As promised in my recap of Community Connect 2020, it’s time to talk about the Unified Community Platform (UCP for short) again. For this post I'd like to briefly take a step back to provide more context before diving into the details of the project. After that, we can talk about what Phase 1 and Phase 2 mean, the schedule, and some Phase 1 specifics you need to know about right now. Full disclosure, this is a long post, so buckle up!
What is the Unified Community Platform?
At its core, the Unified Community Platform is all about bringing Fandom and Gamepedia wikis together on to the same version of MediaWiki, serving as the foundation upon which we can innovate. Right now, the Fandom platform is a very customized version of MediaWiki 1.19. This was done intentionally. The upgrade process and feature development pace from the Wikimedia Foundation could not, at that time, meet the needs of Wikia. Our solution was to build the necessary functionality ourselves. At the time, this was the correct decision. Since then, the developmental pace of MediaWiki has outstripped our own and, thus, the move back to stay current with MediaWiki is the right solution now. Currently, there are millions of lines of custom code on the Fandom platform (Fun Fact: the codebase is still called Wikia) and moving to a brand new codebase without those millions of custom lines will give us a cleaner architecture. Additionally, the new platform starts out on MediaWiki 1.33.
While this is a big leap forward, we know it doesn't address every issue on the platform. However, there are specific benefits to setting up this new platform:
- We’ll have the latest features from the Wikimedia Foundation (maintainers of MediaWiki software). In the seven years since Fandom last updated the core MediaWiki software (the foundation for the wiki platform), there have been many improvements made to that software by the Wikimedia Foundation, which also oversees Wikipedia. Building a new platform based on the latest MediaWiki software allows us to deliver these improvements to you while also making it easier for us to keep our version up to date as the Foundation continues to make even more improvements in the future. Gamepedia users are already familiar with some of these improvements, but for Gamepedia and Fandom users, the combined platform means a larger team to work on upgrades and new tools for editors moving forward. A win for both platforms.
- It will make it easier to enable more new and modern extensions. MediaWiki allows hosts to add extensions which bring new tools to the platform that editors can use to build their communities. These are maintained by external developers, much like mods or addons in a video game. Such extensions often have compatibility requirements and many new ones have been unavailable for the Fandom platform due to the dated MediaWiki version we’ve been running. By moving to MediaWiki 1.33, we can gain the functionality from such extensions without having to reverse engineer them ourselves. For Gamepedia, a larger development team means we can take on a greater review volume or cadence for new extensions, something that Gamepedia editors and admins have been asking for in recent years.
- Faster development and rollout of brand new features to both Fandom and Gamepedia. By having a single platform, we can build new features once and deploy to all the wikis, rather than doubling our effort to service two platforms with significant differences in code. For instance, Admins on both Fandom and Gamepedia will notice that the Analytics Dashboard feature, which our teams developed as custom code, has distinct differences in both data and function depending on the platform. Had we been on the unified platform, such a feature could have been rolled out once without any major differences. Additionally, the combined experience of Fandom and Gamepedia developers on a single, modern MediaWiki platform means we’ll have a faster and more reliable site for all users. I know that Gamepedia editors will be very happy with the improved page load speeds and site stability.
- Mobile editing on all of Fandom! Last year, we did some research on how Gamepedia users made the transition from passively consuming wiki content to actively contributing as editors and the results astounded us. 34% of editors surveyed reported that their first Gamepedia edit came on a mobile device. By bringing a better mobile editing experience to Fandom, we are lowering the barrier to entry on editing and superserving non-English wiki communities, who are far more likely to have mobile-first audiences. For example, Spanish speaking internet users are 67% mobile.
- Combining the best features from both platforms. Many of the custom features of Fandom have made upgrading directly on the current codebase such a challenge that we opted to build from the ground up and then move the wiki content over. Through that process, we have learned a lot from those custom features and they have proven that wikis and more social features can live side-by-side. Likewise, Gamepedia has found great success with features like its Achievements system, which fuels Gamepedia Pro. In the Unified Community Platform, we will seek to combine the best of both worlds into a fantastic community experience, deeply rooted in the reference content of wikis, but also embracing the passionate expression of fandom.
