Why Wiki Works Not

Wiki is not a miracle tool that creates value by itself. Wiki just provides methods that (when used properly) make a higher value out of the same amount of input effort. The exact same usage patterns that are available in wiki's competitors (forums and mailing lists) are available in wiki as well. When just these usage patterns are used (and advanced ones are neglected), the wiki will be the same efficiency as the competitors: "works not".

Is not!
Is too!
Of course it is not.
You're lying! It is too.
Ad nauseam...
(Refactored to "there are two primary opinions:")
Most arguments that WikiDoesntWork can be boiled down to one of two types:


In both cases, the key words to note are "I, me, my", etc.

In other words, WikiDoesntWork in the minds of many critics because the content to be found here isn't specifically tailored to their individual tastes.

What happens when that "I" is just looking for another place to spam and builds automated tools to do it, to me it looks like I found another great tool that will get ruined. Of course I would love to be wrong about greed being the strongest part of human nature. [moved from WhyWikiDoesntWork]
What about trolls, i.e. those individuals who get enjoyment from winding up and annoying other people? Why isn't Wiki an ├╝ber-magnet for trolls? Do trolls require anonymity to thrive or what? -- RickCarson?

For every person that responds to a troll, there are many (like 20) others who read it and understand what's going on. A trollpost will only get at most 2 or 3 responses before the whole thing is deleted. -- PerGunnarHanso

What prevents someone from just selecting the whole wiki and deleting it? See WhyNobodyDeletesWiki.

Well, have a little compassion for other wiki writers!

I used to think Wiki worked. Up until around fall 2004. Then various parties decided it was a profitable use of their time to create a frequent stream of useless religious and sociopolitical troll pages and then have edit wars over them. All the talk about community standards and courtesy on Wiki now seems like some golden age.

However, probably Wiki has weathered storms like this before. And probably I wouldn't notice as much if I weren't a RecentChangesJunkie.

[moved from WhyWikiDoesntWork]
Having only a wiki understanding of wiki I am intrigued and annoyed by its culture.

The contributive selfless beauty and sublime pattern enhancing benefits of wiki are obvious. The problem arises when the wiki culture is levied against a broad user base. If all users are moderators or at least authors who can change any contribution, the culture will not stand invasion from pranksters or violent takeover attempts. This is the least common denominator effect.

Any and all efforts to prevent such offensive types will eventually result in destroying the very aspect of wiki that makes it so admired. For example, an initial reaction might be to limit the set of users to the wiki thus creating a sterile environment which will rot in step with the skill of the decision-makers of who has access.

Perhaps, amid the chaos, glorious wikis will thrive for a time and then eventually grow corrupt and decadent and wither away.

[moved from WhyWikiDoesntWork]
Wiki only works up to a point:

Wiki is not like any other Web page/forum/spamlist and requires some learning. Most visitors to this and other Web sites are often 'consumers' and their only contribution is comments, a.k.a. SlashDot.

This wiki is both an exemplar (good and bad) of a wiki, and also a wiki which is intended to be about People, and also vaguely about the History of Programming. It is arguably not particularly good at providing content, and users are not reminded of the goals of this wiki when creating text, unlike WikiPedia which is obviously trying to become an encyclopedia, even if Ward thinks it will always remain a wiki. The goals are unfocused, and this wiki appears to exhibit the characteristics which Ward thought would apply to WikiPedia.

It is difficult to get an idea of the contents and scope of this wiki. As the content is dynamic, this would be a difficult task, but even rudimentary contents facilities would be better than nothing. However, the VisualTour mechanism is curious, and very powerful, so maybe that does work better than a ContentsPage?.

Wiki doesn't work very well when we treat it like a NewsGroup instead of viewing an entire wiki page as something to improve.

Wiki doesn't work well at all times for content... Wiki doesn't work well from an administration standpoint... Wiki is very good at providing a quick testbed for ideas, but as it is not intended for that purpose, other WikiUsers? are likely to wipe these out very quickly. NewUsers who are likely to want to test out NewIdeas should be directed very quickly, and preferably politely, to safe areas where they can do this. It is not much good trying to stimulate interest in new methods of communication - such as wikis, and then kicking people in the teeth when they try to use the tools.

