Monday, December 13, 2004

Wikis, Wikipedia, and the encyclopedia business

A favorite blogger, Tim Bray, spent some years working for publishers of encyclopedias and dictionaries. He says:
I spent three years full-time working on the New Oxford English Dictionary Project at the end of the Eighties. Then, while working for Open Text, we did projects with Random House in New York on one of the big Webster dictionaries, and Grolier, a New England Encyclopedia publisher.

After I left Open Text, I did some consulting for Encyclopædia Britannica on their back-room editorial and publishing processes. My consulting clients also included the European Union’s Office of Official Publications in Luxembourg and the tech-publishing arms of a couple of technology companies.

He establishes these credentials in writing about the Wikipedia, a collaborative, online, all-volunteer, open-source, ever-expanding encyclopedia. Here's a link to his post on the topic.

To him, "encyclopedias are wonderful things, if only as manifestations of the lovable human urge to take on ridiculously huge projects; to build something much bigger than oneself. The drive to write down, well, everything, briefly and in alphabetical order, combines hubris with a love of language and learning; it is wholly admirable."

Apart from being a useful encyclopedia, Wikipedia is interesting as the pre-eminent implementation of wiki software. See the Wikipedia entry on wiki for a full explanation of the wiki phenomenon. I've started several wikis at work, trying to find ways to improve communication and reduce the volume of face-to-face meetings and email receipts. I spend a quarter of my work time in meetings, and the proportion is growing; meetings beget meetings. My email inbox receives more than 100 new messages a day. It's just too much. Wiki's can help. They occupy a middle ground between the one and the other. As substitutes for meetings, they're a little like conference calls with the advantage that you don't have to commit a specific time to the discussion and your words are written rather than oral. As substitutes for email, they're like weblogs: broadcast for many to see, but in a collected and organized fashion rather than piled up chronologically in your inbox. Unlike weblogs, users can be defined with specific rights. That is, wikis can be restricted for use by members of a committee, a cataloging team, or other group. They can have a single editor or any number of people with writing privileges.

My first try at a workplace wiki was aimed at a group that met to discuss communication issues. I prepared wiki space to enable participants in a meeting to elaborate, raise questions and give answers, and correct one another's contributions. Only one participant out of a couple dozen, was at all enthusiastic.

My second is within a committee I chair for improving and eventually replacing our statistical management policies and software system. This is working out better. I've put up background documents, meeting notes, and plans. A couple of others have joined in -- that is, made contributions not just read what's there. In this case there could be pay off for the development effort I've made.

There's a third I've helped with that has a specific function for music catalogers. That one's working out well.

We've also tried wiki at home with pretty good success. Here, we have a wiki to keep track of our gifting: the hints we receive, the places we're shopping, problems we encounter (such as canceled orders), prices and delivery costs, and what's pending and what in hand.

I've been interested in wiki design -- the way pages display and the text enhancements (boldface, colors, etc.) they use. I like adjusting the configuration files to make them do interesting things (like floating right-hand columns). The basic wiki is a white screen with typewriter-style text and no graphical or textual enhancements. Adding visual enhancements makes them more complicated. I'm not sure which is better -- simple and plain or complex and fancy.

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