The stages of UCP rollout
I just went through a lot, so feel free to take a breather. Woooosah. Woooosah.
Let’s talk about how the work will be broken up.
Phase 1 - Current focus
We’re currently in Phase 1 of the UCP’s development, and this phase is largely focused on the technical side of things and getting everything moved onto the platform. It does not involve major skin changes or overhauls of feature sets. We will be opening it up as a production platform very soon. The following stages of rollout will happen over at least the next 5 months.
- Internal Testing Stage. We are currently performing internal tests on the UCP with our Product and Engineering teams, our Growth community teams, and many of our Wiki Managers. The goal is to uncover as many potential issues as possible and fix them before the UCP becomes public.
- New Wiki Stage. First, we’ll switch the Fandom wiki creation process so all new wikis (with some exceptions based on staff discretion) will be created on the UCP. During this time, the UCP for Fandom communities will be mostly core MediaWiki with the Oasis skin. Many extensions will still be in the development process, but the core wiki experience will be there and all but the most advanced use cases will be served. For wikis which require more advanced features, Fandom staff will be able to switch necessary wikis back to the old platform. By doing this, we are able to see how the UCP functions in the real world. All the internal testing cannot compare to the knowledge we gain from people outside of the company using the platform.
- Simple Fandom Wikis Stage. Once we are satisfied that the UCP is working correctly under real world applications, we will move into the next stage of rollout, in which we take 3,000 to 4,000 wikis and move them over to the new platform. This will allow us to see how pre-UCP wikis perform on the new platform. The wikis will be chosen by a mixture of volunteering from admins and staff selection, and selected based on the wikis complexity and needs to ensure they are setup for success on the UCP. If a wiki relies heavily on an extension we have not yet set up on the UCP, it will not be eligible for that transition.
- Remaining Fandom Wikis. After thorough data analysis from the newly created wikis and migrated wikis, we will begin migrating additional wikis in large batches as we reach development milestones which account for their required functionality. The final migrations of Fandom wikis will be those which rely upon Semantic MediaWiki, the last legacy functionality from Fandom we will transition. SMW is - to put it lightly - a massive can of worms, which should be approached last for a multitude of reasons.
- Gamepedia Migration. Once we have migrated a majority of the Fandom wikis to the UCP and are happy with how they are running on the platform, we will begin moving over Gamepedia wikis onto the new codebase using a phased migration strategy that focuses heavily on monitoring data to ensure we are not impacting traffic or functionality. When all of the wikis from both platforms are transitioned to the UCP, the legacy versions of Fandom and Gamepedia will be shut down and we will move forward on a single platform.
In Phase 1, Fandom and Gamepedia wikis will retain their existing skins—Oasis for Fandom and Wikia.org, and Hydra for Gamepedia.
Phase 2 - Currently in pre-production
Once Phase 1 work is complete, we will be able to start to focus on the overall user experience with improvements and new development. Since the work is largely in pre-production, there aren’t as many details on what is coming, but here is high level overview:
- Unified look-and-feel across platforms and devices. Fandom and Gamepedia experiences are very different today but we’re hard at work designing a new wiki experience that brings the best of Fandom theming and Gamepedia skins together. Building a more consistent look-and-feel across wikis is critical for improving the fan experience for all screen sizes and device types. We will be actively seeking user input and feedback for this process.
- Multiple customization options - no one size fits all. The visual appearance of your wiki is an important way to show off your wiki’s identity. Having a robust customization experience that allows that passionate expression is of the utmost importance, but preserving a good user experience is also crucial. We’ll be looking into new ways to help bring your community to life in a responsible way that’s portable across experiences, and will include more than one option for how your wiki looks.
- Improved admin and editor workflows. Our User Experience Research team has been talking to admins and editors for months now to better understand the workflows on each platform and how we can make changes to make your lives easier. Later this year the Product, Design, and Engineering teams will be working to turn your feedback into a better reality, so stay tuned!
