I'm toying extensively with MediaWiki today. I mainly want to set up something to help coordinate the efforts of a school-wide committee for which I recently became the chair. The work of this committee involves collaborative editing and tracking of lots of documents, so a wiki seems like the natural thing. Up until now, members mostly emailed Word documents around, and there seemed to be no canonical location for the latest versions. (More on this committee's agenda another time, perhaps.)

Someone suggested that all the minutes and other documents from the committee could be burned onto CDs and distributed to members. His heart is in the right place, even if the recommended medium isn't.

Aside: I feel that way too about these USB memory sticks that are so prevalent lately. All students seem to have one or more, and they seem to be the schwag du jour at certain workshops. To me, these things were obsolete long before they were even invented… they're just high-capacity floppy disks. And the reason floppies are obsolete has nothing to do with their size. Physically moving data around on some device, no matter how convenient, is fundamentally flawed: the data should reside on the network, where it can be synchronized, backed up, accessed, and modified from anywhere. This net-centric view was how computer science departments arranged things even in 1990, but the rest of the world has not yet caught on. The fact that a computer user would reach for a USB stick to copy files from machine A to machine B – when they're both on the same LAN – means something is fundamentally broken. Incidentally, I place blame not on the user, but on the designer of the dominant operating system.

Anyway, MediaWiki seems sufficiently powerful, but a little more confusing to configure than I expected. Configuration can mean editing ‘LocalSettings.php’ (reasonably well documented), editing other arbitrary PHP files (haphazardly documented), and/or editing certain pages in the ‘MediaWiki’ namespace of the wiki itself (mostly undocumented).

Like most software whose primary documentation is a wiki (which is by no means limited to wiki software itself), entropy prevails. Information becomes scattered and duplicated. Questions and answers from users are mixed in with exposition. The wiki model can be extremely useful for reducing the barriers for contributions, and that helps keep things up to date. I'd probably prefer having all documentation in a wiki than having it all, for example in the archive of a mailing list. But the wiki can't compete with a well written and thoughtfully edited manual.

I seem to be taming my installation now, following a solid afternoon of tinkering. I am using namespaces to separate different projects (rather than having separate installations) and to restrict edit access to certain user groups. I learned that it makes sense to create user accounts using real names (First Last) so that you can easily refer to them and link to their user page: “Committee members include [[User:Chris League|]], [[User:Lisa Simpson|]], etc.”

Now the next step is to convince my colleagues that they can use this. I am finding it difficult to predict who will adapt to new technology and who will not. Field of expertise and age are not the determinants I would have expected. In other words, you can't assume all the over-50s will avoid it and the under-40s will adopt it. Similarly, you can't assume that the CS profs will be happy to learn a new system and the English profs will be reluctant. This is good, in a way. Why should everyone conform to my expectations? Keep me guessing!

©20022015 Christopher League