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What are blogs and wikis?

When I am asked that question, as I was today, I always try to de-mystify blogs and wikis by saying that they are still websites, only slightly different. I have heard questions at seminars from people who seemed to think that blogs and wikis were new, exotic toys that required more learning and more work and more bother – which did not make them happy. That’s why I go for de-mystifying, especially in casual conversation. Blogs and wikis are still websites. Maybe they are just not ordinary websites …

For the short answer, go to what is probably the most famous wiki, Wikipedia, to get a quick explanation of a blog and a wiki that goes a bit beyond my “just websites” explanation.

That’s all there is to it. Bye.

Well… there is a bit more.

The longer answer

Blogs and wikis can take writing for a website, or web publishing, to a new level. You are probably familiar with a website that just sits there, providing you with the same information day after day, with slight changes over time. Perhaps you find sites like that when you are looking for a plumber or a restaurant. Such a site informs, but you cannot interact with the site itself. You just receive information, but you cannot send any information back to that site. Blogs and wikis have changed that. They brought in some interaction as you’ll see elsewhere in this post. When you start exploring the possibilities of interacting with readers and users of the blog or wiki, it is probably safest to say: the sky’s the limit.

The longer answer becomes: why. Why use a blog or wiki? Let’s look at each of them separately for a moment.

The blog…

The term blog comes from weblog, that is, a log on the web. (Think of a ship captain’s log.) If you wrote a diary, which is how many perceive a blog, you would open to page 1 and move on through the diary in a linear fashion. Someone who picked it up to read would find your oldest entries at the beginning of the book and your newest entries at the end of the book.
Because of the way a blog is published on the web, your newest entries are displayed first. That would be like reading your diary backwards. The idea is that if you follow the musings in a blog on a regular basis, you would always have the newest entry – the latest news – first.

Blogs allow you to have a dialog. There is a place to leave comments for the author so you can let her know how you feel about the topic, or perhaps build on an idea or an issue raised in the blog post that the author then comments on, which you then comment on…

The advantage of the authoring tools designed for bloggers is that you need no technical knowledge. Well, you need to know how to navigate a computer, basic stuff, but you don’t need to know coding of any kind. You can just write. You compose your material, taking all the time you want, and then you push a button when you want to show your work to the world. There are more advanced tools and many opportunities to make blog modifications that would satisfy any geek, but being a geek is not a requirement to begin blogging.

As you dive deeper into the world of blogging, you can expand your knowledge of blogging more and more. I have a personal partiality for WordPress and WordPress.com, but there are many other tools for blog novices, such as Blogger.

The wiki…

So what are wikis? Again, websites. The difference is in the collaboration. Wikis are often thought of as collaboration tools.

Imagine you and your friends working on a whiteboard. You write a sentence. A friend adds another sentence. Someone else corrects a spelling error you made. Yet another person erases the first two sentences and produces a new sentence that contains the essence of the old sentence. Kind of tedious, right? Well, electronically, it is much different.

You all have access to this wiki. You post a paragraph, and together with your friends, or colleagues, you add, substract, and rewrite the text until you have a result that all of you are satisfied with. A wiki is then a website with multiple authors. Wikis are often used in companies for internal collaboration. It spreads the burden of maintaining information to all participants.

Of course, this multiple author setup could lead to utter chaos in some cases, so you have style guides and guidelines based on what the wiki is used for. I also argue that before utter chaos sets in, a technical communicator/writer/editor be employed to maintain the quality of the content. Again, depending on what the wiki is used for. If it is simply for brainstorming, the content changes are too rapid and too frequent to worry about appearances. Just make sure editing in firmly in place before any publishing outside the brainstorming group! (Job opportunity, anyone?)

Where are they?

Everywhere. So let’s just look at the world of technical communication.

Wikis and blogs are peacefully invading the world of technical communication. They provide a great opportunity to learn about these new-fangled applications without veering away from a passion for a specific aspect of technical communication.

Some technical communication sites that use a wiki or a blog are:

You can find even more blogs related to technical communication over at this wiki (!), which I blogged about previously.

Why?

The title of my favorite technical communication blog has a great message: I’d rather be writing. With the wonderful and free tools that are available for building a wiki or a blog, you can concentrate on writing. Tom Johnson, the man behind this blog, is an example of someone who started poking around this new-fangled toy and got wildly carried away – much to everyone’s benefit! 🙂 I am very grateful for the many fruitful discussions I had with Tom when I was starting out in the blogosphere.

All volunteer organizations face the challenge of recruiting volunteers, especially the really knowledgeable volunteers. Perhaps you get a superduper expert for maintaining your website, and then they retire after serving the community for a while. What if there are no superduper successor experts around – or what if they don’t have the time?

Tools for making wikis and blogs tend to have large support communities filled with members who love the application and love sharing their knowledge. This lowers the bar without lowering the quality: you can get someone to volunteer who may not be an expert but who is happy to lend a hand and who is always interested in poking around something new. The support community for that tool are your, well, support. Simple blogging tools let that person experience success, which should fuel a continued interest in working in that role as web editor, webmaster, or whatever title you use, and not running away screaming.

Like Tom, they might begin to explore the application more closely while doing their community a service, and end up expanding their personal horizons and their employment potential.

And there is a little bit more!

Some sites to get you started with the concept of blogging or “wiki-ing” (naw, it’s just called using a wiki) are:

They can help you form the answer you need for your why question. Do you want dialog, or collaboration, or both, or something more than that? Or is having your website just sit there still the best solution for you?

2 replies on “What are blogs and wikis?”

Karen, thanks for mentioning me in your post. I agree with your point about how blogging technology makes it easy so people can focus on their writing rather than the technology. I have tried to focus less on tweaking my site and design and more on writing.

I also have a wiki (Mediawiki), but I only use it for myself, and it’s password protected. Still, I’ve found it incredibly useful for things like book notes, to-do lists, goals, philosophies, schedules, and the like. I can access it anywhere, and it doesn’t get so cluttered as Word docs.

I have an installation tutorial for Mediawiki here.

Using these tools as a personal organizer is a great tip, Tom! Thanks for sharing the idea, and for sharing the how-to. I’ll admit that the more I work with web-based tools for storing information, the more I want to move away from what you could call regular documents that read like a book. The gazillion ideas, tips, snippets, and whathaveyou are easier to store in some database-like arrangement. You can search more easily, and as you say, access them more easily when they are web-based.

This is also influencing the way I think about the documentation I write at work. What might be best to have in a PDF that can be printed and carried to planning meetings or read on a train, and what really belongs in some online application. How do users approach the search for that particular bit of information and therefore, where should it be?

Playing with this type of thing in your spare time has a positive influence on work, and vice versa. It’s a positive learning cycle!

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