wiki FAQ

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See also the new wiki user introduction, the intranet IAQ and glossary of terms. Other FAQ and IAQ pages may also be of interest, especially the NB FAQ, NB Power FAQ, power grid terms, etc.

Questions about wiki as an interface[edit]

This interface is unfamiliar. What do all these words mean?[edit]

Note: This explanation is specific to the mediawiki 1.13.3 US English default text & skin. You would see different words in any other language or if the text is customized. See wiki terms for a deeper explanation of wiki terminology.

The wiki page tabs across the top of this page read "page, discussion, edit, history" and "WYSIWYG". The first one, a page tab, selects what you are reading, the page content itself. The second, the talk tab or discussion tab, links to discussion about this page on what is called a wiki talk page. This is a wiki page in threaded style - users sign on talk pages to keep clear who said what, but this is a bad idea on non-talk pages. The third, the edit tab lets you edit this page, or the discussion if that's what you're looking at when you click it. If you click on that you now will see the raw wiki source code of this page so you can see how to create links, headings and so on. The fourth, the history tab, shows you page version history with all previous changes or "edits" and the edit summary that was entered at the time of editing to explain what happened - a wiki stores everything for easy reference by all users. The last, the WYSIWYG tab, gives you more typical editing facilities where you boldface things and create headings by using icons rather than a wiki notation.

In the top right corner you will see your user name or IP address, talk for this IP or talk for this user and log in/create account. Clicking on the name or IP will bring you to your own user page. Clicking on "talk" brings you the talk page where messages intended for you are left by others.

To the left the navigation box lets you load the Main Page, a community portal where orientation and social activities are coordinated, a current events list, and (by far the most important and immediately useful) a list of recent changes. Try selecting the recent changes link and open it right now in another tab in your web browser.

You can also load a random page or seek help on various topics. Below that is the wiki search bar and the toolbox with several other extremely useful links:

  • what links here which lists all pages that link to this page you are looking at
  • related changes which shows you the changes to all pages that this page links to
  • upload file which lets you upload a graphic image (JPG, GIF) or audio (MP3) file, etc.
  • special pages which shows you all the reports available to you about the wiki content
  • printable version which shows you the current page without all the links and colors.
  • permanent link which you can copy (by right-clicking your mouse) and paste if you want a link to this version of the page, and not to any future version that someone may edit later.

I find this link-heavy text hard to read. What should I do?[edit]

The printable version has no links at all, and is intended to be printed or emailed.

You can also choose a user skin in which the red and/or blue disappear. For instance, open links can just appear as ordinary text and blue links as underlined or a darker blue.

One thing you definitely should not do is edit pages just to remove open links for looks.

Where can I see what's available, already written?[edit]

All pages in the wiki are visible at Special:AllPages. Click on either link to see the list.

Where can I see what's going on right now, what others are doing?[edit]

Recent changes in the wiki are visible at Special:RecentChanges. Click on either link to see the timeline.

I'm looking at a page, but I can't tell who wrote it or why it changed. How can I?[edit]

The page version history listing all old versions is visible to all users who can see that page, by clicking the page history tab above the text. The edit summary that each previous editor entered when they changed the page is visible also in a timeline very similar to the recent changes to the wiki as a whole, but covering only the changes to that one page.

There are a lot of pages changing at once. How can I see the important changes together?[edit]

Each page has a related changes list that shows all the changes to the pages it links to (but not those that link to it, for that you need to check "what links here").

You can add pages to your watchlist and then you will be able to see all changes to that page and those pages' related changes in one list without having to see the complete list of all recent changes in the wiki.

I'm trying to figure out what someone else is doing so I can help them. How can I do that?[edit]

Each user has a user page where user contributions are listed. You can see all their changes there, which is an excellent clue to their priorities and skills. Assuming, of course, that they aren't just filling in open links with stub text for no good reason! Note this is a bad habit because it obscures what you are really working on.

I see a lot of open links. Are they broken?[edit]

No, they are not necessarily "broken" or "wanted", though they may be "empty" they are most neutrally said to be "open". This is not bad. Open links are common, necessary and useful. They are not undesirable and should not be filled in just for the sake of filling them in. You can control how they appear if you don't like looking at red. In the early phases of intranet wiki development, you may see 80% or more open links, but as a wiki matures, this will calm down to maybe 20% in a year, and stay there. Extremely busy large public wikis like Wikipedia have maybe 2% open links, and some more structured ones have policies to close open links as soon as possible. But in the early days of Wikipedia, there were up to 90% open links on most pages - the policy was to make something a link if it should be elaborated, and assume someone would fill it in eventually.

