Last night I had my first wiki experience and it wasn't pretty. While I had heard of wikis before, I never used them much for getting information nor had I tried to append to one. You can read a definition of wiki at the Wikipedia and it was there that I had my first true experience. Think of a wiki as a collaborative website where "anyone" can add or edit the information presented. On a small scale you might have a wiki for family members to add information and photos about their lives and travels or a technical wiki devoted to a programming language such as the Community-Scheme-Wiki. At the high end you might have something like the Wikipedia itself: a site to which hundreds or thousands of people have contributed to over 400,000 articles.
Is this lunacy, chaos in the making?
How can you possibly keep the junk out of the content or prevent outright vandalism? How do you deal with legal issues such as copyrights? How do you maintain some balance of order to end up with something that represents the best of collaboration rather than mob rule?
There have to be rules. First, you don't really have to let just anyone edit the content, you might have a limited number of authorized users. Second, you might have wiki police looking at all the submissions and changes and possibly reverting content to previous versions. If you do this, you need to spell out what is or is not acceptable in the wiki so it doesn't seem arbitrary. I won't get into the legal issues but the Wikipedia policies spell a lot of this out.
So last night I was poking around Wikipedia and found an entry that I thought was truly wanting: it didn't have specific enough links to the authoritative places on the web for some of the content. I duly added these, saw them in the entry, was very proud, and they promptly went away. A sysop had decided that that level of external linkage was not appropriate. I was really annoyed.
I read through the various policies and couldn't really find anything that I could point to that would indicate I had stepped over some line, though I could fully understand from a stylistic perspective that they might want to maximize the internal links and limit the placement and number of external links. I could understand it, but I was really only guessing. My first thoughts were more along the lines of "who is this person playing god with this thing that is supposed to be by the people and for the people. The heck with this." I thought of posting to this blog last night but decided to sleep on it.
Later on in other Wikipedia entries I added one sentence and one phrase. I'm very proud to say they are still there (lol). That said, I have no confidence that they will stay there, but that is life in wiki-land and I need to accept that if I'm going to play. To be honest, I would not just expect to throw in a couple of lines of code into the Linux kernel just because I thought they were valuable. I know that there are arbitrators to maintain quality and direction. So some wikis are like that while others might be more open. The proof will be in the final result: is it good stuff that many people use and evolve. My experience has made me want to look at other existing wikis and imagine others I might want to start. So this is a good thing, even if I am slightly miffed that someone deleted my additions that I STILL think would have been useful. So, for me, that entry in Wikipedia I originally edited and others like it are subpar, which will limit how much I try to use it to get useful information. To be fair, I am confident that there is plenty of other good stuff, or at least material that I will probably poke at in the future. (By the way, the ESB entry is an early work in progress so doesn't have any real value yet.)
Wikis aside, I'll probably still use Google as my index into the "encyclopedia" that is the web. I'm especially intrigued by their plans to digitize and index a lot of material from some of the major world libraries. I'm not done with looking at wikis, I think they have promise, but right now I have more questions than confident answers.