Glacial Erratics

Why Wiki?

March 21, 2005

A regular unanswered question (for myself and others) of "what do you do?", some conversations with Lee LeFever about social design and community, and recent updates at work have given me a chance to think a bit about the question and stir some ideas.    (PG6)

At work I'm primarily a developer, but I tend to think of my vocation as a builder of augmenting, computer-based tools for personal and collaborative work. I go to the trouble of making that mouthful of a statement to distinguish between types of activities that computers do and types of activities that people do.    (PG7)

Computers have two types of applications, those that automate and those that augment (21Q, 22J). An augmenting application assists a person in performing some activity which cannot or is not automated. Only activities which can be formally described in theory can be automated. As such there are many tasks, especially those related to human discourse, which cannot be automated; they can, however, be augmented.    (PG8)

At a fundamental level computers are tools for creating representations (22L). An augmenting application supporting discourse is engaged in representing and transmitting information. The application is used as tool to evaluate, craft and remodel information (22K).    (PG9)    (PGA)

Most of my development effort in the last few years has been with wikis (first PurpleWiki, and now Kwiki and Socialtext) and purple numbers. Purple numbers may eventually change the universe of information handling, but that's a discussion for another day.    (PGB)

Wikis are a type of augmenting discourse tool optimized for a particular set of behaviors. Under ideal(tm) conditions they provide an easy path to participation in evolving communication. They do this by being straightforward to learn, quick to respond, and accessible in a distributed fashion. They support changing content and provide an easy way to create and explore connections between things. How something fits in to the larger picture is a large part of how we infer meaning.    (PGC)

I think there are three primary audiences for wikis: the individual who hopes to use the wiki as an outboard brain or memory; the nascent group that hopes to discover and solidify the community that lies as potential in their loose connections; and the existing community that hopes to support a shared goal or perform some action.    (PGD)

Those three categories could be used to describe any set of people, but a wiki is not the perfect tool for every task. There are multiple types of discourse and multiple tools to support them. Some are better at certain aspects than others, none are really good enough (we have a long long way to go, but each day and in every way we are becoming better and better).    (PGE)

Blogs have become a central tool in the distribution of narrative discourse. With a blog there is usually a single author or small group expressing outwardly in a gesture that leads, over time, to the distribution of language and understanding outside the immediate clan. Very often the initial discourse is not fully refined but is rather some author's speculation: a seed that may lead to more knowledge later, as a separate piece of content. As has been said many times, the connections in the network of blogs is often loose and distributed.    (PGF)

Email continues to be a primary tool for discussion within a clan. The members of an email group have already discovered some bit of shared language or understanding that has brought them together. Email discussion can reinforce and solidify language, providing stability from which action can be performed.    (PGG)

With both blogs and email, content tends to be relatively static. Typos may be corrected in a blog entry and email threads may carry on forever but there is little in the way of refinement of the content. This is where wikis step in: they are good tools for summarizing, annotating and connecting information. These are the actions of a knowledge enhancement system.    (PGH)

Wikis do not match all the requirements for a knowledge enhancement system, but experience has demonstrated that this is good. Wikis are here now, today, helping people to do good work generating and supporting communities, developing and creating shared language, and refining information into new knowledge. Their simplicity makes them available.    (PGI)    (PGJ)

When I chose to join up with Socialtext back in September, it was an attractive choice because the people there believe in two things: people matter more than tools; and tools should help people do what they want to do, not get in the way.    (PGK)

Socialtext, in its various incarnations, is based on wiki but integrates concepts from email and blogs to allow the action and narration those systems support. The latest release is a fine improvement: it enhances email integration, adds support for backlinks (placing information in context, leading to deeper understanding) and for PC Forum 2005 we've created a special prototype of Eventspace, running under mod perl for improved response time.    (PGL)

Architecting these sorts of tools may not solve poverty and hunger, or alleviate suffering in the aftermath of a ? disaster, but the tools can augment people actively doing that work. I happen to be good at making the tools go, so that's where I look to fit myself into the puzzle.    (PGM)

Related writings:    (PGN)


On May 2, 2005 11:47 PM Kasino Online said:

Hello, I just wanted to say you have a very informative site which really made me think, thanks very much! Have a nice Day!!    (PJZ)

Kasino Online    (PK0)