Wiki is somewhat protected from spam, ads, and trolls by the ability of its users to fix adulterated pages. The original content may be lost, however.

This wiki is protected against wholesale deletion of pages, but some may not be. See WikiWipeout (incidentally, a good example of a node being used like a NewsGroup). The last wholesale wipe was the WikiMindWipe, which the "community" allowed and then fixed afterwards.

Wiki does not work when there is a saboteur. Currently, there is a community; but as an experiment a long time ago on TheWell showed, communities are built around trust. When the trust is destroyed, the community is crippled.

And last, but not least, there is a substantial number of users who will never use it because it's not WYSIWYG. That really prevents acceptance to a larger community. Although, HTML in general is not supposed to be WYSIWYG either. At least wiki is "what you see is the kind of thing you're going to get". (ThatsNotaBugItsaFeature: WYSIWYG is presentation; it's not conducive to collaboration.)

Which leads into WhyWhatYouSeeIsWhatYouGetWorksNot

When first entering Wiki it is extremely overwhelming and bare of the colour and trickery of other Web sites. It would be a dull and boring world for anyone not willing to participate.

I wonder if greatly-simplified TextFormattingRules might lower this potential barrier somewhat. I think the TabInTextarea problem is a big one. (Or maybe even a Java applet, now that the plugin is more mature.) -- JohnLusk

(Sigh.) Post first, think later, that's my motto. See ChoosingaWiki. -- JohnLusk again.

A wiki works if there is a community. This Wiki is a community, and that's WhyWikiWorks.

But what about all the WikiVandals? How is this site protected from automated scripts?

There aren't many WikiVandals; they just pop up occasionally, but soon disappear. This site is not protected from automated scripts, other than backups of key pages, but then, how much of technology is? See DeleteWiki for worried debate about this, but note: Wiki started in 1994, and hasn't been attacked by automated scripts yet, despite lots of controversy and heated arguments.

Just like real things, the more popular Wiki gets, the more chances of vandalism there is. A compromise may be to allow only registered WikiZens to change or remove existing content (with a log kept), but still allow anybody to add stuff. A page would have to be divided into "segments" for this work. The segments don't necessarily have to be visible to the reader, unless they request them switched on. (Perhaps a tiny little icon to indicate the separation and potential insertion points.)

Please check out PerpetualNow.

A real hindrance to people using Wiki is the syntax. WYSIWYG is not the issue, editing in Wiki markup is the real problem. People don't want to learn another syntax or write in syntax, simple as it is. I don't know why - intellectual laziness or syntax is just something they don't care about. Syntax is just too abstract for most people. Even the software engineers I work with, who like Wiki, don't like the syntax (yet they can even program in C++ - go figure). It's just human nature.

The solution in my opinion is to provide a client control (applet, .Net control, JavaScript, whatever) to allow one to edit, not necessarily in WYSIWYG, but with some form of structured text editor. In addition, most people are familiar with html, so if they wanted to mark something up they would rather do it in XML/HTML. When the document is repurposed, only the basic HTML stuff would be used anyway; colours and such would be ignored.

Sox would also be an interesting and easier to use markup than wiki.


Wiki also suffers from crufty tag salad - all markup in wiki is for presentation. Use cases for additional markup include things you would do in DocBook - cite authors, quotations, etc. When repurposed to HTML, an appropriate style could be provided for these.

Keywords and categories could be represented in markup attributes, which would allow these to be mined and displayed at the bottom of the page when the document is repurposed and indexed. This would be far superior IMO to using wiki categories.

Again, an applet would be good for those who want to edit in a visual syntax rather than XML or wiki.

Ah, but wiki design usually tries DoTheSimplestThingThatCouldPossiblyWork.

Wiki (at least this one) doesn't indicate the content encoding in the HTML pages produced. As a result, some important characters cannot be typed. utf-8 anyone?

Is there a Wiki on ideas about further development of wiki?

PublicWikiForums lists many other wikis, but that may not cover the developments you're after. WikiEngines covers the clones, the experiments and so on. There are others which aren't linked. I like the ideas of PeriPeri (ShatterFacetWiki?) and ReflectiveWiki, but haven't found time to read about them or play. There are obviously many people thinking about these problems.

