July 16, 2006


The new wiki research list— part of the ramp up to WikiSym in Denmark (August 21-23), where I'll be talking about intimate information — has been avidly discussing the need for WYSIWYG editing for wikis.

Is wiki markup a barrier for wider usage of wikis? Certainly, many reluctant wiki users tell us so. But should we take their advice at face value? I have grave doubts on two fronts.

First, should EverybodyWriteWikis? Wikis have been remarkably successful as a technical forum and as a convenient, lightweight collaborative medium. Wikipedia is famously popular and notoriously controversial. As Ward Cunningham reminded us in the mailing list, an important part of WhyWikiWorks is that the code can be very simple, easy to understand and to adapt to business needs. But the argument for the utility of wikis does not require them to be useful to everybody, and certainly doesn't require that everybody write.

Obstacles and constraints embedded in writing systems can sometimes lead to better writing.

Second, I'm a publisher, and everything we know about criticism in the arts tells us to look beyond naive reactions. People (sometimes) tell you what they think they like and why, but they're often mistaken.

Specifically, the insistence on WYSIWYG features (which must work exactly as Microsoft Word does, but without the complexity and cost of Word) is often a comfortable explanation for deeper, inchoate anxieties. In a large organization, workers asked to contribute to and cultivate wikis may foresee trouble. They are asked to devote resources and invest credibility in the wiki. Eventually, praise or blame will be assigned -- and since communication ROI is difficult to measure, that praise or blame may well depend on the organizational climate at some future date, on whether the stock is performing well and revenue targets are being met. But, rewards may well accrue to the instigators, to top management, to consultants, or to Ward Cunningham's invention of the wiki. Blame, on the other hand, might well be passed along to those who have spent the most time on the perceived failure. In the face of uncertainty, the familiar and comfortable complaint that "it's not like Word" frees us from unwanted burdens.

The WYSIWYG response can be adapted to almost any circumstance; it's the equivalent of "I know what I like!", or "Katherine Hepburn is box-office poison," or "Democrats are intellectual and indecisive." It's another way for the audience to elect themselves superior to reason. If a system provides basic WYSIWYG functionality, the need will shift to high-fidelity WYSIWYG; you don't just need bold and italic, you need stylesheets and callouts. As advanced features are added, their cost and complexity can be recruited to aid the argument: we already paid for Word, now you want us to buy and learn another editor?

It may sometimes be preferable to stay away from elaborate presentation, which in some contemporary businesses has become an arms race.