Wikification: what can wiki do for you?

Does anyone still think that wiki = Wikipedia? I fear they do and it’s one of the downsides of Wikipedia’s mindboggling success. Truth is that Wikipedia is just one particular instance of a wiki, and the software has far wider uses than for online encyclopedias (although it is cool for that too).

Wikis and blogs share certain characteristics, particularly in terms of ease of use, encouraging participation and dialogue. But wikis and blogs have different strengths.

Remember: the default format for blog software is linear and dominated by chronology; that can be subverted with some blogging software, but it takes effort. A wiki is different. It doesn’t scroll, it branches. You can just keep creating one page from within another, thanks to the simplicity of wiki markup. No HTML to learn.

If you need to produce detailed documentation for (and of) a project and you want to encourage communication and input from the workers on the project, straight-out-of-the-box wiki software offers many benefits.

The projects we’re working on involve people based at two different universities (Sheffield and Hertfordshire) and working from home around the country. We can’t just meet up in the office each day to discuss queries and resolve problems. Moreover, the nature of the main task at this phase of the project creates a particular challenge: there are nine people marking up the texts with XML code and we need them all to be as consistent in their decision-making as possible. Our wiki has proved a tremendous resource for this process.

Our first wiki, for this project, includes plenty of ‘official’ how-to documentation (which the workers were specifically asked not to touch, and they’ve been very well-behaved about that, but it would have been quite easy to put extra passwords on those specific pages to restrict editing privileges).

This was infinitely better than, say, distributing a Word document to the staff, for a number of reasons. Firstly, that particular document is a monstrous carbuncle, not far off 50 pages, full of opaque section cross-references, utterly unwieldy and horrible to navigate. Wikification enabled it to be broken into short, multiply interlinked sections that are easy to move around and use, and to keep up to date. And, for the members of the project who prefer to work from a hard copy of the instructions, there turned out to be an awesome little plugin that would turn connected wiki pages into a single, nicely styled HTML file that can be printed out.

The other main use so far is for more informal feedback from the scattered project staff. We set up an area of the wiki for them to post queries about files they were working on, leave comments, etc. We could have done all this by email, but the wiki has the major advantage that once queries and answers are recorded there, they’re accessible to everyone with a quick search, and I think it has helped to cut down a lot of repetitious questions. (The downside of that is that any inconsistencies in answers by either me or my deputy, who gets lumbered with most of this from day to day, so I can blame her if anything goes wrong, naturally) have a tendency to get picked up and commented on… Well, at least it keeps us on our toes. And better to catch these things early on rather than later, right?)

Now our other project is getting underway, I’ve set up a new wiki. (And yes, it is addictive, before you ask.) This is a more complex project in some respects, and for some of the staff it moves into less familiar historical territory, so I’ve started putting much more historical background and resources on this wiki. It will also later have similar documentation and feedback areas to the first wiki, and perhaps much more that I haven’t thought of yet.

That’s the beauty of it. There is something infinitely flexible and expandable about wikis. People are using them for all kinds of business purposes including project management, for research projects’ discussion and feedback, for teaching, and much more. Feel free to highlight any you know of in comments!

I frequently think my job is way too much fun to be classed as real work.

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12 Responses to Wikification: what can wiki do for you?

  1. Alun says:

    Can I ask why you went with PMWiki rather than Mediawiki? I hadn’t heard of it, but the Publish Wiki Trail plug-in for PMWiki looks extremely useful.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Nice post, Sharon.

    Wikis are immensely useful for documentation for projects. We’re using a DocuWiki installation for Zotero’s documentation. I think the WordPress Codex uses MediaWiki, and there’s the Microformats wiki.

    This leads to a question: how many wiki packages have you tried and used, and which ones do you like?

    Your readers might also be interested in the dozens of hosted wikis available (called wiki farms) like PBwiki and Wikispaces. No software to install, and its as easy as signing up for a free blog.

  3. Sharon says:

    Alun: I can’t remember exactly now. There were a number of features in pmwiki that I liked, including the way that it has a basic core that you can extend with plugins (like WordPress), and it was very simple to install and set up (and along with a few others, you can try it out as a local demo installation before going for the full web set up). I also found the documentation very helpful and extensive. I found various resources for comparing different wiki software – I think most of the bookmarks are on my work computer, I’ll see if I can find them for you later.

  4. tony price says:

    I haven’t a clue how to set up a wiki, whereas HTML seems perfectly simple and straightforward. Is this another case of a generation of technology passing me by? (Like faxes did?)

  5. Sharon says:

    Could be… But then, I don’t IM, I’m crap at texting, Facebook is completely foreign to me – oh, and I don’t own an iPod either.

    But, basically, if you can set up WordPress, you can probably install and set up a simple wiki. I had one up and running in a few hours from never having tried them before.

  6. Alun says:

    Thanks, that’s very helpful. I’ll give it some more thought.

  7. Milan says:

    I have been using a wiki to store notes from my master’s program, as well as coordinate my thesis. There is much about them to be appreciated: from the speed with which new architectures for information can be created to the ease of searching through all the material you have.

    It lives at:

  8. Sharon says:

    Jeremy, I know I tried Dokuwiki and wasn’t satisfied with it, but can’t remember quite why now! Another I tried out was MoinMoin, and I liked it a lot, but we found that the university web hosting setup wouldn’t support the version of Python that it required.

    Something else we’ve been using recently, but I can’t link to that because we’ve kept it password restricted (a lot of data we wanted to keep private), is a wiki-style spreadsheet program called wikicalc. It’s very useful.

  9. Robert says:

    Your projects, where a close-knit team collaborate on a document, are excellent examples of how Wikis can be used effectively. In your case it was a tool of communication between people that already knew each other, and already had a defined goal to work towards. This has been called the Smallweb.

    Contrast this with a more common conception of how we use of the web, which is to communicate with new people. They may not share your goals or be on board with your project. In such situations, such as David Miliband’s disasterous Environmental Contract demonstrated, a Wiki might hinder rather than help.

  10. Sharon says:

    This week’s Britblog Roundup has linked to this post. I raise this only because I was scrolling down a little rapidly and for one of those awesome jawdropping moments in life I thought it said that Prince Harry was having a sex change. So I thought I’d share the memory of that moment with you all.

  11. Gavin says:

    The PRO wiki is now open. You can read my initial thoughts on it here. I’d like to know what other people think, especially about the terms of the licence. Am I overreacting or have they made a bad decision?

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