Getting Used to Wikis

At work, wikis have widespread use. I’ve noticed that some people really take to the collaborative aspect of wikis and have no problem editing other people’s texts and being open to edits themselves. These are people who like to debate in a respectful way.

Some people have a difficult time co-authoring on wikis. Many of us were taught that what we write is a reflection of ourselves, and even if we do it for the corporation we feel it “belongs” to us. We want it to be perfect when other people read it for the first time, and we don’t want someone else to mess it up. This goes for code as much as for prose.

Asking people to collaborate on a wiki really brings out the different styles!

I’ve been puzzled why someone asked my permission to update a mundane bit of info I posted, and in contrast I’ve been irritated when someone updated “my” text in a way I didn’t really like. This is a new technology that forces me to reflect on my own relationship to what I “create” and on how I work well or not so well with others. My ego has to be less involved. It’s a good experience!

Groupwrite gets it wrong

It sure is fun to be part of the Web 2.0 wave and add your thoughts to wikis and blogs all over the net. However, it comes as no surprise to professional writers and editors that Web community experiments in group writing are like having too many junior cooks and no master chef for the big feast. We must find a way to keep the spirit of the party while adding a level of focus and quality.

In Building a Better Wikipedia Edward Cone reports that Larry Sanger, cofounder of Wikipedia, has embarked on a new project hoping to correct Wikipedia’s failings.

“Wikipedia has failed in certain ways,” says Sanger. “I want to supplement it with something better in the sense of being more reliable, and more readable.”

Sanger’s new venture, Citizendium, will not allow anonymous postings, and postings will be edited and vetted by subject matter experts.

This is a great step in the right direction, and could help other organizations counter executive groupthink around leveraging the “community” to their own ends. Some executives look at Wikipedia and wonder, why not get my customers to write my websites and tech docs for free, and save some money?

The problem is guaranteeing the results, which could range from non-existent to wrong to damaging. The right context for community-generated content is as a complement to a company’s validated content. This both guards the company’s reputation and invites participation and feedback. (One breakthrough approach to this is the Confluence doc wiki.)

To ensure that technical content is accurate and relevant, responsibility must rest with a tech writer or editor. Someone has to provide leadership in service to the customer. As Kathy Sierra points out in The “Dumbness of Crowds”,

“Dumbness of Crowds” is a pile of people collaborating on a wiki to collectively author a book.

Any tech writer who has updated the content of a document that has had 10 previous authors and no editor has cringed at the mediocre quality; if lucky the writer or editor can redo the whole mess and give it some focus and continuity. Collective authoring is like an Exquisite Corpse art project; lots of fun at each step of the process but not so impressive as an artistic whole.

Kathy Sierra further points out:

It’s the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work.

We learn differently, and we teach differently. One great value of the web is that it expands the context of learning so that how an individual learns can be matched up with complementary teachers/writers. Learn best by reading structured prose? Check, thank you O’Reilly. By foraging through random bits? Check, thank you Google. By asking questions? Take a bow, geek gods of the blogs. By watching pictures move? Wow, love those animators!

Instead of reducing the scope and quality of technical information through unstructured groupwrite projects, companies would do better to provide information mediated by professionals that suites multiple different learning styles, and to develop the communication talents of their individual team members.

Writing about technology

Writing about technology is what my colleagues and I do every day at work. I’ll use this blog to discuss general ideas and issues in the fields of technical writing, information management, and web design. I’ll leave the particulars of the workplace and my personal life out of this blog, I promise!