« Free classification using a Wiki | Main | YesWiki »

Community backlash, wikis are fine

Sam Ruby: Wiki backlash?

No. Wrong mindset approach backlash.

A wiki is a collection of living documents that make a space. It's not a version control system, it's not an archive, it's not a cms, it's not fora, it's not a mailing list, it's not the web. Above all, it's not a quick fix for a community's problems - look to yourself before your tools. About the best the wiki will do is expose a community's lack of civility in short order.

People like Danny Ayers, Joe Gregorio, and myself have tried to pull things off wiki in more digestible chunks onto our weblogs.

Antipattern alert 1: Some else will clean up.

If you go to c2 wiki, you'll find you don't need a human to filter the content through a blog. That's because people have being keeping the place tidy. It's an internally coherent place and easy to navigate, because people made the effort to make it so.

By contrast, the atom wiki is a mess. Yet, if people had invested a fraction of the time cleaning it up as they had talking about it, it would be ok over there.

Antipattern alert 2: RefactorOK.

can't state this strongly enough, so I'll put it in bold red: RefactorIsAlwaysOk. Wiki's do not work if they are not kept tidy, anyone who spent time on C2 could have told you that. The discipline is to learn that you must weed out and delete unneccessary content, especially, but not just, your own. If you don't or won't get that, the wiki ceases to function well as a place. This is no different to keeping your code or your kitchen or your graden under control.

There's a letting go that has to happen to use them properly. The aim of you editing a wiki page is not to express your opinion, or to make point, or be renowned for either, it's to make that page the best it can be, right now. This is the essence of the DocumentUnderDevelopment. If the document is as good as it can be, you don't need a history (which is simply a rationale or an excuse for why it is not as good as it should be), you don't need versions (if it's the best it can be why hold onto a inferior copy?).

I submit you can't do this with the atom wiki under the current mindset, which is highly individualized (that's blog culture) and mildly paranoaic and fearful (that's RSS culture).

Despite this - we need to do better. I continue to explore more ways to make this project accessible to everybody who wishes to participate. Mailing lists. IRC. Face to face. Got a suggestion? Let me know!

Yes, I have a few suggestions ('you', is plural).

Drop RefactorOK as your personal approach to working with the wiki. That concept alone is doing more damage to the atom wiki and atoms' progress that anything else - it just doesn't work. Link from the wiki to your blog if something must be frozen.

The second is spend some of your time on the wiki just cleaning up what's already there to make it better, instead of piling on more quasi-organised content. Just 5 or ten minutes a day will make a huge difference - pick a page and make it better. Stay on top of the little things . For example, if you see a spelling or grammatical mistake, fix it. Especially, try to move pages out of thread mode into consilidated content.

Spend some time on C2, learning why it works. That wiki has been through all this before. If you conclude that you don't like the way it works, or can't get confortable with it, maybe a wiki's not the tool for you.

Use backlinks to organise and classify content. What makes a wiki truly different to the web, is that it has backlinks. We're just getting a taste of this now with track back, but Wikis have always had it. Faceted metadata is virtually free there.

[The Echo wiki]
[Just use a Wiki]
[Free classification using a Wiki]

August 4, 2003 12:07 PM


(August 4, 2003 01:10 PM #)

Help me understand the backlink part. Not sure what you mean. Can you point me to a specific example?

(August 4, 2003 01:59 PM #)

If you take a look at the page called CategoryCategory on C2 you'll see that it's referred to from all the pages that define a category.

Clicking on a page's title takes you to all the pages that refer to it. That's the essence of backlinks. Links can be followed forwards (the normal way) or backwards (by clicking on a page's title to search for all references to it).

(August 4, 2003 03:29 PM #)

I personally don't like wiki sites - even when somebody is taking care of it and "refactoring" it, they're just a mess to try and figure out, especially as they get larger. That's not to say that an indexed tree-hierarchy site is always better, but they can be. I just find that wikis make it difficult to find information and "pin it down". And there's no real visual cues to call your attention to more important things in the wiki (they tend to get cluttered with non-focused/non-topic info). They're like surfing the net with no good search engines and no directories/indexes. You can wander around for hours without ever finding the valuable information you're looking for. I avoid wikis like the plague, and that makes me fell good. Sorry if this offends anyone, but until I find a really, really good wiki, better than the examples given above, I ain't gonna use 'em because they waste my time.

Bill de hra
(August 4, 2003 05:49 PM #)

Hi, Liz; what Ade said:


Gerry has a fair point, but I think you can organise a wiki to be easily searched, especially with using backlinks (and maybe a good free text engine, like Lucene). The thing I'd really like to have is to be able to combine backlinks in a single query. But my experience overall is different to Gerry's; I learned a lot about software from C2 when it started out and never found it frustrating. The Atom wiki on the other hand, is messy and frustrating, but I think the onus to tidy it up is on the contributers, not a better technology.

The other bit worth mentioning is that wikis are very easy to edit. The syntax is simple compared to HTML or a template language. I think blogging was the first web technology to approach wiki ease of use.

(August 4, 2003 07:01 PM #)

There are lots of good tightly-focussed wikis with clearly defined goals and communities. For example: http://www.bookshelved.org or http://www.emacswiki.org. Unfortunately a wiki is like any communal resource--it's vulnerable to a "tragedy of the commons" scenario unless you have some people who care enough to spend time maintaining it.

I find that wikis work well for me when it comes to organising inter-related information but only because I make a conscious effort to use the many different "views" onto all that data. Without these views it really would be an endless morass of whimsically named pages.

The Meatball wiki has a comprehensive page describing all the different "views" or indexing schemes a wiki can provide at http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?IndexingScheme

Ultimately wikis are an artefact of a certain culture or mindset and not everybody will feel comfortable with them. It's up to those who seek to establish a community to decide how comfortable they are with excluding people who don't accept the wiki way.

Bill de hra
(August 4, 2003 07:54 PM #)


I asked about the TOC on the C2 wiki a few years ago. I felt it couldn't happen, nor could poisoning the wells, at least not the way we've seen on web fora and usenet. The resulting page that came about is interesting:


Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Community backlash, wikis are fine:

» How to WikiWork from Ted Leung on the air
Bill deHora and Don Park each posted suggetions for how to clean up the Atom Wiki. Leaving the issues with Atom aside, it was instructive to hear a little bit about how Wiki's can be used effectively. [Read More]

Tracked on August 5, 2003 09:26 AM