Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Wiki Limitations?

A system designed to do all things well ends up doing little or nothing well. Wiki design seeks highly interactive and quick collaboration, but not every situation needs that. Wiki design allows totally open public editing, but not every situation needs that. This does not mean that wiki design has failed because all wiki features cannot be used for all situations. Wiki values must be appropriately applied and this includes knowledge of the limitations. Both technical and social factors need consideration.

Technical Factors

The public nature of wiki editing means that page vandalism, and intentional distortion and lies and inadequately edited grammar are a risk that must be balanced against speedy change and the capacity for more public control that was discussed under wiki controls.

Wiki design is constantly improving, but currently many of the features of common word processors such as the creation of tables and the easy insertion of media is not possible with all versions. It must be understand that one of the motivations of wiki design is to not add complexity and so it is likely that even though such features can be technically added, they should not be and might not ever be. There is a trade-off between speed and complexity and users must decide which they need most in different situations.

Social Factors

Involving a group of people in a new way of thinking requires some group socialization. Wiki environments by default seem designed for those with little or no ego issues. The concept of egalitarianism needs discussion and acceptance by the players. This may not be the best tool to use to achieve peace and harmony with highly controversial topics. Further, it is a stretch for some to accept shared ownership, often without attribution. Those with status and reputation concerns may not play well in wiki environments. There are many forms of passive resistance and ways around a wiki team, either using email to keep information out of the loop or simply inattention to the wiki content. How much is at stake and how socialized the group has become with a collaborative project will have a great impact on wiki newbies. Beginners considering a wiki project should consider low impact projects to try out a wiki system and their skills before pressure intensive time or public exposure elements are increased. Regular use of notification by participants so that they know what has changed and when is critical to socializing all to wiki norms.

Two cases of distorted wiki articles have been widely reported in the press, dealing with a particular kind of wiki, the publicly created and edited wiki. In the first, the Los Angeles Times experimented in 2005 with a wiki for debate on the controversial topic of Iraq and was overwhelming with porn messages and images and over the top criticism (Lee, 2005). In the second case of 2005, John Seigenthaler Sr., a journalist and former assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, discovered a Wikipedia article in which a prankster falsely accused him in an article of plotting the Kennedy assassinations (Blakely, 2005).

More scientific tests have shown that these headliner cases are the exception, not the rule, even with a publicly edited wiki. In a test by the Editor-at-large A. Jacobs of Esquire magazine in 2005, he put deliberate errors in a wikipedia article. Within three days there were 576 edits, fixing all but one of the errors. Nature, the scientific journal, used independent reviewers in 2005 to compare 42 articles on the same topics in both Wikipedia and in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the gold standard for encyclopedias. The Wikipedias encyclopedia was discovered in general to have just a slightly higher error rate than Britannica.

Beyond the issues of deliberate or accidental distortion, any degree of editing of one person's composition by another has a tendency to be seen by the first composer as ruthless, insensitive or ignorant of some detail. There is a reason that publishers hire editors. Wiki participants must accept the two phases of writing, focusing on content and focusing on editing. Participants need to discuss their capacity to accept developments with good humor and some appreciation that editing is a specialty too. Potential emotional concerns should always be addressed before work begins and this one is well known. Those who cannot accept the good faith effort of others should find other roles to play in the overall sequence of completing a project besides the wiki effort. There is always much to do.

In short, the technical tools exist to exercise social control in effective ways in a highly mixed population. Whether these are applied or not depends on a number of social factors, but it has been successful done. However, wiki editing can be reserved by only those with the proper password, which allows groups of any size to take advantage of wiki design without worrying about outsiders manipulating the composition.


Blogger Greg Franklin said...

I suppose that the simplicity of the wiki could be considered by many as a drawback. I, however, look at it as a plus. There are many applications where students design web pages with bells and whistles. The wiki focuses more on the content rather than the presentation. I think that students need opportunities to make sure that their writing ability can stand on its own merit without having flashing text, the rocky theme in the background or pictures of the family dog catching the reader's interest. I also see simplicity as a way to include everyone, even the ones who are intimidated by the advanced features of other web building programs.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Kari Mull said...

I agree with you Greg. The more simple the design process, the better the quality of writing and information (or at least we hope).

Also, I think it is important that people using Wiki know (and accept)from the start, that others will be adding to/editing the work they have done. If done in a tactful way, there should be no hard feelings. It would be the same as meeting in person to edit a paper copy of an assignment, or using discussion groups in WebCt - you must be able to handle constructive critisism on your work, as well as provide it to others. You must give and take and leave emotion out of it. Wiki needs to just be another positive form of cooperative learning for a group of individuals.

8:41 PM  

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