A few weeks ago, I mentioned offhandedly that Jon Udell should be given credit for being prescient in his recognition that 2005 would be a landmark year for wikis, and every day I’m more convinced that that’s true. Whether it’s actual websites being transitioned to wiki infrastructures (see here or here) or wikis breaking ground in non-technology disciplines (see here, here or here), it seems increasingly clear that wikis will be playing an important new role in IT infrastructures of all shapes and sizes, and will be bent towards completely unforeseen use cases.
While discussing this trend at JavaOne last
year week, one vendor asked at whose expense this growth is likely to come. Great question, and the qualified answer from me is content management vendors. I say qualified because while there’s overlap between wikis and more traditional content management tools, there’s considerable differentiation as well. Some low end tasks that have typically been alloted to CM tools will undoubtedly go the way of wikis as we go forward, but there are plenty of arenas (workflow, the ability to management multiple document types, etc) where wikis have little to no functionality. So the Documentums, FileNets, IBMs, and Vignettes of the world have little to fear at this point.
But in looking at the differentiation between content management tools and wikis today, I can’t help but think there’s an opportunity for someone to make the handoff from the relative chaos of unstructured sources such as blogs and user forums to wikis clean and dead simple. A primitive workflow, in other words.
Anyone who’s ever cruised user forums or blogs more or less blindly, lacking the context of a larger discussion, knows the difficulty I’m talking about. Say you have a problem with SAMBA, as I have today, and you search a few forums for solutions to the problem. In a forum setting, you might have 15 pages of responses, many or most of which are irrelevant to your question. There’s a nugget – maybe more than one – of important information in there, but because forums are structured chronologically just as blogs are, you have no way of navigating directly to that data. It’s almost as if forums – and to a lesser extent blogs – should serve as the staging area for a certain class wiki entries, where multiple different approaches and strategies are tried and discarded, tried and discarded, until a solution is discovered and graduated to its final (but still dynamic) home, a wiki entry.
For an example from the blogging world, I need look no further than my own HowTo in getting into blogs, which began life as a blog entry here but was pushed over towards our wiki here a.) so that it could be persisted from amongst buried entries, and b.) anyone that was so inclined could refine it. Alex King and I chatted on this same topic a few weeks ago at lunch, going back and forth on the difficulty of having longer lived pieces of content that are surfaced above the shackles of chronology (he’s got a nifty popularity widget approach to the problem).
This process of “graduating content” is conducted informally in many settings right now – just check out this post from the Gentoo Wiki which draws heavily on a post from the forums. The problem to me then is not that a migration from one medium to the other cannot occur: obviously it can. No, the issue is instead when to make that jump, how the content gets from point A to point B, how to indicate explicitly the relation between two different types of content dealing with the same problem, and how to do all of this in as automated a fashion as possible.
Put differently, the problem as I see it is twofold:
- Blogs and forums are fundamentally about persisting rather than refining information; creating data, not deleting it
- Because of this, it can be increasingly difficult to navigate the maze of valuable versus irrelevant data
To be sure I’m clear on this, what I’m not saying here is that wikis are a replacement for either blogs or forums; I believe that each has their place in a non-hierarchical collaborative environment. What I am looking for is a better way for one to feed the other, just as one might feed a blog with offline authoring tools. Obviously I don’t have it all worked out, but a solution to this problem would make my life a hell of a lot simpler, and maybe yours too.