What Is a Wiki (and How to Use One for Your Projects)
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OK, you've got your wiki up and running and you're staring at that default front page. What now? We'll go into the precise rationale later, but for the moment you can get off to a flying start by following these steps:

  • Configure it: Lock it down so no one can see it, or just don't tell anyone the address. Next, make yourself a user account on the wiki so you can tell which pages you edited and when. And make sure you subscribe to changes on all pages. If you use RSS, see if there's an RSS feed for "RecentChanges" and add that to your newsreader. If there isn't one, subscribe to emails for all pages. (Hint: If you use MoinMoin and it asks for a regular expression to match page titles, enter ".*".)

  • Create a starting layout: Break down your current project into self-contained subprojects, and give each a WikiWords-style title. List all these subprojects on one page. We used "AllHacks". You might use "AllTasks". This is the first link you should add to the front page of your new wiki. When you tidy the front page, put all the default text at the bottom (you may need it later) and make a space at the top for your common links and current tasks.

  • Kick-start those good habits: You want to give yourself every opportunity to use the wiki on a regular basis. Drag links to the front page and RecentChanges into the bookmark bar of your browser. Determine today's tasks (or this week's) for you and your collaborators, and list them on the wiki as "ToDoForJan27" (or whatever). Add that to the front page too, and be sure to add wiki names for each item so you can refer to them later. Finally, set aside ten minutes a day for wiki gardening, but don't specify any particular tasks ahead of time. Grab a coffee then just skim and delete your update emails, and read what you still need to do from the AllTasks list. Follow a few links, and do whatever occurs to you to keep things tidy. After ten minutes, just stop. That's the essence of wiki gardening.

Advantages to Using a Wiki

Why might you want to use a wiki for your project? The wiki is:

  • Good for writing down quick ideas or longer ones, giving you more time for formal writing and editing.
  • Instantly collaborative without emailing documents, keeping the group in sync.
  • Accessible from anywhere with a web connection (if you don't mind writing in web-browser text forms).
  • Your archive, because every page revision is kept.
  • Exciting, immediate, and empowering--everyone has a say.

Disadvantages to Using a Wiki

OK, you get the picture: we like using wikis. But why might you not want to use one?

  • Dirty laundry isn't a good public face. If a wiki's a shared memory, it's not going to be terribly tidy, and you may not want people to see your half-formed, unsure, and speculative ideas (though actually, we advise against having your wiki be public).
  • Its tendency to get messier. A wiki isn't an administrative panacea, and there's certain maintenance you need to perform, otherwise it'll turn into unusable idea soup.
  • Its terrible content management system. You'll have to look after your own standards for formatting and when it comes to moving to whatever your final document format is, there'll be more work.
  • If you have a public wiki with open editing, you'll need to patrol it to avoid users battling over content unproductively.
  • It's not so good for non-geeks, as you need to be reasonably tech-savvy and familiar with the concept of text markup.
  • SomePeopleHateCamelCase.
  • It's not obvious how to set up or back up your wiki software.

Using a Wiki

Given the pros and cons, we'd say your project could use a wiki if there aren't too many of you involved, you don't need to work in public, you're able to do all or most of your work on the wiki (constant exposure is important), and your project is really big.

That said, here are some specific tips when you've decided you're ready to dive into wiki world:

  • Keep all of your notes on the wiki! Don't make the wiki page too stressful to edit. If you have to write a title, or date, or your initials, or even keep things neat when you make a note--you might not do it. If you have an idea, you want to be able to click Edit, note it at the bottom, and close the window. In this spirit, keep a permanent link to the wiki in your browser toolbar.

  • Use attachments. Use lots of attachments, uploading PDFs and images when you can, and keep lots of references and links on the wiki. Don't keep any supporting material on your computer.

  • It's all about getting used to the wiki. Use WikiWords everywhere. We had all of our article titles in WikiTitleCase pretty much until we were forced to give them proper titles. This meant we knew our way around the wiki like the backs of our hands, and could make paper notes that could be easily reconciled with the wiki later.

  • Don't be uptight about using the wiki for collaboration. Yes, everything should live there, but don't try to work on the same page in the same day or two. You want a good understanding of what's where, and that means nothing changing under your feet. Talk to people to pick up topics. If you're actively working on the same document, break it up into a few pages.

  • If you need to move off of the wiki to finish what you're working on, that's good too: yes, a wiki is good for collaboration, but it's more important to have a shared memory than a shared workspace. If you need to work off of the wiki--in a Word doc with Track Changes on, or bouncing a text file around in email--do that. Use the wiki when it reduces your workload. You don't need to be strict among a tiny number of people. Wikis happen to be good for collaboration, yes, but what they're really really good for is being a space where it's really fast to write things down and find them again.

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