Coevolving Innovations

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Is wiki markup dead?

Today, I’ve been playing around with beta candidate for Quickr, which is a follow-on to the Lotus Quickplace product … but what a leap ahead in product functionality!

Quickr components 1 to 6

Quickr components 7 to 8

I’ve been mainly interested in Quickr because, in the new announcements on the Lotus family, it’s the product with the wiki. (Lotus Connections has multi-user blogs, but not a wiki. Further, Quickr also has feeds — that should more correctly be called aggregators).

I get the feeling that the architects working on Quickr are a different group from those working on Connections, because the list of “components” feels more like options commonly in use on the web, rather than those used by large-scale enterprises. Maybe this comes from the quick-and-dirty style that Quickplace seems to exude … or maybe the designers just chose to take a different tack.

Although wikis would seem to be new to the vocabulary of non-techies (maybe circa 2005-2006, with the rise of Wikipedia), the original wikiwiki by Ward Cunningham on C2 goes back to August 1996. I had once tried to customize Mediawiki (which is the engine underneath Wikipedia), have a lot of experience with PmWiki, and am now a major fan of Dokuwiki. Along with the original design of wiki technology came wiki syntax (also known as wiki markup, which varies engine by engine), so that instead of writing the arcane HTML syntax1, e.g. to create a unordered list …

[ul]
[li]requires using codes that are unambiguous to browsers[/li]
[li]but that normal humans should never have to read[/li]
[/ul]

… a simpler alternative is wiki markup, e.g. creating a bulleted list with an asterisk in column one …

* with a syntax where checking for closure isn't required.

The wiki engine translates the wiki markup into XHTML. This may seem simpler for the novice, but it gets frustrating that …

(a) wiki markup isn’t standard across different wiki engines — so much so that an initiative for a wiki creole has evolved;

(b) when you want to do something more complicated like having a table where a cell spans multiple rows or multiple columns, the syntax doesn’t look nearly as simple; and

(c) after you get tired of writing wiki markup, it’s almost impossible to get a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface on top of the wiki engine that you’ve chosen.

I’ve been using Drupal, an open source content management system, on many of the newer web sites that I’ve been creating. Choosing the package was partially motivated by the fact that a series of IBM Developerworks articles were written about the package. Drupal still has the user writing XHTML, but has the added option of choosing to plug in one of two WYSIWYG modules: TinyMCE or FCKEditor. For small jobs, I can hand-code XHTML. When the amount of text gets really large, though, it’s better to use the WYSIWYG editor so that I can focus more on content than on formatting.

After having spent a year trying to write a book with two collaborator using Dokuwiki, we’ve switched to the book module in Drupal. Like a wiki, Drupal retains the history of edits preceding the current version, and can expose the version-to-version changes with a diff module. In addition, the book module allows pages to be promoted to being a parent, or demoted to be a child, automatically inserting navigation links from the page, forward, backwards, or to the parent.

So, with WYSIWYG plug-ins available as open source software, is there a reason to still be writing wiki markup? I think the case for wiki markup is getting weaker by the day. The majority of people who have never seen wiki markup won’t miss it. Blogs are more popular than wikis, and blogs are mostly written as XHTML through a WYSIWYG editor or an offline program. Since Quickr offers both blog and wiki features within a single product, it makes sense to go with WYSIWYG and take the markup out of wiki.

Blogging killed wiki markup.


1 Of course, in standard XHTML, it’s angle brackets with “less than” and “greater than” signs rather than left square bracket and right square bracket … but I can’t seem to get the WYSIWYG editor in WordPress to show the real thing. You win some, you lose some!

3 Comments

  • I, too, hate WikiMarkup, and see it as a barrier to entry for using wikis among users who don’t want to become wiki wonks. But I have looked at a lot of WYSIWYG editors for wikis and I don’t like them either. They’re fragile and limited and funky and usually ill-supported. Just look at your own footnote: you’re telling me the WYSIWYG editor wouldn’t let you type “greater-than” or “less-than”?! The standard reply is, “Hey, it’s open source, if you don’t like it you can fix it or write a better one!” I think that’s a cop-out.

