Wiki Success Can Inhibit New Writers

(This page discusses the problem that many people who are new to this wiki are so intimidated by its content (size, quality, style, etc.) that they hardly dare adding to it, although their thoughts may be rather worthwhile.)

The reason that I felt inhibited in raising this issue is that it has no doubt been raised somewhere else before on Wiki that I'm not aware of and then answered at great length by brighter people than I could ever aspire to be - or at least more opinionated.

NeilDyer admitted last week that this is the reason he hasn't contributed to Wiki. In the same conversation, his observations about the relationship between TomGilb's thinking and ExtremeProgramming really helped me. They might even help others on Wiki. That is, if Neil simply had the guts to write them here -- or is that the whole problem? Wasn't it just a tiny bit easier for the person with the FirstBlankWikiPage??

NickSimons told me early this year that after first reading the page ExtremeProgramming, when he got to the end of Kent's now famous "Anyone who tells you different is selling something" he wanted to write "Oh grow up!". I begged him to do it. (I almost put it in for him but I knew I couldn't have sustained the argument as Nick could have -- in fact my sympathies were mainly with Kent!) But what stopped him from doing it or from making any contribution at all to Wiki? ("It's too democratic" was Nick's only half-flippant explanation when I last challenged him on it.)

Are these two isolated incidents? I don't think so. How have they affected the debate - more importantly the absence of it - and the development of consensus on Wiki?

Thanks again for creating the problem, Ward. -- RichardDrake

I understand you to be saying that there is a problem in that some people don't want to add or edit pages. What I don't understand is why you think that is, and whether you think there is some Wiki-specific (say that a few times quickly) reason that could be corrected.

It just seems like the normal state of affairs, where more people are lurkers than writers.

-- MatthewWilbert

Maybe that's the normal state of affairs, but it shouldn't be. I've got exactly the problem described here, and I wish I didn't. Maybe I'll actually start contributing one of these days. -- AdamSpitz

I think it was easier to speak when the list of Wiki readers was smaller. I try not to even think how many people are reading this line (and thinking whatever they're thinking).

Maybe we should start over. Put the old Wiki on read only and start with a whole new Wiki.

"Delete Wiki" can refer to two different sentiments:

BurnTheDiskpacks counterarguments:

DeleteNoise? counterarguments:

Surely some of the greatest contributions come from those asking questions, not those making assertions? There is no barrier to anyone wanting to ask a question and much of value can come from the simplest question. Ask the naive questions. It didn't do AlbertEinstein any harm. -- LanceWalton

I agree with every one of the above contributors - especially with AdamSpitz who doesn't think he's contributed yet! (It was indeed my cunning plan that someone like this might be encouraged to chip in. Thanks.)

My problem is that the two people that I specifically name above (who haven't contributed) are definitely not what I would call 'lurkers' who can't or won't comment or write sensibly in other contexts. I have benefited a great deal from their insights on software development, perhaps especially when they have disagreed with me. It bothers me that Wiki, despite its many strengths, has not had the benefit of their insights.

I didn't want to try to define all the complex reasons why this starts to happen with a successful Wiki. I am indeed like Einstein simply asking the question why. (Perhaps all I need now is Shroedinger, Bohr, Dirac and some not so simple mathematics out of the 19th century.) -- RichardDrake

See also WikiUncertaintyPrinciple

Usenet has the same problem. There are a couple of moderated C++ groups. Now C++ is a big language, and the groups are a world-wide response. The number of people who post seems very small in comparison. -- DaveHarris

I think it takes a certain combination of selfishness, unselfishness, pride and humility to ask questions on Wiki/Usenet/any Internet forum

I'm working on the PythonRefactoringBrowser for example, and was selfish enough to ask the guys who wrote the first RefactoringBrowser for advice, when they could have been doing something more useful. I was humble enough to admit I hadn't been able figure it out by myself. I was proud enough to think I had the right to ask them. I was unselfish enough to write this?

I probably need to think more about this, but it's behaviour I've seen often. Two of my friends write beautiful code and send me the occasional sample. They don't think their code is good enough to put out on the 'net, though. These two people also read the Wiki occasionally, and I get some insightful Wiki-related comments via email from them.

Also, the focus of Wiki is programming, and programming can easily be an antisocial activity. Many of the programmers I know got there because it cut down on the amount of social interaction required to earn money. I think this also contributes.

Posting on a public forum which is persistent (and especially if indexed by Google) can be a career killer, because anything you write can be used against you, but almost never in your favour. I reckon that these are the only safe alternative postures in public, logged (index) discussions:

LatheBiosas is an excellent principle if you value both your employability and IntellectualHonesty.

Contemplating the two clauses:

I empathize with the first but not the second. I have got over my fear of brighter people but my fear of adding redundancy to Wiki is still preventing me from writing sometimes. It seems like a good fear to have.

