This page used to be at [[Alex_Workspace?]], then at AlexSchroeder:WikiProcess.

How do we create new and interesting pages on this wiki? And why do we do it in the first place? Can we guide this process?

Part of the answer lies in self-selection: All those community that do not manage to create new and interesting pages fade and disappear eventually. There’s a ruthless weeding out going on in the attention economy.

Another element is that it is easy for newcomers to join, it is easy for them to learn through observation, never having to speak up until they feel confident to do so. It is also easy for the existing contributors to integrate newcomers because we can watch what they are doing, and anybody can undo mistakes. We also use specific techniques to build a sense of community.

But there’s more, specific to wikis aiming for a pattern language: We start using page titles as replacements for whole ideas, allowing readers to “drill down” to the core of all the important concepts, building a LinkLanguage as we build the site.

And finally, the specific lessons learnt on particular wikis, mostly on CommunityWiki itself.




The original wiki was the PortlandPatternRepository. Its purpose was clear – at least initially: Allow people to collaborately extend a computer science PatternLanguage. But then people decided that process was important, too. And the pattern language got extended. And then they felt that people themselves were important. And Zen. And religion.

It was amazing. These days, the PortlandPatternRepository is the WikiWikiWeb, and its mission is an unsolved riddle. Other sites appeared, however, tackling various areas: Meatball was about people, people, computers, and people (MeatBall:MissionStatement), CommunityWiki is about similar stuff, EmacsWiki is about using and programming Emacs, etc. What is going on, here?

Founding or Joining a Community

Sites appeared that scratched an itch: The original founder has an idea and starts a wiki. The original pages must be “interesting” enough for others to join. WikiFounding is a slow and laborious process. Many wikis probably die and nobody ever knows about them. The big WikiFarms don’t mention how many wikis never take off. Right now, Oddwiki has 395 wikis, 182 of them have not been edited in half a year – and wikis not edited in a year are being deleted automatically, so they’re no longer counted. Thus, the surviving wikis must be offering “something” – some kind of entertainment or help or knowledge that others find interesting. Interesting enough so that some start contributing.

In general terms, these wikis do “problem solving”. For there to be problem solving, there needs to be a way to add new problems, edit them, link them to related problems, a way to build trust in the solutions suggested, which also means building trust in the wiki contributors, which means learning to know them, which means learning about OffTopic issues. And slowly, a community forms.

The architecture of the wiki also encourages PeerReview and social process instead of strict workflows encoded in the software. See HowWikiWorks.

These observations give us the basic structure of most wikis:

Pattern Language Wikis

A PatternLanguage is a set of named entities (“patterns”), each containing a problem description, and a “best practice” solution to the problem. It’s a very nice way of collecting and structuring useful, pragmatic information, without much formallism and without academic rigor.

The social dynamics on a wiki as described above, however, modify the result. As people come together and strive to create a page per pattern, collecting information, the realize that they also need pages for themselves, the need pages to define the prerequisites on their pattern pages, they need pages to discuss unintended consequences, they create pages for tangential information, and so the entire system starts to grow beyond a simple pattern language.

Some of the new pages without a pattern are still useful in other contexts, and thus the pagename can be used like a pattern: It has a catchy name, and it links to more information. The only difference is that the new page is not a pattern description. Thus, where as some pages on the wiki form a PatternLanguage, a larger superset of these pages forms a LinkLanguage.

We can derive some more consequences from this observation:

Lessons learnt on Community Wiki

On this wiki, we have tried various experiments adding new features to the wiki software, trying to gauge the effect it will have on our own community. Here’s a selection of these experiments:

This was largely a success. We used alternating indentation to denote different authors, we tried alternating font slant (normal vs. italic) to denote different authors, we tried so-called macros that would expand -- AlexSchroeder or AlexSchroeder 2006-03-13 20:03 UTC and similar sequences into signatures, but none of them was as popular as the use of real pictures (“portraits”) and an alternating background hue. As soon as we started to use those, all the other features fell into disuse.
Editable SideBar
This was largely a success. We use it for announcements, to list members, linking to related communities, and indicating TelePresence. More discussion to follow.
Blog within the wiki using DatePages
Largely a success. More discussion to follow.
Switchable CSS
Not used.
Success! Collective experimentation with new features happened on CommunityWiki, but as soon as the SideBar looked better, nothing else was done. On Oddwiki, however, the editable {CSS Cascading Style Sheet} has proven to be very popular.
French Translations. Partially successful. Not sure how much reach they have in the French wikisphere; not sure how much this enabled things like the Oddwiki:FĂȘteInternet?/.
Indeterminate effect. We like it, but does anybody else?
Multilingual pages seemed to be quite popular for a while, but multilingual contributors mainly switched to English or left the community.
Failure. We liked it, but lost interested. We’re not using the data to create trails from page to page, creating new short-cuts and pointing out interesting links to go on to.