This worked. Over a million pages were created in English alone, and many more in other languages, all because they chose to welcome open links.

If nothing else, tolerating extremely high numbers of open links radically reduces the number of times a page has to be re-edited. In the worst case, tolerating zero open links, you would have to review every single existing page after every single new page was created to see if a link to the new page was required from the existing page. This would mean hundreds of times more reviews and dozens of times more minor edits. Argh.

Questions about wiki practices[edit]

What is 'wiki'?[edit]

Wiki is a like a multi-user word processor. It relies on editing pages including rewriting and removing incorrect or obsolete content rather than leaving it around as blogs or email does. If there's a problem, the old content is immediately accessible to recover from old versions or restore completely using revert (not a good idea for new users). Wiki best practices tend to emphasize seeking forgiveness not permission: to be bold is the most basic wiki advice. If you see something wrong, change it, you can do no real harm.

There are explanations of wiki of varying quality all over the web. Many of them are wrong in one way or another. The simplest way to understand wiki is that it is "the simplest database that could possibly work", just a way of integrating revision control, web-based forms and hypertext into a simple interface. While you may read various claims about who "invented" it, really it's just a summary of best practices of software developers from the 1970s to 1990s that became available to those working on more ordinary documents.

How is collective editing different from word processing?[edit]

Collective editing is different in a number of ways from conventional single-user word processing:

  • It's rare for a single user to try to own or control a page, except for their own individual user pages with their name in them. Instead they should leave pages open, reserve final review authority and let others change it: Assume goodwill and be bold.
  • Because a lot of ordinary conversation about your work appears in recent changes, watchlists and so on, you should use edit summary tags and other tags that fit into sentences to signal what's going on. It's very easy to say "the most-viewed pages include a few that needed copyedits, so I'm fixing them" in an edit summary, while it would be quite difficult to do that if complex or encoded names were in use.
  • Everything including comments and requests to others is done through the wiki interface - so learn it!

What are the strengths of wikis?[edit]

  • Collaborative writing using easily accessible protocols such as http, and https
  • History and change control through a simple interface any user can master quickly
  • Articles link to each other, making your private web as well connected as the public web already is
  • Workflow is well-studied, especially for semantic wikis, with tuple spaces using templates and categorization and other set theory principles being directly applicable to workflow optimization - extremely advanced features like a "gardening log", "find work" interface and generic "explanations" system simply could not exist without a semantic wiki as a foundation.
  • A wiki's functionality is only limited by the programming skills and financial/time resources of implementors - not the business strategy of any one integrator or vendor. The US government's intelligence agencies and diplomatic service have their own mediawiki implementatations and don't feel restricted by any vendor's ideas.
  • Simple compact backup via database backend - usually MySQL though PostGres is also often supported.

What are the limits of wiki and how do we compensate?[edit]

  • Currently built for writers, not readers - though good conventions like Firstname_Lastname and a discipline to fit into sentences help with this.
  • Spell check, formatting, producing documents, etc., aren't very sophisticated
    • Not designed for that--yet. Often extensions are required.
  • Need to use "markup" (wiki or html) to create documents - this actually can be an advantage in the long term as ordinary users become comfortable with redirects and templates and so on.
  • Currently HTTP protocol corrupted post requests can cause loss of upoaded data - use wiki client side editors if this becomes a problem, many are available for mediawiki.
  • Doesn't handle numerical information particularly well - partial solution is Help:Table
Content management
  • Only as good as the structure that you set up - typically expert editorial help is required, see user roles
    • You have to actively participate. A wiki will become bigger and better the more you feed it and pet it. But like the evil petting zoo, if you stop petting, the pets will bite (and so become pests!).
    • If you find a mistake, be bold and fix it. Hopefully you will be recognized and rewarded for that.
  • You have to use it for it to be useful.
  • Only as good as the search engine behind it (ours is good, see below)
  • The number one complaint I hear is "I can't find it" on the wiki.
    • This is usually because someone has failed to follow a naming convention - see fit into sentence.
    • If you can't find it, it's not there,
    • If it is not there, do something about it.
    • Don't expect it to get there by itself
    • Let somebody know, immediately. You spending a minute now will save an hour later.

