Working with MediaWiki
2nd ed., HTML version

6 Communication

MediaWiki provide a variety of ways for users to communicate with one another. These include talk pages for potentially large-scale discussions, personal communication via user talk pages (and potentially via more social networking-like interfaces in the future), threaded discussions at the bottoms of pages via some extensions, real-time chat, and finally users emailing each other via the wiki. We'll cover all of these in this chapter.

Talk pages

As we saw in the last chapter, every regular namespace for content in MediaWiki has an associated talk namespace, meant to hold pages used to discuss the contents of pages in that regular namespace. In the interface, one of the elements that usually shows up automatically for each page is a link to that page's corresponding talk page; in most skins this is the second tab within the top row of tabs. A page and its corresponding talk page will have the same name, but in different namespaces; for instance, the talk page for "University of Chicago" would be "Talk:University of Chicago", while the talk page for "Category:Universities" would be "Category talk:Universities".
Talk pages in MediaWiki, in general, are intended only for discussion of the corresponding page and how to improve it, and not for discussion of the page's underlying topic – that holds true for both Wikipedia and internal organizational wikis. There are two major exceptions to that, though. Talk pages for users, i.e. pages in the "User talk:" namespace (in English), are usually used for communication with that user, and only rarely to discuss the contents of the user page itself. And on wiki pages meant for documenting some technical topic, like a piece of software, the talk page can often turn into an informal venue for questions and answers about the page's topic.
Let's take a look at a typical usage of a talk page. On a page on an internal wiki, you see the information that the South American division of your company was founded in 1983. This is a surprise to you, since you had always thought that the division was founded in the 1990s. Your first instinct is to simply edit the page and change the information, but then you reconsider, thinking that you've just been misinformed. (The real lesson of this example may be the importance of trying to reference every piece of information; see here for more on that.)
You decide, then, to bring it to the talk page. You click on the page's "Discussion" tab, and then among the tabs will appear one called either "Add topic" or just "+", depending on which skin you're using. You should click that tab. Then you'll see a standard edit interface, but with the addition of a "Subject/headline" field at the top. In that field, you could write something like "Founded in 1983?", and in the body, the following:
I had always thought the South American division was started in the 1990s - I think I heard that during the employee orientation. Was it really in 1983? If so, is there a source for that? ~~~~
Then you hit "Save", and the new section is created. The "~~~~" at the end is important – when you save the page, that set of four tildes gets changed into a "signature", containing your username, a link to your talk page, and the date and time the message was posted. You could also put "~~~" instead – three tildes instead of four. This will display everything but the date and time. In practice, there's no good reason to do this; four tildes is always better.
If you're not logged in, your IP address will be displayed instead of a username – which is not very helpful, so you might as well manually type in your name and the data, instead of using the tildes, in that case.
Now it's time to wait – a response could come in the next hour, or in the next month, or of course not at all. You can keep checking the talk page, or monitor it via one of the many ways of monitoring MediaWiki pages – recent changes, watchlist, RSS/Atom, email, etc.
If no response appears within a certain period of time (entirely up to you), you can feel free to make the change you were thinking of making – you can even make the change at the same time as you post the talk page question, so that you don't have to deal with it again until a response comes.
Now, what happens if a discussion does ensue on the talk page? There's a standard syntax that's used. As we saw in the MediaWiki syntax chapter, colons are used for indenting paragraphs, and in the case of talk pages each message is usually intended one further than the previous message. After five or six colons, though, the discussion usually goes back to no colons, for the sake of both sanity and readability, and then the pattern begins again. And if a person's statement is more than one paragraph, each paragraph should begin with the same number of colons.
As before, every statement should end with the user's signature, set by typing "~~~~".

Archiving

If a talk page starts to get very long, the solution is to archive old comments. Unfortunately, there's no way to do that automatically – it has to be done by hand. You do that by copying some or all of the current talk page into a separate page that's a subpage of the main page, i.e. a page with the name "Talk:name of page/something else". Then the relevant content is removed from the current talk page, and a link is placed in the talk page to that archive page.
Templates help a lot when archiving talk pages. Usually two templates are used: one to be placed at the top of the talk page, that holds links to all the archive pages for that talk page, and another to be put at the top of archive pages, explaining that this is an archive page and linking back to the talk page.
There's no need to create these two templates from scratch: you can copy them from any wiki that does talk page archiving. On the English-language Wikipedia, for instance, they can be found at the pages "Template:Archives" and "Template:Talk archive", respectively. You could consider going with the two templates at mediawiki.org as well, which have a simpler layout and use a nice file-cabinet image (which itself also would have to be copied over – File:Replacement_filing_cabinet.svg – or you can use the InstantCommons feature to use the image directly; see here). You can find these two templates at "Template:Archive box" and "Template:Archive" on the mediawiki.org wiki.
On Wikipedia, archiving is usually done when the talk page reaches over 35 KB or so, and the archive pages are usually given sequential numbers: the first archive page is called "Talk:page name/1", the second one is called "Talk:page name/2", etc. This works fine, although we recommend an alternate approach for naming: using the date within the name, so that the subpage is called "/2015" or "/May 2015 to January 2016" or "/May 2015", etc., depending on the span of time contained within the archive. This makes it easier for users to find a particular old discussion, if they can remember approximately when it happened. There's no reason, however, to set the frequency of archiving based on this: just because you have archive pages named "2014" and "2015" doesn't mean that you need a page named "2016", if there's not enough content for that one year.