    Wiki WYSIWYG editors are almost universally based on the rich-text editor module built in to modern browsers. That means in addition to each having its own bugs and limitations they all share a set of underlying bugs and limitations. For example, they have no command to create a “Dictionary List” (HTML tags DL and DT) becuase the browser’s rich-text editor API doesn’t export that feature.

    Also, the WYSIWYG aspect is limited by the fact that they aren’t truly integrated with the wiki: if you use wiki plugins for image control or floating boxes or sidebars or anything else, you have to use specially-formatted text tags – not truly WYSIWYG.

    The lack of integration with the wiki is even more obvious in some other cases, including a JSPWiki used at my company: links in WYSIWYG pages aren’t visible to the wiki’s cross-reference generator, making networks of WYSIWYG-edited pages invisible to the “site map” navigation structures.

    In short, they’re just not first-class features of the wiki system with complete, bug-free implementations and full integration.

    Why? I have some theories. First of all, many wikis originated before the rich-text editing widgets of the browsers existed, so plain text INPUT fields were all they had. Second, I think maybe wiki creators and hard-core users have an attitude: “Real men don’t use WYSIWYG.”

    But third and most important, a full-featured, integrated WYSIWYG editor is hard and not fundamentally necessary. When it comes to things that are hard, open source is best suited to building things the community members themselves want (like compilers and Eclipse), not things that are good for non-technical people who don’t want to be wiki wonks. It takes paying customers to motivate technical people to write things for non-technical people – that’s how you get FrontPage instead of Notepad. Or Quickr, for that matter!

    I haven’t seen WYSIWYG editors get better (or enough better) in the last two years, so I don’t think wiki markup is dying very fast. I find that frustrating and sad.

  • You’ve raised the same question I’ve been wondering about myself for the last year or so. Having been an evangelist for the wiki concept at my organization, pitching it as an easy way for content owners to manage their stores in an open, accessible manner–thereby furthering knowledge management goals–I’ve run head-on into the problem of molding wikis to be useful for nontechnical people. I wrote a rather long article about the initial process last year, too, which you may enjoy: “Web-Based Collaborative Editing: Twiki, Tiddly or TikiWiki

    It was my belief from the beginning that the wiki would only be useful if it included some kind of rich-text editor, since I worried whether any of these busy people would bother trying to learn wiki syntax. Now I’m replacing the very simple Dojo rich-text editor with the much more full-featured TinyMCE, and I’m wondering if there’s anybody here who will want to retain their original wiki syntax (some of the content was entered with wiki syntax). As you know, TinyMCE will garble things like bullet lists, and the users will have to recreate them as HTML constructs.

    My belief is that wiki syntax was useful before WYSIWYG editors became feasible as a toolset. Now that they are (the last holdout, Safari, has now joined the pack with version 3.0), I can’t imagine that anyone would really prefer to write wiki syntax rather than using a WYSIWYG editor. Wiki syntax arose (like all of the other HTML-shorthand syntaxes out there) because typing HTML isn’t much fun. But compared with selecting a bullet list item from a toolbar, having to type an asterisk at the beginning of each line isn’t great either. And suppose you need a nested list… ? Etc.

    Of course, I’m removing from TinyMCE all of the controls that can cause trouble: Font coloring, font faces, font sizes, in particular. After all, our style sheet takes care of the style aspects. :-)

    Cheers,
    Leland

  • WYSIWYG example of Google could be useful for a lot of people, no technical people, but if i want a very quickly way of document a project and share with developers, WYSIWYG is awful, very unproductive. I create, in less than hour, a very clear understanding of my project using Wiki Syntax of Google and is very easy create links, TOCS or index. And with the command limitations, create a unique way of write that kind of information, making a common visualizations for all.

    I think that wiki can’t die if we want productivity in the computer science times.
    Sorry my english… :)


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