Sunday 18 July 2004

Wiki epiphany

Until yesterday morning the word “wiki” made me feel nauseous.

I’ve been thinking lately that our “freedom” to have and express opinions is based on an illusion: that we are, more often than not, prisoners of the ideas and emotions we derive such pleasure from articulating. So I’ve started to see strongly held convictions more as calcified thoughts and feelings, multiple layers, one formed upon another, created from our upbringing and experiences, that constrain our ability to experience the world in all its richness and complexity.

In this particular case—The Case of the Wiki—my antipathy towards most kinds of collective activity meant that I was totally unsympathetic to a writing environment in which “there is no prior review before modifications are accepted, [with] most wikis [being] open to the general public—or at least anyone who has access to the wiki server”.

I’m not sure when or why I became distrustful of groups. Like Stavros, the act of “imagining myself as a contrarian (if people-loving) curmudgeon all these years has molded my life”.

All my life, I’ve fashioned myself as the Outsider, the exile, the individual, rugged or otherwise. I feel little to no obligation to any sense of community, other than that which is mandated by my own sense of what is right.

Thus I rarely see “communities” as benevolent. Instead, I’ve always regarded the main purpose of communities as offering a readymade structure for those who, in Brecht’s words, “want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people”.

Perhaps a brief, unhappy period as a member of the Sydney Filmmakers’ Cooperative laid down the first calcified layer of my belief that community is also the enemy of art. All I remember is endless meetings about what film(s) to make and no film ever being made. Filmmaking is a cooperative activity, to be sure, but I adhere to director Richard Brooks’ definition of a team as “a group of talented, dedicated professionals, all doing exactly what I tell them”.

My hostility to wikis, therefore, sprang from a mistrust of communities and what I’ll call “collective creativity”. A mistrust that is oddly inconsistent, given that I’m such a fan of open source software:

  • I still recall the satisfaction I experienced in moving my weblog from a Windows IIS server to a Linux/Apache/PHP/MySQL environment;
  • Firefox is my default browser (I only use IE when forced to by idiot web designers);
  • I’ve used Thunderbird for my Japanese email for six months and am starting to think about abandoning Eudora, which I’ve used on the Macintosh and the PC for as long as I can remember; and
  • If I decide that Movable Type 3.0 isn’t for me, I’ll almost certainly switch to WordPress.

It also seemed to me that a collective writing environment such as a wiki must be based on an optimistic view of human nature, a view that ignores “the moral limitations of people in general, and their egocentricity in particular” whereas I tend to see human beings in the terms Thomas Sowell defines: as “tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects”. Wiki enthusiasts assume that everyone will “do the right thing” whereas I assume that at least a few will do their best to screw it up. (Little did I know that wikis have a variety of contrivances to contain selfish and dangerous impulses.)

An even less excusable reason for my aversion towards wikis is that I confused the term “wiki” (derived from the Hawaiian “wiki wiki” or “quick” shuttle buses at Honolulu Airport) with “wicca” (the Neopagan religion), thus conflating wiki users with a stereotypical—and fallacious—perception of wiccans as eccentric believers in witchcraft and magick who prance around naked in the forest at full moon.

Dave Rogers has described how difficult it can be to transcend one’s beliefs:

There are some beliefs that are cherished. These are things we believe that make us feel good about ourselves, the future, or a particular object. When we listen to discussion and reasoning that calls upon our cherished beliefs in a way that is consistent with them, then we share a good feeling with and toward the person making the argument. Feeling “good” seldom invokes the cognitive process that critically, if imperfectly, examines the arguments and assertions being made. This is a very high barrier to overcome to get people to think critically about something for which they hold cherished beliefs. It’s mostly impossible, short of getting kind of ugly. And it almost always gets ugly if those beliefs are genuinely flawed.

Or genuinely irrational.

