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Making Wiki User-Friendly -- And Trustworthy

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Wikipedia is a success, but it does have its flaws. How can its success be repeated and its flaws avoided?
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Of all the power-to-the-people efforts on the Internet, few have enjoyed the kind of hype as wikis. Taken from the Polynesian word for "quick," wiki technology is a server that allows users to create and edit Web pages from their browser, with technology for creating cross-reference links on the fly. The challenge now is to take that hype, and one great success story, and turn it into critical mass.

Like Linux, wiki is the grand vision of a single programmer that has since grown exponentially. Wiki technology made its Web debut in March 1995, when programmer Ward Cunningham released WikiWikiWeb as a supplement to the Portland Pattern Repository, a site run by Cunningham to store programming design patterns.

In the decade since Cunningham introduced the concept, Wiki's biggest and most high-profile success story is Wikipedia, a public encyclopedia where anyone and everyone can enter — and more importantly, edit — information. As of this writing, the English language version of Wikipedia has more than 787,000 entries, all entered by people visiting the site.

There have been high-profile disasters, too. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Times Editorial Page Editor Michael Kinsley tried to bring wiki to the masses with Wikitorial, a wiki to present editorials on the newspaper's site. The first entry, on June 17, 2005, dealt with the Iraq conflict. Below the editorial, the editors invited readers to rewrite the editorial in the wiki fashion.

The end result was a disaster. Anyone expecting public discourse and thoughtful debate had their delusions shattered as the site was flooded with partisan comments and attacks and worse, obscene language and images. The Times shut down the site within days of going live.

In the hopes of creating more Wikipedias and fewer Wikitorials, a Wiki Symposium took place earlier this month during the OOPSLA '05 conference in San Diego, California. The concern on everyone's mind is making wiki work while keeping its essential nature as a community-driven means for building a site.

One of the early workshops covered one of the issues facing wiki technology, and that's ease of use. A part of a lecture, Alain Desilets, a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, discussed the research he did with Sebastien Paquet and Norman G. Vinson, which was published in a paper entitled, "Are Wikis Usable?"

The basis of his experiment was the usability of a wiki system by non-technical experts, which had never been studied formally since wiki is still primarily a geek technology. In his test, a group of children used the technology to create several hypertext stories in wiki fashion, with minimal adult instruction. Despite their young age and unfamiliarity with the software, five of the six teams were able to complete their assignment.

The problem they found was not so much the concept of wiki collaboration, but technical. Their biggest obstacle, Desilets found, was usability problems related to hyperlink management. That's good news, as it's easier to fix the shortcomings of the wiki software than deal with users who look at the wiki interface and get lost. He suggested that what's needed is a more WYSIWYG editor, since wikis tend to use extremely primitive interfaces.

Removing complexity would be the key to opening wiki to the masses. However, Desilets noted that people prefer the elegance of wiki's simple interface. "We don't want to turn wikis into a big, ugly brute like a word processor," Desilets warned. The key to improving it will be to observe users working with a wiki interface, to see where they get stuck, he said.

After lunch came a round table, and all that was missing was the table, as we turned our chairs into a large circle. The session was hosted by Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates, a think tank devoted to studying and improving high-performance collaboration.

Participants included Joe Kraus, the founder of Excite and now heading up JotSpot, a company that does exactly what Alain Desilets said we needed just hours earlier: it provides a more comprehensive interface for building and editing wikis. Also heading up the talk was Peter Thoeny of TWiki, developer of an enterprise-scale wiki software product.

Kraus noted that wiki's biggest success, Wikipedia aside, is internal to corporations, behind their firewalls, because of the trust issue. Corporations can at least trust their employees not to behave like people did on the L.A. Times Wikitorial. The flaw in the L.A Times experience, said Kraus, was that it was entirely hands off, and allowed to go out of control. "People need to understand [wiki] is a garden that needs cultivation," he said.

This problem would be confirmed just days after the conference, when Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales acknowledged there are real quality problems with the site. Wikipedia has often been knocked for broken links and for having inaccurate information, but the people behind the site never admitted it. Considering the massive size of the site, it's only going to get harder to fix as it grows.

The technology is a new toy for people, but over time, Kraus said he expected behavior toward wiki to change. He pointed out that a similar phenomenon happened with e-mail more than a decade ago. Managers didn't want it and people would misuse it, like sending out an invitation to lunch to the whole company. Eventually, users settled down into proper business use and now e-mail is considered indispensable.

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