- Better discoverability and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Our SEO team has a critical seat at the table in the UCP work, advising us on how to make sure we help your incredible wiki work to be noticed by search engines. At the same time, we want to lessen your reliance on search engines to attract new readers and potential editors. While projects like Global Taxonomy are already in flight to begin these enhancements, more work can be done to improve the wiki discovery process.
- New onboarding and personalization experiences. Once there are better tools and functions in place to attract new users to your wikis, our next aim is to convert them to registered users and get them editing or engaging with your discussions. We hope to improve that process and, therefore, help grow your communities.
But what about changes in Phase 1?
For Gamepedia, there are no major changes in core functionality, as the platform was recently updated to MediaWiki 1.33 as part of the UCP project and, thus, does not have to change much. As said before, Phase 1 also does not include a skin change.
For Fandom, we have a few areas that we can leverage some improvements during Phase 1. Not all of these will be available on Day 1 of Phase 1, but rather will be implemented along the way.
- The Editor. Oh yes, we’re delivering the new MediaWiki editor to you in Phase 1. When the New Wikis Stage starts, we’ll have the new VisualEditor with its Source Editor tab running. This meets the editor use cases consistent with the functionality available in that stage of the rollout, and ensures that you’re able to edit in source and visual mode alike. Before we convert existing wikis over to the UCP, we will have the new VisualEditor and the Wiki Editor, a more robust source editing experience that can interface with extensions.
- Discussions/Feeds Improvements. Whether you call it Discussions or Feeds, the feature is getting some improvements to its layout as part of Phase 1, thanks to actionable feedback from the very passionate communities which heavily use the soon-to-be-retired custom Special:Forum feature. Users will be able to switch between the current appearance or a condensed appearance which more resembles a legacy forum look and feel. Additionally, we are making the Categories selector more prominent, as Forum boards will convert over into Categories as the communities make the transition. This is not the end of Discussions/Feeds development, as we know there is still much work to be done to meet the needs of our most engaged social communities. This is merely a first step and show of good faith for our Forum users as well as longtime Discussions users.
- New Wiki Creation. As soon as we enable new wiki creation on the UCP, those users will be met with a new process for wiki creation. When you go to start a new wiki, the system will search for existing wikis on our network which might meet your needs and, if it finds similar ones, will require you to acknowledge that a similar wiki already exists and state your reason for creating the new wiki. There are several valid options for why you could be creating a new wiki in the same overall fandom of another wiki, but we want to make sure your existing wikis are protected from competition by users who aren’t aware the wiki they want exists or - worse - are actively trying to compete with existing wikis. Our team will review overlapping wiki creations to determine whether the overlap is acceptable or not.
And, of course, we have promised you information about replacements for Message Wall, Article Comments, and Profile. More details are still coming!
- Message Wall will still live on your Profile and will serve the same major use case as it does today, user-to-user public communication on a per wiki basis. Your old Message Wall content will transition over to the new system. Talk pages will remain for wikis which have elected to use them instead.
- Article Comments will still be at the bottom of article pages for wikis which have them enabled and all content will transition over into the new implementation. The use case remains the same: presenting your comments on the content of an article (or a unique use case your wiki might have developed for the feature!)
- Profile has been redesigned with a new look and some additional options. The baseline version solves for the same use case as the existing profile page, but it will also serve as a foundation for additional user-focused features we’re working on for Phase 2 and beyond.
In conclusion, Phase 1 is our work to get the existing wikis running on the new codebase. We encourage you to engage with new wikis to get a feel for the changes we are making. Once that work is complete, we will move onto new experiences and enhancing your existing wiki features in Phase 2.
While we’ve been running the new platform through extensive internal testing, your feedback on how it performs will be critical as we build you a new Fandom and Gamepedia. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting additional staff blogs here with more information about the new replacement features as well and look forward to discussing them with you.
Will "MisterWoodhouse" Kavanagh Fandom Staff
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