Thinking in Wikis

I clearly remember thinking, when I ordered my copy of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, “this has got to be a new low for O’Reilly. How can it be anything but a waste of a ream of paper?” I mean, “Wikipedia: it’s an online encyclopedia that anyone can improve”. There, what else is there to say? Throw in the URL and you’ve got ten words. But having read it, pressed it into someone’s hands saying “you have to read this!”, and ordered a new copy, I can safely say that it doesn’t waste any of its 500 pages and is well worth reading.

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual talks about the invisible Wikipedia—the social and technical structures that you only see when you want to contribute. They’re what prevent Wikipedia from becoming the other great social literary institution that anyone can contribute to, a public bathroom wall. It gives practical advice on topics like: how to improve articles, how to dispute something, and dealing with vandalism and spam. It even covers the ever-timely topic of deleting articles and “notability”.

Reading it, I was reminded of open source projects. You think software is what you download until one day you want to contribute something and then you realize there’s a whole community of developers behind the zip file, people who have their own customs, heroes, and rituals—put a foot wrong and your effort will be wasted. As you work with them, you go from cursing the stubbornness of these fools who dismiss your work’s brilliance as “inappropriate and ill-formed” to realizing “wow, that guy knows more about coding than I do” and then one day you wake up and discover you’ve spent two hours with the other maintainers of the project educating the n00b who submitted a Frankencode hack to put C++ XML editors and Exchange-compatible email servers into the C timezone conversion library, and you have just typed the phrase “inappropriate and ill-formed”.

So now I have another tool in my toolbox, process-backed wikis. I asked on my personal blog could such a wiki help a nation define its character?, and I’ll be looking around O’Reilly for situations that fit. For instance, perhaps there’s a need for a “books Nat should read even though he’s already judged them by their covers” wiki ….

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