Wikis — the rant

Not sure if I’ve done this before, but if so I’m prompted to revisit it by Richard’s post about OpenWetWare, an effort to promote information sharing amongst biology & biological engineering labs.

I love wikis. I think they’re a phenomenally subtle, clever concept that can be usefully applied in many distributed group situations. And yet, all my own wiki projects – notably – are on hold. I’m waiting for the software to catch up.

In my view, wiki software falls into two categories: too limited/expensive (JotSpot), or too hard to use (everything else). I generalise, but you get the point.

It’s not that, in itself, wiki markup is a difficult thing to get one’s head around – CamelCase is ridiculous and bracket markup is almost as ugly, but it only takes a brief explanation to make them comprehensible. I’d prefer WYSIWYG, but that’s hard to do well with document linking, and I’m not sure I’ve yet seen the slap-forehead-of-course-that’s-how-it-should-be-done UI.

It takes a little longer to ‘get’ the idea of wikis. The idea that you’re supposed to edit the web page you’re looking at is a bit alien, and it takes some training/encouragement to understand the power of that.

Then it takes a little longer to understand Creative Commons licensing.


See, none of the hurdles are particularly difficult. It’s just that, currently, there are rather a lot of them. And it’s that stack of concepts that, in my experience, makes wikis a hard sell. If you can afford to gather people together and train them properly – great, get on with it. But lobbing something up and hoping that its evident utility will shine through is, currently, being far too hopeful. You might get lucky, and maybe it’s worth trying, but don’t expect a flood of willing participants.

This, of course, is one reason why I’m introducing schoolchildren to Creative Commons licenses with SciCast – it’s one less hurdle for them when they next encounter this sort of circumstance. See, some of these problems we’ll solve with technology, some with design, and some, I think, are cultural/education issues.

We have to get used to being publishers/editors/contributors far more than we were ten years ago. We’re so used to being treated as consumers of information that we tend to limit ourselves to that rôle even when we’re invited to pitch in. This will change, but it’s going to take time.


  1. Interesting points there, mate.
    Care to expand on the Creative Commons issues? Are you saying it takes longer to get the *concept* of CC?

  2. It takes longer to understand CC than it does not to think about intellectual property and licensing issues. Which I think is peoples’ default position.
    We’re not used to being publishers. We’re used to signing over what we contribute, or to just not thinking about it (and thus, usually, being protected as the original holder of title under copyright law by default). That’s if we’re published at all.
    It’s that consumers -> publishers shift that takes time. CC is one way of smoothing the transition, but it still takes time to think through.

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