The Brilliant Essence of Wikis

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had an unusually large number of discussions about the essence of Wikis — why they are so beautiful and important as Collaborative Tools. I realized I’ve never posted my thoughts on the topic, so I’m correcting that here.    (JTE)

Wikis have this brilliant feature, a feature that’s so simple and obvious, it’s often overlooked, yet it’s largely responsible for the success of Wikis. Incidentally, it’s also an intentional feature, which is yet another reflection of Ward Cunningham‘s design genius.    (JTF)

In a nutshell, that feature is the ability to Link As You Think by writing the name of the page, even if the page you want to link to doesn’t currently exist.    (JTG)

While you’re letting that sink in, let’s look at a measurable way this feature is valuable. A lot of folks view Wikis as a crude CMS. I don’t dispute this perspective — you can certainly use Wikis that way — but it’s not what makes Wikis interesting. Nevertheless, I see queries all the time on various nonprofit technology lists asking to compare Wikis to other CMSes, so here goes. It takes at least three steps to link to a new page with most CMSes (create new page, go to old page, create link), whereas it only takes only one with Wikis (write page name). That’s significant.    (JTH)

What really makes the Wiki’s Link As You Think feature special is that it facilitates the creation of Shared Language among the community that uses it. As I’ve said so often here, Shared Language is an absolute prerequisite for collaboration. The lack of Shared Language is the most common roadblock to effective collaboration, be it a small work team or a community of thousands.    (JTI)

Look at the page index of any Wiki, and you’ll see the vocabulary of that community. Thanks to the other affordances of the tool, that vocabulary accomodates multiple definitions while encouraging convergence where appropriate. Most importantly, that vocabulary is Shared Language that has emerged from the community itself and that continues to evolve.    (JTJ)

Here’s a real example. At the AdvocacyDev Wiki, which Blue Oxen Associates hosts, the top six most linked-to pages (out of 363 total) are:    (JTK)

From this very small sample, we can see that VoIP (and Asterisk in particular), IndyVoter, and CivicSpace are all much discussed tools among folks working on online advocacy tools. We can also see that Carl Coryell-Martin is an active member of this community (or at least one of the more diligent members when it comes to documenting).    (JTR)

The Wiki’s ability to facilitate Shared Language — a direct consequence of Link As You Think — is what makes it so important as a Collaborative Tool. In the future, when enough developers recognize this, we’ll see widespread integration of Wiki functionality in other Collaborative Tools, such as blogs, online forums, and more. It’s already started. Blog-Wiki integration (such as what I use) is not uncommon, and software like TWiki and JotSpot are showing the benefits of custom applications that use Wikis as the fundamental data structure.    (JTS)

Collaborative Tools Grid

I spoke at IDRC last June, helping Allen Gunn with a workshop on facilitation and giving what’s becoming a stock talk on patterns and Collaborative Tools. For those of you who haven’t seen me give the talk or heard me run my mouth in person, the fundamental premise is simple: The best way to think about, evaluate, and talk about Collaborative Tools is to understand the patterns they facilitate.    (JOF)

The old ways don’t work. Feature lists mean very little to the average user. The traditional matrix of asynchronous versus synchronous is also of limited value, because most tools fall under more than one category.    (JOG)

Graham Todd has put together a very nice decision-making grid to help decide what tools to use for different circumstances. It’s fairly general and by no means comprehensive, but it’s still useful, and it’s in the spirit of how we should start thinking about Collaborative Tools. Context is king.    (JOH)