What can we learn?

Multilingual Wikis

A major problem for multilingual wikis is motivation of translators. The following is based on observation alone; no formal interviews were conducted.

On EmacsWiki nobody is translating for the sake of translating. In fact, barey any translation is going on. Most translations just involve the EmacsWiki:SiteMap.

On CommunityWiki a single individual, ChristopheDucamp, has been very interested in translating, because he is trying to bridge the gap between Community Wiki (predominantly English) and CRAO Wiki (French). He has also managed to make the French wikisphere/blogosphere a paying job, so getting new input from other languages is of immediate interest to him.

Similar explanations apply to the various translators on the Oddmuse site: They all felt at some time or another that they were helping their language community connect with the rest of the Internet, but dropped their translation efforts after a while. One possible explanation could be that the motivation of bridging communities only motivates as far as helping non-English speakers to get started. As soon as they have their own Oddmuse site with the basics in place, no further translation is necessary, as many hackers seem to believe that technical aptitude and knowledge of English go hand in hand. Thus, non-English translations only have to cover the basics for the non-technically minded users.

The MultilingualExperiment on Community Wiki seems to indicate that some people are interested in novel approaches to multilingual sites (eg. interlacing various languages on a single page), but the sub-community was not motivated enough to start a large-scale translation effort.

Given my doubt in an inherent motivation of translators, an entirely different approach for multilingual sites seems more appropriate. Instead of defining timely translations as goals, here’s a different list of success criteria:

If the wiki is supposed to be maintained by volunteers, it must take motivation into account – it’s a top priority.

Guiding the Process

There are various ways of tweaking the social system of a wiki – these are the “tools” of the information architect trying to influence the wiki process:

Each of these choices is called a “convention”. The sum total of these conventions is called a WikiProcess. A WikiProcess is roughly analogous to a structure of governance for a wiki, but not quite; a WikiProcess encompasses style guidelines and CommunityExpectations, whereas the structure of a constitutional government is restricted to DecisionMakingProcesses? and absolute laws.

Every wiki has its own WikiProcess, but one can still roughly categorize them. Most wikis today work off a consensus-based model called TheWikiWay.

Stuff to think about

While this page was hosted on CommunityWiki, LionKimbro noted that he used the CommunityMaintainedCss all the time. He loved it and was disappointed when it was swiped out. The context was important to figure things out.

He also claimed that people use and link to the FrontPage.

And he frequently checks WhoIsWatchingUs.

MattisManzel also felt that it was I who had turned down the multilingual experiment. He also linked to NoLeader when he said it.


  1. I don’t want to see this page thrown away.
  2. The page is chaotic, and needs work. Likely division into multiple pages.
  3. I strongly disagree with a handful of things that the page says.

(In particular, I love recent readers, aka “WhoIsWatchingUs,” aka “Big Brother mode,” and still think it’s a great success. I check it regularly.

If there’s any problem with it, it’s that occasionally, it seems to wipe itself out, and the history only goes back only like, 20-30 minutes. (I also get confused by the Anonymouses: Can we number them Anonymous-1, Anonymous-2, Anonymous-3, tied to IP address, but not reveal the IP address?)

As for the LinkLanguage and PatternLanguage discussion: How about we call it “WikiTheoryBuildingPractices??” Or perhaps just “WikiTheoryBuilding??”

The language of “problem solving,” as being the activity that binds a community- it works, sort of, for me, but it brings to my mind a certain attitude: “We’re here, to solve problems.” That doesn’t reflect my feeling: “I’m here, to explore.” (Also much more in line with the MissionStatement.) True: We are “solving problems,” because: We’re curious about the world, we’re thinking thoughts, sometimes we even talk explicitely in terms of solving a particular problem. But it just doesn’t capture it for me. Suppose we were bonded by purely social bonds, CommunityOverContent, whatever- are we “solving the problem” of needing people to talk with? It just doesn’t sound right: We don’t usually think of that need as a problem. Imagine sex: “My sex partner is solving the problem of my sexual needs.” Again, doesn’t sound quite right.

