Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Cincinnati Wiki Revisted

I've been recently coming to realize that I have an internal idea of what a good wiki is like, and what features one ought to have. I have been participating on and off in wiki for quite some time, and I've surfed through more than my fair share of them. These are the things I have come to see as the most important features of wikiness. Missing one of these things makes using a wiki fatally unpleasant.

Recent Changes
There needs to be a page on the wiki where anyone can view the most recent edits. This is useful for people who want to watch to see if particular pages are being edited or not. It gives the people watching over the wiki, a one-stop place to see anything that is happening anywhere on the wiki. It is also useful when a new visitor come to the wiki. It shows the "current events" so to speak, and it gives and idea of how much action is occurring on the wiki. It shows who is editing and how often. To some degree it indicates the nature of the community that uses the wiki. Recent Changes is the pulse of a wiki.

Serendipitous Linking
It has to be extremely easy to create links to other wiki pages, and there should be naming conventions that make it likely that pages will be linked to. One aspect of this is making it dead-simple to create new wiki pages. This helps people get ideas out there and into the hands of the community easily. Taking time out to think about the linking mechanisms interrupts one's train of thought. When you can link to an idea inline, without stopping the expression of the current idea it lends great freedom to thought. Another aspect of this is that pages have more value when other writers can link to them accidentally. It should be likely that someone could link to a page already written without knowing whether it already exists or not. I personally like CamelCase for this purpose, but I have begrudgingly grown to accept [links that look like this]. Even more important than the technical link markup is the community-developed naming conventions. Serendipitous linking is what makes the flat hierarchy valuable.

Open Editing
It should be possible to edit the wiki easily and anonymously. I concede that for some purposes, logins and wiki-lockdowns are useful or necessary. On most wikis there is always something useful that can be provided by anonymous editors. This can range from spelling and style fixes to sensitive information from parties that value anonymity. The barriers to editing should be as low as possible. This encourages both casual editing and participation by outsiders or new community members. The more comfortable people feel making changes the better.

Version History
The reason wiki participants should not fear a low barrier to entry is that anything can be undone. Reversion to older versions should be as easy to do as editing a page, if not easier. Additionally, it should be possible for readers to see how a page evolved over time to get a sense of its meaning and trajectory. This is what safeguards pages from those that would harm them.

Minimal Markup
This has to do with both the serendipitous linking and the low barrier to entry. When someone wishes to edit a page, they should be able to write without the mental overhead of marking up their words. Fancy markup should be kept to a minimum. This means easy and intuitive methods for formatting text like *bold* and _italic_. This means URLs should be auto-converted to hyperlinks. HTML tags can be permitted but it should be possible to do most text-formatting tasks with little or no knowledge going in.

What Links Here
For any given page in the wiki, it should be possible to find out which pages link to that page. This allows people to better understand how wiki pages and the ideas they represent relate to each other. It gives a view of the neighborhood of the page which helps to understand what the page should say. Also, if a page's content or meaning are altered, there is a mechanism for finding the references to it, so that they can be examined and changed if necessary. This enhances the cohesiveness of the wiki.

Cincinnati Beacon Wiki
So, that was a long way of saying that I'm not entirely satisfied with the Cincinnati Beacon Wiki. It only has a few problems, but I feel slightly inhibited from continuing to edit it. I have not brought my grievances up with The Dean of Cincinnati yet, but I may. Perhaps he'll even read this post. The biggest problem with it may simply be that it is not yet inhabited with much of a community of users, which is not necessarily an inherent fault.

In any case, I have found myself wondering if I could go ahead and try to implement my ideal Cincinnati wiki on my own. I have been considering my options, and I think if I were to do it, I'd go ahead and register a domain name and purchase some hosting for the project rather than trying to go via the Wikia or hosting it on my own personal server. So that leaves me with a little research to do.

I'm still reluctant though because I'm biased against forking if forking can be avoided. I'll be sure to post as I think about the issue more...