Discussion of wikis is one of the missions of MeatballWiki and CommunityWiki. WikiFeaturesWiki is a good place for you to post your ideas about new wiki features.

Perhaps the most commonly-requiested feature is full HTML markup -- see WhyDoesntWikiDoHtml.

I'm totally new to this whole Wiki thing, and it looks fantastic. I can hardly wait to install it on my site. However, it took me only 20 minutes of browsing this site to realize that there's a major shortcoming: NAVIGATION. It's atrocious, at least on this site. There is no hierarchical navigation, and not even a MENU on the pages! (Give me a break.) A SiteMap? of this mess doesn't even exist, and probably couldn't, except as a flat (uncategorized) linked list of all pages. (Feel free to delete this. I may or may not make it back here to do so myself.) -- Larry Israel

Spend another 20 minutes here and you'll see that this wiki is a site map. Navigation couldn't be any easier. If you stumble upon a link that interests you, click it. If you don't, type a word in FindPage.
The preceding attitude is another example of why Wiki really works only in a community with plenty of time to spare. Sitemaps are valuable timesavers, especially for finding information hidden at the end of a long chain. When you don't know the site-specific keywords that represent what you hope to find, typing a word into FindPage is a poor substitute for a menu or sitemap. -- LAKen
I've written further comments (focused mainly on navigation) in AnOutsidersReviewOfWiki. -- Larry Israel

For someone who prefers the smooth, silky uniformity of the suburban lawn, I suppose Wiki has "failed". I like lawns and golf-courses too. I like meadows. I like finding a clearing in the midst of the wilderness. Meadows, too, require stewardship and care - even an occasional WikiFire. They don't, however, generally require regular mowing. -- TomStambaugh

They need a damn good fire once in a while, though, Tom. And it leaves them looking ugly and dead for a while too. But they're not... -- WaldenMathews

Yes, the WikiFire is part of the life of Wiki. I've edited the above to reflect comment. -- TomStambaugh

The WikiMasters have done a Jedi on us. They're gone, splitsville, vamoosed. Real WikiMasters have better things to do with their time than waste hours on thankless work that gets clobbered within hours.

You are the WikiMaster ...

When did this happen and where did they go? -- JonGrover

 In the midst of the noise they were trying to spay,
 In the midst of their laughter and glee,
 They all softly and suddenly vanished away -
 For the masters were butchers, you see.

I think the original poster was being tongue in cheek.

A weblogger writes that wiki is just ugly - http://www.corante.com/many/20030401.shtml#31542

[The comment reads, in part, "I love their functionality. I really do. It's very very cool to be able to do "ridiculously easy" collaborative document editing. But let's face it. Theyre ugly. I'm not a shallow person. Really. (Well, maybe a little shallow. But that's not the point.) ... I've seen a sneak preview of an edit-this-page type of outliner that Marc Canter is working on, and I like it a lot better. Why? It doesn't hurt to look at it, mostly. Silly? Maybe. But I know I'm not alone.''" My comments: ridiculously easy? Yes. Shallow? Yes! Silly? Ayup. Not alone? Well yaa; 9% of the population believes that Elvis lives. *Next!!* -- BenTremblay]

She's right. so what? I sometimes read this wiki in a windowing system, sometimes on a text console. It always looks the same, and looks good, even better than other wikis. I would even like to reduce the amount of visual noise: the picture and some of the links at the bottom (and of course that awful white background). The only thing that took some getting used to were the horizontal rules, but they're good as they are.

I think that Wiki "machinery" is part of wiki, the simplicity of the easiest thing that works.

To report specific failings of the Wiki "machinery", as opposed to drawbacks to the Wiki philosophy or the Wiki community, go to WikiWikiSuggestions.

I'm new to Wiki, but I have been blogging for a little while now, and while blogs can be more attractive aesthetically, wikis seem to be more functional for developing a community. As with all things, nothing is perfect, but I like this medium for communication. Its perceived weaknesses are what makes it unique and interesting.

-- Glenn K. Garnes

I never used wiki before today, and I must confess: I feel completely lost. Maybe I am just too clueless, or this site is too complex. Either way, I would be really happy if the pages directed to new users was clearer. At least to me WikiWorksNot? because I am unable to understand it.

