The past few months I read here and there around the LibreOffice community complaints about our wiki. According to these sources, our wiki is unusable, chaotic and poorly maintained. As we have a full time team dedicated to infrastructure management I am pretty sure that last criticism is unjustified to a large extent at least, but it also dawned on me that very few people around the LibreOffice project or any other community, for that matter, hail wikis as their most important tool or platform. Obviously, we are no longer in 2007. But what’s happening here is interesting, because it seems that people may have actually forgotten about the basic reasons wikis are around.
Wikis are very simple online content management systems allowing anyone or at least large groups of identified users to create, share, and modify content. Most wiki platforms provide powerful change management features to the content created and the whole point of the wiki is to quickly and simply create content that can be edited and modified afterwards by other people. Another important point is that wikis are essentially knowledge bases with their own reference trees and arborescence. As it stands wikis are intrinsically text-based, even though you may in some case include other tools such as issue trackers or proper graphical elements for websites if you wish to run a more complex platform.
That, however, translates into an impression of chaos and mess for many (younger?) people. Back in my days -let’s pretend I’m ancient for a moment- which means from about 2000 to 2015, wikis were deployed by a bunch of “rebels” who celebrated the spontaneity that wiki were enabling. And yes, many of these wikis were and are messy. We can clean them at regular intervals of course but their chaos is part of the game, because that is how you share and work together. What could have possibly changed?
Several things, at least. It seems that people want to properly distinguish between file storage services (OwnCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Hubic…) and actual collaboration platforms. Okay. They do not seem to care at all about who owns their files, but so be it. Then they wish to use online office suites and not wikis. So they end up using Office365 or Google Docs, but they don’t take advantage any benefit from the specific features from these platforms.
- Online text editing: you can do that with any wiki – especially when the document you are working on is so simple (text, bold, italic, underline is exceptional)
- Comment on the text: that’s what wikis are for, but apparently that’s not going to work, even though wikis will keep the comments and discussion attached to the page in a more convenient way than an office suite will.
- Document and file storage: you can do that with (many) wikis and in the present case, with the Wikimedia platform. It is less practical than OwnCloud or Dropbox but not that hard.
- Mobile apps (for phones or tablets) is where wiki editing apps tend to be rather absent. But then I do not believe that is the main selling point for choosing an online office suite in this type of scenario.
These points being made above it is still entirely possible that wikis have simply gone out of fashion and people tend to work in very different ways. Wikis are not perfect and the number of consultants and companies urging everybody to move their business over wikis so that “their employees could collaborate better” has been and is still important despite being often rather irritating in their never-ending promise to achieve the perfect collaboration between people.
I have no real solution to the situation I first described; I can only list a few pointers in the hope that some of the people who think wikis are a mess or are not suited to work may change their perception a bit.
- First, the Wikipedia entry for wiki
- A set of pointers from the Meatball collective (now more or less defunct) about wiki best practices
- The matrix that compares every wiki platform
My humble hope is to start a discussion about wikis in FOSS communities, what could be improved and what works. I’m looking forward to the feedback!