Commons:Why is Commons so complicated?
Users who are new to Wikimedia Commons (or just "Commons") occasionally ask "Why is Commons so complicated?" on the Help desk. Other variants include offhand comments about Commons being too complicated or difficult. This essay is my attempt to answer the question. Note that I assume the question is not merely rhetorical or an idiomatic exclamation; instead I assume the question is serious and the user really wants to know why Commons is difficult.
Posing the question
Before we can answer the question, we must pose it correctly. The difficulty of a particular task varies as a function of who attempts the task; some people perceive more difficulty than others. For example, learning music is difficult for most people, but it was literally child's play for Mozart. Thus the question really must be:
- Why is Commons so difficult for me?
The answer depends partly on Commons, and partly on the person who attempts to use it.
Factors relating to Commons
The following characteristics of Commons can present difficulties:
- Commons is mostly a do it yourself system. Most people learn to use Commons without the direct presence of a human instructor. Human instructors make learning much easier because they can observe the student, realize when the student is getting stuck, and use their expertise to provide clues to keep the student progressing. Without such expert help, the new user on Commons is prone to getting stuck and may find it difficult to get himself or herself un-stuck. This situation may improve as more people learn to use Commons and other wikis, increasing the chance that a new user will have a knowledgeable friend or a local user group to ask for help.
- Commons is a wiki. Even though a wiki is one of the least complicated tools for building high-quality Web sites, the technology is still unfamiliar to many people. Editing on wikis is different than anything most people will have experienced elsewhere, so it takes time to learn and get used to. For example, just to ask for help on the Help desk, a user needs to know a fair amount about wiki editing. It is not enough just to have used the more common tools in the rest of the world such as e-mail.
- Commons is a secondary wiki. Commons does not really have its own self-contained mission. Rather, Commons serves as a shared media repository for many wikis of the Wikimedia Foundation. Evidently most of the people who built and run Commons learned to use wikis elsewhere, such as on one of the Wikipedias. As a result, Commons doesn't have as much documentation and tutorial information aimed at users who have never used a wiki before, because it seems Commons mostly intends to serve users who are already familiar with editing on the Wikipedias and other project wikis.
- Commons is redundant. Most if not all of the Wikimedia Foundation wikis have their own media file subsystems that duplicate the function of Commons. These features pre-date Commons. Thus the Commons user must deal with added complexity from having independent collections of media files on all the various Wikipedias and so on, which work so similarly to Commons that they are easy to confuse.
- Commons is multilingual. Commons serves users who speak many different languages. Occasionally the Commons user runs into a situation where the relevant information is not in a language he or she reads. This problem is much worse for users who do not speak one of the major languages.
- Commons is a media repository. Images are generally harder to deal with than text. On a wiki, users can work together efficiently to edit and improve each other's text contributions, without requiring any software other than their web browsers. With images and other media files, it is harder for users to help each other. This makes Commons even more of a do it yourself system.
- Copyright law is horrendous. Commons is a repository of Free content in a world where the vast majority of content is not free. This creates endless scope for problems as copyright laws exclude a vast array of content from Commons. To guard against these problems, Commons users must understand the complexities of free licenses. Many Commons users have problems determining whether particular images or other files are allowed on Commons, and the proper way to license them if they are allowed. See the links under COM:EIC#Copyright for more about this.
- Commons has limited scope. See Commons:Project scope for further restrictions on the content that Commons accepts.
- Commons does many things. Even though Commons does not do everything, it still does many things. For example, in addition to hosting lots of media files, Commons also uses wiki technology to organize them. This technology is fairly sophisticated and may seem baffling to someone who is meeting it for the first time. See Commons:First steps/Sorting.
- Availability of specific documentation. As Commons users figure out how to do more things, some are kind enough to write instruction manuals for future waves of users. Because there are an almost unlimited number of special cases on Commons, we need an almost unlimited number of instruction manuals to cover them all. Merely having the manuals is not enough; the new user also needs some way to determine which manual covers his or her problem. The Editor's index to Commons is one attempt to help with that.
Factors relating to the user
The following characteristics of the Common user can influence the user's perception of difficulty:
- Prior experience. Perhaps the most important factor determining the difficulty of Commons is the prior experience of the user. Because Commons is largely redundant with the media file subsystems on the various language Wikipedias, many users come to Commons having already learned to manage media files on their "home" Wikipedias. They can usually learn to use Commons with only minor adaptations. One difference is that Commons does not allow fair use media files.
- Goal. What the user wants to do can strongly influence the difficulty. Some things are easier to do than others on Commons. For example, perhaps the easiest task is uploading photos you take yourself of objects or scenes not under anyone else's copyright, and which are of clearly "encyclopedic" value. If someone else generated the content that you want to upload, then you have to determine whether uploading it is permissible, and how to prove that it is. There are many special cases, which you sort through by following the options in Special:Upload.
- Flexibility. Of the infinitely many things a new user might want to do on Commons, not all of them are necessarily allowable, or even possible. A user who has only one rigidly-defined goal may become frustrated upon discovering that Commons is not perfectly suited to that goal. In contrast, if a user has several goals, and the goals are flexible, then the user has a better chance of reaching some of the goals, while leaving the "stuck" goals on hold. As the user gains experience by following through on the early successes, he or she may learn more about Commons, and get ideas for alternative approaches to try on the "stuck" goals. Eventually, the user may figure out how to do most of the things he or she originally wanted to do.
- Do it yourself (DIY) ethos. Some people are more inclined to the DIY ethos than others. DIY requires a willingness to read instructions, the ability to learn quickly, perseverence in the face of setbacks, and the ability to formulate and test hypotheses. Good note-taking habits are helpful, as the do-it-yourselfer may not otherwise remember all the valuable lessons learned along the way. Commons is not always as simple as merely pointing and clicking. The user may have to think quite hard to learn how to do a particular job here. The willingness to put in time and effort is essential.
- Search skills. The answers to most questions a new user could have about Commons are in writing somewhere already. However, these answers are not always easy to find. Someone who has learned good search skills before coming to Commons will find it much easier to get started here.
- Knowing how to obtain help. Commons is an example of a system in which members of the user community help each other. These types of systems tend to work similarly, so a Commons user benefits from prior experience with other user-supported projects. See How To Ask Questions The Smart Way for more about this.
- Native language. Since Commons users mostly come from the various language Wikipedias, the prevalence of a language on Commons reflects the size of its corresponding Wikipedia. English is the most popular language on Commons, followed by German, French, Spanish, and so on. A user who does not speak one of the major languages on Commons will have more difficulty understanding the help pages and so on. Machine translation tools can help, but as these are not perfect, they work best for users who already have a technical knowledge of the subject being translated.
Complicated, yes, but compared to what?
Commons is complicated, but what could we expect? Other Open source or Free content projects on the Web are complicated too. Learning to write Perl scripts, or making significant contributions to a project like Firefox, are arguably more difficult tasks than many things we do on Commons. (While most tasks on Commons are easier than computer programming, there is plenty of the latter to be had on Commons also. Users who delve into the technical aspects of Commons can run into problems of almost unlimited complexity, many of which are currently unsolved.) For typical large-scale projects, there are whole books that describe what their users need to know. Most Perl programmers own several books about Perl. There is no book available for Commons yet, although there are several about Wikipedia.