Edo the Reliable ("Amin")

On Content Creation Modalities, or Specifying the Blog-Killer Wiki

In $1M ideas, CMS-Blogs-Wikis on March 5, 2009 at 12:55 am

From a user-centric perspective, forums, blogs and wikis seem to have more shared features than differences. In fact, these apparently different platforms can be seen as versions of a single CMS, with a fair amount of backward compatibility. Are we ready for UberCMS 1.0? Build one, and content world domination is yours.

A Blog is a Chronologically Displayed Set of Records

What is a blog? The Google-owned 2004 blogger.com’s home page used to say that “A blog is your easy-to-use web site […].” Many blog readers and authors would answer off the top of their head that blog is “like a journal“. One blog big platform even calls itself “LiveJournal”.  Wikipedia defines Blog as:

A blog (a contraction of the term weblog) is a website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order.

Properties that a blog — at least in its basic form –shares with a journal include, therefore: a single author; And a reverse chronological display order for the entries.
So:

Platform Number of Authors Display Sort Order
Paper Journal 1 Chronological, Descending
Blog (basic) 1 Chronological,
Descending

Classify blog items any other way than chronologically, and people won’t be sure if it’s a blog (not to mention that to create one that’s not displaying entries chronologically, you’ll need to leave turnkey defaults behind and venture into deep customization zone, probably guided by a programmer or two). Hierarchical classification is as foreign to blogs as a table of contents would be to a bedside dream diary. Using chronological sorting is “Bloggish”; obviously it’s a choice appropriate to a specific content and activity (journaling) and by all means not a technical limitation. But blogs are not foreign to hierarchical classification – you can easily sort entries in a hierarchical system by date.

(Chronological order may be a good UI for a certain amount and time span of data. With more intensive usage of the blog platform, things begin to get out of hand. Tags appeared on the scene as another navigational aid, being the virtual equivalent of inserting bookmarks into the pages of a dream diary. In a single author situation, tags can be a nice way to brainstorm for structure on the fly and hope that appropriate terms will “bubble up”. Would tags be useful to generate taxonomy in a workgroup or community situation? I have my doubts.)

Almost Always, Blogs Have More Than One Author

If you consider blogs as a CMS platform, and comments as content, then blogs almost always have or wish for more than one author. Comments are entries that

  1. Can be created by just about anyone
  2. Inherit their title and position from an entry created by the author/owner
  3. Publishing may be subject to approval by the blog owner

The basic premise in most blogs is that anyone can read the blog, and anyone can add content to the blog, while only the blog owner can create new threads and modify other authors’ entries. In other words, we have permission levels.

Comments administration systems in most blogs allow approval on a per-comment basis, before or after publishing. Content systems that allow rollback are in fact a mini versioning system.

So:

Platform Number of Authors
Display Sort Order
Multi-User
contributions
Versioning
Paper Journal 1 Chronological,
Descending
No No
Blog 1 author
Many commentators
Chronological,
Descending
Yes Yes

A remark on permission granularity: in another information creation and display modality, namely a “forum”, information items are created by multiple authors in multiple fine-grained permission levels. The average number of authors in an average forum is probably in the hundreds if not thousands.

Platform
Permission levels
Display Sort Order
Multi-User
contributions

Versioning
Paper Journal
1
Chronological,
Descending
No
No
Blog
Many
Chronological,
Descending
Yes
Yes
Forum Many Chronological,
Descending
Yes Yes

I’m not saying that a forum is exactly the same as a blog. Here’s one difference: in a forum, each entry is created with a specific topic category selected from a list of available topics, and “crossposting”is discouraged. In a blog, entries can be created with several categories and even tags attached to each.

The first online content system that faced the need to handle a large number of users, forums had to develop pretty good user management systems. For example, a distribution system alerts users to future actions in their “thread” via e-mail. This system is semi-automatic and customizable by the forum owner as well as by each member. This function was replicated on blogs using Feedburner-like services. Modern forums offer complex and flexible systems for creating user permission groups. This was also copied into blog features, to the extent that authors would be bothered by it. Again, we note that user management on blogs is a subset of user management on forums.

What I’m driving at is that the different usage needs of blog users and forum users are not so vast as to not be accommodated by a single platform. While I may have succeeded in suggesting that the similarities between blogs and forums are more significant than we are accustomed to think, a wiki seems like something else altogether.Again, the Wikipedia definition is surprisingly short:

A wiki is a page or collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content, using a simplified markup language.

Fine. The markup language usage isn’t a very clear definition – there is no technical reason of course, why you would not replicate a blog or a form using the exact same markup language that is used in wikis. The main difference in interaction is that users can modify content regardless if they are  the original authors of that entry or comment.

This used to be the hallmark of wiki’s, but is it really the case? Wikipedia is inching closer to implementing a “flagged revisions” system, where modifications would not be displayed until they are reviewed. Indeed, some variations of this system forces the delay only on non-registered members. Some variations give weight to the “reputation” or editing record of the author. Most of these are good old (and inescapable) forum user management features or inspired bd them. Once again – Wikipedia could soon be backward-compatible with a forum. While in the forum you might get banned,  a wiki takes a different approach to undesirable entries. Does this difference in approach technically justify a completely different platform?

Who Wrote This Wiki

While a wiki is extremely interested in the creation date of items, and archives multiple versions of each item, its display is fairly indifferent to the identity of the author (though the underlying layers record each addition or edit). One might say that a wiki is the only one of these systems that is truly content centric and, scoffing at credits, will never be popular with blog authors. However, a wiki with strong flagged-revisions system whould be able to create entries that are change-proof except by author. Besides, the versioning system underlying  most wikis could support interesting collaborative credits: it should be quite easy to display, at every  wiki page, the names of the authors participating in the creation — with relative percentages and time spent.

Integrating Comments into Wiki

In a wiki, creating links between items is pretty much freeform. Adding comments at the bottom of the text is as easy as changing the text itself, so the choice is at the discretion of the author. An interesting feature of future wiki systems might be allowing a class of users to only add text to an item, while not allowing them to modify it. This can easily be implemented while allowing compatibility with legacy wiki. This would make a wiki page, somewhat similar to a forum thread or to a blog post with its comments trailing under it. (in fact, after writing this, I became aware of an initiative to add forum pages to Wikipedia ).

Wiki blog view

Another possible wiki feature is using the existing versioning capabilities to display wiki activities according to their creation date and/or author, in what you might call a “blog view”. This feature will make the display of a sufficiently advanced wiki practically indistinguishable from that of a blog. Strengthening permission will make the permission management part of a wiki practically indistinguishable from that of a forum.

Wiki Distribution

There is still the issue of how to organize the distribution of information items. Forums have traditionally relied on e-mails, while blogs prefer RSS feeds. Functionality-wise, the difference between the two is that e-mails can be pushed by the content owner, and finds a more natural place in the group authoring systemm, while an RSS feed is tailored for broad dissemination of items to members of the least controlled forum or blog group. Already, in some CMS systems, RSS and e-mails are mixed and used differently in each permission group. The best practices to address this specific issue are probably found in enterprise CMS, forums and bug management systems.

(work in progress)

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