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Why wiki?

21 May 2009

I do not like writing on the group wiki that we are using for our current design project.

Perhaps the time pressure for this project is a bit strong, but when I wonder why I dislike this part of our project so much, it throws up many other questions I would like to explore.

What are wikis for?

I can understand the need to use wikis when the topic that is to be developed / catalogued / documented is too large for a small authorial team – like an encyclopedia. (Luckily Wikipedia could use 300 years’ worth of print encyclopedias as a model for a structure and a format.) Or at least too large for one or two people to develop rapidly.

And perhaps wikis have a place in binding many disparate contributions loosely together – as for example in collecting multiple class assignments into a single handy location.

It stands to reason that groups will develop some negotiation skills and perhaps learn more about a topic when planning the wiki – what are the salient divisions to the topic? Who should write what? But collaborative writing – I just don’t understand it.

Death of the author

An article by Mark Warschauer and Douglas Grimes (‘Audience, authorship and artifact: the emergent semiotics of Web 2.0’, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, no. 27, pp. 1-23) provides some explanation:

If blogs served to suggest that the author is well and alive, wikis fulfill the prophecy of authorship fading away.

This elimination of the author is counter to the main current of Web 2.0 technologies, and to the general trends in framing public communication. It is also a crucial problematic which I have thoroughly worked through in my professional life as an editor of factual and educational texts over the last 21 years – well, longer, if my time as a museum educator is also taken into account.

For the first fifteen years of my editing work, I carefully made as few changes to the author’s style as possible, but believed, at the same time, that there was one single, pure, transparent way of expressing the complex idea that he was clearly having trouble with, and if I was a better editor and he was a better writer, we would deliver a finer product to the reader.

For the last six years, I have started to read again for pleasure, as well as work, and widened my interests to new fields. I understand now that the key factor in the reader’s understanding is not only the clarity of the text, but the motivation and interest the reader brings to engaging with it, something the reader needs to ‘catch’ from the author. I now realise just how precious the flavour of the author’s work is, and in my editing will now protect the most idiosyncratic delivery with semi-religious zeal.

So up with the author, and down with wikis, for all but the most colourless of informational texts!

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