WhatIsaWiki

We’re trying to extract some fundamental properties from wikis, trying to find some “core values” that made them as successful as they are.

Organic, Open, and Observable

Organic in this context stands for growth in small steps. Add a link, add some text, add more links, add more text, and eventually you network of concepts linked by name, easy to learn, explore, and restructure. It enables people to contribute in little steps.

Open means that this is easy to do for many people. It enables to take the little steps in the first place. It also enables people to easily undo changes.

Observable means that all these small contributions by a potentially large group of people remain visible to all for some time after they occur, not merely to those that happen to be around at the time. This enables PeerReview. In wikis, this is usually achieved using a central list of changes.

An emergent property of having a single list of changes is that the active community organises itself around peer review and collaboration.

“Open” was something of a revolution on the web when wiki came along, but not a stroke of genius or anything. “Organic” is nothing new: dictionaries are, by necessity, organic. Equally, “observable” is nothing new: Revision control predates wiki, for example. It’s fascinating to see that the combination of the three has this emergent property of community that is, to a large extent, unique to wiki.

Open

Anything important can be edited by anyone in TheAudience.

This covers both “simple access” and “simple editing”. Firstly, if you can see the wiki, and are in its audience, you are technically able to edit anything important (simple access). Secondly, if you are in the audience and technically able to edit the wiki, the level of technical sophistication required to actually do so must not exceed your technical aptitude (simple editing).

Organic

Concepts can be easily named, described and linked into the site

A wiki is fundamentally organized around concepts. These can include the people in the community, the basic terms used on the site, the ideas and patterns explored by the community, and the groupings used to organize the site. One term for this approach is a PatternLanguage; however, some do not like the term “pattern” here, as it is often used in a more technical sense. Each concept corresponds with some canonical name.

A wiki must be able grow and shrink dynamically; if the word “organic” is not evoking the image of a dynamic process in your mind, concentrate harder. We’re not talking about produce here. The wiki should also map onto the way the brain learns and stores information: through heavily-interlinked concepts, with some small handle (i.e. a name) pulling out a large chunk of information.

Observable

The community is formed around, and built on, pervasive PeerReview.

Everything the community (not the audience) does can be found via a central, pervasive PeerReview system. This serves as the hub of the community. The PeerReview system can be accessed via a single concept, RecentChanges. This concept is the part of a wiki in the greatest tension with the first principle, because it is important, yet allowing it to be edited can damage PeerReview. This can be rationalized by claiming that RecentChanges should not be used by TheAudience, only the community; hence, it is not important that it be fully editable.

(Note that the community can only be observed via its interactions with the open, organic, dynamic structure provided by the first two principles.)

What is a wiki not?

A wiki is not necessarily:

Discussion

This is some text I posted up on MeatBall:WhatIsaWiki. Actually, there’s more on that page, largely links to research that has stemmed from the three principles, but that’s not so hugely important; take a goosey if you’re interested. Mainly, I wanted to get this ball into the CW court! It’s my opinion that these three ideas — open, organic and observable — are exactly and solely what ‘wiki’ means. What do you all think? – ChrisPurcell

Hm. I think this is too broad. Is Open Source Software a wiki? Is an Open Space conference a wiki? Is a circle of friends a wiki? Or governed by wiki principles? I don’t think so, and yet all of them could conceivably be described as being open, organic, and observable.

Part of my point is that “wiki” is actually a very natural and useful pattern because it reflects good real-world behaviours. I don’t think a circle of friends is a wiki, because it doesn’t quite conform to “organic” or “observable”. Organic means learning (and teaching) via concepts, and there’s no way to observe how this changes over time. Nevertheless, the similarities you observe are quite intentional.

Open-source software with some kind of open history is open and observable — but organic?

Finally, an open space conference could well be a real-world instance of the wiki principles. So why not call it wiki? Fast in the real world! It doesn’t need to be a website, after all :)

Hm. Maybe it would work if we expanded the definitions of open, organic, and observable in this context. Some examples:

“Open” does not apply to a circle of friends because not anybody is allowed to join. There’s trust to be earned before joining, where as in a wiki, we assume good faith and revoke our trust if you abuse it.

“Organic” does not apply to open source software because the software does not automatically adapt to its users as a wiki does to its readers and authors. Anybody can write on the wiki, whereas skills and security issues limit who can contribute to a software project. Thus, change requires mediation via programmers and project members.

Something like that? I don’t think these ramifications are obvious and thus something like it should be worked into the main text – if you agree with it.