Extending Dave’s argument, my belief that “wikis are bad” offers a mechanism for making myself feel good (about being an outsider, an Exile, an individual). I think though, that under certain circumstances, it is possible to overcome the very high barrier to getting one to think critically about a cherished belief. You need some help though, and that’s what happened to me yesterday.

Yesterday morning, I was talking to Marius Coomans on the phone about a Web-related project when he suddenly asked me: “What do you think about wikis?”

My Pavlovian response? “Just the idea of semi-literate fools modifying my scintillating insights and/or my carefully crafted prose makes me feel sick.”

Marius knows me well enough not to be deterred.

“Have you ever used the Wikipedia?”

“Actually, I use it quite a lot. In fact one of my default Firefox pages at the moment is a Wikipedia entry about The Mind-body problem.”

(One of my thousands of unfinished weblog entries deals with Subjective idealism.)

“Well, the Wikipedia is a wiki,” said Marius.

“But the Wikipedia is different”, I replied. “They wouldn’t allow just anyone to go in and modify an entry. It’s moderated.”

As I was making this uninformed assertion, I switched to my Wikipedia tab in Firefox and clicked on the edit link next to the “Philosophical Perspectives” heading. (I hadn’t yet noticed the “edit this page” tab at the top of the page).

Wikipedia entry for Philosophical Perspectives with edit and edit this page links highlighted

I fully expected a dialog box to appear, asking me to supply a username and password. Instead the entry appeared in an inline text area, ready for editing. I nearly fell off my chair.

Wikipedia entry for Philosophical Perspectives in edit mode, with text selected and cursor visible

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. Marius chuckled.

“What’s to stop people adding incorrect information?”

“The fact that someone will come along and correct it.”

“Have you edited entries”, I asked him.

“Of course”, he replied. “I’ve added a bunch of books to the Glenn Gould entry. You should check the Wikipedia entry for something you know a lot about and see if there’s anything you want to add or fix. Someone as anal-retentive as you will feel right at home.”

I realized then that I’d only ever used the Wikipedia to research subjects I knew little or nothing about—the possibility of changing anything had never occured to me. So, as soon as Marius and I had finished chatting, I found the Wikipedia entry on Ozu. (I’ve been watching lots of Ozu DVDs lately.) The following sentence caught my eye:

During WW II he served in China.

“Bullshit!” I said to myself. Ozu had returned from China before World War II started. During World War II he served in Singapore (if you define watching confiscated American movies as “serving”). You could say “During the Pacific War he served in China” but the problem there is that people frequently confuse the Pacific War (1937-1945) with the Pacific Theater of World War II. As the Wikipedia entry explains:

The Pacific War, which took place mostly in the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and in Asia, both preceded World War II and also included some of its major campaigns and events.

Marius had explained that, although you can edit Wikipedia pages without becoming a registered user, your changes will be identified by an IP address rather than by name. To hell with that, I told him, authorship is crucial!

I registered as a user and replaced the “offending” sentence with a paragraph about Ozu’s army service in China and Singapore. In retrospect, I rather wish I hadn’t entered in the Edit Summary field:

Modified the incorrect statement “During WW II he served in China” with details of Ozu’s actual military service.

Now everyone will know that I’m an arrogant pedant. “Clarified details of Ozu’s military service” would have been sufficiently accurate, and far more polite.

I’m not sure why it was so easy for Marius to transform my disdain for wikis to enthusiasm. We’ve known each other for fifteen years, I worked fulltime for him for three years and have done many other freelance projects for him as well. Perhaps he caught me at exactly the right moment. Maybe he cunningly laid a trap that I walked straight into.

Because this morning I had another wiki epiphany. For a while I’ve wanted to wake up earlier and get an hour or two’s writing done before breakfast. This morning, at 6:15am I was already at the computer. On a Sunday! An email arrived from Marius about 6:45 and we traded messages back and forth for an hour or so. Suddenly it hit me that email is an incredibly inefficient way of exchanging information about a project: a wiki would work so much better.

