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Wikiphilia - The New Illness

18 Feb 2005
Wikiphilia: A mental illness characterized by the irrational conviction that any problem faced by a group can be rendered solvable through installation and use of a Wiki. This delusional ailment has been occurring in increasing numbers ever since it was first identified in 1995. Wikiphilia usually manifests in two distinct phases - the rapturous anticipation of the Wiki's potential in the short post-installation phase; slowly giving way to denial of the Wiki's failure to fulfill that potential in the second phase.

What is a Wiki?

A Wiki is a web application that permits users to create a set of text-based web pages connected by hyperlinks. The essential features of a Wiki are:

The Wiki concept was invented by Ward Cunningham, and his first Wiki is still active. This Wiki shall be taken as the "reference implementation" for the purposes of this discussion.

The basic Wiki concept has been expanded upon by numerous developers and vendors. Derivative versions still contain the above four features or variants thereof, but almost always contain additional features designed to compensate for the numerous shortcomings of the original Wiki concept. Some of these derivatives are well on their way to becoming Content Management Systems. The extent to which they exhibit the shortcomings of the original Wiki tends to be proportional to their fidelity to the original Wiki feature set.

The applications a Wiki can be put to are many, but they fall broadly into two categories - information repository and community discussion. The downside of the Wiki's flexibility is that it doesn't support any particular application very well. Despite the grandiose and ebullient claims made by Wiki enthusiasts, the potential value of a Wiki is often not realized, because achievement of that potential is predicated upon questionable assumptions about the nature of the Wiki's user base. Those assumptions, and the reasons for their frequent failure, are addressed below.

Wiki As Community

By way of self-justification, and reminiscent of the baseless claims made in support of Emergent Design, users of the c2.com Wiki apparently claim that a Wiki hosts a community successfully because it is:

It's both entertaining and sad to browse the Wiki at c2.com and observe the monumental discrepancy between the idealistic claims made above and the reality of the Wiki in action. None of these ostensible Wiki characteristics are actually present.


To make true on the claim that all opinions are represented, it is not sufficient to simply give someone the chance to speak. They must also be heard so that their opinions can be given due consideration. Whilst anyone can add their opinion to a Wiki page, anyone can come along and remove it. Therefore it is vacuous to claim that a Wiki affords equal opportunity for all users to express their opinion, when it allows any user to suppress that opinion through simple deletion. To ensure that their contribution persists, a user has to watch over their content, re-inserting it after anyone else has deleted it. Some users resort to writing bots for this purpose. So the content of the Wiki favors those with the time and resources to safeguard their contributions (why one would expend the time and energy necessary to do so is anyone's guess).


The contents of a Wiki page is dictated by whoever made the last edit. That this corresponds with the community's consensual opinion (or that any consensus even exists) is specious. Even if the contents of a page stabilizes, it may only indicate that those with differing opinions cannot be bothered to engage in the contest to maintain content any further. Victory goes to the most stubborn, obstreperous and persistent; not to the collective opinion of a concerned community. The situation is similar to face-to-face meetings in which silence is interpreted as agreement. The cessation of argument does not necessarily mean that consensus has been achieved, but that one of the conflicting parties cannot be bothered objecting any further, or has lost interest in the discussion.


After wandering through the c2.com Wiki wasteland, "thoughtful discussion" is not the impression one emerges with. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be true. It appears that the low entry barrier to participation, together with the ease of editing, fosters the frequent creation of so-called "Thread Mode" pages. These pages consist of little but an incoherent string of single paragraph sideswipes and "me too" -style asides. If you have spent any time reading Usenet groups, the general pattern of such exchanges will be familiar to you. It goes something like this:

And so it goes on. Disagreements go unresolved, discussions get sidetracked, assertions go unsupported, claims go unquestioned. This is not the stuff of "thoughtful" discourse, but simply the knee-jerk, back-and-forth salvos of petty one-upmanship.


Wiki apologists suggest that low-value or erroneous content is quickly removed by the community, and in this way the Wiki becomes self-regulating. However, everyone has a different idea on what constitutes content that is valid and worth keeping. Typically, content that one agrees with is deemed "valid", the rest "invalid" or "off topic" and therefore a candidate for deletion. Rather than content stabilizing as a result of judicious self-control, a Wiki discussion stabilizes after a series of selective edits EditWars, which continue until one of the parties loses interest. In other words, effective "regulation" cannot occur because there is no agreement amongst the self-appointed regulators as to what constitutes "regular" content. Unless the content is obviously inappropriate (e.g. spam), then anyone is free to adopt the role of "regulator" and delete content on any basis whatsoever.

The bottom line is that an open-forum Wiki degrades into the same thing produced by use of many other online collaboration tools - an opportunity for people to call each other idiots, and for those who are ineffectual in real life to big note themselves and feel special.

We see at c2.com a group of geeks trying to get one-up on each other, and out-cool each other. It's like a sick charity competition. Who is the most willing to devote time to writing something that can be deleted at the touch of a button? A Wikier-than-thou altruism-fest. The participants seem convinced that they are exploring some sociologically new and significant phenomenon, but in fact they only display the same group behaviors you might identify amongst any pack of school boys.

To relate a point requires a logical progression, a structure, premise, elaboration, conclusion etc. i.e. planning and forethought. Discussion requires a reasoned exchange of rational argument, but neither reason or rationality are much present on the Wiki. It's only discussion if you belong to the Slashdot-style, 30 second attention span crowd.