I would want to segregate the discussion of “what pulls the community together,” from the discussion of “what’s the relationship between PatternLanguage and LinkLanguage.” Which I’d segregate still further, from “What are good practices for use in Wiki, if you’re into the whole LinkLanguage thing.” (TheoryBuilding, or WikiTheoryBuilding?, or whatever.)

I’m starting to feel that we have some pages that contain nuggets of valuable information and discussion – the lower layers of our LinkLanguage. What we lack – and what I think Bayle alluded to – was that we lack pages pulling things together. Essays that are not a simple ForwardIndex, not a simple summary. They tell a story, explain the big picture on a NarrativeLevel. We have diagrams, and that’s cool for reorienting ourselves when we get lost. But we also need to provide those longer pages.

I feel like this could be one of these longer pages: It would explain how the various elements of a wiki interface play together and lead to TheoryBuilding (I like the word). We can move the multilingual stuff and the other assessments of various features away to a separate page, only adding the stuff that actually worked with some more explanation.

As for “problem solving” – I find myself hanging out on venues that support problem solving: #emacs, #wiki, #oddmuse, CommunityWiki, etc. It’s all about things we want to do and helping others do the things they want to do. It’s totally separate from my life as a friend & lover. So I’m clearly not only problem solving when I hang out with my friends, just as I’m not only socializing when I hang out on IRC. It is important for me to describe the motivation I have for joining these venues, because motivation is a major element in the narrative (just as identity production is a major element on Danah Boyd’s narrative on MySpace). And clearly identity production or “hanging out” is not my motivation for writing on CommunityWiki. So what is it – and what should we call it? Curiosity and “thinking” is not too good a description, either.

Just a quick note: pages pulling things together does not necessarily imply long pages – a long narrative that “pulls stuff together” could still be broken into smaller pages, provided that care it taken to make it clear that each of those smaller pages are part of a larger whole – like sections in a paper, or chapters in a book.

At the extreme, if we want to linearize stuff, each page in the collection could have a footer: “This page is part of the _____ essay collection. Previous – TOC – Next”.

I agree that longer pages are really the only unambiguous way to say “all of this text belongs together”, but I think the benefits of shorter pages are worth making things seem just a little disconnected.

For example, MeatballWiki has many “pulling stuff together” pages, yet many of them are short.

I don’t believe I have a coherent model of why people like us assemble the way we do; What Alex was describing, and labeled “problem solving.” I agree that he’s describing something real, but we just don’t have the term for it. I agree: “curiosity” doesn’t describe it either.

And it’s different than what the MySpace people are doing; And (sounding familiar,) it’s not clear to me that “IdentityProduction?” is quite appropriate, either.

Honestly, frankly, in many ways, I’m perplexed, as to why MySpace people do what MySpace people do. I wouldn’t feel comfortable at all writing about what they’re doing, simply because I don’t feel I have ground to stand on, and because I don’t want to be hegemonic.

I would be much more at ease with a description of what we do, and then making up a label for that, to establish some LinkLanguage.

As for a big linear thing: I’m just not clear on the why. I guess I’ve become too much of a HyperText man.

This isn’t to say I don’t think there’s a good reason why, I’m just saying: I don’t know it. Not sitting here and typing right now.

I do not feel loss for a bigger story. (I’m not saying there isn’t one missing; I’m just not perceiving the lack.) I don’t think that our pages are ShallowPages. Just to pick one at random: ContentRouting. It says more than just a definition. (ex: It says that ideally, there wouldn’t have to be ContentRouting. It talks about why we would want to route content.) It does have faults. (ex: It could tell more, in an imaginitive way, about the benefits of ContentRouting software.) I do think it’s generally a good page. What’s the big story behind it? HyperSocial, perhaps. IntelligenceIsInfoTimePlace, perhaps; And we could retrofit that page; it’s been a long time. Or CollectiveIntelligence, which admits a lack of understanding. (So we couldn’t very well write a big story behind it.)

Some times, I question whether big stories really are “big.” Most of the big stories I’ve seen are actually little stories, that just happen to be fractal, recursive, deep. Maybe I’ve just been looking at things as interlocking systems for too long; But I tend to pick a level of abstraction, break it into a few, managable pieces, and then desribe those pieces. The result is an enormous collection of small stories. At any level of abstraction, I feel that I get a “small story.”