Alternatively, as Farhad Manjoo points out in this fascinating Salon article about managing email, Gmail offers something similarly useful:

Gmail features one of the first truly novel innovations in an e-mail interface to come along in a long while, “conversation view.” The system presents a conversation thread — a group of back-and-forth e-mail messages between you and your boss, say, or a 65-message set from a particularly boisterous mailing list — into a single visual pane, allowing you to read every e-mail in its proper context. Actions can be performed on entire conversations instead of on single messages — so you can delete or archive those 65 mailing list messages with a single click.

(Which reminds me, if anyone would like a Gmail account, I have some spare invitations. Just send an email to firstname@lastname.net, substituting the appropriate names—mine, not yours!)

But there’s something about the wiki way of tracking a conversation that I find more appealing: it feels more natural to store the conversation in one location (rather than having identical copies in each participants Gmail account); and, now that I’m converted, the ability to edit the entries (and roll back to previous versions) seems essential.

So there you have it. Although I remain unenthusiastic about the counter-cultural associations of the name, I’ve gone from wiki antagonist to wiki evangelist in the space of 24 hours. Next thing I’ll be adding a Creative Commons license to my weblog. (Just kidding! The day I turn into a CC evangelist will be the day I ask Language Hat if he has an old beret I can chew on.)

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Comments

Looks like you've entered the Wiki honeymoon period. Remember this elation you have about Wiki and how it seems to be a solution to a myriad of problems. Revisit this entry in a couple of weeks or a month or whenever you start to get tired of Wiki and find that it doesn't do everything you wish.

Or, perhaps, you truly are one of the converted and Wiki *does* work for you. I've noticed (as has David Ornstein, the primary author of FlexWiki) that most people are deeply enthusiastic about Wiki once they have their a-ha moment, but relatively few of them still feel that way a month or two down the line.

I'm anxious to see whether you're a true convert or to read your insights about why people fall out of love with it.

Posted by Tommy Williams on 18 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I love to read your post. It is a complete description of your 'wiki date'. I'm dating with wikis too. I think we can be outsiders in community, and more, I think is a great thing to communities have some outsiders.
However, I have a question: Why not CC?

best,
Su

Posted by Suzana on 19 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Very interesting reading. I too have a prejudice against collective activities (derived in my case from exposure to antiwar politicking 35 years ago and the lefty power-trippers who dominated it), and I too have been impressed by the high quality of the Wikipedia (I've made a few edits but haven't really plunged in -- I've got enough time sinks as is). But I've seen some foreign versions that are despotically dominated by particular points of view, where all contrary facts/opinions are peremptorily deleted, so I'm aware that there is a potential for a worser wiki.

And as it happens, I *do* have an old beret you can chew on.

Posted by language hat on 19 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Tommy, your point is well taken. Re-reading my entry, I think perhaps I should have described myself as a wiki "enthusiast" rather than an "evangelist". I too will be interested in whether that enthusiasm wanes. What I found fascinating -- and why I wrote about it -- was the mental and emotional backflip I experienced. But, should I fall out of "love", I'll definitely write about that too.

Suzana, why not CC? Because I think (and I know I'm an outsider on this) that CC is based on utopian ideals of creativity and cooperation. I wrote about my skepticism here:
http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/000796.html

LH, now I think about it, "left power trippers" also loomed large in forming my prejudice against collective activity. I was surprised by the even-handed tone of the Wikipedia in English -- Marius told me that, for instance, the entry on abortion had caused a lot of grief -- but it doesn't surprise me that despots dominate other versions. And don't feel as though you have to hang on to that beret for my sake, someone else is likely to need it long before I ever will.

Posted by Jonathon on 19 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I love wikis because I'm an absolutely pedantic grammarian. Nothing shits me more than reading a sentence like this:

"Nothing shit's me more, than reading a sentense like this."

That was painful.

I seldom fix up information within a wiki but will frequently correct a misused apostrophe. Issues of style, such as comma usage, are a bit of a grey area.

Posted by Flashman on 19 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

“Well, the Wikipedia is a wiki,” said Marius.

