More and more often I hear clients who want a new website saying, "Why can't we use a wiki?" or "shouldn't we just start a blog?" This is particularly true of businesses and other large organizations that already have significant websites but aren't satisfied with them for some reason or other.
What's the appeal? And do those asking for one of these new approaches to web content really know the difference between a blog and a wiki? When I probe them, they typically do not really understand the details, but see either tool providing them with a level of ease-of-use, especially for newcomers, that's not possible in their existing websites. They also view a better website as a place they might get some collaborative work done.
It would be useful to develop some brief guidelines to help decide when we need a wiki and when we need a blog.
At the recent Collaborative Technologies Conference in Boston, novel uses of blogs and wikis were rampant. Tool vendors are rebranding their existing collaboration products as blogs or wikis or sometimes both.
One reason that blogs and wikis are so much more popular than the typical CMS is that they are simply a lot newer. With AJAX and Web 2.0 making new and simpler user interfaces to tools and RSS feeds everywhere, it's actually quite hard to identify the distinctive differences between many products.
So let's take a brief look at the original design concepts and information organizing principles behind wikis and blogs. We'll see they are converging in functionality and usability under market pressures to make any tool all things to all people. But two giant differences remain, and these can help us to choose the right tool. The first is how they organize their information. The second is the number of contributors and what those contributors hope to achieve.
The basic organizing principle or "information architecture" of a blog is called reverse chronological order. Date and time is the critical differentiator and the newest posting always appears first, at the top of the home page.
The basic organizing principle of a wiki could be defined as the absence of any principle beyond the hyperlink, at least the absence of any particular structure. A wiki is flat. Wiki pages simply link to other wiki pages as needed. The wiki is fundamentally a database of such pages. Its inventor, Ward Cunningham, called it "the simplest online database that could possibly work."
Both tools made their first appearances over a decade ago in 1994. Blogs grew out of personal diary pages, so they foreshadowed today's news portals with their emphasis on the latest stories. The first wiki was aimed at collaboration by many users to develop a repository of knowledge. So they emphasized content with lasting value. Although wiki entries could be edited and improved over time, the wiki valued more permanent knowledge; the blog valued the latest ephemeral headlines and instant reactions from commentators.
While there are group blogs and organizational blogs with multiple contributors, the overwhelming number of blogs still speak in the voice of a single author. And while wikis are still a favorite tool for personal information management (PIM), the typical wiki has multiple contributors and the most famous wiki, the amazing Wikipedia online Encyclopedia, has well over 100,000 authors who have generated over a million articles.
Today's blogs and wikis share many properties. Their dominant method of navigation is a search engine. Their typical entry point is a deep link, so it must be easy to find a way back to the home page. They both excel at easily adding new posts or new entries, with minimal editing skills demanded of the user. They both can use the latest categorization and tagging schemes, and they can generate RSS feeds to notify those following their growth of content blow-by-blow.
We hope to see still more standardization of both tools as they are increasingly built on structured XML in the future. At the moment, every wiki uses a different syntax to create its special content like hyperlinks, bolded or other text styles, tables, etc. It would be best if they all just used XHTML and a WYSIWYG editor interface. Different markup methods and storage formats make for difficult content migration, if and when you want to move your information to a future tool.
But when all is said and done, the blog is for the latest news and the wiki is for content that may be old but still good. So if your goal is a knowledge repository, of business best practices or policies and procedures, or your home's favorite recipes or family records, the wiki is your tool of choice. If your goal is to get out the latest word on what's happening in your own life or your business, then the natural choice is a blog.
P.S. In just a couple of weeks, from August 4th through 6th, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society will host Wikimania 2006, the second annual international conference of Wikipedians. While the emphasis will be on the Wikipedia, many presentations, panels, workshops and poster sessions will address issues that could impact your choice of a wiki as a tool. Consider attending. I'll be there.