Sounds a good direction to take. I’d probably say that “organic” does not apply to open source software more because OSS typically is not designed organically – that is, in a way that maps well to human learning systems. What “organic software” could mean is an open problem. Also, while a circle of friends may be open (you might by default AssumeGoodFaith), it’s not observable, because nothing persists. What do you think?

I agree most with “organic”, because Wiki and OS software grow from small seeds in steps like a plant. The obvious difference has been dropped: that Wiki is a collection of web pages, so this is definitely missing, if you compare wikis to other systems. The “overservable” needs references to “diff” and “page history” to become complete.

What I’m less sure about is the “open”. We have lots of wikis who are not open. All wikis are only relatively open, in a social sense. Many wikis are “as open as possible”. We have wikis as PIMs, which are completely private. So openness is an important aspect of wiki, something to consider, a spectrum, but not a set property. imho.

I think you’re missing Chris’ point, Helmut. Chris wants to apply the term “wiki” to other things such as an Open Space conference, therefore using “pages”, “page history” and “diff” in the examples would be counterproductive.

Personally, I don’t think the three terms he proposed are good enough, or they will only be good enough if we add a lot more precision to the wording. So maybe I’m in the same boat as Helmut, I’m not sure. :)

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty stuff:

How is something designed “organically”? It’s still not clear to me what “organically” is supposed to mean in this context. Obviously my intuitive interpretation doesn’t fit. So what is it? Incremental design? Modular design? Changing design? Flexible design? All natural? ;)

The same is true for the term “observable”. My intuitive interpretation doesn’t fit. What is observable? You can see it in ways that you cannot see friendship, eg. via artifacts instead of behavioural patterns? If so, let us be more specific and say that “observable” means context free discovery and observability of non-ephemeral artifacts (eg. a list of changes, a list of meeting minutes, and so on) – things you can find and understand without anybody telling you how to interpret them, allowing you to both assess the its current state and observe all changes to it over time. (“It” being the wiki.)

Mmmh, I really didn’t give this point enough attention, maybe because it is even less dominant on MeatBall:WhatIsaWiki. If this is the point, I don’t agree, on a pragmatic basis. It’s hard enough to get a consensual picture of what wiki is ….. without inventing complications by abstractions to potentially unknown media. “wiki” still means “wiki web” and this means essentially “quickly changable web”.

So imho it’s: (1) web (2) wiki/quick (3) transparent/observable (4) organic/CA stepwise growth (5) open/group/society. One may drop (1)+(2) for insiders.

If you want something else, invent a new word, but don’t redefine “wiki”.

BTW just yesterday I gave an introduction to wiki to a rural audience and used (1)+(3)+(4)+(5) the first time. I think it was better understood than former “wiki fundamentals”.

Maybe “organic” is used to describe what some call Wikipedia:Autopoiesis? That is, a system that “grows” itself in dynamic and network-distributed ways (as in ecosystems, Life “webs”, etc). So, could we instead replace “Organic” with “Autopoietic”? Perhaps “Autopoietic” is to obscure a word for the purposes here. But, I do understand the intention of “Organic”, to describe a “self-perpetuating/creating”.

The use of “organic” here, so far as I understand it, also refers to the concept of being Wikipedia:Emergent. In fact, I dare to suggest that “emergent” might be a huge part of what is meant by “organic” in reference to the nature of wikis. All Open wikis possess “emergent” properties. Wikis are “emergent” in nature.

I disagree with the assessment that wikis are emergent. I understand the term “emergent” to apply to a property: A surprising property appears that was not there before, and was not designed to appear. So before you can use the term in the wiki context, we need to know what property we are talking about.

One example might be the bonding of individual contributors. That would be a new property of the group using the system (they’re friends now when they were not before), and nothing in the design of the system (pages, changes, editing, web) gave us an indication that this would happen. I personally disagree with this example, but it would at least be an assertion involving an emergent property of a wiki system that we could verify.

Since the pages do not write themselves, just as software source files don’t write themselves, unlike ants, cells, mobs, or agents in a game or simulation, I think the term “autopoietic” does not apply, either. A traditional wiki is very much tied to the manual interventions and manipulations of humans using and changing it. As such, it is an artifact (a created thing that doesn’t recreate itself, reusing resources and all that). There seems to be nothing self-creating about it. That is, unless you want to use the term “wiki” for the bionic system of editable website + the people using it. I’d disagree with such a redefinition, however.

I find myself in much stronger agreement with Helmut, here: I agree that overloading the term wiki to mean things outside the web is confusing and doesn’t buy us anything.

Personally, I also don’t like to make generalisations about a system such as “the three defininig principles” because basically that reduces concrete complex objects in our world (such as a set of websites, their idiosyncrasies, and their users) to a tiny list of definitions that usually so narrow that we need whole essays to support them (in which case we should write the essays and use the “principles” as guides for good writing, not as goals per se), or so broad that they are trivially true and therefore have no explanatory power.

