have learned to live with limited product design – and are justifiably proud of the workarounds they've developed to compensate – it's not fair to allow badly designed tools to be a barrier to participation for knowledgeable and passionate people who want to join the communities and contribute knowledge.
  • Features vs Flexibility: The desire for talk page improvements is not limited to newbies. In fact, experienced contributors are the ones who know best how inadequate the existing tools really are. Experienced users want to participate in a single discussion on an active talk page, without wasting time looking at irrelevant edits in other sections on the page. Experienced users want to be able to find discussions easily and quickly, even if the discussions have been moved to an archive. In order to provide these features, the system needs to be able to tell what "a discussion" is – that this specific part of the page is a single discussion, and separate from other edits on the same page. That may require making some changes that limit the endless flexibility of an open wikitext page. Those changes need to be carefully considered and agreed upon, and changes that limit flexibility need to connect to a visible, positive improvement in functionality. That's what we want to discuss in Phase 2 of this consultation: How should we approach finding that balance between long-requested features and flexibility?

Proposed product direction

Based on these findings, we propose that wikitext talk pages should be improved, and not replaced.

Experienced contributors in the larger communities have built a very large number of important workflows based on the ability to manipulate wikitext, and the list of use cases is long and intimidating. LiquidThreads and Flow both involved replacing talk pages with a new system, which then had to handle all of those use cases before they were fully adopted. In complex ecosystems like this, it's better to start with a product that works (called a "minimum viable product"), and then make improvements that can be built and released over time, learning more with each release. As flawed as wikitext talk pages are, they've powered wiki discussions for more than 15 years, and that's a minimum viable product.

Our idea is to build a new design on top of wikitext talk pages that changes the page's default appearance and offers key tools – the "clear design and appropriate tools" described above. This new design should communicate to the user that this is not a content page, and help the user interact appropriately with the tools. This should include clear signals for how to start a new discussion, and to respond to an existing discussion or to a specific message within that discussion. It should add the signature automatically, and place the message in the correct nesting order.

In order to keep consistency with the existing tools, this new design will be a default experience that existing users can opt out of. With some caveats discussed below, it should be possible for users to keep the view that they currently have, and work in wikitext instead of using the new tools.

The caveats: as we said above in "Features vs Flexibility", improving talk pages may require small-to-medium changes in wikitext conventions and practices.

For example:

  • To build the ability to watchlist a single discussion, the system will have to be able to tell the difference between one discussion and the next. The page can't just be a pile of unconnected edits. That might mean changing the wikitext convention for a discussion header. Maybe editors would type =/= instead of ==, or {{talk-thread|Title of thread}}. (These examples are purely for illustration, not actual suggestions.) Experienced people would still be able to use wikitext, but they'd have to learn a new convention.
  • To make the new features work, and not interfere with non-discussion pages, it may be necessary to specify where they are enabled. We could have them work only on pages in the "talk" namespaces (such as Talk:, User talk, Template talk, etc.). If so, then some existing project-wide discussion pages (such as the deletion discussions at some wikis) would have to relocate from Wikipedia: to Wikipedia talk: pages, to be able to use these tools. Another possibility is that the features work automatically in the talk namespaces, and that people could turn them on for other individual pages with a wikitext magic word. Or maybe they'll work anywhere, as long as you use the {{talk-thread}} prefix. (Again, purely for illustration.)
  • To build the ability to move a discussion to an archive without breaking links to it, it may be necessary to create a unique ID for each discussion. This could mean that you need to use one of the new tools to create a new thread, merge two threads, or archive an old thread.
  • To improve page history, we may have to make some decisions. Some experienced contributors talked about the need for a complete history for the whole page. Others emphasized the need for a thread history, for individual discussions. (Right now, wikitext talk pages have a page history but not a thread history; in Flow, it's the other way around.) It would be ideal to provide both page history and thread history. We'll have to think and talk about how to make that possible.

The intention is to only make changes that are necessary, in order to enable functionality that's worth making the change. Ideally, the result should be approximately the same amount of work or less for contributors. For example, if you want to move a discussion from one page to another without breaking people's watchlist, you might need to click a new "move discussion" link and enter the name of the target page, so the system can keep the permalink active. That would be a new habit to learn, but moving a thread by cutting and pasting wikitext takes just as long.

