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Rerun: blogs, forums, wikis

I wrote this entry for KWLUG, (in particular this entry but I am reposting it here for archival purposes.

In thinking about the new website, we should address the question of how we communicate. Some of the CMS systems we are considering offer blogs, wikis, discussion boards and other forms of interaction. Should we use these things? What are the differences between them? Could we end up using too many of them?

Personally, I do not believe that blogs, wikis and discussion forums are interchangable. We treat them differently, and they are good at different things. Here are my working hypotheses as to what these different media are good for. Suggestions for how the LUG should use them in our new website follow.

First, let's consider the humble static website. In some sense, a static website and a comment form should be all we need for full interactivity: if people saw something they didn't like, they could just send a comment which the webmaster would read. The webmaster could then make changes based on those comments. It doesn't work like that in reality, of course. Mostly, people refrain from commenting, and for the most part static websites don't change much. If all we wanted to do was advertise upcoming meetings, this might be enough. But I think we can do better.

One option is to use a wiki for everything. Wikis are very good for summarizing discussions; it is very easy to add new information and reorganize old information. Wiki pages often have easily-parsed URLs, which makes them easy to link to.

Then, of course, there is that aspect of wikis that make them famous: they are accessible to everybody. Wiki syntax is easy to pick up, and all members of the wiki have full rights to reorganize information. In theory, this means any or all members of an organization can serve as "wiki masters".

Wikis have their weaknesses, however. One problem is that they are not that good for holding discussions. If you modify the text directly it becomes tricky to tell who said what; if you add attribution to comments then you clutter up the wiki. Wikis with "talk" pages get around this somewhat, but talk pages are not very wiki-like.

The other big problem with wikis is the tragedy of the commons. Because everybody has access to modify a wiki, people feel less responsibility to do so. Creating a wiki does not guarantee a flock of eagers content-creators any more than releasing source code guarantees a flock of eager maintainers for your code. People need to be committed to making the project better.

In my view, wikis are ideal for focussed collaborative work. You put up a proposal on a wiki, and then the group modifies and fleshes out the proposal in response to discussion carried out in some other format. The result is a dynamic, long-term page that can be easily referenced. They can also be used for general-purpose information sharing, but if we want to do this then some people have to assume responsibility for keeping the wiki up to date.

In my view web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists are mostly interchangable. They are all media for holding threaded conversations, where one person proposes a topic and other people respond. These media have the property that all posters are more-or-less equal. In addition to responding to the original poster, people in a thread will often have "subconversations" with each other. This has both good and bad sides. On the positive side, the subdiscussions will often illuminate aspects of a topic that the original poster did not consider. More negatively, these media are prone to topic drift.

Web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists are good for having conversations, but they are substandard as reference sources. Unless the conversation is very short, relevant/interesting information can be spread out among many posts. In addition, the URLs for these media are often not very nice; it is difficult to find a discussion unless you know what you are looking for beforehand. Many web forums have particularly lousy topic URLs.

Although they basically serve the same purpose, the cultures surrounding web forums and mailing lists do differ. Web forums tend to be more graphical, with avatars and smilies. Mailing lists tend to be text-based. I have found that people post off-topic or non-sequitur comments on web forums more than on mailing lists. When people go off- topic on mailing lists then others often get cranky. My guess is that this has something to do with ownership; people feel like they "own" their e-mail addresses, and they don't want a lot of junk going to their property. On the other hand, web forums are seen as "common space", and it is trivial to skip topics that are not of interest, so people don't care so much.

Another difference -- especially with respect to Linux -- is that experienced geeks tend to use mailing lists, and newcomers tend to use web forums. That is not a universal rule, but it has happened a lot at KWLUG. Since one purpose of the LUG is to bring Linux users together, I believe that integrating web forums and mailing lists as necessary. It will be interesting to see how much conflict the differing cultures of these media cause, however.

In my view web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists are ideal for holding discussions of all kinds.

Then there are blogs. Each blog post is a topic made by a single person. As such, blog posts are self-contained; each one has a "permalink" that can easily be visited again and again.

Unlike wikis, people do not modify their blog posts very much -- and they usually indicate updates when they do modify their posts. Much like web forums, blog posts also come with commenting facilities. I have noticed that the nature of commenting is very different on blogs than on most web forums or mailing lists. On a blog post, the author of the blog posting is the focus of attention. Almost all comments will be directed towards the main author, with little conversation between other commenters of the post. As often as not, detailed responses to a blog post end up taking the form of other blog posts.

In my view blogs are best used to make longer statements by individuals -- offering tips, reviews, opinions, commentary and so on. Occasionally people use blogs as effective means to find information ("Dear Lazyweb") but this requires a large readership; in general forums may be a better medium for questions.

To summarize: if you are organizing something concrete, use a wiki. If you are initiating a conversation among equals, use a web forum or mailing list post. If you are making a statement of some kind, use a blog post.

The next question is which of these online media would benefit the KWLUG website. I think that wikis, web forums, mailing lists and blog posts can all have their place. Experience has shown us that web forums and mailing lists should be linked, or the forums will be neglected. I think wikis are good for one-off projects (such as organizing Installfests or deciding which CMS to use) but without some maintenance commitment I would be reluctant to depend on wikis for everything. I do not think that blog abilities are essential for the LUG -- an RSS aggregator that points to the blogs owned by other LUG members might be enough.

The lack of blogging should certainly not be a deal-breaker for a CMS. The lack of a wiki should not either -- wikis are easy enough to set up when we need one. I do think that easily-updated static pages are vital, and some way to link forums and mailing lists are fairly important as well. It would probably be better to forgo web forums altogether than to have forums that no members use regularly.

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