What is the answer?

How about "Encourage people to refactor, and insert as many related links as possible, so it's easier to find stuff, and harder to accidentally write redundant stuff?" That is: LinksAreContent, so LinkMore.

Agree totally. Don't be afraid of writing something redundant. Your contribution can always be linked to the old stuff and later merged with it. -- BayleShanks

Does this mean the Wiki community should increase newcomer awareness of merging duplicate content, so that newbies are encouraged to write more? -- BrentNewhall

I have to say that I am a lurker at heart, but I have jumped in with both feet. I've added my HomePage, created a few pages (on-and off-topic), made signed and unsigned edits, etc. Aren't I proud of myself? Knowing that the oldsters are around to refactor gives me a safety net. -- JeremyCromwell

This seems like an appropriate place to drop my first Wiki Contribution. I'm evaluating Wiki to use as a design repository for a circuit board, firmware, and software for a product at our company.

If Wiki really inhibits new writers, we won't be able to use it the way we're hoping to. It may help that we have a pressing need to communicate with a distributed group and are willing to do work to make that happen. -- KeithMesser?

Hmmm. One thing to note is that here we are wondering how to get more people to write (while some of them wonder whether they really are qualified to write here). That is the exact opposite to many newsgroups, where they are wondering how to keep the chaff from drowning the grain.

Another thing to note is that this particular site is well-esteemed by both individuals and search engines! Quite a lot here seems to be written by Superior Beings (and now I actually am saying this with awe and respect, as opposed to my normal sarcastic and derogatory usage of the term). Those writings are exceptionally incisive and profoundly knowledgeable, showing insight and wisdom that many of us cannot expect to accumulate in our lifetime.

Of course, for all I know, this could be the result of Wiki itself: the writings may have already gone through numerous cycles of refinement, giving only the appearance of having been written by such individuals. On the other hand, several of such writings are signed, which makes it less plausible that others would have edited them extensively.

How many of us would talk instead of listen when accidentally put on a talk show with a handful of Nobel laureates? -- AnonymousCoward

Not many, but it depends on the show and the host. To continue this point: refinement of the content of pages comes about as a result of PositiveDialogue. When the "profoundly knowledgeable" interact on topics, especially when their views are different, the resulting page can be affected by the synergy of reflection and time. It is not uncommon for such individuals to make corrections to what they originally introduced, having the luxury and privilege to do so by this medium. newWriters should try their wings, and not be inhibited by the real possibility that their writings may receive criticism and opposition. If they have a position and wish to state and defend it, they come out the better by having tried and having learned. After all, the Nobel laureates run in other circles and should one make a stab a making a page, I can assure you that they would not get a free pass and that others not so famous, but perhaps as knowledgeable, will respond both positively and oppositionally. -- DonaldNoyes

See also DiversityIsSmotheredOnWiki

So the problem seems to be how to tell the inexperienced what is acceptable and what is not, and reassure them about surprisingly acceptable things (eg, editing something someone else wrote). Communicating expectations. On some wikis, it's probably not ok to rewrite the home page. On some wikis, some pages are minor edit only, and all discussion goes in a subpage. Etc.

A couple of ideas come to mind. Transparency: If one can easily see the history of the page, and other pages, one can tell whether one's contemplated action is consistent with past practice. Diffs aren't quite good enough. A diff history, or history replay, or colorized page view showing which text came from which diff, might help. Rapid out-of-band communication: a mechanism by which one can ask "I was thinking of doing foo... reassure me?". Explicit policy comments: "On this page, you can foo". Reassurance/site-policy: Every wiki page is shown with a one-liner at the bottom "You may do mumble...". A lighter weight editing option: Postit notes. They create second, lighter, class of editing. With different expectations about how much effort went into the note, and how freely and easily folks can discard it. I'm not going to edit an unfamiliar wiki's home page. But I might "stick on a postit note".

Like the "discuss Foo" links and pages on Wikipedia?

