Wikis Solve World Hunger (and make coffee)

As you know, Sun launched wikis.sun.com earlier this month. I even have a public space I'm working on for Storage System Patterns and some private spaces I'm participating on.

Personally, I've been in and out of the Wiki world for over 5 years. A co-worker at J.D. Edwards used to expound endlessly on how Wikis were going to change the world. Oddly enough, Satish was right in many ways...some wikis have changed the world! Other wikis just stink. You know, to misquote a famous politician: "It's the content stupid".

Before you get to content though, you also have to be careful to choose the right tool for the job at hand. Here's an example. Let's say that I have 100 Business students (most of whom have only used iTunes in their life) at a college that need to learn how to run business applications in a Solaris environment. As a school administrator, I'm left with two options:


  • Sign the students up and let them come into the classroom and communicate together in an attempt to learn the new CRM system
  • Sign the students up, assign a teacher well versed in Solaris and CRM and let them teach the class...facilitating comments and questions from the students as they go

This is a no-brainer...if you want to promote pirating of movies, choose the first one, if you want to teach the students something, choose the latter. Why? Your community (Wiki) will get hijacked to serve the desires of the community that you assembled. This desire is clearly NOT Solaris and CRM...these are business students. The latter (a Blog) is NOT a community that can run amok, it is a soapbox discussion that is directed towards the assembled readers with tiny spaces during the day to facilitate comments. The comments rarely rise above the importance of any lecture and, in fact, relate only to that lecture (a blog post).

There are a couple of other avenues for content these days that put things onto the web:


  • The venerable static web page content / update (no participation facilitated)
  • Group blogs (very, very useful for teams of people that all have something to say but don't want to collaborate), everyone gets to have their own soapbox.

There are more, I'm sure, but I wanted to keep this short and sweet. Here is another way to think about these things:


  • Wiki - Group barn raising, you probably have a "moderator" cleaning up loose ends and directing people, but you live and die by the workers building the structure, not by what you produce as an individual. Some BIG downsides of Wikis are the "group" mentality for page formatting and design and when individuals try to hijack a barn for themselves
  • Blog - A single person's soapbox, like this one. Blogs aren't about "participation" so much, they are about easy publishing, quick ways to get information out, and directed comments back about the particular topic.
  • Email Lists - Ahhh, email lists are HUGE...they are immediate and targeted with even less formatting issues. Long live the email list. This is a great "forum" avenue.
  • Static Web Content - Publish

This is clearly, clearly a simplification of life. BUT, I often have these conversations when I start educating folks on the differences in various avenues for publishing content. The barn raising, soapbox, publish metaphors seem to hit the spot pretty well.

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