The main value of linearization, it seems to me, is the ability to go to print. Beyond that; I find myself questioning when linear beats HyperText.

“Fiction.” It seems clear to me: There are fictional story tellings that are best done linearly. But are they? (I wonder:) The Narnia Chronicles are not strictly linear. And indeed; there are actually two tellings of the Narnia chronicles, you can read about them on Wikipedia.

Kids ask adults: “But tell me the story about blah blah.

UruseiYatsura? was originally going to be about Ataru; But the fans cried “Lum!” Lum was nowhere to be seen in episode 2, perhaps even episode 3. (My memory isn’t clear.) But people said, “no, no,” and Takahashi wisely went back to the Lum thread.

The Greek Myths seem a lot like a hypertext to me, as well.

Sorry; I’m busy thinking about HyperText; While y’all are trying to write a book. Don’t let my confusion & doubt stop you!

And I will help, if you want to do it, even though I don’t quite understand it.

(I’d like to write a page on HyperText, and copy some of this here. Is that allright with y’all, or are we too spread out already?)

Don’t you ever want to see the big picture? It’s like cleaning up your room, putting all the CDs back, the world music here, jazz there, Radiohead and Tom Waits on their special stacks, look at old friends and trying to see – ok, so what books did I buy, and what did I like, and what would I recommend, oh and that one was interesting, and start leafing through some old volumes of the ethnology encyclopedia from the 70s. Step back, account for what’s there, provide a coherent overview, a good introduction, pulling the strings together before we let them fly. It doesn’t have to be a book. But it should be coherent, non-fractal. A good starting point.

I often feel that vague unease on Community Wiki. I feel lost in maze of tiny little pages, all alike.

So what I’d like is for the SiteMap to point at our major categories, and those categories should be a ForwardIndex to the stuff that belongs, and the SiteMap should also link to big topic pages – stuff that involves many pages, different categories, important stuff that’s spread out over many pages needs an introduction somewhere.

I’ve used the word “big” again. Don’t let it confuse you. I don’t need long pages. It's not big in kilobytes. It's big in our hearts.

Like the HiveMind page.

OK, I think I’m with you!

Which big story do you want to tell?

See TheoryBuilding

Still thinking about this…


  • I don’t know if it’s fair of ourselves to ourselves to establish specific goals for the CommunityWiki, though I have been thinking about it.
  • We may want to establish balance goals or “quotas,” though, moderators on our attention and process. Specificly: We or I may want to dedicate X portion of time to contextualizing, to contextualization.
    • I had done contextualizing in the notebook system, by requiring that everything that was said was on the master map. For ourselves here, that would mean requiring everything rooted in the category system, or something like that. I could see us reaffirming that discipline, and working towards it, though I am skeptical of the form, and have some skepticism about my own notebook system as well.
    • Instead, we may just decide to dedicate a portion of time to contextualizing what has emerged in our thinking. How we would do that, what it would look like, we don’t know, though I have some ideas. I’m not too happy with them, on the surface, though; I would want a “something more” to add to them.
  • I haven’t made LinkLanguage for it, so briefly: By “contextualizing,” I mean: putting thoughts side by side other thoughts, doing the work required to get a “big picture,” and so on… The big picture is presently something that we intuit, and thus build CommunalLore? from. Contextualizing it here, we make it ExplicitKnowledge?. I’m not sure that the Category system does that for us very well; the category system itself requires contextualization, and, further, makes for poor LinkLanguage.
  • It’s conceivable that our varied interests work well together towards writing pages, but emerge from different interests and “big stories.” Case in point: I don’t know how many people here really think the HiveMind is all that interesting, though it is a BigPicture?.
  • But it’s conceivable too that there’s greater overlap than I think, and that I’m just being too cautious.
  • I believe that bottom-up forming the contexts is the thing to do.
  • I think we/I would need to budget for contextualizing, because it is expensive.
  • But the benefits of contextualizing are enormous, and new contexts can communicate far more than the maze of twisty passages, all alike.

Define external redirect: ExplicitKnowledge Alex Workspace FĂȘteInternet BigPicture CommunalLore WikiTheoryBuildingPractices WikiTheoryBuilding RulesOfOrder DecisionMakingProcesses IdentityProduction UruseiYatsura

EditNearLinks: CommunityExpectations StyleGuide CategoryWikiConventions PeerReview EmacsWiki HyperText MeatballWiki WikiWikiWeb PortlandPatternRepository WikiFarm