“But the Wikipedia is different”, I replied. “They wouldn’t allow just anyone to go in and modify an entry. It’s moderated.”

Well, I hate to be a cold blanket here, but your first intuition is in some sense quite on target. Wikipedia is a ContentOverCommunity [1] project, while most 'classic' wikis are CommunityOverContent. You might want to read WikiPediaIsNotTypical [2] and the rest of MeatBall [3] to try and get a feel for the old style wiki culture. Another backflip may occur when you grasp that ;).

[1] http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?ContentOverCommunity
[2] http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?WikiPediaIsNotTypical
[3] http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl

Posted by Johannes Gijsbers on 19 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

That is an interesting conversion story, Jonathon. Since I first learned about wiki's, I have been enthusiastic about the concept. But now that I read the links Johannes provided in the previous comment, I understand I mainly like the Anyone-May-Edit ContentOverCommunity sites, like Wikipedia.

I tried using a Wiki page with some friends to organise some activities, and though they liked the Anyone-Can-Edit fucntionality, it just didn't work because we couldn't tell who posted what when. (gmail conversations might work better in such a case).

A sidenote: did you see the IBM research on the evolution of Wikipedia? http://researchweb.watson.ibm.com/history/

Posted by Roel Groeneveld on 20 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Johannes,

Far from being a cold blanket, the links you provided were excellent food for thought. Thank you.
I'm interested in applying wikis in a corporate environment. I would expect its use to reflect the corporate culture, but also wonder whether you might be able to use a wiki as an instrument to encourage organisational development?

Posted by Marius Coomans on 20 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Wikis in a corporate environment will naturally follow the same rigidity as any other corporation; that is, some will be very fun and open and collaborative and others will fall apart since they only reflect the nature of the people using the wiki.

My analogy is that a wiki is like a room. There are no rules embedded in the walls (normally). Interaction there depends on the social conventions you create. Many corporations have controlling rules for the meetings. Others are much more relaxed. But if you just replace the word "wiki" with "meeting room", and consider how that works, then you'll probably get all the answers you need.

(blogs are like a microphone in a room; you have one speaker, an audience, and then question period)

http://socialtext.com does a lot of good work with corporate wikis, if you're interested.

Posted by Sunir Shah on 20 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Just to change topics, I hate this MT comment window. You click a link and you get the site in a window which you can't grow and which has no way of escape. Grrrr...

Posted by Marius Coomans on 20 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Good article about the "aha" moment of wiki user. Thanks.

IMHO blog is better suited for expressing personal opinions, but wiki is for finding the consensus (as result of compromise between multiple opinions). In a wiki, you can delete whole misunderstanding, and move off-topic but valuable discussion to other page - but not too soon, let it grow first. Also, is easier to interlink related pages, to make rich relations between pages. There are wiki-based games, when group of authors are creating encyclopedia of imagined world.

I believe that after more wikis will have version control, authorisation and spam/troll protection, more pages will be wiki based.

Posted by Peter Masiar on 21 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I have the same hyper-individualist tendencies as you. That's why my wikilog offered public-append only, leaving editorial godship to myself. (Though once I got tired of cleaning up spam, I turned that off, too - sigh.)

But for groups that have the *potential* to be effective (your film group would be a counter-example), I think a wiki is the best possible technology for improving those odds.

http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/TeamWiki

Posted by Bill Seitz on 21 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Wonderful post, Jonathon. Wait till you experience a desktop wiki (such as VoodooPad) where the many "yous" across time can collaborate on a knowledge store.

I personally think that wiki and blog and like two halves of the brain. One is great for trapping information in the moment and the other is great for accumulation.

In the business world, I recommend comparing the wiki to a whiteboard, since so many people understand that model of collaborating on an eraseable document over time.