Wiki As Information Repository

Wikiphilia sometimes remains dormant in its programmer host for some time, until triggered by stressful circumstances - such as the requirement to write documentation. If your development team is forlorn at the prospect of having to write in their own language, but becomes inexplicably enthused at the prospect of installing a Wiki to store that documentation, then it may well be that one or more of them is suffering from Wikiphilia.

The rabid Wikiphile sees the Wiki as the answer to all their information storage problems. A software project's documentation may be stored on the Wiki (using links to external documents or simply with the text inserted literally), design decisions may be filed there, "to do" lists etc. Even the most mundane information is a little better, a little brighter, when it bathes in the warm glow of the Wiki's coolness.

The sad reality is that Wikis are often just a pretext for procrastination.

When faced with the chore of documentation, a common retort among the recently infected is "Hey! Let's put the documentation on a Wiki! That'd be cool!". The installation task then becomes a way of deferring the unpleasant documentation task. The immediate novelty of the Wiki may even create a short-term enthusiasm for it's use, although this inevitably wanes when the developers realize that not even the Wiki's "cool factor" can't disguise the inadequacy of their own communication skills.

And so the Wiki becomes a dumping ground for fragmented and incomplete files, textual sound-bites and aborted attempts to catalogue. And therein lies the second great failing of Wikis as information repositories - the absence of accessible organization and indexing. Although the basic Wiki functionality includes a simple search facility, there is little to no built in support for indexing or cross-referencing below the page level. There is no reading path made available to newcomers so that they might work from fundamental to more advanced material. Cogent explanation does not result from snippets of conversations; and exchanges of opinion need not be illustrative or informative.

Attempts to collate existing "content" into more substantial portions are easily defeated by the free-for-all editing of others, and further inhibited by the user group's conflicting notions of the worth of the content and the best means for its explication. Just try and find something when the content, un-indexed, is constantly changing under foot.

The Wiki Way

To my mind, the most offensive aspect of the Wiki phenomenon is the hokey spiritualism that has developed around it. The Wiki at c2.com is littered with self-conscious references to eastern spiritualism, and assorted claims that a Wiki is somehow emblematic of Zen philosophy. It is difficult to conceive of the lack of perspective required to seriously consider a trivial piece of software in this light; and indicative of the rampant need for self-satisfaction that some members of the IT community have.

Regardless of your opinions on eastern spiritual thought, anyone passingly familiar with the basic precepts and tenets of Zen (and related belief systems) will know that subsumation of the self and destruction of the ego are central notions in these philosophies. The self-conscious and overt celebration of WikiNature that we see on the c2.com Wiki, which practically screams "Look at us! We're so Zen!", is antithetical to the principal values of the very traditions being appealed to.

This is dilettante Buddhism at it's worst. A painfully awkward collision of eastern philosophy and western ignorance. To a true celebrant of Zen philosophy, the most appropriate behavior would be to simply say nothing.


Wiki supporters view Wikipedia as proof of the validity and power of the Wiki concept. I see it as a very public demonstration of Wiki shortcomings. To maintain Wikipedia's integrity in the face of a free-for-all editing onslaught, it has been surrounded by an ever-vigilant throng of enthusiasts who moderate and screen any edits made to the content. Because the organizational infrastructure surrounding Wikipedia is so atypical of Wikis in general, both in size and dedication, we need not view Wikipedia as a vindication of the Wiki concept, but as an example of triumph over that concept's inherent shortcomings through sheer effort.

See the following: Wikipedia Has to Lose its Anti-Expert Bias"

Controlling An Outbreak Of Wikiphilia

When one of your colleagues cries "Let's install a Wiki", think carefully about where their enthusiasm is coming from. If they're not equally enthusiastic about documentation, design, technical discussion, or whatever activity the Wiki will ostensibly facilitate, then why are they enthusiastic about using a Wiki in service of that same activity?

For most any task you might use a Wiki for, you will be able to find some other tool that will perform the same job better. If what you are trying to achieve is important to you, then you should invest the time and money necessary to identify and evaluate those more functional alternatives.

If you're looking for some way of facilitating distributed discussion, consider using some sort of forum or bulletin board software such as phpbb. There are a vast number of alternatives, many of them free, that provide moderation, threading , basic navigation and searching. There is more incentive to participate in such forums than in Wiki discussions, because users don't have to be concerned about someone else deleting their contributions.

If you are trying to find some way of representing the result of a group decision, simply hold a meeting, conduct a vote, and distribute the minutes or a position statement to the participants afterwards. If the participants can't be in the one room, use teleconferencing facilities or a conference call.

For team news and status reporting, there are many options vastly better than a Wiki. A simple web page hosted from a shared directory may well be sufficient for a collocated team. For distributed teams you might consider using free blogging software, or any of the commercial packages available in this domain.

Regardless of the software chosen, the limiting factor in the benefit derived from online discussion is the participants themselves. Given that the average software developer has the communication skills of fungus, it's not hard to see why so many online forums contain the same juvenile and insensible content. You may profit by making efforts to improve the communicative abilities of those involved. Don't think that a tool like a Wiki is going to somehow imbue users with these skills. They need to be worked at, and the paragraph-level thinking of a Wiki is not sufficient practice.


From its advent in 1995, the Wiki concept has been a retrograde one. No amount of philosophical self-gratification can compensate for its attendant functional shortcomings. While we cannot hold a tool culpable for the uses or misuses it is put to, neither can we deny that the sort of tool we use effects the job we do with it. It is therefore in our own interest to choose tools that best facilitate the task at hand, rather than allowing ourselves or others to be drawn towards lesser alternatives simply because of their novelty value.

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