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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Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Notes on Wikidrama

Wikidrama, noun: (1) an instance of excitement or conflict in a Wiki community, which is often thought to be needlessly passionate by those uninvolved in the instance; (2) pejorative, the normal state of affairs in many Wiki communities.

An interesting comment -- okay, better than what I could write, which may not be saying much -- on one of the recent Wikidramas: Luna Santin on the CharlotteWebb arbitration.

Would it be appropriate to opine that one reason people dislike wikidrama is that no Wiki software currently has an extension to add car chases? That statement occured to me while thinking about an essay explaining my opinion in this discussion: while Wikis are an excellent tool for collaboration, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.


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Thursday, November 22, 2007


A Paid Day off!

Today I enjoy my first paid holiday since New Years' 2001. I lost my last full-time job with benefits early that year due to the tech industry collapse, and have been either working as a contractor or mooching of my wife since then. (Not that I have a full-time job with benefits at the moment -- but as long as I have worked 960 hours in the last six months, my contract house will give me holiday pay.)

I guess there are certain tokens I need to feel that I'm truly a productive part of society -- even though I probably have a better quality of life than most of the world's inhabitants. Next on my list: recovering my access to vacation pay.


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Sunday, November 18, 2007


One of the Things I hate to do

Is reverting contributions like this one to Wikipedia articles. But I must, for a simple reason: while it's probably reliable information, I can't verify it. Nor can anyone else until the government of Ethiopia starts doing a better job of making more information -- like simple modifications to their internal administrative structure -- publically available. If this were done in English (because I don't read Amharic or any of the 70-odd languages spoken in Ethiopia), and on one of many websites the Ethiopian government maintains would be great, but as far as I know current information is not even available in print.

At least Wikipedia's articles about the subdivisions of that country -- the Regions or States, the Zones, and the Woredas or local districts -- are much more current than many other sources. It's not uncommon to find materials published in the last few years which still refer to the provinces that existed in Emperor Haile Selassie's time -- about a generation ago.

I well know the reasons why this is the case: the agencies responsible for this are underfunded and understaffed -- as well as a constant brain drain from the public sector to non-governmental organizations, if not out of the country. But alot of these barriers could be overcome with help from volunteer online groups if the information were somehow made available.

Until then, I'm forced to apply the rules in a way that I really don't want to, because the alternative is to do assert no quality control whatever. Better to have information that is reliabbly correct, but out of date, rather than information that may be current and correct -- but not at all reliable.


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Thursday, November 15, 2007



My activities related to Wikipedia involve more than writing articles. For example, I spend probably as much time away from the computer (or at least on the computer, and online, but not at the Wikipedia website) researching information as I do editting. (I have to find content to add to Wikipedia somehow, and its one of the better ways to find reliable information.) Another activity that occupies a sizable amount of time is reading the various discussions on Wikipedia about Wikipedia: Wikipedia:Administrators noticeboards, Wikipedia:Administrators noticeboards/Incidents, fora at the Village Pump (when I remember it exists), the Signpost, talk pages at various WikiProjects, and about once a week I read through the archives of WikiEN-l.

WikiEN-l used to be far more important than it is now, but I still find it useful to read on a periodic basis. Sometimes I find gems like this announcement of another study about the community dynamics of Wikipedia -- but often I read it for the discussion. There are just under half a dozen people posting there whose opinions I respect, many times more people who I don't know but I'm willing to read in any case and allow them to persuade me, and two or three troublemakers. By "troublemakers", I mean individuals who have been banned from Wikipedia and desperate to complain some more about how unfair people are there.

I can't honestly say that the community around WikiEN-l is really any different from other communities around any other mailing list: there are some people worth reading and some who are wasting everyone else's time. It's just that WikiEN-l has a reputation of being a more serious or important forum to discuss issues concerning the English language Wikipedia. So after lurking there earlier this week, spending a few hours reading, I was left with the impression that the mailling list has outlasted its purpose.

Now WikiEN-l has always had a certain degree of venom or bitterness in its communications. People complain or vent there about daily stupidity on Wikipedia. Troublemakers go there to complain that they are misunderstood and should be reinstated -- or that Wikipedia is broken and needs to be fixed. Then, as happens whenever one brings together a large number of people seriously interested in one project, a number of flame wars will break out, and you can have two or more respected Wikipedians calling each other "troll" or "vandal" or worse. However, the atmosphere there has turned far more nasty than can be explained by these causes: its has turned into a cesspit -- okay, maybe I should say "another cesspit" -- where people go to flame each other, everyone and everything. When things calm down a little, someone -- not always one of the troublemakers -- stirs the sewage and another flamewar breaks out.

