Web sight

Because of some not-so-interesting technical reasons I ended up on the mailing list for reporting bugs in Wikipedia’s mobile app (please see disclaimer in the end).

Reading real Wikipedia readers’ reactions is fascinating.

A lot of the emails there are just empty. People just press the button to report a problem and don’t actually write anything at all.

Sometimes they are just slightly less than empty. For example, quite a lot of people write things like “When will you fix your stupid app already???!?!!”. This may seem pointless and unconstructive, but actually these people think that there is context to what they say, because they see complaints from other people at Google’s or Apple’s app store and they assume that the app’s maintainers are aware of them. Some people also threaten to give the app a low rating in the app store; it’s not really wrong, but it’s not very helpful either.

A lot of the emails are about connectivity problems in Android 2.2.2 and about screen rotation problems on iPad. The developers are aware of both issues and are working on them.

And a whole lot of reports suggest fixes in content, rather than technical problems. Some of them are pointless, for example “The facts on this web sight is wrong and i want it changed to the corrected statement”. It never occurred to that person that it would be helpful to say what information is wrong or what should be written there (it can also be a troll). And some people do make useful suggestions. For example, one person reported that Obama didn’t write “How the Grinch Stole Christmas“. The report was correct: somebody indeed vandalized the article about the children’s book and wrote that its author is Obama. It was an easy fix, so I just fixed it myself and replied, thanking the person for the report and saying that in the future she can fix it herself by pressing the “edit” button.

If I see that fixing the problem will take more than a minute, I just reply with “you can fix it yourself”. This does make me think that a more robust way of telling people that they can fix the problems themselves is needed.

All these issues aside, there is something truly wonderful about this app: People write these emails in their language without caring at all about who will read them. Reporting a bug in Bugzilla is hard for many reasons, one of which is certainly the language. But the app gives the user a completely localized experience, so the users don’t think twice before sending a bug report in their language.

And this is a good thing. Some People from Some Companies told me explicitly that they give up on processing reports from too many people in too many languages; not Wikimedia. Wikimedia may acknowledge that it’s hard, Wikimedia won’t commit to replying to each email, but Wikimedia wouldn’t just shut it down and ignore it completely, either. We would rather think about more efficient ways to get volunteers to reply to people efficiently or to help people fix the issues themselves – that’s what the whole “wiki” idea is about in the first place.

(Important disclaimer: I am involved with this mailing list as a volunteer. It has nothing to do with the paid work that I do for the Wikimedia Foundation. I do not officially represent the Foundation in any actions that I take with regard to that mailing list.)


The Case for Localizing Names

I often help my friends and family members open email accounts. Sometimes they are starting to use the Internet and sometimes they move from old email services (Yahoo, Walla!, ISP) to something modern (like it or not, Gmail).

At some point they have to fill their name, which will appear in the “from” field. And then I have to suggest them to write it in Latin characters, even though most of them speak languages that aren’t written in Latin characters – mostly Hebrew and Russian. Chances are that some day they will send an email to somebody who cannot read Russian or Hebrew, and Latin is relatively better known.

Only relatively, though. It may seem obvious to you that everybody knows the Latin script, but in fact, a lot of people are not comfortable with it at all. There are also other complications: lossy and inconsistent transliteration rules (is Amir אמיר or עמיר?), potential right-to-left rendering problems, and more. And of course, all people are happy to see their name in their language.

And people are also happy to see their friends’ names in their own language and not in a foreign or a neutral language. I have, for example, a lot of friends in India. Most of them write their names in English, but some write it in Marathi or in Malayalam. It’s certainly good for them, but in practice it’s much harder for me to find them this way, so English would be better – but Hebrew or Russian would be better yet.

Finally, there are a lot of people in the world who have more than one linguistic background. Mine are Russian, Hebrew and English, and I am really not such a special case. There are many millions of immigrants who have mixed backgrounds: Punjabi-Hindi-Urdu-English, Kurdish-Turkish-German, Kazakh-Russian-Norwegian, and others, and others and others. From each of these backgrounds they have friends, co-workers and family members, with whom they would love to communicate in the respective language. In each of these backgrounds they have friends who would want to find them using the name under which they know them there and using the appropriate language and writing system.

And sometimes people change their names, too. I did it (twice!), and so have many other people.

All this means that people’s names should be translatable, just like books, articles and software interfaces. Facebook and Google+ allow me to add a very limited number of names in foreign languages. Why wouldn’t they let me write my name in four, five, ten languages? This would make it easier for people who speak these languages to find me and to communicate with me. I would go even further and allow people who speak languages that I don’t know well to write my name as their hear it in their language and to add it to my details. Yet again, this would make me easier to find to even more people.

Some degree of automation can be possible. A lot of names are, after all, repetitive, so social networks would be able to suggest people with common names how their name would be written in other languages.

Wikipedia is actually quite good in this regard: Usually people have the same username across projects, and this username is not necessarily written in Latin letters, but people can customize the appearance of their signature in each project. I did it in a few languages, and people who speak those languages appreciate it.

I can only hope that social networks and email systems will allow as much flexibility as possible with this.

English typing computer

I’m in an Internet cafe in Mumbai. I tried to install Firefox with the Marathi interface, but on the computers here fonts for languages of India are not installed. That’s right – on computers in India fonts for languages of India are not installed. Hence, installing Firefox in Marathi failed at the very first stage, because the fonts are needed for the installation wizard.

Actually, I’m not surprised that these fonts are not installed, because it’s not my first time in India. I know that it happens a lot in this country. I would install them, but I don’t have a permission.

I find it incredibly weird – and tragic – that so many people in India don’t even try to use computers in any language except English. The one curious thing that I did find was an “English typing computer” shop. It’s just a place where you can use a computer to write Word documents in Hindi or Marathi, but using an English-based transliteration keyboard rather than the standard Indian Devanagari InScript keyboard, because they find transliteration keyboards easier. Of course, they could just install such a keyboard layout on their computers… but they prefer to go to an “English typing computer” shop.

We, software internationalization people, have so much more work to do.