The Failure of Wikis

I’ve been called a curmudgeon before [edit: because you are] and there are some technologies [edit: like television] that I don’t really see as astonishingly useful evolutionary steps in the world of information and technology, but even with that disclaimer, I have to say that I’m completely unimpressed with wikis and really don’t understand why so many other people love them so [edit: maybe because they’re just smarter than you are, jerk!] Intellectually, the idea of collaborative editing and maintenance of text documents is quite appealing, but the pragmatic reality of having essentially zero editorial control over content is problematic at best and dangerous at worst. Would you trust a medical encyclopedia built around wiki technology?
But let’s start by defining a wiki, shall we? [edit: these sort of rhetorical questions are just trite author tricks and should be axed]

A wiki, which gets its name from the Hawaiian phrase “wiki wiki”, or “hurry up”, is a simple software application that allows content to be separated from its presentation to make it trivially easy to have visitors modify and change any content that they see [edit: on a wiki-based Web site]. More sophisticated [add: Just about all] wiki packages have a sophisticated, if arcane [edit: it’s not arcane, you’re just stupid] [edit: come on, when =a= and ==a== product different formatting, it’s pretty arcane] [edit: screw you, l0s3r] markup language.
If this article were hosted on a wiki [edit: too bad it’s not. Then we could fix all the inane commentary herein] you could decide that you don’t like my definition of the word “wiki”, or even the article title, click on an “edit” button and change things to your heart’s content. There’s a change tracking mechanism built into all wiki systems (and it should be no surprise that’s a critical element [edit: if only to get rid of stupid edits]) but you can imagine that when pages can be edited and modified five, ten, or even twenty or more times daily, it can lead to a painful editorial management task [add: be almost impossible to retain any sort of quality control over the content]. [edit: the point of a wiki is that there isn’t any editorial control, though. This entire premise is false.] Now let’s say that I wanted to write about the infamous Skull & Bones Society and its intersection with the Illuminati, Opus Dei and the Bush family. [edit: and your mama, too]. You can easily imagine that my take on this vast conspiracy might well be dramatically different from your take, and sure enough, there are certain types of content that really suffer the worst in wikis, as the on again, off again article on JFK’s assassination on Wikipedia demonstrates. It seems that a crackpot [add: guy who didn’t buy the gov’t coverup] decided that there was a conspiracy involved in Kennedy’s assassination and added that to the page. But others felt otherwise and purged the Wikipedia entry of his content. And he added it back. And they deleted it. To the point where it’s now impossible to know whether the page reflects the commonly held facts of the situation or some crank theory. [edit: truth is subjective] Even with smaller groups, I’ve tried having a wiki for a team of about a dozen people and the necessity of using the arcane wiki coding schemes and confusion of tracking edits rapidly diminished anyone’s enthusiasm for the new technology and the project quickly ran out of steam. [edit: you were probably all just too st00pd to use a wiki!] Document tracking in Microsoft Word is far, far easier and it’s not that hard to email files around, even in this day and age [edit: and horses and buggies? Is that your speed too?] I supposed wikis have their place and certainly there are fans who find them a useful Web-based document “evolution” petri dish, if you will [edit: sheesh, can we PLEASE purge this guy of his cliches? This is a terrible article!] [edit: yeah, and what have you written and published lately, chump?] [edit: where is that relevant, l0s3r?] [edit: can’t you just GO AWAY and leave this page alone?] [edit: I will when it’s accurate] [edit: according to who, you?] [edit: hey, I can edit this more than you can. Wanna test me?] Overall, though, the only times I have seen wikis work is when not everyone who wanders onto the site can edit the content, but if there’s editorial control, it seems to be counter to the basic premise of wikis, that they’re a tool for leveraging the collaborative editorial efforts of the public.
That’s why I believe that as technologies go, wikis are going to end up in the good idea, bad implementation, or, perhaps, good concept, bad fit with reality graveyard. [edit: that’s okay, you’ll be there too, Taylor, and this article shows exactly why]

This article originally appeared as a feature in the April 2006 issue of Linux Journal and is reprinted with permission, hopefully to attract some discussion, pro and con, regarding wikis. What do you think? Am I right, or all washed up?

