on wikis

I find that ever since I edited a typo on the celebrity sex tape entry on Wikipedia (slightly nsfw), I’ve become more interested in the site. This is because Wikipedia lets you have a watchlist, a list of all the pages you’ve edited. You can then see when any of these pages have been edited by anyone else, and what they did to them. Most of the pages I’ve edited are either Vermont town pages which aren’t updated too often, or the library and ALA-related pages which are frequently updated, often by vandals or sometimes just well-meaning people who have a very specific axe to grind with the association. The watchlist becomes as addictive as an RSS feed and does lead to a lot of hyperfocus on whatever your pet topics are. I have about 300 pages on my watchlist, but 250-ish of them are Vermont towns. The celebrity sex tape page is updated every few hours most days, it’s fascinating to watch it change. Democracy in action? A bunch of nerds with too much time on their hands?

This is a feature I think many people don’t know about Wikipedia. I think there is a lot people don’t know about Wikipedia, or the way wikis work generally, just like there is a lot they don’t know about MySpace, or Flickr, or del.icio.us. Speaking of del.ico.us:

You probably read about Meredith presenting at the Wikimania conference in Boston. If not, here are her slides, and here’s a link to the audio. I certainly would have been there too if I didn’t have a scheduling conflict. I’ve been reading more about wikis lately.

One of the things I didn’t know about wikis was the original purpose behind them. Wikis are tools for creating reference works. Originally, it was the only way you could coax programmers to write documentation, a task they hated. Ward Cunningham wrote a tool to solve that problem, and the wiki was born.

This is excellent if you’re explaining what the KeyboardInput and ScreenOutput functions of your computer program does, and if you are writing encyclopedic entries for [[World War II]] or the [[Russian National Library]]. But for many smaller workgroups, wiki pages tend to get meaningless and confusing titles like [[TODO]] or [[Things to consider]] or [[Ideas from the meeting last week]]. Nobody knows what goes into which page and the only difference between the old intranet mess and the new wiki mess is that nobody has any excuse any longer for not updating and reorganizing the information. That doesn’t mean the information gets updated or reorganized. It certainly doesn’t get so by itself. It’s only the excuse that has been removed. Nowadays people admit spending three hours a day just reading their e-mail (ten years ago this seemed like wasted time, and people would be ashamed to admit it, now the shame has gone away),
but how much time can they spend just reorganizing information on their workgroup’s wiki?