Saturday, March 19, 2005

Threadwatch: "Wikis are cool, but man are they complicated"

Nick W. of the group marketing blog Threadwatch posted an excellent and unusually long entry this week concerning wikis, a subject which has garnered considerable thought at my main journal myself recently. Nick basically had the same problem a lot of us creative types are having right now: he's heard of wikis, and in theory they sound cool, but he doesn't know how to use them, or what software he needs to host one himself, or even what really he could make a wiki about that would hold people's interest. So, he went about getting answers to all these questions, then fully documented the process and put it up as this very informative blog entry. Thanks, Nick, for thinking of us!

Nick mentions an astute criticism of wikis that I have myself; basically, that the learning curve for wiki markup (the actual things you type to get bold-faced text, bulleted lists, etc) is quite high, and not intuitive at all, and that even the interface at a wiki page for all your options (the "previous version" page, the "edit" page) can be intimidating to most new visitors. I don't know enough about it to know it for a fact, of course, but I would guess that this system is so complicated because wikis are a product of the academic world, where there is this complicated and formal way of keeping track of all the changes made in a scholarly document. That said, for wikis to become anything more than simply an academic playtoy, a developer's going to have to come up with a way to run a wiki and let people navigate through it in an intuitive, plain-language way.

Ultimately Nick asks a question that a growing amount of creatives are asking as well: Just what is the worth of a wiki beyond the scholarly uses? He comes up with the same conclusion as me, and as a lot of others, which is that a level of restriction must be placed at the root of a wiki, in order for it to begin to have practical applications beyond the academic world. Once you do that, then you start having some intriguing ideas for actual applications of a wiki. Here's one to chew on, for example:

The HR department of a large corporation creates a wiki on the company's intranet, so that staff members can collectively create an online employee benefit handbook. Whenever one particular employee changes one detail of the plan, then (like full-time employees with ten years' tenure getting 12 days of vacation now instead of 10), they can just jump on the wiki and change it themselves, instead of submitting the change to a manager, who submits it to another manager, who passes it on to a typesetter, who changes it for the next edition of the handbook, a year from now. Then the HR department could start an intranet blog as well, and simultanously post new wiki changes to it (for employees who want to subscribe via RSS, and briefly see the latest), as well as adding it to the online wiki (for employees who have a specific question, and want to go look it up).

There are all kinds of practical applications for wikis, in fact, if you squint hard enough and look around at the world around you. But it all starts with controlling the wiki from the beginning, so that not just any random anonymous schmuck can go in and change something without anyone else noticing. Anyway, I encourage you to check out Nick's post for more, including an exhaustive list of links to wiki resources, that he stumbled across while doing research.