Putting content into context in a wiki – especially in a large environment

An interesting read on the front page of wordpress.com of all places. I enjoy random clicking, and this one came up with a great commentary on the difficulty of using a wiki to get how to information.

From Learning about Second Life from Google:

Over at SL, the main source of information is on the WIKI, which in my opinion has some great information but because Linden primarily lets the users run the show isn’t as helpful as some sort of information clearing house. Trying to sort out how to sculpt, for example, is an exercise in total frustration. There are some wonderful tutorials, but SL does nothing to properly aggregate and put these tutorials into context.

I wonder what Second Life could do to properly aggregate those tutorials to meet this user’s needs? I suppose long-time wiki writers would answer: use categories and encourage tagging, while looking out for orphans. Any other ideas?

I got a great question from Tom Johnson of I’d Rather Be Writing:

I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on the WordPress Codex, http://codex.wordpress.org/Main_Page. Yesterday I was looking at this Codex wondering what to make of it all. I think I want to be a contributor, but there are so many topics. It’s chaotic. The organization is like a maize. I don’t know if I should go in there with a wrecking ball and rennovate, or not. Probably 25% of it is outdated. What happens to those outdated pages? Will I offend people if I just delete things that are outdated?

Can you recommend a book or strategy for making sense of massive wikis? Where should I start? I spent a good hour editing a page of it last night that I considered critical. It’s then that I realized this is a huge project and I have no sense of direction. Any insight you can give me would be much appreciated.

With the OLPC wiki, David Farning on the Library list went through the wiki and said he found these categories. It’s quite an accurate content analysis from what I’ve seen, so I was impressed. At the same time, it also helped explain my initial wonderment at how to wrap my arms around the entire wiki – and in fact, it is barely possible to do.

1 Philosophy
2 Contributing
3 Creating
4 Curatoring

5 Projects
In progress

6 Management

Once David came up with these categories, he then asked SJ Klein, director of community content and long-time Wikipedian, if he thought the wiki needed structure.

SJ said that the wiki is purposefully without hierarchy – flat, especially for projects, to not force a parent or sibling sense for projects. He also said, however, if you have a specific tree hierarchy in mind, feel free to develop the idea in some temporary space.

So, when working on a large wiki if you have good organization ideas, set them up, and then ask for community feedback. Seems like an appropriate approach to a large wiki.

Other ideas for starting out in a large wiki environment:

While it might seem like it’s a question similar to “how do I get started on a huge writing project?” in my experience, wiki editing has some subtleties due to the collaboration and community vibe already present behind the pages. You have to work harder to figure out that vibe, and then determine your course.

For new people, there’s the whole question of getting a feel for the community so you can start to answer “who am I going to potentially irritate by editing this” and “as a newbie do I have the confidence I’m right?”

So, knowing your role within the wiki community is a first step. You might take a while to get to know who’s there, what their roles are as well, and where you might best fit in. Introduce yourself with your profile page, following the WikiPattern, MySpace – see http://www.wikipatterns.com/display/wikipatterns/MySpace.

Just like a newbie on a writing team, find out if there’s some scut work that you can do to get your feet wet, if needed, to gain the community’s trust.

Deletions are going to bring much more wrath in a wiki situation, I would guess, so they seem risky to do to start out. If you do think something needs deletion, message or email the original author or the big contributors and ask if it’s okay to mark it for deletion. Then, mark it, and hope that someone else (a wiki admin) determines if it should be deleted.

Start small, like tagging, or applying templates. That’ll help you get a feel for the bigger picture.

Let us know your ideas for wrapping your head around a large wiki, we’d love to hear them.


  • Don Day
    May 2, 2008 - 5:41 pm | Permalink

    For some wikis with weak tagging, Anne, readers might as well pray for a miracle. While tag clouds, advanced search tools, and ranked links offer some guidance for a seeker of knowledge, nothing can take the place of a subject matter expert who takes the time to compile a reading sequence with logical organization. In this regard, I think that the organizers of newgroup FAQs/gems are sometimes more effective indexers of knowledge than the crowd-validated tools in many wikis. One such index that I often use is the “XSL FAQ” of Dave Pawson, http://www.dpawson.co.uk/xsl/index.html.

    David Farning’s outline is interesting. I thought it was comparable in the small to classification systems like the Dewey Decimal System. Too small even for OLPC Wiki, perhaps. But isn’t it a great design pattern that a user might want to use as a search organizer for some problem domain they might want to be returned as a cohesive response? Such as “How to troubleshoot intermittent scratchy sounds in my car audio system” or “How to install all the related software of DITA Open Toolkit using latest components? Successfully on the first try?”

    This might be what you mean by templates. At the topic level, templates can smooth out the user experience of reading sites like WikiHow. But at the Wiki level, organizing templates like Farning’s can bring meaningful sense to subsets of that content (wrap your arms around only the part you need/want to know, as it were).

    Obviously, I’ll draw the parallel between knowledge hierarchies and DITA maps, which can represent structured sequence on sets of topics. Imagine Google search returning a logically grouped and sequenced set of links rather than a relevance-weighted sequence of possible hits… that is what expert-informed queries melded with organizing design patterns *could* bring to a wiki, newsgroup, blog, email folder, call center log file, or document CMS. Where wouldn’t it be useful?

  • May 4, 2008 - 11:45 am | Permalink

    Hi Don, that type of aggregation could be useful anywhere, I’d agree! Check out this aggregation from Addictomatic – Inhale the Web: http://addictomatic.com/topic/redmonk. Wow. Again, though, not built by an SME, but by a tool.

    It’s interesting with the OLPC wiki is used not only for figuring out how to use, program, and troubleshoot the XO laptop, but also collaboration project pages for meeting agendas, minutes, that sort of thing. So it serves multiple “crowds” and it shows. They’ve recently been indicating the audience members though – For the public and For developer banners appear on the pages based on the multiple templates applied for each section, I believe.

    Another observation that I’ve read about on WikiPatterns is that there’s an anti-people pattern called “OverOrganizer” where one person rearranges to suit their view put – but it may ultimately cause others to lose interest in the wiki. It’s as if consensus wins over organization – check out Stewart Mader’s take on this pattern at wikipatterns.com/OverOrganizer. I’ll bring this seeming conflict up at our wiki and structured authoring talk at DocTrain West this week. Stewart apparently thinks a page maintainer pattern is a better method but I’ll try to learn more on what that entails – perhaps it is the subject matter expert who can bring these expert queries together for consumption by other wiki readers.

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