June 4, 2008
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Wiki Mystery 2: To Name Is To Link

But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
Knew not; to speak I tried, and forthwith spake;
My tongue obeyed, and readily could name,
Whate’er I saw. — Paradise Lost VIII.269-71

Slightly revised to remove some unintended condescension. Sorry. One of those days.

The archetypical WikiLink creates and summons a page by writing its name. If the page doesn't exist, the wiki makes one. Following the link brings us to the page. What could be simpler?

One consequence is that links on wikis tend to be nouns, noun phrases, or commands. In Ward's wiki, this led to the characteristically polemic style of the Patterns world in which scriptural chapters have names like "YouArentGonnaNeedIt" and "AdoptUnitTests". Because the link always leads to what it names, wikis are attracted to transparent sincerity: what you see is where you go, and what it means is just what it says.

Another consequence is that it's hard to use links ironically, lyrically, or metaphorically in a wiki. A link to SomePage goes to that page; it can't easily lead to a commentary or a rebuttal or an alternative or an analogy or an anecdotal illustration of your point. You can use richer markup to effect feints, but as the markup grows more complex, the site becomes less and less like a wiki.

Therefore: wikis are hypertexts, but they tend to confine themselves to a restricted hypertext rhetoric.

If this were true: If these arguments were true, we'd expect wikis to thrive in pedagogical environments, where clarity/brevity/sincerity rule the day and where irony and lyricism might confuse students. We’d also expect wikis to thrive in areas where meanings ought to be univalent, such as product reviews, employee policy handbooks, and project management reports. On the other hand, we'd expect wikis to be less suitable for fiction, poetry, scholarship, and science.

Arguably, these expected consequences are what we observe in the field.

Discuss. (This is the second in a series of wiki mysteries — challenges to the wiki and hypertext community. The first wiki mystery asked whether MediaWiki, the foundation of Wikipedia, is really a wiki.)