This is not just a bad day there. I read a week's worth of email, and the last couple of times I've lurked there things have not been much better. I'd read to find the occasional gem that made the effort worth it, but it's gotten to the point where the effort is not worth it any more. One can make a valuable point or win an argument on WikiEN-l, but chances are good no one outside the list will notice as well as few on the list; ideas, both good and bad, are simply being drowned out by accusations, counter-accusations, and more until the original idea is forgotten.

I find this disappointing, if not sad. As I wrote above, there are some bright and articulate people on the list, as well as some people who are eager to show that they, too, are bright and articulate; but all that is happening there is that they are complaining and arguing this point I don't really know, and I'm no longer that interested enough to untangle things. People are unhappy with Wikipedia, but people have always been unhappy with Wikipedia. People make mistakes; good ideas get overlooked; someone who is an asset to the project encounters one failure too many, feels burnt out, and leaves -- sometimes memorably.

Yet if all of this energy led to some goal, served some purpose, maybe it would be justified; as far as I can tell, very few Wikipedians -- even those who might be said to be part of the alleged "inside clique" -- pay any attention to it. It's become one more dynamic in the project community that doesn't further its purpose -- that is, if Wikipedia has a clear purpose beyond "creating an encyclopedia." Even then, what encyclopedia that exists is incomplete and unreliable -- "early beta" as one participant has described its quality. Much -- if not the majority -- of the energy around Wikipedia seems to go into the process of writing an encyclopedia -- fighting vandalism, flagging articles for quality, arguing over guidelines and procedures.

I don't know what the answer is, but I didn't find it reading WikiEN-l. It might be time to simply shut the list down. Doing that won't solve the problem alone, but by removing one outlet for writing about the process of writing an encyclopedia, it might encourage people to simply just write one.


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Monday, November 12, 2007



I think I've mentioned how hard it is to keep posting to my blog once I leave off even for a short while. That is the reason why I haven't posted my summary the Portland WikiWednesday last week.

It should have been simple to write. Brandon Sanders had a clear agenda, and this time it wasn't a free-form socializing session. There were two items he wanted all of us to discuss. First was his plan to set up a "Wiki-bus" to take the Portland contingent to next year's Recent Changes Camp. (Eugene Eric Kim wanted to hold it in the Bay area next year, and since he was willing to do the work... ) The other item was to plan the topic for the next Portland WikiWednesday in December: we will invite members of the local politically progressive groups in and show them the power of Wikis for building communities and organizing.

Tak also had the useful idea that we ought to devote some time in every meeting to teaching ourselves about the different types of Wikis. After all, due to the success of Wikipedia many people have the mistaken impression that all Wiki websites run on MediaWiki; they believe that no other maintained Wiki software packages exist. Needless to say, there are many other Wiki software packages out there.

However, I ran into a series of delays. When I got home Wednesday, I didn't have time to do much more than to feed the cat and get ready for bed; I can't function on little sleep anymore, unlike I did many years ago. Thursday and Friday during the day, too many other things kept me from reviewing my notes. Thursday evening, Yvette and I wasted time in front of the boob-tube and Friday night we had to catch a class of at Emanuel Hospital. Then Saturday, Yvette and I spent the afternoon at a friend's house playing Settlers of Catan, and the evening together. Sunday I spent my time on working my way through The Royal Chronicles of Abyssinia for Wikipedia. It's a tediously written book in a mediocre translation; unfortunately, since it's the sole historical source for Ethiopian history between 1770 and 1805 (primary or otherwise, as far as I know), I had to work my way through it.

At any moment during those four days, I could have stopped and wrote a post, but every time I thought about what I should say I just couldn't get the words out. As easy as writing looks, it can actually be quite hard.

And I didn't think this is what I'd be writing about in my 200th post.


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Monday, November 05, 2007


My Wikipedia first

Today marked the completion of my first nomination of another Wikipedian for Administrator status. The nomination was successful -- even though there was some weirdness towards the end.


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