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

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Wikis and Readability

Bill Venners: I really like the idea of a wiki, but I find it hard to read many wiki pages. The readability issue is the main reason I've never put a wiki on is also a kind of web-based collaborative document, but more structured. In wiki, there's no single editor organizing the material for the reader. All the pages are collaborative. The structure is collaborative. The editing is collaborative. What do you get from the collaboration in wiki that is worth the tradeoff in readability?

Ward Cunningham: What you get as a wiki reader is access to people who had no voice before. The people to whom we are giving voice have a lot of instinct about what it's like to write, and ship, a computer program. Our industry honors certain traditions in its publications. If you want to contribute to a scientific journal, for example, you should be peer reviewed. Part of peer review is that you're familiar with all the other literature. And the other literature somehow that spiraled off into irrelevance. What was being written about programming didn't match what practicing programmers felt. With wiki, practicing programmers who don't have time to master the literature and get a column in a journal that's going to be read have a place where they could say things that are important to them. The wiki provides a different view. In fact you can tell when someone is writing on wiki from their personal experience versus when they are quoting what they last read.

Bill Venners: How do you tell?

Ward Cunningham: You can tell by whether they talk about things such as "Mary Ann just couldn't get this part to work right." That's not in the scientific tradition. If someone quotes an author and says, "So and so says bla de bla, and you guys are stupid to not listen," there's a guy who admires the books he reads. On the other hand, if someone says, "You know, for the last three projects we've tried to do this and it hasn't worked one single time. We've always been forced to do something else to get it out the door," there's a guy who's got it out the door, and he's telling me something profound. How to interpret that is left to me. It's just his experience. And then you might see a few more paragraphs that say, "Yeah, that happened to me but we got it out the door this other way." Now there are two ways to get it out the door. All of a sudden you're talking to the people who get software out the door, not the people who talk about getting software out the door, and that's a big distinction.

Next Week

Come back Monday, October 27 for the first installment of a conversation with Bertrand Meyer. If you'd like to receive a brief weekly email announcing new articles at, please subscribe to the Artima Newsletter.

Talk Back!

Have an opinion about the design principles presented in this article? Discuss this article in the News & Ideas Forum topic, Exploring with Wiki.


Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham are the authors of The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web, which is available on at:

Ward's Wiki:

Ward's Weblog:

Portland Pattern Repository:

Information on CRC (Class-Responsibility-Collaboration) Cards: - an Extreme Programming Resource:


PLoP, the Pattern Languages of Programming conference:

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