Strategies for Organizing Wiki Content

I've been trying to figure out wikis for a long time. It always strikes me that the wiki is probably the first truly unique (and successful) textual form of the Internet age. And there's a lot to figure out. The technological innovation of the wiki is actually remarkably straightforward, [1] and while difficult the community building aspects of wikis are straightforward. [2] The piece of the wiki puzzle that I can't nail down in a pithy sentence or two is how to organize information effectively on a wiki.

That's not entirely true.

The issue, is I think that there are a number of different ways to organize content for a wiki, and no one organizational strategy seems to be absolutely perfect, and I've never been able to settle on a way of organizing wiki pages that I am truly happy with. The goals of a good wiki "information architecture" (if I may be so bold) are as follows:

  • Clarity: It should be immediately clear to the readers and writers of a wiki where a page should be located in the wiki. If there's hierarchy, it needs to fit your subject area perfectly and require minimal effort to grok. Because you want people to focus on the content rather than the organization, and we don't tend to focus on organizational systems when they're clear.
  • Simplicity: Wikis have a great number of internal links and can (and are) indexed manually as needed, so as the proprietor of a wiki you probably need to do a lot less "infrastructural work" than you think you need to. Less is probably more in this situation.
  • Intuitive: Flowing from the above, wikis ought to strive to be intuitive in their organization. Pages should answer questions that people have, and then provide additional information out from there. One shouldn't have to dig in a wiki for pages, if there are categories or some sort of hierarchy there pages there shouldn't be overlap at the tips of various trees.

Strategies that flow from this are:

  • In general, write content on a very small number of pages, and expand outward as you have content for those pages (by chopping up existing pages as it makes sense and using this content to spur the creation of new pages.
  • Use one style of links/hierarchy (wikish and ciwiki fail at this.) You don't want people to think: Should this be a camel case link? Should this be a regular one word link? Should this be a multiple word link with dash separated words or underscore separated words? One convention to rule them all.
  • Realize that separate hierarchies of content within a single wiki effectively create separate wikis and sites within a single wiki, and that depending on your software, it can be non-intuitive to link between different hierarchies.
  • As a result: use as little hierarchy and structure as possible. hierarchy creates possibilities where things can go wrong and where confusion can happen. At some point you'll probably need infrastructure to help make the navigation among pages more intuitive, but that point is always later than you think it's going to be.
  • Avoid reflexivity. This is probably generalizable to the entire Internet, but in general people aren't very interested in how things work and the way you're thinking about your content organization. They're visiting your wiki to learn something or share some information, not to think through the meta crap with you. Focus on that.
  • Have content on all pages, and have relatively few pages which only serve to point visitors at other pages. Your main index page is probably well suited as a traffic intersection without additional content, but in most cases you probably only need a very small number of these pass through pages. In general, make it so your wikis have content everywhere.

... and other helpful suggestions which I have yet to figure out. Any suggestions from wiki maintainers?

[1]There are a number of very simple and lightweight wiki engines, including some that run in only a few lines of Perl. Once we had the tools to build dynamic websites (CGI, circa 1993/1994), the wiki became a trivial implementation.
[2]The general Principal of building a successful community edited wiki is basically to pay attention to the community in the early stages. Your first few contributors are very important, and contributions have to be invited and nurtured, and communities don't just happen. In the context of wikis, in addition to supporting the first few contributors, the founders also need to construct a substantive seed of content.
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