What shall we paint this wiki?

Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005

This thought only recently manifested itself in my consciousness, and I think I’m actually on to something here for once. After letting it percolate in the back of my mind for a while, I finally decided I need to take the time for a proper writeup.

See, the original wiki offers as the foremost reason for why wiki works that

Everybody feels that they have a sense of responsibility because anybody can contribute.

That has never quite sat right with me. It feels like an overly sober and solemn explanation, too mature, almost self-congratulatory. It’s fine of wikizens to celebrate themselves as the noble knights of information structuring, but I know more about human nature than to believe this is a viable explanation.

Then, a while ago I saw the Wikiphilia – The New Illness rant on Hacknot, which, I admit, made me very angry. As Tim Bray has said, the “it’s all crap” proposition is boring.

And as I watched the recent edit wars on an obscure wiki that shall remain nameless, enlightenment occurred.

Allow me to digress so as to better explain myself. There is a certain human habit that often leads to protracted deadlock when a committee is working on an issue. I want to reference the Why should I care what color the bikeshed is? entry in the FreeBSD FAQ, which answers:

[J]ust because you are capable of building a bikeshed does not mean you should stop others from building one just because you do not like the color they plan to paint it. This is a metaphor indicating that you need not argue about every little feature just because you know enough to do so. […]

[Y]ou can go into the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions. […] [T]his is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far.

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, […] [S]omebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is here.

[…] It is about personal pride and prestige, […] a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement.

That, folks, is why wiki works. People care about the colour of the bikeshed, but in contrast to traditional settings, wiki thrives rather than withers under this trait. The serious wikiphiles decried in the Hacknot rant simply realise this subconsciously, and are powerfully drawn to the concept.

Next time you edit your favourite wiki, I want you to think about footsteps in wet cement.