13 comments on “The Failure of Wikis

  1. Dave, a good friend and mentor once described the internet as the font of all knowledge. Sadly, it is also the fon’t of all dis-knowledge.
    What wiki needs is a “validation and credentials” service. Probably separate, but the ability to have wiki content, confirmed by other parties. There will of course, be dissenting views, but they are a separate issue.
    Equally, a separate system, that establishs some credibility of the author as an authoratitive source. Perhaps the likes of Linkedin could come into play for that aspect…

  2. A wiki-based medical encyclopaedia! That’s a brilliant suggestion! I went and registered straight away and as the inspirational founder, I would be honoured if you would submit a few pages in the way of introduction.

  3. intranet based wikis are being used to further research at large (and likely small) corporations. shared editing in a trusted environment does make a difference.
    they also can be very useful for personal note management; the independence from the file-system shouldn’t make sense to a techie like me, but it does make a big difference.
    and wiki-pedia seems useful, especially for “boring” topics, but it should always be compared with other data sources.

  4. I don’t see much difference in using a wiki like WikepediA or an encyclopedia to get the general background information on a subject or topic. Your always suppose to check the authenticity and compare and contrast with other sources. If someone is using it as gospel then there is a problem.
    Isn’t the real issue on the wiki subject about what people believe and why they believe it? Hopefully this type of debate will help with critical thinking and thought leadership. Leadership education vs. Lemming’s education is a much better way to go. Scholarship and self-education will see a renaissance if people become active vs. passive thinkers.

  5. Wiki’s (as most of us know them) suffer because they lack security and identity context. However, there are applications that are also Wiki derivatives that aren’t lacking in security and identity – a really good example is WriteBoard from 37Signals –
    WriteBoard is also baked into BaseCamp. Some would argue WriteBoard *isn’t* a Wiki – I would disagree if we can agree that the definition of a Wiki is a bit more abstract.

  6. It’s actually unfortunate that the mere mention of the term “wiki” *instantly* focuses attention on the Wikipedia (and the other Wikimedia “properties”), only because the Wikipedia *happens* to use the Wiki technology.
    I’ve seen a few non-Wikimedia wikis on the web, and *none* of them (in my experience) suffer from the deeply “tragic” difficulties of the Wikimedia efforts.
    Maybe it simply comes down to the fact the size does matter, but in a negative sense.
    As far as credibility, I think the main problem for the Wikipedia is that they put the suffix “pedia” on their name and most people treat “pedia” as a shorthand for encyclopedia and that’s a very distinctive “badge” for most people, including myself, that signifies authority, expert knowledge, professionalism, credibility, and all of that. If they had simply chosen a name that represented the truth, that this is a community bulletin board, this whole credibility issue would be no worse for wikis than credibility is for the Web in general.
    I’ve thought about using wiki technology for some of my writing and webs, but I’m waiting for a technology-independent modeling language for content so that I won’t be making a commitment to such a specific technology with such specific formatting and cultural “quirks”, which doesn’t have a clear vendor-neutral (XML?) data format that I can carry to some other presentation technology at a moment’s notice. How about an RSS-like format for wiki content?
    Overall, wikis are cute and clever, but I’m looking for something a little more “filling”. Wikis are too much like marshmellow Peeps and too little like real protein.
    — Jack Krupansky