I am just another fairly recent newcomer to Wiki. As such, it does not behoove me to say what Wiki is or is not. Yet I am tempted to say that Wiki is not a perfect way to achieve communication and consensus in an inhomogeneous, dynamic community. The above suggestion about postit notes is interesting: one thing that Wiki obviously lacks, is distinguished forms of utterances. I am not thinking about fonts, colors and smileys (as seen in oh! too many WWW discussion systems). Rather, I am thinking of the "rules", or even "patterns", that stem from traditions and rituals formed over a long timespan, which give structure to the way people interact in places such as political assemblies, courts of law, auctions, bazaars, bars, shops, etc, etc. I have spent a significant (excessive, even) amount of my time on a number of Usenet newsgroups, and there I found several such patterns. These were aided by the structure imposed by the system of Usenet itself, with news.groups, news.admin* and alt.config for meta-discussions, news.announce.newusers for newbie education, moderated newsgroups, and most significant, by its chronological, hierarchical and topical ordering. Wiki has many similar patterns, but the underlying technology does not support or enforce such patterns very well. It is difficult or impossible to see whether I am restarting a long-dead discussion, or jumping into the middle of a recent, heated discussion. Comments on the spur of the moment (the postits previously proposed) linger and confuse; refactorings move things away from the context they were written in, to even more confusion when the editor misses a backreference, which then ends up as a dangling pointer and finally as a mental segmentation fault in the mind of the reader. Feedback and response may go unnoticed. Even as I am writing this, I am thinking: "Who will ever read this? What will they think of it? How can I find out?"

I had the pleasure of attending a class on hypertext given by Randall Trigg, author of the first Ph.D. thesis on hypertext. This was at the same time WWW came to be. Very timely indeed. I recall we discussed whether WWW was _actually_ a proper hypertext system. It certainly was lacking many features found in the experimental systems of that time. Two things that fascinated me when I first had a chance to use MacMosaic? were 1) the global history, and 2) the annotations. At that time I hoped I would be able to retain a permanent log of each and every webpage I would ever visit - little did I know about the future. My hopes for annotations were also high: I saw them as a local, distributed precursor or prototype for a global, shared system of annotations. This dream never materialized, of course; instead we got Netscape, BLINK tags, forms, banner ads, and ultimately the web we know today.

Wiki uses the existing WWW technology in a specialized way to achieve this dream of annotations, only, in my opinion, it takes it too far, by blurring the relation between the writer and his writing, making everything the property of everyone. This is good, if the purpose of the text is to be a homogeneous documentation, a text upon which everyone must agree, an eternal state of consensus, or the "Truth". But, "Without Contraries is no progression" (Blake), without distinctions - contrast - there's only a mass of brown, unidentifiable mud. It is my conviction that the concept of "collective writing" is an impossibility, at least on a large scale. The exception may be the case of a little group of people who know each other very well, where it may be possible to achieve a combined mental image of the text to be produced, so that no part of it is the result of any individual thought. But I think that is extremely rare. In the general case, every written or spoken word is a result of the thought of an individual person, and ought to be identifiable as such.

(to be continued?) -- LasseHp

... a text ... an eternal state of consensus, or the "Truth". ... no part of it is the result of any individual thought.

There is the distinction between DocumentMode and ThreadMode. Where the former contains the "Truths" and the latter the (perhaps unresolved/-able) personal opinions.

Besides "Consensus, or the Truth", it's also easy to refactor a page into something like: "There are two different views on this subject. One holds that . . . ", right?

See also NeutralPointOfView.

Here's how I see the problem. If anyone can contribute, the best, or the most confident in their knowledge and abilities (there is often a correlation) will contribute, and contribute most often. Computer scientists tend to interact most effectively on smaller scales, and the scale of interaction this environment presents isn't really small. So if the entire system could provide a structure where sub-groupings were a fundamental tenet, people would be more likely to find an appropriate one, and feel free to contribute in the scope it would provide. And the rest of the points seemed very pointful also. -- LazyCoward? (p.s. If such exists, or exists implicitly, take my word for it that newbies can't find it easily. :)

Such an idea fits the following:

While what you suggests is good idea, the current attitude among WikiGnomes? is that what you are describing would be considered a WalledGarden. (see summary above) I do not see WalledGardens, properly cared for and linked through some sort of IndexingPage? to the rest of the Wiki, as to be considered DeletionCandidates?, but others do. Even if they can be integrated into the rest of the wiki, they are often given little time to do so. You'll probably have to look elsewhere for your idea to be implemented. That is unless the "Projects" part of the Wiki Purposes can be found to be suitable. See ProjectIndex, for some that have appeared here in the past. -- MarkRogers

Any other Suggestions?

interact most effectively on smaller scales, ... a structure where sub-groupings were a fundamental tenet, people would be more likely to find an appropriate one, and feel free to contribute in the scope it would provide. ... If such exists, or exists implicitly, take my word for it that newbies can't find it easily. :)

The C2 wiki is certainly large and intimidating. Most of the 2682 English-language wiki are much smaller. Perhaps one of those would be more appropriate for such people?

The WikiNode lists a few of them (see WikiNodes). Is there a better way to help newbies find appropriate wiki? -- DavidCary

In trying to describe this place to my Internet friends, I said "It's like the history of computers and the Internet threw a party some time ago and all the brightest non-rockstar minds around were invited to come run their mouths freely to be preserved for eternity." This place is like a meta-Bible to me. I'm not worthy! -- AnonymousDonor


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