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Exploring with Wiki
A Conversation with Ward Cunningham, Part I
by Bill Venners
October 20, 2003

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The Temporal Element of Wiki

Bill Venners: What you've described reminds me a bit of brainstorming. You gather some people together to flesh out something you can't clearly see.

Ward Cunningham: Wiki has a feel of brainstorming, though it's not as interactive. You can do 10 minutes of brainstorming, and 30 minutes of analysis of the product of that brainstorming, and have something in 45 minutes. The pace on wiki is slower. You could write a page about an idea, or maybe a page about a bunch of ideas. Then you could come back in a week and see what's developed on that page. But if you came back in 15 minutes, not much would have happened. Things happen in a pace of days or weeks on wiki, because people tend to browse by the day or week.

There's an interesting temporal element to wiki. If you read news groups or email lists, there's the sense that the right now is what's on your position in the list. And if you get behind, it's a struggle. I didn't want there to be a chronology in wiki. If you're reading something in a wiki, I didn't want it to matter to you whether it was written a year ago, a day ago, or just a minute ago. That means that we needed some way for getting the context.

If you're writing just a page, that page has to be in response to something else. So what you do is say in a paragraph what the page is about in the context of all the other pages. People become very familiar with those page names. They'll come across a new page and read the paragraph with the links to the context pages. If they already know those pages, they'll keep on reading. If they don't know those pages they'll say, "Oh, this page doesn't make any sense. I have to go read those other pages." So, if you know the context, you don't have to look. But if you don't know the context, you can go read it. The context stays there.

Bill Venners: It sounds like you kind of have to get to know a wiki site. By spending time there you become familiar with it. In the beginning it can be quite bewildering and not very informative, when you come in and see these things all over the place that are not necessarily organized for the reader.

Ward Cunningham: Right, a wiki is always in the process of being organized. But for every hour spent organizing, two more hours are spent adding new material. So the status quo for a wiki is always partially organized.

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