  7. You obviously wrote this article to provoke. It worked 🙂
    Your arguments against wiki seems to be:
    1) they have a syntax you don’t like
    2) there is no editorial control
    1) The syntax of most wikis are ascii art inspired, and will look strange to anyone only experienced with Word and similar editors.
    You are probably not aware, that for some of the wikis out there, there are plugins that provide WYSIWYG editing capabilities that would make you more comfortable. As far as I know though, they produce html output instead of the ascii stuff, which makes them suboptimal.
    2) Editorial control is easily maintained by protecting the wiki by only giving write access to people one trusts. If you still have problems I suggest you start hiring smarter people or get smarter friends.
    I’ll give you one more problem with most wikis. Attachments. If you want to update an already attached file in a wiki, you will need to reupload it once you have edited it. This is hard to grasp for non-technical people. When they press save, they excpect it to have been updated. One solution to this is WebDAV stuff, that some wikis have started playing with.
    The bigges pro with wikis, that seems to totally slip by your radar is the easy of installation and ease of use.
    Installation: For an end user this is basically firing up their browser and then pointing at the right url.
    Ease of use: Like any other webpage. But, and here is the big point – they can add new pages themselves and edit existing ones without starting any other application. Again and again I have seen that if content is too hard to edit, peolpe are more likely to leave it alone even if they see the content is wrong.
    While you think wikis will die, I think they will be improved (better editing, attachment handling etc) and be adopted into exising groupware solutions and content managment systems.

  8. Espen, I would be delighted to see things evolve. My commentary is more on the current state of Wikis, and easy to install isn’t that big a deal to me if the tool you install isn’t particularly useful or functional. Our mileage may, well, vary. 🙂

  9. Dave, you should take a look at Pandora, a wiki engine that I wrote in Ruby, that takes a somewhat different approach from the typical ones. It promotes a more ‘architected’ growth of contents by differentiating its users into Publishers, Authors, Editors, and Viewers, each with different authoring and viewing capabilities. In addition, it *will* allow page scripting, which makes it ideal as a platform for writing ‘document-oriented’ applications. You can download a copy here (available under GPL):

  10. The thing about editorial control is that it cuts both ways. The wiki doesn’t guarantee that anyone qualified will weigh in, but traditional editorial control typically guarantees that one person’s opinion ends up having final say.
    You brought up the JFK assasination, for example. It’s only fair that you should tell us where we can find a traditionally editorially controlled publication that will tell us “the truth” about that. You think the wiki fails to give you an accurate picture of it due to the wiki’s failings. I think that probably almost everything that has been written about it under the other model suffers from problems with the other model.
    The culture of wiki is still evolving. The wikipedia (only one example of a wiki, as was pointed out above) now has a way for articles to be marked with “the neutrality of this article is disputed”. That is crucial information that will never appear in the average “normally edited” publication. You have no way to tell where the author is telling you stuff that is pretty well what everyone agrees happened, and when the author is ignoring evidence to the contrary that you might consider strong.
    It’s not that there are no disadvantages to the wiki’s lack of editorial control, but that there are at least as many disadvantages to traditional editorial control.
    I have read a couple things from you and I think that you are pretty open to looking at other viewpoints and discussing things fairly objectively. You can probably do a pretty good job of providing a fair assessment of whatever given thing you are talking about. But it is easy when one is objective to make the mistake of assuming that other people will be as reasonable, and that editorial control will normally be exercised with the same restraint and fair mindedness that we would try to exercise.
    In the real world, most people that have power end up abusing it to some extent.
    One more thing you might want to consider is segmenting your argument for the two (imho vastly different) situations in which wikis are used. In the corporate environment (or any other in which the users with access to the wiki are from a known group and can be directly confronted if they are abusing it), the whole editorial control thing is more or less moot.
    As far as emailing changes around–that pretty much always means that multiple versions of the document are out there and that pretty much means that at some point someone is going to get the wrong one sent out, etc. Having a single source for a document is a very, very good thing.
    I would like to see wiki extended to the point where you can see the change history in a useful way. Also, someone should add a feature where, when you are reading, you can highlight a section, identify your problem with it (e.g. write a little note saying that you don’t agree with some phrasing or pointing to evidence to the contrary), and then readers could switch on/off visibility of “disputed section markers” or something. You could roll over the marked section and see the comments, or have a mode where it puts it in as you have it above.

  11. I strongly disagree with your opinion on wiki’s, stated as general as you did. But I like the way you wrote it down. The text is a bit old. I wonder: did you change your mind or become a bit more open-minded about these not-so-user-friendly not so-secure thing. (Some people love certain technological artifacts just for characteristics like these.) Kind regards, Wil

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