User:Tgr (WMF)/Sister project incubator

(This was originally written as a position statement for the Developer Summit. Positions I have considered but not eventually submitted: Make MediaWiki commercially viable, Turn MediaWiki core into an embeddable library.)

We need a wikiproject incubator to enable innovation.

We need infrastructure for cheap creation of new wikis and experimentation with new project types and their different technical and social needs.

Wikipedia was an unlikely bet that paid off extremely well. It does not cover the entirety of human knowledge however - it's limited to long-form, text-based representations of encyclopedic topics on subjects well covered by reliable sources. There have been recurring discussions in the past about covering new types of knowledge (genealogy, fact checking, 3D models, oral history, collaborative video etc. etc.) but they never went anywhere, because creating new projects is a lot of work and the outcome is unpredictable (some things only work in practice), so the WMF was unwilling to take the risk. If we want to make meaningful progress on our vision of curating the sum of *all* knowledge, and truly become the infrastructure of free knowledge, we need to overcome this barrier.

We need infrastructure for low-effort, low-risk experimentation with new projects - a "wiki nursery". A system where new wikis can be created at minimal cost, technical and social experiments can be performed on them without undue risk to other projects, and they can be discarded if they prove unsuccessful. Other organizations have used such mechanisms with great success (Wikia has tens of thousands of wikis; Stack Exchange has nearly two hundred sites).

Such a system has to be somewhat separate from the existing wiki cluster; a closely integrated approach like is both too inflexible and too insecure. It needs to have some level of operational and legal maturity (more than what Cloud VPS offers). For risk segregation and eficiency, it would have to be different from our production cluster in a number of ways:

  • single sign-on which does not rely on the local wiki for authentication
  • no shared database and configuration acces
  • ensure even distribution of server resources without constant human supervision
  • flat domain structure (to avoid cookie leaks) with affordable certificate management
  • new management interfaces and corresponding core support to avoid spending developer time on common tasks (wiki creation and destruction, configuration and extension management)

While there is a significant one-time cost to setting up such a system, keeping it running is cheap, and the benefits are well worth it - information on what content types and what policies enable productive collaboration, a space free of the conservatism and change aversion of large established projects where new concepts can prove themselves, an entry point for projects with a less western-centric interpretation of knowledge, lots of small projects which are welcoming to new editors and provide lots of low-hanging fruit for contribution. (Also, the same feature set is needed for paid wiki hosting service, which is one way to create non-WMF income streams into the MediaWiki software ecosystem - a valid strategic goal on its own.)

See also: