Wet Paint

Wikis frustrate me. Back in ’91 when Tim Berners-Lee created the first web site, his focus was on an interactive medium. The web was meant to be a forum where everyone could be a publisher, everyone could contribute to the collective knowledge, and everyone could benefit from others’ contributions. It didn’t work out that way. The technical limitations to putting a web site online were too great. You had to get a server, configure the httpd software, write the web pages by hand with a text editor, and manage the site yourself. While web sites were a much easier way to put information online than anything that had come before, it wan’t for the masses.

Three years later, wikis were invented by Ward Cunningham as a way to have "editable" web pages. A page could be created that visitors can modify to correct and amend. It’s a powerful collaborative tool, but it’s also easy to deface and abuse. As a technology, it wasn’t widely embraced until Wikipedia started taking off in 2003. Now it’s seen as a "Web 2.0" technology, part of the read-write web. Suddenly, everyone’s talking about them.

Our tech team started playing around with wikis this past school year. Like many, I had looked at them in the late ’90s, and thought, "that’s never going to work." With all of the hype, though, it was worth another look. We installed MediaWiki and PHPWiki on a local server and started to play with them.We brainstormed some ideas on how we could use them. We could build a knowledgebase of technology information, so people within the district would be able to use that resource to help them solve their own tech problems. Students could create wikis as collaborative class projects that show what they’ve learned about a topic. Teachers could use wiki versions of textbooks, to have an always up-to-date electronic text for their classes. We could use a wiki to build a resource to help teachers implement the academic content standards for technology. The resource would have the standards in it, and people could add and edit lesson ideas and resources for the different standards at the various grade levels. We would use our staff to collaboratively build this resource, and then open it up so other teachers throughout the state (and country, maybe) could use it and contribute to it, too. What a cool project!

Reality set it quickly. By default, wiki software requires contributors to enter text in wiki markup. Want a heading? Simple, just type "== This is a Title ==" and it’ll put the title there. How about a link? "[[this is a link]]." What if I want to add a picture? First, I just upload the picture to a document repository, and then use something like "[[image:mypic.jpg]]" to have it show up on your page. Getting our teachers to use this simple markup to share their ideas and resources with others should be no problem at all, right?

They thought we were nuts when we suggested that they use HTML code for their web pages. Now, we want them to use a different, but similar language to do wikis? It didn’t happen the first time, and it’s not going to happen now.

So… we went looking for wysiwyg editors for wikis. We found ’em, too. Most wikis now have plugins that let you put word-processor-like editors on them. That makes the formatting much easier. The only problem is that you still have to do links and images (and attachments) by hand with the markup. And what are the most valuable tools in a wiki? We’re spinning our wheels here.

In the end, we decided not to use a wiki to do this. Despite the fact that it’s ten years old, the technology hasn’t sufficiently escaped the geekosphere to allow everyone to use it. Eventually, they’ll evolve enough to actually be useful.

All of that was about two weeks ago. I didn’t think it would evolve so quickly, though. Today, I read about Wet Paint. This is a hosted wiki solution (you don’t run it on your own server). They’ve solved both of the wysiwyg editor problems. It’s very easy now to set up a wiki, contribute information, and add links, pictures, and attachments, all without the annoying markup code.

We’re not ready to jump on board yet. We need a tool that’s locally hosted that will do all this. But I’m a lot more hopeful about the possibilities than I was a week ago.