Wikis Self-Organize?

Posted by admin on November 26th, 2010 filed in Technical Writing

I was reading a review of a book on wikis as collaborative authoring tools. The author of poses the question

Why haven’t [wikis] taken off as the platform for web and help content?

The “fundamental idea of volunteer group writing” may work on a per-document basis. For me, the problem with wikis is the missing context in the big collaborative picture. Wikis may be ideal to keep individual pieces of content up-to-date. But what good is that if the audience cannot identify the most relevant document in the pile for their specific question?

In my experience, wiki contributors still write “old-style”: They think of their document as being in an imaginary file hierarchy. As if you could look at documents in the same “folder” for related topics, or browse up for hypernyms, or down for hyponyms.

But (most) wikis don’t have a directory structure. Everything is expected to be linked and tagged manually. Unfortunately, contributors tend to forget to apply tags, and they barely remember to link pages. How do I as contributor link and tag something anyway, if I don’t even know in what context it may appear next month? Will this article be read next to content for other releases, other versions, other products, other audiences? I can’t know which way the wiki will be growing.

I have been using wikis for internal and external content, for planning and keeping notes, and for sharing documentation. We always ended up with a pile of valuable content — with no context whatsoever. Within a short while, search results became unwieldy. Browsing content grew more frustrating every year. People got more and more often misled by outdated info. That we had no “round-tripping” (a problem that puts up for discussion) was really the least of our worries. ;-)

In my experience, wikis work as platform for sharing technical documentation — as long as a dedicated wiki owner ties the loose ends together. One person needs to sit down regularly and add (and delete!) links and tags manually, with a clear structure in mind.

What happens if you don’t maintain the wiki? Users don’t remove outdated links because they cannot know who else still uses them. Everyone just keeps adding links to navigation, and creates new overview pages with different subsets of useful links, but no way to distinguish them. Link lists on overview pages grow so long that users can’t find what they are looking for. Which prompts them to duplicate existing content because it appears to be missing… etc etc.

Can this be solved by installing the right plugins? A “did this info help?” vote button that influences a page’s search ranking? An info box that automatically lists incoming and outgoing links, and the last three change history dates? A UI that encourages drive-by-tagging? … What about an artificially intelligent admin page that visualizes the current wiki structure and prompts the admin to investigate broken links, missing tags, orphans, and overlong link chains…? :)

I don’t know whether anyone found a solution yet… At my previous work, we decided to use wikis only for quick disposable content creation, and short-term disposable planning. Then we promoted all content that was worth keeping to (static) html pages, as soon as it had matured.

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