Thursday, November 29, 2007


When a Wiki doesn't work

Although I am obviously a fan of this kind of software application, the statement "People who want to bring out the best in themselves and their organizations immediately think of Wiki as the best way to collaborate" in this proposed vision statement got me thinking about the flaws in a Wiki. My thinking was based, more or less, on the old precept that "no tool solves all problems", but once I started it was clear to me that this is a question of understanding the problem, evaluating all of the solutions, and determining the best fit -- with the caveat that some unforseen element may overturn this deliberate process and force one to accept a different solution.

There are a number of criteria and concerns I could mention, but I'm limiting myself to just those which I have found to be the most significant. Which are two.

The first is that the distance between author and audience on a Wiki is very close. In other words, the lag time between what a person adds to a Wiki page and any response -- for example, someone deleting or adding to that person's contribution -- is surprisingly short.

Although as an author I like the fact that I can get immediate feedback from an audience over what I have said or written, sometimes this feedback arrives too soon and forces me to respond. Since I'm not as good at thinking on my feet as many people are (actually, not as good as almost anyone), my responses aren't as good as they could be: either I emphasize the wrong points or explain them incorrectly; I get my facts wrong; I lose my temper; or I settle for a quick and unproductive comeback intended just to shut the person up.

I'm not alone in this desire for some amount of lag time: Wikipedia has a chronic problem with edit wars. Someone will add a passage to an article, someone else will read it, disagree, and replace those words with their own. And it continues, blocking the growth or improvement of the article until either one (or both) are blocked from it or (far less commonly, at least as I remember) they discuss their disagreement and come to a consensus.

One could argue that edit wars are a due to a misunderstanding about ownership, but I think the problem is far more subtle. The goal of the Wikipedia project is to create a text, an encyclopedia; however, Wikis best lend themselves to creating conversations. I use this distinction of "text" and "conversation" with care: the first is a product of research, analysis, and creation, all of which require time -- often years -- to produce; the second is a product of two opinions or points of view interacting, which requires a minimum of time or the conversation dies. The point of creating a text is to have a finished, cohesive work, and the dynamics of a conversation work against that: who has not been interrupted in a conversation? This makes one angry, an anger similar to the anger present in most edit wars.

Although I've described these two as opposed to one another, they aren't absolutes, but rather end points of a continuum. Texts range from electronic ones (like email, usenet, webpages) to printed ones (e.g. an article in a magazine or a printed book) which are often, if not always, written in response to an earlier text. This can be seen as a conversation where the responses are separated by years or more; Western philosophy is sometimes described, not entirely as a joke, as an ongoing discussion with the works of Plato, who lived 24 centuries ago -- which makes this a very slow discussion. Further, even in face-to-face discussions, it is not uncommon for one party to pause and research a fact in a reference book or online.

This leads to my second consideration: content on a Wiki is never finished. Some emphasize the positive aspects of this fact: documents on a Wiki never go out of date, because anyone (with the needed permissions, of course) can update them. The problem that a published book has, that it begins to gradually become inaccurate the moment it is printed, is solved with a Wiki!

While this is a good thing, this unfinished quality can also be a drawback. For no matter how much work is done on a Wiki page, it can always be altered -- and sometimes drastically. Content can be replaced with better content -- or with worse; what makes one Wiki page successful can be removed with a careless or badly-considered edit -- or one intended to improve some other aspect of the page. Hence a Wiki is more akin to a conversation, than a collection of texts.

There are ways to deal with this issue. The Wikimedia software, for example, is written to keep copies of earlier versions of the pages in the application -- so nothing is truly lost. Or one can impliment the practice of marking some pages as "stable", "featured" or "finished", and make them more difficult to change. This is simply one of many issues that an adopter needs to think about when considering a Wiki to help with collaboration.

Now I have encountered some people mention that these points make a Wiki a poor application for the business environment, and point to the apparent anarchy that exists around Wikipedia: anyone can -- and does -- edit Wikipedia. How can a Wiki work inside a business? What these people overlook is the power of the community associated with the Wiki application: this community not only nourishes the content on the Wiki, but this community protects it. Look at the countless pages of policy, dispute resolution, and so forth that exist on Wikipedia currently -- there is a great deal of control over the content on Wikipedia; some would say too much. Any successful business already has these controls in place. It currently uses them to encourage its employees to contribute to its profit; if these controls cannot be replicated to monitor edits to a corporate Wiki, then the business is clearly doomed.

Hmm. I started this post by stating that there were two considerations, but find that there are three: how will the collaborative community make use of a Wiki. Some communities will accept it with little or no encouragement; some have already found a way to collaborate without one, and the effort to get this community to accept a Wiki may be a waste of time and resources. After all, why trade in a car that works -- and is owned free and clear -- for this year's model?


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Hi Geoff
Just came across your thoughtful article. Wikis certainly introduce a new dynamic and the pace on wikipedia is often frenetic.
In business and educational settings the opposite problem can occur. That is stagnation because of domination by the boss/teacher discouraging input from other potential participants such employees/students.
In these settings both ends of the problem can be managed. Not sure about wikipedia though, how have you kept up your interest for so long when often thoughtfully considered entries are reverted at the click of a button.
Mark, the short answer is that "it hasn't been easy."

The longer answer is ... I don't realy know. Sometimes I wonder if the reason I've survived so long in this competitive environment (so to speak) is that I've cultivated an attitude of apathy and passiveness -- which would not be a healthy tactic. I am certain that I enjoy writing, and writing is more enjoyable for me when I know that I am read, and that part of the price for writing and being read through the opportunity the Wikipedia project offers is dealing with contrary people (again, so to speak). Especially the ones who revert thoughtfully considered contributions with the click of a button.

One reason I keep this blog is to figure out this very question.

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