Keeping Wikis Useful

Most wiki-based documentation I have worked with has sooner or later turned into a tangled mess of outdated information. Some pages are maintained actively while others aren’t updated anymore and you never know how reliable the information still is. For a while I’ve been thinking about a simple technical solution to this problem. Here it is.

My general assumption is that new information is more reliable than old information. That means, a page that has been changed yesterday has a higher chance of being relevant than a page last changed five years ago. The idea isn’t particularly new: It’s a bit similar to what Eclipse Mylyn does for Java developers.

A wiki is a graph consisting of pages connected via links. Using age information, you could highlight the subgraph that is most active in respect to changes. Links that lead to newer pages are displayed in a lighter color while links to older pages are displayed in darker colors. Page titles could be color-coded in the same way. Users always know if they’re in the active center of a wiki or in a rarely updated, possibly outdated area. You can always push pages into the center by making a trivial edit.

Taking the idea one step further, with a little bit more effort a rating system could be implemented. The system could take implicit parameters like age information or page impressions and explicit parameters like user ratings into account. For each page, a score could be calculated that is used for color-coding of links and page titles.

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4 Responses to Keeping Wikis Useful

  1. David Linsin says:

    I like your color approach and it would definitely help to resolve some of the problems surrounding wikis. Unfortunately it doesn’t help with the problem of updating/maintaining content.

    I think wikis needs a strong notion of ownership and in addition to that people, willing to contribute/update and maintain the stuff that they produce. If those requirements are not met it will end up being a pile of meaningless pages and links.

    I’ve been there myself. If I don’t feel responsible for the stuff I produce, I’ll never come back and update/maintain it.

  2. mafr says:

    Yeah, I agree. A technical solution will only go so far.

    I have seen wikis work, but those were focused, project specific wikis where a small number of very dedicated people felt responsible for it. Your typical corporate wiki will usually end in chaos because documentation never has the priority it deserves. The color coding approach helps to identify “hot spots”, but if nobody takes responsibility, the wiki will still decay.

  3. Christoph Schmitz says:

    What you’re describing in the last paragraph makes me think of the whole body of work that has been done around web ranking (think PageRank) and web structure mining as an application of graph theory, social network analysis and complex networks.

    You could, for example, implement some kind of warning system – page A has a high rank and a lot of impressions, but page B it points to seems to be outdated. Or: if you update page A and B, are you sure that C and D shouldn’t be updated as well? That kind of thing.

    The bad news is, IMHO, that people who get paid to play with that kind of measures don’t have access to corporate wikis and vice versa. Probably someone has looked at Wikipedia from that viewpoint, but I’m not sure Wikipedia is in the same class of problems you’re describing.

  4. mafr says:

    Interesting! Given that a corporate wiki isn’t subject to SEO tactics, the ranking algorithm could be relatively simple and doesn’t have to prevent abuse in a way the PageRank implementation does.

    Do you have a few literature pointers for me? What I found is the HITS algorithm, but I guess there’s more.

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