Completely lost in wikimedia - part 3 (What is a wiki for?)

Completely lost in wikimedia - part 3 (What is a wiki for?)


A wiki is a series of searchable web pages that many people can edit. This works well for Wikipedia because people will search for a particular topic in an encyclopedia. This also works for Wiktionary because people search for definitions of words, but what about other Wikimedia projects such as Wikibooks? Is a wiki the appropriate software for these projects? Are these projects doomed to fail?

Having worked on Wikipedia, I decided to take the plunge and make a Wikibook. OK maybe it's a bit arrogant of me to think that I could write anything so comprehensive as a book, but I figured that since it's a wiki, I can get help if I need it, right?

So I began to write. As I wrote my book, it acquired more and more of my personality. I began to feel a certain possessiveness toward it. Not to say that I wanted to revoke the open license. What I meant was that I was afraid that someone else would come in and change the style of the book. Wikipedia has content guidelines that require neutrality which for the most part means "make it boring". Boring is good in an encyclopedia article where you want "Just the facts, Maam"; but boring books are not fun to read.

The next thing that I had a problem with is navigation. A book is something that has a definite order. You read one page, then the next, then the next. A wiki can be read in any order. The recommended wikibook structure has navigation that starts and ends at the table of contents. But do you read a book by reading a chapter and then going back to a table of contents to figure out what other chapters to read? No! that ruins the flow of the book.

Now you can add navigation arrows as long as they are text arrows like this ">". You can't use images as arrows, because in Wikimedia, an image always points to its contribution page. (The better to understand the license it is under.) This makes many of the HTML tricks that you are used to using with webpages not work.

Even if you add arrows, you have to add all of the links yourself from each page to the next, and if you insert new pages, you need to change the links to point to these new pages, or no one will see them. You may say, "but you have to do that with HTML too, don't you?", and that is true; but there are lots of content management programs that automatically change links for you when you insert new information. And this makes me think, is wiki software what you should use for free content books? It seems that the kind of books made by this software will be entirely different from the kind of free licensed book carried by other open projects such as Project Gutenburg. Is this good or bad?

Should Wikisource really be a wiki?Should Wikisource really be a wiki?

So when I look at the empire that is wikimedia I begin to wonder if some of their energy is misplaced. Just because Wikipedia was successful, does that mean that everything should be made into a wiki? For example, there is a new project to put documents into a wiki. This is called Wikisource. Scans of old books and documents are placed online and people can improve on the OCR software by personally checking the texts when they have time. This is a great idea, and I absolutely love it having thought up something similar years ago, but should Wikisource be a wiki?Once you have the data typed in, you don't want to change it. It isn't appropriate to edit the document once it is faithfully transcribed. The text should be fixed into something permanent. It is history, and should not be altered arbitrarily. Is a wiki the right software to use to store finished documents?

And this makes me wonder about other Wikimedia projects. Will a wiki make good educational software? (Wikiversity) or a good news server (Wikinews) or a good media database (Wikimedia commons)? What is a wiki really good for?

But to be fair, there are a diversity of wikis on the web being used for all sorts of purposes. Who can say what will succeed. Only time will tell.

(Post the web address of your favorite wiki here. Show me what wikis are good for.)

Category: 
Tagging: 

Comments

Ryan Cartwright's picture

The next thing that I had a problem with is navigation. A book is something that has a definite order. You read one page, then the next, then the next. A wiki can be read in any order. The recommended wikibook structure has navigation that starts and ends at the table of contents. But do you read a book by reading a chapter and then going back to a table of contents to figure out what other chapters to read? No! that ruins the flow of the book.

Whilst this applies to some books, others - mostly reference books - lend themselves very well to the dip-in format. For example the Nutshell books published by O'Reilly are designed that you can read on part and then flip to another - seemingly unrelated - part because that's the next bit you wanted to read about. Not all books are meant to be read in a flowing style.

But - to take your point - I too wondered whether a Wiki was the best production tool for a book. The thing is I'm still not sure either way and I think it's going to depend on the publication. Documentation and reference books will work quite well I think but (non-fiction) books that discuss or explore a topic may not lend themselves as well to a Wiki for some of the reasons you give.

Wikisource seems a bit odd - I am assuming they are scanning books beyond copyright restrictions - as there are very good projects that do this is a very structured way (Project Gutenberg for example) and sometimes it is this structure which assist in the integrity of the project's data.

Having said all that I think the idea of Wikibooks - for reference books - is excellent. A book which is live and dynamic and is updated almost immediately upon the discovery or development of new techniques and information is a great idea and potentially yet another "killer-app" for the web.

As for your comments on possessiveness towards your work - how would you feel about a Wikinovel ? :o)

Rosalyn Hunter's picture

To tell the truth, Wikinovella looks like performance art.

It looks like what happens when people take turns making up the punch-line of a joke. Sometimes you come up with something good, but most of the time the joke falls flat.

I've gone to sites with forums or comment forms where someone has their work in progress online and people can read it and make comments on it. I feel that this is a better collaborative environment than one where others can edit it themselves.

If they used the discussion pages so that readers could give page by page comments, I think that that would also be helpful to a writer with a strong sense of purpose. I also liked the idea of linking a character's name to his description page. Otherwise I found the links random and distracting.

I have contributed to a BBC run writing project that was a MUD. The problem there was that very few people would read all of the works, so it was hard to get comments on each work while you were writing it. Also, those who did comment tended to say "That was very good" to encourage while not giving any useful comments.

What a writer needs is critical commentary from interested readers and talented writing instructors. He doesn't need them to change the text directly. Take the case of J.R.R. Tolkien. His copy editors kept correcting the term "Dwarves" to "Dwarfs". "Dwarfs" is the plural of "Dwarf" a very short human. This word was in the dictionary but"Dwarves" was not. Tolkien, however, was defining the term.

A novella, a novel, a short-story each is an individual vision. Others can help shape it, but if others write it, it isn't the same and most likely will lose its structure. Not to say that there aren't collaborations that work, or shared worlds that are interesting, but I don't believe that the Wiki will be the best thing for novel writing.

Nigel Waite's picture

I can't post a link to it here, because it is only available on our internal network, but one of the best uses I have found for a Wiki is project/team documentation.

I work as part of a small team that supports a banking system. We have enhanced this system in numerous ways using it's own scripting language. This makes the whole system something of a nightmare to document conventionally, as scripts depend upon other scripts, the configuration of the underlying system and the system's own API. However, this is an ideal area for a Wiki, as a document can easily be written refering to many other topics - including ones that haven't been written yet. Also, it is possible to start with a bare-bones description of a script and add to it later.

We use a package called vqwiki, which I have found very easy to set up and administer. As a plus, this package makes it very easy to insert links to the documentation supplied with our banking system.

Cheers,
Nigel.

Author information

Rosalyn Hunter's picture

Biography

Rosalyn Hunter has been on the internet since before the web was created. Born into a family of instructors, she has made it her life's goal to teach others about the important things in life, such as how to type kill -9 when a process is dead. She lives in a little house on the prairie in the American West with her husband, her three beautiful children, a cat and a dog.