If you want to talk to me, or maybe just flame me, send mail to mksoap@yahoo.com. (This email is not valid as to 2004-02-22)

I have an old boss who uses computers as a tool - an old school, rather use paper type of guy. He has not come across wikis yet.

I respect the way his mind works, he was always able to simplify and explain things. (Those people understand their subject matter). Just before I came across wikis, we had a conversation about Web pages. He said he hated to look at webs that had loads of links all on the same page. He had a need to go to every link. Try it, and see where you end up! The problem with refactoring is that you need to educate your new readers that you should just read the word as if it were not a link (make up your own understanding), finish reading the page, and then look at the links, not to get to far away from the original page that you were reading.

If you do refactor then keep them short and make them leaves.

To the guy above I would suggest making his own personal wiki, just to hold his thoughts or to create a personal webspace. It only gets really complicated when you have to organize a wiki of this magnitude.

If anyone wants to change my text to include links (eg there must be a link to refactoring) then go ahead... it's the WikiWay, isn't it?

One thing I noticed is the width of the lines of text on wiki (spans the whole page). In newspapers, lines are easy to read because of one thing: narrow columns.

On Web sites that sell products, I always like the pages that have a page with columns, or tables or whatever splits up the page into several narrow sections (e.g. Microsoft, walmart, etc.).

Blogs are similar to newspapers, in that they are easier to read. They are usually narrow blobs of text on a page, rather than text that spans the whole page. Wiki is wider, so more frustrating to read if doing long reading and hours of reading, or if you are not in full concentration, or if you are a bit tired. Also, novels too, as another example. They have narrow pages. On today's high resolution monitors, a guy trying to read Wiki might have one line spanning 1 mile. Then when he goes to the next line, he has to scroll his eyes 1 mile back. By the time he is at the beginning of the next line, he has lost his position and his eyes are sore because of more uncomfortable movement. Try reading a novel compared to a really wide book without columns.

Your eyes have a hard time finding the "new line" or "next line" when the text spans the whole page. A box is more efficient, because when you scroll down to the next line, it's not as far to travel (losing less concentration on what you are reading, and also not causing "skipping line" or "repeating same line" problems).

Another example: living in a ranch style home (long, one hallway), compared to a square home (several hallways in a box shape). To get to the kitchen in the ranch style home, from a room, it takes forever and is tiresome. But in the box style home it's fast, because it's a shorter path to what you need to get (food in the kitchen). I need to get to the next line when reading, and if it is far away, I am going to be frustrated. If the content is good enough, I don't care as much, but. but. but.

When on the Wiki Web site, I was so caught up in reading it that I didn't notice the wide text though. I was so puzzled as to why I landed in this magnificent place that I read and read and forgot to note my main Web philosophy - columns.

Of course, you could just use your Web browser's resize. Don't know if Wiki could operate in some sort of column based mode anyway - since that might clutter the page up or mingle opinions side by side. Wiki doesn't waste any more space (and bandwidth) by going wide span - probably saves space compared to white space filled pages (Google as an example, or blogs and pages with big margins, etc). But it is harder on the eyes, and saving space isn't saving time (ease of reading is greater on a page with big margins and heaps of wasted space).

The newspaper could make their pages into really wide articles spanning the whole newspaper page width. Imagine that for a second. Some articles, the shorter columns, would be only one line long in wide form, if it spread across the whole newspaper.

The other thing about a newspaper with no columns would be the "look and feel" of a short article. Looks matter. If an article was only 1 line long (on a wide newspaper page) but the same article in column form was 10 lines long, the reader would most likely consider the 1 line article unimportant or insignificant. The 10 line long column, even though the same exact content and same article, would be more important and would jump out, would be less frustrating to read, and etc.

Draw a line on a piece of paper, and then draw a box. The perimeter of the box is the same length as the line. What stands out more and is easier to look at and point out; the box or the line?

Web example: Compare the search engine AllTheWeb?, to Google. Google is more of a column mode. The search results are easy to read, and there is a lot of white space. On AllTheWeb?, results span the whole page. Some results span only one line. This looks awkward and is hard to read. (hey, AllTheWeb?, pay attention here, this is why Google is the number 1 search engine). I could resize my browser window, when on AllTheWeb?, but it feels awkward, and still isn't the solution because of several factors. When I go to another Web page, I'd have to resize my browser again. Going back to the search engine to fetch some more results, I'd have to resize the browser again. Try resizing your browser when on AllTheWeb? (narrow browser) - the results are easier to read, like Google. Still, harder to read than google and you cannot just resize your browser every time you go to all the Web, since other Web pages you visit will not need you to have the resized browser (leading you to constantly fiddling with your browser window size).

Try resizing your window so it's narrower. Not perfect, but it works.

(Or perhaps try increasing the text size, which usually has a keyboard shortcut. This has the double benefit of being larger and therefore easier to read, as well as reducing the number of words per line.)

The reason Wiki does not work with columns is partly because there is simply too much (probably means it needs refactoring, but then you need several dozen Web browser windows...) and partly because it is a Wiki. Blogs and commercial Web sites can afford to have columns because content is planned and concise. With a wiki, it is difficult for WikiEngines to find obvious breaks (except for the FourHyphenRule?) and even if they could there would be too much vertical data as opposed horizontal data, and you'd end up with the same argument. -- AndrewCook?

''Other problem I see with columns is that editing becomes more complex (other users would have to try to match style with your columns, and line everything up) And when you want to display 'code inserts' columns can wreck up and force a 'word wrap' on the code. So columns have some restrictions and problems. I think I'm more interested in the fascination of what could be done to make all Web pages more readable, faster, universally, than I am complaining about wiki. It is interesting to note and acknowledge that fellow WikiPeople? do agree with me about narrow text being easier to scan and read over, as I know human beings can read faster when everything is in columns. It's not a wiki problem, or Web site problem, but rather a 'no tool available to make fat pages turn thin, only if you want to' problem, I think (without wasting the desktop space).

By 'only if you want to', I mean there are times like on wiki where widespan is good, and times where it makes reading harder. So forget all the restrictions and structures of 'deciding on one or another'. Let's have a tool available that makes our monitor do this for us, rather than the Web page (or the window).''

Install Stylish on Firefox. Set the columns however you want. That weblogger above who finds wikis ugly can add her visual effects too.

Also: TenWordLine and ColumnModeSometimesBetterThanWidespan.

I work at a University and have been asked to research wikis and blogs. I'm not sure yet how the school wishes to incorporate them into the school site. I was wondering if anyone had some reasons why or why not wikis would be the way to go vs blogs. I'm concerned that too many students would rather deface the site then add to it. Since wikis are built on a sort of trust system, I dont know if students in college would be able to follow that well.

So is a wiki the wrong choice for this type of situation?

While not strictly relevant, I offer this as a data point: Another lecturer and I have used a wiki in a final year class on Artificial Intelligence, with a cohort of approximately sixty students. The students were required to submit an essay assignment as a Wiki page or set of pages. This was quite successful, with no deliberate defacement. The students appeared to respond well to this, and the feedback was positive. The most significant problem, if any, was that although we encouraged the students to cross-reference (link to) each other's work, they tended not to; with a few exceptions, each student's work tended to be a WalledGarden unto itself. Of course, this is true here as well. I frequently find myself scrambling to remember enough of a WikiPage I saw three weeks ago in order to search for it and create an appropriate link; often as not I can't find it and the concept or whatever remains unlinked. I'm sure there's a WikiWord that describes this effect in detail, but I ran across it three weeks ago and now I can't find it. -- DaveVoorhis

That was my reason to support the proposal of a wiki search page, where one could provide what clues one remembered of a page and hope somebody else would remember it (only after exhausting one's own search options, of course). But that proposal was turned down (with references to PleaseDoMyHomeworkForMe and WikiHelpDesk). I think that page doesn't exist any more (at least, I cannot find it any more).

I'd like to give a RefactoringHint? for these two paragraphs, but obviously there is no place for it any more. -- Anonymous

I think there should be. How about HelpMeFindIt?? -- EarleMartin
See WhyWikiWorks, ThreadMode, DocumentMode, ThreadModeConsideredHarmful, PlainEnglish, WhyNobodyDeletesWiki, DenialOfService HamRadioPests SplitWiki

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