It’s apparently time for everyone to think about wikis.

I was inspired by Matt Haughey’s “CSS wiki zen garden” to try setting up a wiki for one of my sites. I had no idea how difficult and confusing this would be.

I entered this mission with clearly-defined goals:

  • I wanted a site where my readers could easily create and update pages. Sounds like a wiki!
  • The software needed to be (really) easy for a Unix doofus like me to install. UseModWiki took me about 15 minutes to install and configure, but it was downhill from there.
  • The site’s design needed to be consistent with the rest of my site. that means I need to use CSS and to include a navigation bar. Navigation turns out to be a special challenge.
  • I didn’t care whether the software was based on Perl, PHP, or Python, since I don’t understand any of those languages well enough to modify the software. But that also means the package can’t require me to modify its code to get something done.
  • The pages need to based on templates that can be modified by someone who knows HTML and CSS.
  • It would be cool if the software supported search, an index page, and RSS.
  • I’m not sure if I should care whether the software stores pages in MySQL, a built-in database, or a big pile of text files in a directory. But, as far as I can tell, there is no way to move pages from one wiki package to another. I suppose the markup is so simple that one can manually move wikis with even hundreds of pages.

Like most simple plans, mine ran into some harsh reality.

I’m not sure anyone knows how many wiki programs there are and I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive list. Wikis manifest some of the worst aspects of open source software. Everyone has their own package because everyone thinks they can do it better, their preferred language is superior, or that they should be in charge. And because wikis are so simple, it appears that anybody can write a wiki package.

Wiki authors should talk to Ben and Mena Trott about how to create templates. The wiki templates I have seen are programs that contain HTML markup, and not HTML pages that call program macros.

Because wikis date back to the earliest days of the Web and because they are based on a doctrine of extreme simplicity, and probably because there are so damn many of them, they have largely ignored everything we’ve learned about building Web sites in the last near-decade. Their accomodation of CSS is weak. They typically don’t support tables, even for tabular data. Their notion of content management is all over the map. And they don’t support any navigation other than inline or generic navigation links [Home, Edit, Recent Changes].

Try finding information about wikis using Google. One problem is that, unlike weblogs or web sites, most wikis have the word “wiki” in their name, so it’s difficult to separe pages about wikis from the wikis themselves. It’s like searching Google for “home page”.

Navigation is at the heart of my problem . Unfortunately, most information about wikis is stored on wikis, and most of it consists of links to the same pages, most of which are waiting for wiki users to update them with useful information in lieu of placeholders. Even when I can find a site with useful information, like Choosing A Wiki, once I begin following links, I soon become lost in a way that I don’t on most modern Web sites. . Even the vaunted Wikipedia is a hopeless maze of twisty passages.

Can anybody point me to enough information to find a wiki package that meets my modest criteria?