I am still interested in writing these essays, picking concrete examples, explaining what is new about them, how they transformed the people that joined its community, how they transformed the societies we live in, and maybe ground these observations in particular properties that were found to be essential for the success or failure we observed. Based on that, we can formulate principles such as “the changes of the system needs to be observable to newcomers and regulars alike, even if the current state of the system is unknown, because reacting to changes creates a much more dynamic environment than simply reaction to state”. But those “principles” would be well grounded in the essays their examples.

This would help us appreciate particular system properties (such as having a very visible list of recent changes) and their effect (inviting people to collaborate on a small set of “current” pages), and help us design new systems. Getting there, using the three principles listed above as potential starting points, would be a worthwhile goal, I think.

I agree with Alex about goals. “Open, organic and observable” seem to work well as “fundamentals” because, at least for me, they clarify questions about wikis - take MeatBall:WhyWikiWorks as an example - and also clarify several goals of WikiTechnology - to improve, or address problems with, the three fundamentals.

I appreciate that stretching “wiki” to cover things other than websites is (a) questionable and (b) not something the community here is interested in. I think if we implicitly assume that a wiki is a website, that should cover things adequately for now. My “embrace other media” is more a forwards-looking statement - DeathOfTheWeb and all. Talking about conferences and software distracts from the point, and is not something I “want” to do.

By “organic”, I meant exactly “organised around concepts”: organic in the sense of the human brain’s capacity to learn. That is, big chunks of stuff (pages) attached to little chunks of stuff (titles) that are easy to remember: a conceptual map, if you will. I think this is a strong factor behind the success of the wiki. You can see more of this idea on AuralWiki - symphonies accessed via memorable little ditties - and PictorialWiki - detailed scenes accessed via pictogram doodles.

“Observable” essentially means the italicised sentence following the term, but I shall explain why. Everything the community does must be observable, specifically the details of what occurred must be visible to all for some time after they occur, not merely those that happen to be around at the time. By the open principle, all of these actions must be revokable and alterable. Together, these enable pervasive PeerReview. By the organic principle, observability should be provided through a single concept: RecentChanges. An emergent property of having a single access-point is that the active community organises itself around observation and PeerReview. Hence, given “open” and “organic”, observable means the community is formed around, and built on, pervasive PeerReview.

“Open” was something of a revolution on the web when wiki came along, but not a stroke of genius or anything. “Organic” is nothing new: dictionaries are, by necessity, organic. Equally, “observable” is nothing new: revision control predates wiki, I believe. It’s fascinating to see that the combination of the three has this emergent property of community that is, to a large extent, unique to wiki.

Alex: I see what you mean. Emergence does not have to just apply to simple actors or agents (cells, cellular automata in modelling simulations, ect). Humans, human communities, and human behavior can of course also be through the lens of complexity theory. One thing that is (genrally) an emergent property is the co-created content of the wiki. The co-created DocumentMode pages. I think that the LinkLanguage function actually possibly enables this emergent property of DocumentMode pages. I also think that on a larger scale, the RecentChanges feeds back to people on the indivual scale from the group scale.

But, as you mention, maybe this metaphor/assessment/lens is not useful for WhatIsWiki. I like the idea of writing these essays, picking concrete examples, explaining what is new about them, how they transformed the people that joined its community, how they transformed the societies we live in, and maybe ground these observations in particular properties that were found to be essential for the success or failure we observed. Based on that, we can formulate principles such as “the changes of the system needs to be observable to newcomers and regulars alike, even if the current state of the system is unknown, because reacting to changes creates a much more dynamic environment than simply reaction to state”.

This idea helps generate building blocks, and that’s a really useful goal.

Alex also wrote: As such, it is an artifact (a created thing that doesn’t recreate itself, reusing resources and all that). There seems to be nothing self-creating about it. That is, unless you want to use the term “wiki” for the bionic system of editable website + the people using it. I’d disagree with such a redefinition, however.

Maybe that is along the lines of what I was thinking. My thinking about technology is strongly influenced by MarshallMcLuhan, and his definition of technology as “extensions of man”.

MarshallMcLuhan saw that human-created artifacts were extensions of human Bio Psycho Social systems.

So, if I write down thoughts in a note book, that note book, and the text it contains are an extension of my memory. When I write on this wiki site, it is an extension of the activity in my dynamic neuronal systems, in my brain.

When I write in this wiki, and someone comes along and changes what I write, or refactors it, it feeds back to the scale community in the form of recent changes, and the artifact (the page) is an ongoing emergent property of our combined activity through this extension of our bio psycho social “selves”.