Posted by xian on 21 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

As xian says, you should try VoodooPad (don't know if you're on a mac or not). In the line of "wiki rather than e-mail conversations", you might find our experiment in collaborative note-taking using SubEthaEdit interesting. After the BlogTalk conference, we actually checked that SubEthaEdit can be used over IP -- so at one point, we used it to converse (me in Switzerland, Horst in Austria, Kevin in the states). Instant wiki!

http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2004/07/08/taking-collaborative-notes-at-blogtalk/

Posted by Stephanie Booth on 23 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks again for the great comments, and apologies for my tardy response -- I succumbed to a 24 hour virus that lasted much longer.

Flashman, as much of a pedant as I am, I think I much prefer the idea of contributing "real" content to a wiki.

Johannes, I agree with Marius that, far from being a wet blanket, your comment was extremely valuable. Commenting on a post about my epiphany at Kairosnews:

http://kairosnews.org/node/view/3900

I quoted your comment and wrote:

"A comment by Johannes Gijsbers on my "Wiki epiphany" post alerted me to the fact that my "conversion" was more conditional than I'd realized.

"Whilst not wishing to recant, it's important to note that Wikipedia is my *only* experience of wikis. Gijsbers, however, makes the point that Wikipedia is a ContentOverCommunity project, while most 'classic' wikis are CommunityOverContent.

"My assumptions about wikis, however, have changed radically but that's almost certainly due to my serendipitous start with Wikipedia. But I'll probably remain prejudiced in favor of wikis in which the content produced is the superordinate goal. Unless I have another epiphany."

Roel, thanks for the pointer to the IBM research about Wikipedia, the history flow diagrams look amazing (http://researchweb.watson.ibm.com/history/gallery.htm), though unfortunately the quality of the graphics doesn't allow one to closely examine the charts.

Sunir, your "room" analogy seems a good one. I guess my preference is for a "certain amount" of control -- just as I prefer moderated discussion lists.

Marius, sorry about the MT comment window -- I used to have the comment form embedded in the individual archive page, which allowed links to open in a normal browser window. But I went back to the constrained comment window as part of my strategy to combat spam.

Peter, I remain fascinated by the potential of wikis but look forward to "version control, authorisation and spam/troll protection".

Bill, I followed your link but couldn't quite get the distinction between a Team Wiki and a Project Wiki.

Xian, unfortunately I'm not on a Mac so I couldn't try VoodooPad. Yet another reason to buy a Macintosh, I guess.

Stephanie, I'd already read about your "experiment in collaborative note-taking using SubEthaEdit" earlier in the month -- I followed a link from Joi Ito's weblog.

On another note, I'm astonished at how many different kinds of wiki software is available:

http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiEngines

Are there any "market leaders" in the wiki engine space?

Posted by Jonathon on 24 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Glad you liked my comment, Jonathon!

To answer your question, yes, there are definitely a few "market leaders". By implementation language:

Perl:

UseModWiki and descendants are the defacto standard for classic wikis in Perl.

TWiki is very popular when you want a wiki, but also need a bit more access control (corporate intranets, half-open, half-controlled wikis such as http://www.program-transformation.org/).

Python:

Almost everyone uses MoinMoin, except for the Zope guys, who like their ZWiki.

PHP:

PhpWiki, the first and still the most popular for PHP, but MediaWiki (developed for Wikipedia) is getting pretty popular too.

Posted by Johannes Gijsbers on 27 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Johannes, thanks. Interestingly, Marius Coomans and I are thinking about setting up a wiki (once he comes back from his two month sailing trip). I asked him this morning what software he thought we should use and he said, without hesitation, "MoinMoin".

BTW, I wrote a Firefox Search Plugin for the Japanese Internet Movie Database (http://www.jmdb.ne.jp/) today and was interested to see that the JMDb is actually a wiki!

(WalWiki 2.0.5.wal.4.5 © 2000-2004 by Makio Tsukamoto.
based on YukiWiki 2.0.5 © 2000-2004 by Hiroshi Yuki.
Modified by Y.Nomura.)

Posted by Jonathon on 27 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour