Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.


The development team that I'm a part of at work uses wikis pretty extensively since we have people that need access at all times of day to information in a central place. The concept works very well for what we do, but the implementation leaves a proverbial ton to be desired.

One of the more interesting panels I attended at SXSW was about wikis and their use in distributed organizations. I kept hearing from the panelists and the audience was that the wiki markup language is awful. Not just kind of bad, not just somewhat obtuse, but nearly unusable for people that just want to get something done. To tell the truth, I'm a geek and even I feel the same way. A good first step (ISTM) would be to allow Textile-style markup in wikis

I have a couple of theories about usable technology (one of them being that any single system that requires a full time admin will be replaced by more usable technology SRTL), and wikis defy my theory that new markup syntaxes should show significant benefit and reduce effort or they aren't worth writing. Does the user derive reusable benefit by learning the Wiki markup language? Does it leverage their existing mental model of how they want the text to appear at the end of the process? Does it make use of existing markup syntaxes they already know? (hint: the answers, in order, are "no", "no", and "no").

The other thing I kept hearing in the talk (and keep hearing around work) is that there are very few sane ways to keep tabs on the structure and activity of a wiki. Many wikis seem to support a "most active" or "most recently updated" list, but very few give any ability to understand the relationship between pages, understand the importance of a page, or change these properties. Given that wikis give a great bi-directional linking language, this seems like a pretty obvious next step as well: navigation via self-organization of content.

A DHTML front end with rich-text editing capability and a sane XML-driven back-end for a Wiki also seem like no-brainers. Content transfer to and from wikis seemed to be another hot-button item that the panelists seemed to just accept because nothing did it right (yet). Oh, and an OODBMS system to make versioning, system modification, and self organization from pages really simple.

Who wants to help write it?