The inspiration for this approach was the eager adoption of the ping feature, which was created around six years ago and is now widely used by experienced users. To send someone a notification that you'd like them to look at a discussion, you have to post their user name in brackets, or use a specific template, such as {{ping|name}} or {{u|name}}. But the ping only works if you sign that edit with ~~~~. If you misspell the person's name, then you have to fix the error, and sign the message again, on a new line. That's a new set of wikitext habits to learn and remember, but lots of people have happily switched their habits, because it enables a feature that's incredibly helpful.

The adoption of the ping feature demonstrates that it's possible to make widely accepted small-to-medium changes in wikitext conventions, as long as we can find that balance between the trouble it takes to learn and use the new convention, and the value that users get from a new feature. It will take serious thought and discussion to find this balance for each stage of the project. We're willing to think and talk and try new things, in order to make talk pages easier to learn and use. We hope that many of you are willing to join us as we figure out how to make this work.

Questions for Phase 2

Posting this report marks the end of Phase 1 for the Talk pages consultation, and kicks off Phase 2, which will be a new round of discussions.

An important part of Phase 2 is to hear your responses to the proposed product direction. That can begin right now on the talk page of this report, for people who would like to share their thoughts, ideas, and questions there. We will also ask groups that participated in Phase 1 to tell us what they think.

In the Phase 2 discussions, we're asking the following questions:

  1. What do you think of the proposed product direction?
    Context: The Wikimedia Foundation proposes building a new, clearer design on top of existing wikitext talk pages. It will offer simpler tools for replying, indentation and signatures. You could continue to use wikitext on talk pages, if you prefer that. It should also be possible to participate in a discussion without using wikitext.
    Question: What do you think of this product direction?
  2. Marking separate discussions
    Context: People want to watch individual sections on the talk page. They want better notifications, archiving, and search. To do any of this, we may need to create a more structured definition of what counts as a single discussion. This may mean making changes to the wikitext conventions on a talk page. For example, we may create a new way that discussion headings look in wikitext, or a new link that you need to use to create, rename or split a thread.
    Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach?
  3. Helping newcomers find the talk pages
    Context: Newcomers have difficulty finding talk pages. During user tests, only one person out of ten found the Discussion tab. Most testers looked for a Discussion tab on the opposite side of the page, where all of the other tabs and links are. Many people also expected to see links to discussions about specific sections in the article. We may want to move the link to the talk page to the opposite side of the article page. We might add discussion functionality connected to individual sections.
    Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of making the connection between article content and discussions more visible?
  4. Where to show discussion tools
    Context: Currently, many wikis have community discussion spaces in the project namespace (Project or Wikipedia:), rather than in a talk namespace (Project talk or Wikipedia talk:). The project namespace is often used for village pumps/cafés, noticeboards, and some workflows, such as Articles for deletion. The system will need to know where discussions happen, so that it can display the new tools in those discussions, and not display them on other pages. There are several potential ways to do this. One of them is to move all discussions to a talk namespace.
    Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing that?
  5. History tradeoffs
    Context: Sometimes, you need to see the history of the entire page. Other times, it would be more helpful to see the history of only a single discussion thread. It would be ideal if we could provide both, but we're not sure how to do that.
    Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a complete page history or a specific thread history?
  6. Metadata location
    Context: Some wikis place templates at the top of article talk pages. These may show instructions, warnings, or FAQs. They may hold page quality information, link to relevant WikiProjects, or identify past activities. Many new users are confused by finding non-discussion material at the top of an article talk page. It would be helpful to move some or all of that content somewhere else on the page, or under a different tab.
    Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach? Which templates are crucial for the proper use of a discussion page, and which could be moved somewhere else?

The rest of the report continues below with detailed findings, but first, here's how you can participate in Phase 2 as part of your local community, or as an individual.

Communities can sign up to host a discussion about the Phase 2 questions at Talk pages consultation 2019/Participant group sign-up .

Here are the current consultations: