a little madness

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free -Nikos Kazantzakis

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10 Ways To Improve Wikis; 1

Wow, I’m quite surprised by the coverage received by my previous post: 10 Things I Hate About Wikis. I was just blowing off a bit of steam, but somehow I managed to spark some discussion and learn a thing or two. So, I thought: why not take this discussion and turn it into something constructive? Like I say in my previous post, my beef with Wikis is not with the idea, but with execution. Of course, execution can (and hopefully will) improve over time. So I’ll go through my 10 points with some clarifications, ideas and contributions from others. To keep things sane, I’ll split it over a couple of posts. Here goes:

  1. Wikis are the easiest way to create awful documentation.

    This is mostly a wiki maintainer issue. As many comments point out, it’s all about having discipline when creating and maintaining the wiki content. I won’t try to address all of the cultural issues involved in successful collaboration. My concern is what the wiki implementor can do to help. It is too easy for the implementor to throw their hands up and say it is out of their control, but this is only partly true. A wiki can encourage quality by making the easy way to do things also the right way. Given the constantly-evolving nature of a wiki, the implementation should also encourage frequent refactoring by making it easy to reorganise content. Features like moving/renaming pages are quite common, but not always convenient, especially when you have a lot of content to shuffle around. How about features like splitting/joining pages? Global search and replace? I’m sure people have loads of ideas.

  2. WikiWords

    No software should restrict its users when it is so unnecessary. Wiki implementors: get rid of the restrictions, it’s really not that hard. Then I won’t have to hear about why the title of the page I am reading is inaccurate due to technical restrictions.

  3. Every wiki has its own syntax.

    The only answer is to standardise the syntax somehow. Will this happen? I think it is likely a standard will appear. It is much harder to tell how widely it will be implemented. There are sure to be compatibility problems with the masses of content that already exists. I would like to think, for the sake of their users, that wiki implementors will consider it. If wikis are here to stay, and continue to spread, this will only become more important.

  4. Wikis mark the return of the content management dark ages.

    This point was perhaps too brief to convey what I was really getting at. The facilities offered by wikis to create headings, lists and so on are fine. The markup is indeed semantic, as has been pointed out. What I miss (possibly through ignorance, wiki implementors please correct me) is an easy way to create my own styles. Not just custom HTML fragments, but the ability to create font and paragraph styles using CSS. I’d love to see existing solutions, I just haven’t come across one yet. For example, I can imagine a wiki allowing me to define a class in CSS syntax, and then apply that class to any part of my content by wrapping in the appropriate syntax. There’s no reason why the built in syntax can’t just be shorthand for the application of pre-defined classes that I can also modify if I wish.

  5. Inexplicably poor navigation.

    I know wikis aren’t a traditional hierarchy, and nor should they be. The possibilities with a wiki are much greater than that, as linking is such a fundamental part of the system. The point about searching made in one comment is a good one, a powerful search is a must and a great way to find content. However, search only works when you know what you are looking for. Convenient navigation, on the other hand, allows you to discover related content. My problem is when useful navigation functionality is non-existent or hidden away. Of course, this varies from wiki to wiki. I think at the very least, I should be easily able to navigate to:

    • All ancestors of the current page
    • All children of the current page
    • All siblings of the current page
    • All pages that link to the current page

    When I say easily, I don’t mean navigating to another page which shows me the links. I want access to the links on the current page, although allowing them to be shown/hidden may be necessary to avoid clutter. In addition to this page-to-page discovery, wikis also need a convenient way to browse around the entire content. In my experience this functionality exists, although the UI could often be a lot more dynamic.

Stay tuned for part 2.

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2 Responses to “10 Ways To Improve Wikis; 1”

  1. April 23rd, 2006 at 1:22 am

    Rami Kayyali says:

    WARNING: Shameless self-plug ahead!

    You just reminded me of a post I wrote a while back. I know what you’re talking about, some wikis can be very annoying.

    Here’s my idea of a perfect wiki, you might find it interesting: http://www.ramikayyali.com/archives/2004/10/04/perfect_wiki

  2. May 13th, 2007 at 11:12 am

    On Scanners and Double-clickers - Scatterism says:

    […] I know that I shouldn’t be quoting myself, but this post reminded me of my perfect wiki post, and I had to reiterate one of the issues I’m very concerned about. […]

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