Flow extension

On the face of it, using a flat wiki page for a discussion is absurd: it requires people to remember a syntax for indentations and another syntax for signatures, it lets people edit each others' comments, it lets you put in bad formatting and mess up the whole rest of the page, etc. The much more logical approach is to have a system that supports standard threaded comments, where you either hit "New post" or find a comment you want to reply to and hit "Reply", then type and save your comment and you're done. (And you can then edit your own comments, but not others'.) Personally, I admit that I still like the flat wiki page structure, for its flexibility; perhaps I've just become so used to it that I've forgotten how confusing it can be.
Various attempts have indeed been made to introduce threaded comments to MediaWiki; for a long time, the most popular was an extension called LiquidThreads:
https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:LiquidThreads
However, around 2015 the Flow extension began to replace it as the threaded-comments solution of choice. Figure 6.1 shows an example of the extension in use, on the talk page for the Flow extension on mediawiki.org, appropriately enough.
Flow interface.png
Figure 6.1 A threaded discussion using the Flow extension
The Flow interface is somewhat awkward, compared to other, non-wiki discussion interfaces. There's a floating "current topic" indicator at the top of the page (you can see it in the screenshot) that is not what anyone expects to see; and text like "2 years ago", in place of the date, is unexpected as well; though you can see the real date and time by hovering over any such text. But maybe the biggest problem with the extension's interface is that it is difficult to see the nature of the discussions at a glance. The UI uses the so-called "infinite scrolling technique", where you have to keep scrolling down to see additional discussions (there's also a "Browse topics" link at the top, but it is easy to miss). A more standard paginated display (breaking up topics into pages, reverse-chronologically) might have made it easier to see the overall structure of the discussions – when the talk page was most active, what the topics of discussion were at different times in the past, what the current set of recent discussions looks like, and so on.
Flow makes use of, and thus requires, the notifications extension called Echo (see here).
You can read more about Flow here:
https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:Flow

Handling reader comments

It should be noted again that, regardless of how the talk page is implemented, it is meant, for the most part, to be a place to discuss the contents of the relevant wiki page and not that page's actual subject matter. But what if you want a place for readers (not necessarily even the wiki's own users) to comment on the page's subject matter, or more generally, to place any sort of free-form comments? One solution is to simply use the talk page for that, and avoid wiki-style editing-based discussions altogether. This approach can make sense when the wiki is what's known as a "bliki", or a wiki where pages are generally blog-style, dated posts. Blikis are usually edited by one person, but even if they're not, generally no collaboration happens on the content, so there's no need to use talk pages to aid in collaboration. That frees up the talk pages for use in storing reader comments.
There's an extension that's helpful for that purpose: ArticleComments. It provides a nice blog-style comment-entry form that appears at the bottom of pages, and also displays the resulting comments at the bottom; but, unbeknownst to most readers, the actual storage of the comments is done on the talk page.
For cases when actual collaboration happens, though, and you want both collaboration-related discussions and blog-style comments, it is better to reserve talk pages only for the former. In this case, one solution that works well is to use a third-party commenting tool, and place it at the bottom of pages that require it. At the moment, what seem to be everybody's favorite such tools are Facebook comments and Disqus. The easiest way to add such comments to MediaWiki is to use the "Widgets" extension, and add in the appropriate widget – see here.

Chat

There are several extensions that display a window, within MediaWiki web pages, that provides a chat room for all the users currently logged in to talk with one another in real time. These extensions are only rarely used, perhaps because there's generally nothing substantive to be said between two people who both happen to be reading, or even editing, a wiki at the same time. These extensions include MediaWikiChat, which is part of the SocialProfile family of extensions (see here):
https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:MediaWikiChat
MediaWikiChat provides a single chat room for the whole wiki, available at Special:Chat.
Another chat extension is ShoutBox, which uses the Shoutbox chat service. It allows for embedding chat rooms directly within wiki pages:
https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:ShoutBox

Emailing users

The page Special:EmailUser lets any user with a confirmed email address email any other user on the wiki with a confirmed email address. The user can set anything for the email's subject and body. The email that is sent will have the sender's username and email address appear as the "From" in the email, so you shouldn't use this page if you want to hide your email address from the recipient.
MediaWiki does not offer a way for administrators to email all of the wiki's users at once, unfortunately.
There are several extensions that allow the wiki to have a contact form, where users can enter comments that will then be emailed to one or more administrators. You can see the full set here:
https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Category:Contact_form_extensions