Wikis and Accountability

recently created an internal WikiWiki for my feature team.*  Initially, it
consists of an ever-growing list of FAQs.  I (and hopefully some of my
teammates;-), are automatically apprised of changes to the FAQ pages via an RSS
feed. Thus, if a user posts a source control question but no answer,
we will probably provide an answer within a day or
two. Wiki-based Q&A isn’t as immediate as a newsgroup response but
I look forward to digging into its potential as more
sustainable, self-supporting, and search friendly alternative to newsgroups
and listservs, which require constant attention by a group of really
dedicated subject matter experts.  It would seem that with wiki-based
Q&A, there’s less chance that a contributor’s question will get dropped
entirely. Also, as facts, conditions, and contexts change, so too
can our content.


class=647415121-11092003>Wikis are an
example of the new Web, where user interaction and experimentation is
encouraged.  O
ne of the things that bothers practically
everyone about wikis is the issue of accountability. After a short
introduction, most people grok the potential of the wiki paradigm and can
understand the importance of extending unfettered editorial power to all
users.*  But this
class=647415121-11092003>question of
accountability is really haunting. How can you ensure that one bad
actor doesn’t sink the ship or somehow harm the other passengers?  How
can you stop a vandal before they do serious or irrevocable harm, bringing
down the wiki server by adding thousands of pages, for example? 
How can you mitigate the risk of gradual information poisoning?  If
your wiki admin software supports per-user, date range rollback, who will
administer the features and how?

size=2> color=#0000ff size=2> 

successful collaborative projects include mechanisms for ensuring
personal accountability.  Malicious wiki usage must be deterred,
controlled, and its damage mitigated if a wiki is to be useful to a majority of
its users.  In lieu of authorization or authentication features, which
might be contrary to the underlying philosophy of a wiki (what’s your opinion?),
how can a public wiki ensure accountability.  The smart folks over at href="">IBM’s Collaborative User Experience
Research Group have done some research that indicates that there might
be a way to
spot vandalism
on an open WikiWiki like href="">wikipedia using href="">data visualization
color=#0000ff size=2>.  VERY interesting.



*If, like
me, you’re fortunate enough to have access to the hometown domain of the most
incredible corpnet on earth, Microsoft’s, you can get a sneak
peak at our wiki work in progress and several other ongoing
projects at
style="COLOR: black; TEXT-DECORATION: none; text-underline: none"> face=Verdana>http://wiki


style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal"> face=Verdana>**Why is unfettered
editorial power such an important wiki feature? 

face=Verdana>Here are my thoughts. Human beings assimilate
information (and thus become subject matter experts) most rapidly
when we have a chance to deconstruct and reconstruct or–in programmer
speak–to refactor. We can sometimes divine how a machine works by simply
observing its behavior. We can often do so by listening to a lecture or reading
a book.  However, to quickly learn and fully understand how a machine
works on a really fundamental level, many of us have take it
apart with our own hands and then, if we’re lucky, put it back


face=Verdana>A concept is like a machine. It is a thing with interrelated
parts, a specific function, and the ability to interface with
other concepts in interesting ways. It follows that concepts that we can
deconstruct, word by word and part by part, are the ones that we understand most
quickly and thoroughly. On the Web, conceptual deconstruction and
reconstruction have traditionally been mental exercises.  Users haven’t
been able to easily jump into a Web page, tear apart the description of a
complex concept, and ‘make it their own’.  So does it follow that a
revisable concept, like a machine that can be taken apart, is more likely
to be widely understood than one that is not?  I think so. On another
level of course, it is a basic human impulse to correct errors. When you see a
huge technical error on a Web page, what do you do?  If you’re
conscientous, you might email the Webmaster.  But what if you could just
jump in and correct the error yourself, quickly and easily? Would you be more
likely to revisit that Web page?  Perhaps.

face=Arial color=#0000ff

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Comments (3)

  1. Hassan says:

    I agree with your assessment of the importance of unfettered editorial power. I too am excited about the possibilities of using wiki technologies in a software development context.

    I think a wiki version of the .net framework documentation (hosted somewhere like would be an excellent tool for helping people migrate to and maximize utility of the .net framework.

  2. That’s a brilliant idea Hassan! Hopefully, it’s a meme that catches on. Perhaps we could convince a site like .net247 [1] to run with the concept.