Wikis – A Metaphor

If a blog is like a dinner party, a wiki is like a mailbox room.

I worked at a one-building organization, before e-mail, with one mailbox room and one workroom. All the people there were specialists in a field, many had advanced degrees, and all were well-read and well-traveled.

While getting a cup of coffee or using the office equipment, the workroom-denizens would discuss the latest developments in art, literature, music, technology, language, local politics, national politics… Because of the location of the restrooms, one received a continuing education mini-workshop several times per day.

The equivalent of a wiki–a collaborative collecting and creating of information–occurred in the mailbox room. Daily, I would find in my mailbox a follow-up note to my participation during one of the workroom discussions. It would be an answer to a question, a suggested book to read, the book itself, a photocopy of an article or a page of an article, even an erudite and passionate essay on the subject of the hour.

Even before e-mail, this organization was "green"; often the written conversations continued on the same paper. In my mailbox, at the bottom of a note I had written to someone else, would be a follow-up note. I would write a follow-up to that follow-up and put it the answerer’s mailbox. When I returned to my mailbox, there would be an update, revision, or elaboration upon our discussion.

The mailboxes were a crisscross of 50 paper-sized slots, each full of one-to-one information. Each day, those mailboxes represented 1/365 of the stored, collective knowledge and wisdom of the organization.

How the mailbox room was not like a wiki is that I only had access–and permission to read–the slips of paper in my box. In each one of the boxes was the learned, thoughtful written correspondence of experts. We had no access to each other’s expertise except in passing or if engaged in a one-to-one correspondence.

I feel such nostalgia and regret for that lost knowledge.

Wait!  Many of the people at the organization are still there. I’m going to pitch them a wiki! A wiki is a crisscross of stored information, but it’s online, created by individuals, added to by other individuals, added to again by the original creators. But it’s not stuck in the mailboxes. It’s searchable and–through a category structure–it’s BROWSABLE.

That means I could search the wiki for "segue." (One of the most amazing conversations I heard in the workroom was about the origin of this word and its growing use in everyday language–with thoughtful commentary by a linguist washing his lunch dishes, a mathematician looking up from the textbook he was writing, and a scientist making her photocopies.) In the wiki, I could again savor the major points made by the major players in the conversation.

Then I could browse all that wisdom. I could scroll through other topics: other words, other articles, essays, documents written by particular individuals, all linked, just like the mailbox notes and the workroom conversations.

Because everyone openly writes the wiki all together, with original documents still present so the progression of the information collection can be viewed, I could ask one of my questions–and read one of those beautifully worded, informed, thoughtful answers.

Online, not on paper. Right there. Not lost forever.

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