Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Wiki Wiki

 Be forewarned, this post is even more rambly than usual.

I'm mostly creating this post to help nudge Google's SEO to pick up the new Fallen London Wiki, which has recently relocated to a new home. Well, "relocated" might be too tame a term. "Escaped an abusive relationship and started a fresh life" might be more accurate.

I have a long, albeit tenuous, connection with the wiki. When I first started playing Fallen London about a decade ago, there were two separate community-driven wikis. I believe that the wikidot was first; its domain name even reflects the original title of the game, Echo Bazaar. This wiki focused on gameplay and strategy; in particular, I found its item conversion tables invaluable. In contrast, the wikia was more of a straight dump of the game contents, focused on storylets: you could look up anything in the game to see what was required to make it appear, what the options were, what requirements each option had, and what each choice did.

There was some mild-mannered back-and-forth between the wiki community and Failbetter Games. Since Fallen London is almost entirely composed of text, the company was understandably not enthusiastic about their entire game essentially getting mirrored into a clickable alternative, allowing people to essentially "play" through the game without any Candle limitations. A few principles got established early on that thankfully continue to this day. First, no details can be provided on the wiki about stuff that requires Fate, i.e. spending real-world money. Secondly, there is a character limit on how much text from each storylet body can be present in an article. In practice, this has meant that you can read a summary or gist of what an action does, but will need to play it to experience the actual content.

I was a very active Fallen London player in those days, and that extended to Wiki contributions: I created the entry for the Rumourmaster's Network (now renamed Rumourmonger's Network), filled in descriptors for the higher levels of Scholar of the Correspondence, and filled in lots of details about random ranges, seasonal events and other things. I'm no longer at the vanguard of content discovery, so these days I just use the wiki as a reference. It has some absolutely excellent tools and calculators, including a best-in-slot calculator that was essential prior to the expansion of Outfits and remains extremely useful today. (Fortunately, the retirement of Paramount Presence of the Ancient Regime and the invention of new stat caps has removed the need for me use the wiki to look up each and every new action before I click on it to ensure that it will not remove 1 CP of one of my main stats.)

At some point along the line, Wikia rebranded to Fandom, which I believe was a universal move. Let's take a little tangent and talk about that!

Almost all wikis are based on MediaWiki, the open-source engine that drives Wikipedia. In the early days of Wikipedia, people embraced its ethos as the "everything encyclopedia": you could write an entry about literally anything, and there was an explosion of content and communities building out vast webs of documentation about their passions. Prior to this, information on a given commercial project was usually limited to one of two forms: either an official web site, maintained by the creator of that project and typically limited to a very high-level summary of it; or a community forum, which contained a vast amount of content of varying quality that was difficult to search but likely had the information you sought. Wikipedia seemed like a great solution to the problem of making knowledge discoverable: if you wanted to figure out what issue of Bone first revealed the identity of the farmer, or how many members were in the Minibosses music group, or who the most prolific graffiti artists in San Francisco were, you could head to Wikipedia and find out. And, on the off chance it wasn't there yet, you could do some research and create your own entry, which other users would later polish and correct and refine.

That golden era came to an end in the Great Crackdown. I mostly experienced this with the Webcomic Purge, when dozens and then hundreds of Wikipedia pages were taken down for lack of "notability". A daily newspaper comic that nobody talks about deserved an entry; a daily web comic that got millions of views and spawned a passionate following did not. The purge continued, ruthlessly removing all entries that did not meet the editors' arbitrary standards of notability. (As you might suspect, these reflect the biases you would associate from white nerds. To this day there is a long and informative article about the Vala on Wikipedia; any similar entry on a less-revered property would certainly face deletion.)

Fortunately, there was an alternative! (Sarcasm alert.) While the Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit, it just so happened to have a for-profit alternative, Wikia. Founded and run by the same people as Wikipedia, and running the same software, but instead of creating a single repository for all human knowledge it segmented each topic into a separate site, and served ads on those sites to make money. To this day I remain convinced that Wikipedia intentionally drove away these vibrant, active communities so they could make money off of them on Wikia instead.

MediaWiki itself will always remain open source, and over the years quite a few other competitors have entered this space. I ran into a lot of headaches related to this during my Shadowrun days. A trend has grown for game companies to establish an "official" site for a wiki, perhaps seeding it with some art and content but leaving it up to players to maintain and fill it in. When Shadowrun Returns first launched, their official wiki was on a domain called A ton of great content went up in there: Harebrained Schemes wrote a few articles giving details on the editor, and I and a lot of other creators wrote various tutorials and guides and other stuff. But, wikispaces went away, as you will see if you try to visit that domain now.

Prior to the launch of Shadowrun Hong Kong, HBS migrated over to a new wiki on Gamepedia, copying some (but definitely not all) of the old content and guides. That has been the main source of community knowledge in recent years, though honestly you'll likely get better results by searching Google and finding a relevant Reddit thread; we seem to be back to the old days where the best content could only be found in forums.

I contributed to the Gamepedia for a while, but threw a hissy fit when they got bought out by someone called Curse Media, and then forced me to create a Twitch account to continue editing articles. I can't justify how mad I was, but I walked away and never touched that wiki again.

If you try to go to the Shadowrun Gamepedia today, you'll be taken to Fandom, which is the new rebranding of Wikia. It's becoming yet another monopoly, swallowing up all of the alternatives that were out there and bringing all properties under its banner. After reading Goliath, I am very radicalized against the trend towards consolidation, crushing the little guy and creating big, terrible companies that give everyone an awful experience.

The monopoly wasn't the tipping point for the Fallen London wiki, though. The community editors faced a host of issues that they thoughtfully documented. One of the most germane problems for readers of the Fandom wiki, though, is that it's absolutely unusable on mobile. In recent months I've had to deal with full-screen takeovers, autoplaying videos, pages that jump around to trick you into clicking on ads, and all sorts of slimy, awful stuff. Fortunately my adblocker on my PC does a good job at removing that stuff, but that's no consolation to folks who try and read the wiki from their phones and tablets.

And yes, of course this is a direct result of Fandom establishing a virtual monopoly over the wiki space. If they were merely one of many players, they wouldn't be able to get away with providing such awful service with such aggressive ads.

The move to a new non-Fandom wiki site may be a quixotic quest; currently "Fallen London wiki" still shows the old Fandom site as the first result, and the .wiki on page 2 of results. But hopefully that will change. One especially awesome thing is that Failbetter Games is supporting this change, even though they historically haven't had anything to do with the old wikis: they announced the wiki move to players, added a wiki link to their FAQ, and even offered to pay the hosting costs for the new site. I think that's really amazing of them.

Hopefully there will be more moves like this in the future. Apparently the Fallen London community move was inspired by the Runescape Wiki's escape several years ago; that move seems to be very successful, and their wiki is now very easy to find. I do wonder if, in the future, more companies will move towards hosting their own wikis in the same way they used to host their own forums. It does blur the line between community and company, for better or worse, but on balance I'd take that solution over further fattening the Fandom monopoly.

Soooo anyways, if you play Fallen London please update your bookmark for the wiki and save yourself from watching a thousand terrible ads!

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