Cogito Ergo Wiki#

I love wikis. I seldom start a project, thought experiment, venture or hobby without starting a wiki for it. My love affair with wikis extends back in time a good, long way, too, to the early days of WardsWiki, long before WikiPedia popularised the notion.

Increasingly (and happily) this seems to be a common trend. Like myself, many other people have forsworn their "traditional" website in favour of a Wiki, bending (but not, I think, breaking) the original intent of Wiki and putting it to work as a content-management system. For, although wikis have their limitations for glitzy, glossy presentation, they score hugely in making it simpler to add and maintain actual content. And, in a network where search-don't-file is the rule, substance trumps sizzle. Every time, all the time.

Unfortunately, it seems that a whole lot of people - including many people who should know better - have become confused. They seem to think that "Wiki" means "MediaWiki". The evidence for this is that far too many projects and people are putting up MediaWiki instances as their primary web gateway in the mistaken belief that this will automatically confer WikiZen and all things WikiGood on their works.

Or perhaps they're just not thinking very clearly about what they're doing...

Don't get me wrong: I think that MediaWiki is a very fine piece of work, and a wonderful thing. For its specific design purpose. And its specific purpose - its original design goal - was to enable WikiPedia, along with all the stuff that's needed to make a meaningful online encyclopaedia; all that [citationneeded] and just-plain-HTML. In the words of the inventor of the wiki concept, "A wiki that reinvents HTML markup ([b]bold[/b], for example) has lost the path!" -- WardCunningham. Let us not even mention bogons like <blockquote>...</blockquote>.

I think that WikiMedia is a relatively terrible thing to inflict upon unsuspecting project partners who are already stressed out by the weird idea that they should contribute documentation to your project, that they might actually be asked to actually write something[2].

The whole point of Wiki - indeed, the very first[4] and perhaps most important design goal for WardsWiki - is that editing wiki should be Simple. This is reflected in another design goal: Mundane A small number of (irregular) text conventions will provide access to the most useful page markup. In other words, content should dominate, not markup (or formatting).

I even dislike wikis that insist on using [square brackets] to denote internal wiki-links. The original intent was to allow linking to happen spontaneously; serendipitously, even. Hence the notion of CamelCase denoting page titles - whether those pages exist or not. Indeed, dangling CamelCase links serve as an inducement or encouragement[5] to create new content.

My point is that MediaWiki, while a fine and powerful piece of machinery, is way overkill for most wiki needs, and a positive barrier to entry for WikiNoobs. It is surely a SwissArmyKnife of content-management, and, like almost every SwissArmyKnife I've ever seen[6], it is difficult to open, contains way too many tools that the average user will never need, and will cause grievous damage to your person if wielded carelessly.

My personal preference is for JSPWiki since I am usually in the position of having a servlet container handy anyway, and usually not in the position of having PHP installed. JSPWiki's markup syntax is clean and simple, and even a complete WikiNoob can learn the basics in less than 5 minutes. Or I can give them a WYSIWYGish editor. With MediaWiki instances I am constantly having to look for markup help; it's just way too complex for ordinary, everyday content editing tasks. I have also, on occasion, run instances of WardsWiki (which, when last I looked, was a pretty short Perl script) but I like having page versioning - especially for professional interactions like project documents. But don't take my personal bias as any sort of Guide... go and look at ppr:ChoosingaWiki or Wikipedia:Comparison_of_wiki_software for more definitive information.

This is not a rant about MediWiki. It is a rant about complexity and simplicity and being kind to your users. It is about good taste in the design and selection of the tools we inflict upon others.


I started out writing something a little different than what has ended up here, but it grew in the telling. Oh well... its only a wikipage, so I can refactor it as I feel the itch.
[#1] Or worse! They equate the idea of Wiki with WikiPedia, and try to fit some Wikipedia's norms and processes to something that is, in reality, quite different.

[#2] The very real fear that many people experience upon being faced with a Wiki and the demand that they actively contribute probably stems from the fear the their InnerEnglishTeacher is going to come along with a red pen and deduct marks for grammar and spelling. How sad that we continue to invest time and energy into a broken education system that has extinguished the creative spark of so many budding writers in favour of the unproven, unnecessary and crapulatious pseudo-benefit of "correct"[3] grammar and spelling; Correctness over communication.

[#3] Whatever that is...

[#4] ppr:WikiDesignPrinciples retrieved 13h20SAST-12-April-2010. Note that WardsWiki, unlike so many other wikisystems does not do page versioning. For good reasons.

[#5] I love the word "encouragement". Look at its roots... to "put courage in". And courage is precisely what you need to give your users who have likely never used a wiki before. It takes real courage for them to leave behind the tyranny of Powerpoint - being the only content-creation tool known to many of them - and tackle the Weird World of Wiki.

[#6] At home[7] I carry a SwissArmyKnife permanently on a piece of string around my neck. It is usually the first item of clothing I don in the mornings, even before underwear. It is the simplest SwissArmyKnife I could find, with merely two blades. No tree saws. No scissors. No tweezers or corkscrews. It is a constant boon in gardening and many other activities of self-sufficient life.

[#7] Because airport security people frown on your trying to carry them on board aircraft since the Americans lost the War of Terror.