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5 ways to improve on wikis (even though we love them)

June 19th, 2007 - Posted by: david

As a collaborative writing platform, the wiki obviously has many strengths. I mean, Wikipedia is now the 9th most popular site on the entire internet. This simple cumulative editing system might conservatively be described as revolutionary. But let’s not dwell on the wiki’s impact, as it has been adequately explored (and then some) in many glowing reviews in the press, within the blogosphere, among the digerati, etc.

We believe that the wiki isn’t the endpoint in the evolution of mass collaboration. So, we’re trying to create a more perfect wiki by fixing some of its features which are…suboptimal, shall we say.

Here are a few areas in which wikis could be significantly improved (the first two are the most critical):

1. Wikis don’t allow multiple simultaneous editors. If two people edit at the same time, one of them either prevents the other from writing or overwrites what the other has submitted. Even if wikis did allow real time editing – and there is a least one wiki hosting company that now does – having multiple simultaneous editors would detract from the quality of writing and make for a discombobulating experience, as it’s impossible to anchor one’s edits in a static conception of page content if that content is constantly changing.

2. Wikis don’t allow for bottom-up expression of mass opinion. Wikipedia’s neutral point of view (NPOV) policy is necessary and appropriate for an encyclopedia, but what about cases where the community actually wants to express itself in a biased way? With wikis, disagreements on any significant point, or on the best way to structure an argument, frequently lead to back and forth edit wars. The only way to resolve these disputes is through the imposition of top down solutions – which are inherently undemocratic, inefficient, and generally antithetical to the principles of the user-generated content movement.

3. People are creatively bound by what’s on the page already. Whoever writes first in a wiki often sets the tone and framework for complex issues, making it more difficult for subsequent users to think about the topic in a different (perhaps better) way.

4. Recent users’ edits are more likely to remain in the wiki simply by virtue of not yet having been corrected. So instead of having the best (or most representative) piece showing, you just see the last person’s input at any given time.

5. Finally, many wikis lack what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing (this is true in particular of the Mediawiki platform used by Wikipedia).

Do you agree that these are issues? What else would you change with the wiki if you could? How could it be improved? What characteristics would the ideal collaborative writing tool have, in broad terms?

Your thoughts, please…

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2 Responses to “5 ways to improve on wikis (even though we love them)”

  1. webster Says:

    As an avid wikimedia user (http://wikimedia.org), I have to say that the wiki has changed the way my company operates internally. But you’re right that there are some things that could be improved. I assume you know about the LA Times wikitorial experiment, which ended in disaster when readers started posting porn: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-wiki-splash,0,1349109.story — vandalism can clearly be a big problem for wikis when open to the public.

  2. david Says:

    Webster,

    I agree that vandalism can be a problem, but Wikipedia seems to have solved it by having committed, passionate users who act as watchdogs, and by ‘locking’ popular articles for editing only by trusted users. The LA Times didn’t institute the types of controls they should have given that they lacked the organic community of watchdogs. And they don’t have the institutional flexibility to deal with having inappropriate material on their site, however briefly, given their high profile.

    We just hope and pray their failure doesn’t doom collaborative opinion expression for all time!

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