2021-07-13 The wiki aesthetic

I like wikis. I develop and maintain wiki engines (the software), and I run wikis (various sites, including this one). Whenever I dabble in new protocols like Gopher, Gemini, or Spartan, and whenever start using a particular markup language some more, I think about how one would integrate all this into a wiki.

Wikis are the simplest content management system that allows readers to write back, that allow user contributed content. They have almost no structure except for what is provided by the kind of hypertext they build upon. There is some sort of text, and it somehow links to other texts, be it via links or menus (Gopher). Everything else is undefined. Are there tags? Are there back-links? Are there menus? Categories? Headers? Footers? Sidebars? Recent Changes?

I hope there are Recent Changes, for how else would you peer review it? This is something I’ve been noticing in my Gemini-based MUSH, Ijirait. In a way, you can think of the game world as a wiki: rooms are pages, exits are links, rooms can be described (“edited”), you can move from room to room (“follow links”), and so on. When I log on, I don’t know whether anything has changed.

There are also more subtle signs. If page names are very constrained, like the old CamelCase convention, and if the people writing wiki pages know about Christopher Alexander’s concept of Pattern Language, then we can develop a kind of Link Language. Smashing words together creates concepts that are automatically linked. We start referring to these concepts, and a virtuous cycle emerges.

Another subtle sign is all that detritus. Pages age. If a group of people keeps writing pages, then it’s obvious that the ratio of writers to pages keeps sinking. Some pages must necessarily fall into disuse. Their text is outdated. If the rules rendering the pages change over time, then perhaps they still use the old markup that is no longer rendered correctly. The authors may have moved on, or their interests may have changed.

This, I think, is the natural state of a wiki, after a few years of feeding it with new pages. The new pages float on a swamp of detritus. Their links dig like roots into the depths of the old detritus, drawing support and confirmation from below, but also contradicting what has been said, bending it, changing it.

It’s probably less obvious in a site such as this one that gives itself the formal appearance of a blog. The date being part of the page name, the abandoning of CamelCase, the inability to use its pages as a Link Language… it’s pretty far removed from an old school wiki. And yet, you can think of a blog as a comet blazing through space. It keeps shedding blog posts that drift into the dark, endlessly. A long trail of diary pages being lost to the big void.

On a wiki that doesn’t quite adhere to this blog-like structure, the directionality isn’t quite as clear. There’s no obvious “comet” where new pages get written. Instead, there’s a rhizome starting somewhere on the front page, going deeper into the soil, and the hot spot changes every now and then. On a wiki such as Community Wiki, or Emacs Wiki, the focus jumps around, it all depends on who’s editing pages, on what they are interested in.

What doesn’t change, however, is that new pages are created in a very small number of hot spots. The Emacs Wiki has nearly 11,000 pages. Even if people were editing a hundred pages right now, there would still be nearly 11,000 old pages that nobody is looking at.

If you love wikis, you love this compost of decaying pages, this detritus. Old stories are but a few clicks away. You can dig into the past. It may be outdated, but it isn’t gone.

The wiki engines I actively maintain:

I’m still enjoying this. 😄


A side effect of using Oddmuse is that the markup is easy to extend, so I do it all the time. I added extensions to support Wiki Creole, Markdown, automatic smart quotes, automatic en and em dashes, bbCode, Gemtext, special purpose link types, special markup for IRC conversations, and on and on. And this mess is starting to be a burden, in a way. So sometimes a formatting rule get changed or dropped, a global search and replace operation tries to migrate the pages, and perhaps it works and perhaps it doesn’t. There definitely is degradation.

– Alex 2021-07-13 12:18 UTC

I’ve been struggling with similar questions concerning the No Time To Play wiki, given how the site has changed in recent times, and my plans for the future. So far my best answer is to use it! A wiki is not a museum. They die if left to sit there. For better or worse, I’m going to keep updating it, even if it gets a little messy. Life is messy. And wikis are the most organic way to make a website.

Felix 2021-07-13 17:19 UTC

Wikis are the most organic way to make a website. So true.

– Alex 2021-07-14 07:14 UTC

With community wikis I’ve learned to make a “Recent changes” list a prominent part of the front page. That’s one of the first things I do now.

Our old li’l ancom wiki is deader than disco since more than a decade now, but I have a non-public wiki for my D&D group that all the participants heavily use and having a “Recent changes” list is so awesome. It just clues everyone in at what is going on. For my own blog I don’t do the same. I treat it as sort of a hybrid between blog and wiki, but it’s not running wiki software, it’s more a mentality of “I will go back and edit these pages if I come up with ways to make them better—each page is meant to be the canonical representation of its idea”. That’s why I don’t have dates in the title. Each page is a resource that I can link to again and again.

As far as link names go, I’m bummed out that more wikis don’t work the way the old Tomboy app worked, that would just automatically create links if a page existed with that name.`

Originally, I saw the low interconnectivity between my text pages as a feature. Each page is an island and not trying to upsell you to go see the rest of the site. But I’m reconsidering that. I’m working on something that’ll maybe zettelkast the whole thing some more. The site has been up for ten years but ⅔ of the pages are from this last year. (Pandemic isolation drove me back online.) If it keeps growing at this rate, the time to do this sort of linktastic overhaul is now; enough pages to work with but not so many that I can’t get an overview of them.

Sandra 2021-07-14 09:43 UTC

Ah, the joy of AccidentalLinking. 😄

– Alex 2021-07-14 12:00 UTC

I think the whole of the Internet is very much like a wiki in the sense of lots of old pages and hot spots of activity. Also in the sense that it’s hard to refer to things that haven’t been mentioned by someone already — you have to digitize and upload them yourself, instead of just linking. That may actually be an important part of the mechanism creating this sort of structure.

– deshipu 2021-07-20 15:02 UTC

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