When I first started using a traditional wiki (c. 2002, I think), I mistakingly saw it as a form of wide-ranging publication – a hypertextual companion to the blog. I was looking for a universal notebook-cum-database; a one-stop shop for drafting, revising, and publishing; a elegant – because it was the smallest database that would work – hypertexual support system; the realization of Vannevar Bush’s memex and Ted Nelson’s literary machine. I thought of the wiki as a magic workshop: a place where I could collect and store and organize hypertexually my notes, commonplaces, links, and drafts; with a workbench space to assemble these things into more formal hypertexts; and the capability of publising those hypertexts in progress. A universal reading and writing and learning and broadcasting space.
Wikipedia not withstanding, the wiki isn’t a publishing medium so much as a medium for coterie circulation, something closer to manuscript circulation than world wide circulation of a National Literary Review. The wiki is a medium for neighborhood circulation of notebook-like works in progress, notebooks being closer to manuscripts than blog posts or PDFs or Word docs watermarked DRAFT.
I’m borrowing the idea of coterie culture from Laura Mandell’s recent monograph Breaking the Book. She sets coterie culture next to more contemporary print culture in order to highlight the meeting of scribal and print cultures in 17th and early 18th century England. Coterie publishing of small print runs circulated among a small group of readers “with the same expectation as manuscripts: educated, elite readers would write in them, correct them, modify them” (121). Sound a little like fedwiki? Breaking the Book is worth a read. (I could not find any good reviews of the book yet, so here’s a link to the publisher, Wiley Blackwell.)
I made the early mistake of identifying wikis wiith blogs. Blogs are a publication medium. They are written for and seek wide and anonymous distribution. A blog post is published and may be commented on, but it is more or less finished. But wikis are notebooks, continuously revised and adapted, and in fedwiki revised and re-distributed. As notebooks, they become sources for further work and distribution by other means, such as blogs.
Reconsider the memex. As Bush conceived it, the memex was designed for personal scholarly use and coterie distibution. The trails through memex libraries, as they were conceived, were not meant to be distributed as a set of bound texts distributed to anonymous readers. The idea was that the scholar would reproduce the microfich and hand around to other like scholars – mostly who knew each other. The small group would not need a detailed textual context because it would be a small group, a neigborhood. The NLS seems to have been concepualized in a similar scholarly group context rather than as a worldwide, anonymous mass.
So: a fedwiki as notebook.
Thoughts along this line are circulating in the fedwiki neighborhood as Fedwiki as Memex-Journal. The memex was designed to address the problems of wide dispersal of information and the index. As it’s being discussed on Fedwiki, the problem of integrating sources is being addressed with links to collections and notes on Pinboard, and the problem of indexing is address with RSS feeds and tags.
Along with Ward I imagine a Pinboard-ish community around the product. Sites would have a setting to say where they publish to — RSS feeds, Pinboard, etc. But there also might be a fedwiki specific community that provided better integration.
Wikis would also have certain tags associated with them, and by default would publish new material to feeds and community sites under those tags. Tags would help alert you to new wiki content from anywhere, consistently good wiki content would prompt you to subscribe to all updates of that wiki.
The distribution is not wide but takes place within a specific community surrounding a topic, discipline, problem, interest. Distribution of link trails is more rapid than snail mail but still takes place within a small group, a coterie. I think of these coteries not as pre-conceived audiences that are being passively addressed but as active publics that organize themselves around the content and interests of the group.
I like the name “Steno”. It conveys the notebook idea, but technically stenography is “narrow writing” (steno=narrow) which fits the idea of a collection of small thoughts connected. It doesn’t capture the networked wiki element, but I think that’s OK — it’s easy to say “Steno is your networked notebook”.
Once I have the notebook and coterie distribution in mind, the advice behind a style guide, like this one Mike Caulfield designed for Fedwiki, becomes clear. The guide lists the usually unstated practices of the coterie: the Fedwiki neighborhood.
First, abide by the general conventions of federated wiki:
- Avoid overlinking
- Minimize in-paragraph formatting
- Use Link Words, not links.
- Where possible, write short paragraphs, with one idea per paragraph (to facilitate reuse and rearrangement).
Second, write primarily in a descriptive style. Wikity is less an editorial page, and more a sort of Hitchiker’s guide to the galaxy. Short articles based around a single idea, formula, concept, fact, or dataset are best.
As a notebook, fedwiki is not a reading but a writing platform. Material in a notebook is mined for use in other contexts, and smart practice (both for the notebook and the note taker) is to develop note-making habits that reduce the friction for collecting and mining. Links inside the notebook and outside the notebook take on a functional rather than an aethetic or rhetorical value. Prose chunked into short paragraphs make it easier to move around and circulate within the notebook – easier to assemble into constellations, easier mine, easier to add to. Bullet lists are less valuable than they might be in static publication; the idea of a notebook is to expand ideas, not reduce them to a set of bullets.