Wikis

If you’ve not seen a Wiki, where have you been??? Thanks to projects like Wikipedia, the wiki has entered mainstream culture and deservedly so. They’re an amazingly simple, but incredibly powerful, collaborative tool and my thanks go to Ward Cunningham, creator of WikiWikiWeb in the mid-90s.

My first experience of a wiki was in something like 2000. I’d like to say it had an impact on me as deep as my first use of the World Wide Web in 1994, but it didn’t. It was more subtle, more natural than that – it felt like the next logical step from web pages, rather than some huge evolution.

I have a confession to make: I actually like writing documentation. I don’t always get the time to write as much documentation as I would like, but I don’t find it the chore some developers do. The main problem is that documentation gets stale very quickly, and when I write I often want to branch off at a tangent or start in the middle. A bit like the Web, really.

Wikis reduce the barriers to collaboration, which is why they appeal to me, and make it easier to keep content fresh. Rather than those horrible documentation systems that lock files and force you to deal with file format issues like whether you’re using a particular version of Word or OpenOffice, wikis are open through the “standard” interface of a web browser. Using a simple and usually intuitive markup language, you can begin adding and updating content quickly. Look how successful Wikipedia has become, because people can contribute as much or as little as they want in order to collaboratively build and refine the pool of knowledge.

I love the fact our wiki at work has similarly built up over time into a repository of all kinds of useful information. It’s so easy for people to contribute tiny changes and fixes, reorganise information and create cross-references. Best of all, a lot of the information is overkill for a formal document and thus would be stored in people’s heads or even lost. I fear the day when someone who doesn’t understand the power of wikis forces us to change to the proprietary, locked-down and inflexible world of something like Sharepoint.

MoinMoin is my preferred wiki software at the moment. It’s open source, written in Python and provides more than enough features to cover my needs at home and at work. Our office wiki is powered by MoinMoin as well, and I’ve installed personal copies on my home machines to act like digital whiteboards. Using a wiki, I can keep project notes, build up documentation and organise my To Do lists easily.

So it may come as a surprise to find that I haven’t used wikis for one thing yet: testing! Fitnesse uses a wiki front-end to build Fit-style acceptance tests. It sounds like it could be ideal for me because I want to start researching better ways to undertake acceptance testing. It’s on my, wiki-based, To Do list.

Perhaps a subject for a future post…

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