What do I tell my manager about wiki?[edit]

If your manager or supervisor is not clear on what you are doing, why you would be reading and writing a wiki, that's a serious problem. Lack of management support causes intranets to fail. In general people using one in a corporate setting should be told that they are required to learn and use it for at least one essential work function:

Unless there is some information available only in the wiki, unless people are required and supported to learn it, they often won't, and will fall back to a more familiar method like talking in the office, emailing Word documents, etc., using proprietary message systems or voice mail, etc.. This is fine until you need to get ahold of some information in a client or partner home or office, in a new office you've opened across the country, in an official's office or in a restaurant or airport. At that point you start to wish everything was in the wiki... but it will never get there unless there is initial discipline, support and encouragement to put it there. So what you tell your manager should be that wiki takes time to work, and you are giving it the time it needs. Six months to a year into a wiki intranet project, the benefits will start to become extremely clear.

Questions about Mediawiki[edit]

Why are we using mediawiki? Other wikis seem to have more features or are easier to set up.[edit]

Mediawiki is the most commonly used wiki and CMS software. It is not proprietary and can run in many different host environments. See setup options below.

It handles unstructured information the same way PestPac handles more structured and field information. Like Firefox, the mediawiki softare has a simple robust core and adds capabilities with extensions. Unlike Firefox these are quite difficult to install but once installed they work together very well.

The many extensions installed in this wiki add features most wikis do not have at all.

Another reason to use mediawiki is its consistency. Unlike other software that calls itself "wiki", mediawiki relies almost exclusively on the wiki interface to avoid confusing users with many different blog comment, poll and other mechanisms. Even talk pages require learning how to wiki talk, which teachers users many skills like how to assume goodwill and be bold.

Other reasons for using MediaWiki:

  1. Totally scalable, it is the software Wikipedia runs on, being familiar with it allows the user to feel at home in a huge amount of MediaWikis. Links to the largest projects can be found here. Another popular entry point is the wikia, a massive collection of wikis about every topic imaginable.
  2. In addition to the content, which can be added using "copy-and-paste" to your own MediaWiki, you can access and use a vast range of procedures, policies and templates that have been developed by thousands of users of all the mediawikis out there. That's because it's open source.
  3. It is open source and free software, meaning that with development resources any organisation can adapt the software to its needs and get help from a large number of independent MediaWiki integrators, hosts and consultants.
  4. You can run it on any server you choose and have full control over the setup.

Some drawbacks of MediaWiki:

  1. It does not have a WYSIWYG interface for editing. Some training is necessary to be able to use it.
  2. Collaboration is not "real-time": You need to "refresh" the page to see the changes that have been made.
  3. Content needs to be actively maintained to keep things tidy. If there are no best practices and dedicated roles for tidying up, things can get messy very quickly.
  4. Access control is not very advanced, MediaWiki is designed with openness in mind, however there are extensions to deal with this, and they're helpful if due care is taken not to lock up too many pages.

I really want to know much more about Mediawiki. Where do I start? =[edit]

Consult, especially its help and user guide sections for information on using the wiki software.

What setup options do I have to host mediawiki somewhere else?[edit]

If you need to set up mediawiki on a desktop, laptop, USB stick or drive or LAN host, or move it to a VPS or Vserver or another shared host environment, you can find instructions for that there as well. The links only outline the basic steps required to move or copy this wiki and when Pestec should consider doing it.

What is Semantic Mediawiki?[edit] explains the semantic wiki features. The context sensitive help, query interface and filters rely on this. When dealing with technical fields it's useful to be able to import vocabulary. The statistics and browser are helpful to users trying to understand what an ontology is, or how to investigate categories.

How could I use mediawiki in app or service development?[edit]

  • Most support-driven development methods emphasize free-form information gathering once a product is deployed to real users, and using the exact same methods to gather the proposed or intended user experiences before anything is deployed. That is, fictional user stories are used before a system is deployed, to guide development. Then, afterwards real user stories start to subsume their function, using fictional ones only for new features that no existing user has tried.
  • Efficient Civics Guild has kindly licensed a lot of materials to the Wabanaki Confederacy in exchange for eventual translation into Wabanaki indigenous language versions and for use in governance, activism, lobbying and other applications where for instance NB paralegal work is required. These materials are marked category:CC by-nc by ECG and should not be copied to other wikis or used for commercial purposes. However they provided examples of ECG terminology.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation itself uses Phabricator as a development environment and is trying to better integrate it with core mediawiki features. That is a more supported commercial tool.

I want to use mediawiki to develop a complex knowledge base. What do I do?[edit]

Well, just copy what we've done here at which has a lot of complexity and real world problems to address. We do a lot of NB paralegal work especially for causes around the Wabanaki Confederacy.

I want to use mediawiki in self-governance, First Nations or government work. What do I do?[edit]

Please compare political parties policies on information technology (IT) to determine whether the governing party or Cabinet or Council is likely to be more or less friendly to such efforts.