So Here I Am Once More

Six months ago, after a six month hiatus, I started blogging again for a couple of months. Then the events of life caught up with me again, and I’ve been silent again since then. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been blogging. In fact I’ve probably been blogging more than ever. It’s just that these days almost all of it happens behind the firewall, rather than to the wider world. And even then, a lot of it, isn’t strictly speaking “blogging” any more, but “wikiing”, (or whatever people are going to call that) as I’m finding it a better and better way to structure information.

There’s a certain irony in that, as it was a discussion with Dave Winer about wikis back in 2002 that started me blogging. Wiki software has come a long way since then. A lot of the wiki extensions are certainly interesting, and probably generally useful, although a lot of them seem to misunderstand the “wiki way”. But two features have completely changed the way I use wikis. Firstly, RSS feeds. I always knew that this would be useful on a wiki, but I hugely underestimated just how useful.

Once of the first things we did upon taking over the running of UNITE was to introduce a ticketing system for support enquiries, blogs for staff to narrate their work, and a wiki as a repository of general company information. These are, in many ways, now crucial to the functioning of the business. However, with three disparate systems, there’s a certain amount of information overlap. Not everyone looks at every support ticket, so wider information out of that has to usually either be blogged, or put on the wiki. Any information that may need to be known at some stage in the future in a specific context gets put on the wiki, hopefully in a sensible place. But any information that people might find more generally useful now gets put on a blog (everyone has to read the ‘Announce’ blog, but most people tend to at least skim everyone else’s personal blog as well). Until we switched to a wiki with RSS, some information would end up having to be copied around all three systems.

Now that’s much less of an issue. People don’t need to duplicate information onto the blog if they think it might be of random interest. The people who might be interested can now pick it up from the wiki. Where before you couldn’t ever rely on someone stumbling across it, now people can subscribe to the RSS and notice it passing by. Being able to see every change scrolling past also means that the wiki gets ‘refactored’ much more readily and regularly, which leads, of course, to a much more useful knowledge base.

The second wiki addition that has qualitatively changed how I work is the “discussion” page. I don’t know if Wikipedia was the first wiki to add this, but it’s certainly the most prominent example of it. There it allows articles to maintain their feel as bring part of a real encyclopaedia, even when the content is under heavy discussion. On Ward’s original wiki the discussions all took place in situ and on emerging topics it was often difficult to follow what was going on. Behind our firewall, this feature has found had a different application. On our wiki we store lots of correspondence. The ‘content’ / ‘discussion’ split allows us to have a page for a specific letter or email, with comments on it neatly separated out.

Switching one of our internal wikis to MediaWiki rather than Kwiki has also convinced me of the disproportionate difference it makes to be able to have “real names” for pages, rather than “WikiNames”. My software development background means I can live quite happily with CamelCase, as can most of the staff of in an ISP. But the switch to MediaWiki style naming has been hugely freeing, and I now find it really frustrating every time I have to find an unnatural way to make a WikiName on our older wiki.

As to future developments, I’ve been watching Jotspot quite closely since I saw the demo at Web 2.0 last October. (Jon Udell’s screencast gives a great overview). The ease of adding structured information to the unstructured (or at best semi-structured) wiki data has huge potential. It’s probably still a little too cumbersome for widespread adoption at this point, but it’s certainly something to watch.

I have some big ideas in this whole area, so I expect I’ll be talking a bit more about wikis soon…

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