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September 2010
October 2010

2010-09-01 »

The sad evolution of wikis

I set up my first wiki in 2001, in preparation for hiring our very first software developer employee. Until then, software development at NITI had been handled entirely by me and the other technical co-founder, dcoombs. And since we knew everything already, documentation was unnecessary. When it came to hire a new person, documentation suddenly became very necessary. I had to do a brain dump, and a wiki seemed like a great solution. The original NitWiki was born.

The first NitWiki ran on zwiki. Then we migrated to WikkiTikkiTavi, which we hacked up resulting in what we called HackyTavi, which we then cleaned up and renamed to GracefulTavi. (Note: the original WikkiTikkiTavi is very nice and rather graceful. It was just HackyTavi that wasn't graceful. No offense intended.)

GracefulTavi performed wonderfully; at NITI's peak, we had more than 30 internal developers, plus all our technical support staff, using it daily. All our technical documentation was in there, and it was easy to read, easy to find, easy to link to, and (perhaps most importantly) easy to write. There was also tons of non-technical stuff; all sorts of company culture, office games, product plans, newsletters, and everything else got dumped into the wiki. The wiki was the default place to dump stuff, and it was all full-text-indexable and made it easy for anyone to provide feedback and fix typos.

It's the most fun I've ever had doing documentation. Even more fun than GourD, which was fun too in its own way. But that's another story.

GracefulTavi had a long and happy life; it was still in use in late 2006 when I left, and I suspect it's still alive at IBM (which acquired NITI) even today, at least as a read-only reference material.

As great as it was, however, I don't think a NitWiki would be easy to make successful today. At least, I've seen people try, and it doesn't really work out. One of the problems is Wikipedia Mentality.

Wikipedia changed a few fundamental ideas about wikis that had been taken for granted:

  • Wikipedia articles are supposed to look finished and professional.
  • Thus the concept of "ruining" a Wikipedia article actually exists, where it's much fuzzier in normal wikis (modulo spammers of course).
  • WikiWords are replaced with full-English phrases as hyperlinks.
  • Articles are separated from Discussion pages.
  • A mandatory "neutral point of view" (NPOV) replaces freedom and discussion.
  • Some articles/topics are considered "not appropriate" for wikipedia and get deleted.

These differences weren't driven home to me until a recent discussion on the git mailing list about what sorts of pages are appropriate or not and who should or should not have admin access to those pages.

"Oh," I thought to myself. "So that's why wikis aren't wikis anymore."

The Wikipedia changes make sense; absolutely. They're great changes. Without them, Wikipedia almost certainly would have failed. But if you make those changes, you don't end up with a NitWiki, you end up with a Wikipedia.

Wikipedia-style wikis are written primarily for outsiders. There's a community, but it doesn't come through in the articles; if you want the community, you have to go elsewhere, to the User or Discussion pages. And of course, the User and Discussion pages aren't part of the product; they're the necessary junk produced as a side effect of producing the product. In Wikipedia, the community is overhead.

Same with the Git wiki. It's treated as a product - a set of documentation. Anything that's not "an information source about git" is unwelcome. Which is fine, I guess, and git already has an active mailing list where the community hangs out (as you can see from the vigorous discussion inside that thread I linked to), so there's no reason to have a community in the wiki. Having two community hangouts might actually be detrimental.

But I miss having a community wiki. The very original wiki, at c2.com Wiki, is such a wiki, and it's a beautiful thing. I was never a member of that wiki, but it's a fascinating place to lurk nonetheless. And our interns at NITI used to call NitWiki the "electric babysitter."

The c2 wikiers also apparently have their own version of this rant that I'm writing and you're currently reading. Theirs is called WikiIsNotWikipedia.

So yeah, a "real community wiki" is nothing like Wikipedia. That's not so hard. We can just start a new un-wikipedia-like wiki and just do it the "old way." It wasn't very hard to teach people to use a wiki who had never used a wiki and who were used to writing Microsoft Word documents for everything. Just stay away from MediaWiki (which strongly encourages the Wikipedia way of doing things) and you'll be fine.

Unfortunately, outside of wikis, the world itself has also been busy evolving, and in a way I don't know how to deal with. The new problem is: teams are the wrong size now. Thirty dedicated, full-time programmers was an ideal number for NitWiki. But who has 30 dedicated, full-time programmers now? I mean really dedicated? You can be a very successful Internet startup with way less than 30 developers. Maybe you need only two. Maybe those two aren't even working full time on the one project. And two people don't need a wiki.

That lack of dedication - lack of single-minded attention of one team to one goal - is a serious problem in building a project-oriented wiki. A lot of developers at NITI lived in the wiki; that was where they went when they were bored (instead of to a news site). It was where they went to ask a question, or answer a question, or design a new module, or plan a party. And as the wiki expanded, more and more WikiWords that you invented - planning to fill it in next - turned out to already exist, and to already have the content you meant to write. The WikiWord effect is kind of magical that way. It's really fun and rewarding when it happens.

But when there are too many wikis - more than one is too many - it stops happening. Instead, you get the opposite effect, and it's frustrating: you know you wrote a WikiWord page that describes a particular concept... but that page isn't in the current wiki, it's in some other wiki. So you use the WikiWord, but it comes up as missing. Argh. That defeats the whole point. You might as well be writing emails or Word documents or Wikipedia articles.

We even had this problem at NITI, and it was a bad one. In fact, we had two wikis: the internal-only NitWiki, and the public now-defunct OpenNit (open.nit.ca) wiki. In theory, we were supposed to put all our public-facing stuff in OpenNit, and all the private stuff in NitWiki. But it didn't work because you never knew quite what would be "private" until it happened. What if you're discussing something in public, but you want to add a related comment about some private project we're working on that we haven't announced yet? It kills the discussion. Or more likely, it results in all discussions just being done on the internal-only wiki, which is mostly what happened.

Internally, we had some really great documentation. But the documentation of our open source stuff was mostly garbage, because it was mostly on the internal-only site and nobody internally visited the public one.

We never solved this problem. I wish we had; our NitWiki was fun enough that I would have liked to share it with more people. Of course, people would have been more afraid to post if they had to do it in front of everyone on the Internet, so making it public never would have worked.

How do you create a vibrant community, but allow for private topics and discussion, but allow for public topics and discussion, and allow me to work for more than one company at a time with multiple private discussions, and have my WikiWords always end up pointing where they're supposed to?

I have no idea.

Dear Internet: please invent the solution to that for me. Thanks.

P.S. You don't get any bonus points for saying, "The answer is Google; just blog about it, don't worry about hyperlinks, and let Google full-text index the rest." That answer is funny, but it doesn't work for my private stuff.

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