I see. I agree with the dynamics you are describing. I had a similar example up there where I proposed that the wiki would change a property of the people using it: They would become friends because the wiki invited them to collaborate. Certainly the wiki growing and changing is the result of our interactions.

Did you mean to support your point about the wiki possibly being autopoietic by the above, however? I think your proposed shift in perspective would not be enough:

What you are saying is that we extend our selves into the wiki, but as far as I can tell, that just means that editing each other’s pages is like teaching or punching: It changes something belonging to others. It seems to me that this the same as saying that editing the wiki is a means to communicate, much like talking and punching. I don’t think that supports the view that a wiki can be autopoietic, just as the air or talk doesn’t self-create more talk or the fists don’t self-create more fists and more fighting. Well, on a metaphysical level, I guess you could in fact say that loud words create more loud words, or a fist fight creates more fighting as more people join. But I don’t think this radical shift in perspective away from humans to their artifacts as subjects buys us anything.

Maybe we can take it into another direction, however: If we extend ourselves into the wiki, then we’re saying wiki is a communication platform, participating is a learning experience in the full sense of the word (Calvin’s dad would say “it builds character”). All these things we have already written about on some page or another. We could use this idea of immersion or extension as a starting point to pull all these other potential benefits together. Another chapter in the essay. ;)

No, I think your argument is definitely right, that “Autopoietic” does not apply to the nature of wiki. So, I would drop that. So, maybe “organic” refers, not to “Autopoietic”, but rather to many to many, decentralized, hybrid hierachy/network distributed growth. But the refactored definition that you have above captures that mostly, I think. I think that you are right, too, about the wiki potentially changing properties of the people using it. This is the property of all “mediums”< according to MarshallMcLuhan. McLuhan? is quoted as saying:

“Technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented.”-Marshall McLuhan?

Although I agree that I was wrong about “Autopoietic”, I still see that some aspects of wiki have emergent properties,as we discussed above. And, I think that we tend to use wikis as an extension of BioPsychoSocial? selves. I agree that you are on a better track with your last paragraph. That human created mediums are an extension of our BioPsychoSocial? selves. That wiki is a communication medium (platform). Although, wiki is also potentially a many to many knowledge collecting and knowledge contextualizing medium. Both our own knowledge as individuals, and outside knowledge are collected, co-contextaulized, and merged in ways that we co-define as useful. This also leads into us usign wiki as a TheoryBuilding medium. It is also a relationship enhancing (community creating and sustaining) medium, via cooperation, communication, and feedback from group output via recent changes, and via intercommunity content liking and LinkLanugauge?. These are really definitions of how we tend to use wiki. Yet, I have found many uses for wiki software, some which are slightly to markedly different than the CommunityWiki way of using wiki. See

http://www.socialtext.net/medialiteracy/index.cgi?uses_for_wikis

That is part of course material that I wrote for Stanford University’s Participatory Media Literacy course. I have already found even more uses beyind those listed there (so I’ll have to update that soon). However, I can see how our “organic”, “Open”, and “Observable” can apply to most all of these uses (with the exception of business intranet use, where “open” and “observable” are constrained in some applications).

“Open” is meant to mean “anyone who can view can edit”, and “observable” to mean “any changes to stuff you can view can be observed”. Thus, you can constrain who can see stuff without losing the inherent wiki-ness. Did you have some other restriction in mind around business internet use, Sam?

I agree, wiki (usually) is “open” and “observable” to those with permission to see it. But yes, that is what I meant by “constrained”=limited to the people who have permissions. But you make a good point about defining “Open” and “Observable” (Transparent?). Even in controlled environments, it is “Open” and “Observable” to those who are exposed to the full system.

It’s my opinion, and this is expressed above, that restricting who can access pages does not lose the inherent wiki-ness of a site: after all, confidential information is confidential information, and it should be possible to publish it safely on a wiki. What goes against the “wiki” grain is restricting editing privileges, moving from PeerReview to a more authoritarian system. Of course, there are good reasons in many situations for doing so, especially spam, but if it’s the norm rather than the exception, I’d question whether the site is still truly a wiki. This is mentioned on MeatBall:WhatIsaWiki: as a compromise, the term “closed wiki” is useful.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dnL00TdmLY, WhatIsaWiki pedagogical

Define external redirect: LinkLanugauge McLuhan BioPsychoSocial

EditNearLinks: PictorialWiki WikiTechnology MarshallMcLuhan DocumentMode PeerReview AuralWiki DeathOfTheWeb TheAudience

Languages:

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MeatBall:WhatIsaWiki