“It is important to me, for example, that as a body of work grows it becomes even more easy to contribute to it, not less. Wikipedia, for all its accomplishments, has not achieved this dynamic.”

A line from an email discussion I was involved in earlier today. Not my line: someone else’s.  Made me think.

Last week I explained to my class what a wiki was. The words “A wiki is a tool for the capture, extension, and dissemination of community knowledge.” came out of my mouth.

That’s not all a wiki is, of course. A wiki also embodies a theory on how best to serve that end. And it seems to me, after a deep dive into this, that the point of a wiki is a lot of things we value in both communties and publication get in the way of that core aim. Layout. Complex Markup. 404 pages. Workflows. Server-based compositing. Bureaucracy — formal or informal. Separation of edit and read modes. Complex citation requirements. Inability to access underlying page or chart data.

If there’s a good reason to dive into wiki — and really, to make wiki central to any digital literacy curriculum — it’s that a wiki makes these trade-offs obvious, in the way that a study of another culture gives us insight into our own. I think you can also make an argument that the wiki approach is underutilized, even today, and that the consequences of that are grave. But at the very least we can agree that digital literacy requires some familiarity with wikis and wiki culture — and I’m hoping that our fascination with the new and shiny is not pulling us away from that.

7 thoughts on “Easier

  1. Totally agree with your conclusion!

    Wikis as tools are way behind the times regarding some of the things you listed. But even if you eliminated these technical barriers, there are still fundamentally hard social barriers around collaborative authoring that has nothing to do with the technology. Google Docs is not a wiki, but it is a collaborative authoring tool that overcomes some of the technical limitations of wikis. However, when you try to get two or more people to write something together on Google Docs, you still run across the same fundamental social challenges of collaborative authoring.

    Part of the beauty of wiki culture is that folks have learned how to embrace and overcome these challenges. When you do that, you not only have the ability to create a beautiful body of work, you develop a literacy that shifts your perception of what’s possible when you work collaboratively.

    I think it does get easier to contribute as a body of work grows, but it gets complicated again as new capabilities introduce new challenges. That is the essence of the coevolution of people and tools. We shouldn’t despair over it, we should embrace it.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m wondering what you think of the federated wiki solution to some of these collaborative roadblocks?

      I’m in this odd position with federated wiki — to me it’s a revelation, the obvious future, and frankly, it’s addictive as hell. But most people I talk to don’t feel it — it’s too out there, they say.

      You’ve been thinking about wikis much longer than I have — what’s your take?

  2. I am not understanding the expectation that the ease of contributing to a body of work is related to the size of the body work; how are these related? If we are talking about the mechanics of editing; which remain as cumbersome in 2014 as they did in 1998, there is no difference. If we are talking about the process of contributing, e.g. finding what to edit, where to contribute, that is different. I can agree, given to me the inane sprawl of documentation for MediaWiki

    It seems not a reasonable expectation.

    And I am not sure it makes sense to talk about all wikis in the same sweep. If we are talking about document editing for producing works that are like articles or sections of encyclopedias, we can have different expectations and ease of use issues that where I think wikis work better for more people- for brainstorming, idea collection, drafting ideas. You can use Google docs likewise in a similar fashion, to produced a polished work or to create an open free form idea mosh pit.

    I have been working with an extremely bare bones wiki for my Storybox project (a python textfile based one called MonkeyWiki); the feature set is smaller, the wikitext options fewer, and it still feels like something I have to keep all of its commands in my head or a cheat sheet in front of me. Wiki use gets easier when you use a wiki more often.

    • I think the WIkipedia example (again, not mine) is about the ways communities act as they grow.

      10 years ago, if I knew something that I thought should be in Wikipedia, I’d just put it in. Today if I’m not prepared to stick around for a weeks-long back and forth about notability, references, bias, and the like the chances of that contribution being maintained is pretty minimal, at least for any article of note.

      You see the same thing happening on larger political community sites. Eight years ago you’d go and say something stupid on dKos, and there’d be plenty of people to help you. At a certain size that starts to fade, and you just get flamed to shit.

      Part of the reason is that the megaphone of a site becomes very big, and attracts bad actors; the community then must protect itself. And those protections kill the culture that made it work.

      Part of the idea of federated wiki is to learn from the world of blogging — when each person’s megaphone is separate, you get better discourse (except sometimes in comments, which is another case of me using your platform and audience to get my message out). People don’t read yoou because of where you write, but because of what you write.

      The question is whether federated wiki removes the incentives for hijackers and thus allows a community to grow without the common problems of growth…

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