Congratulations : ye have overcome the wiki one*

26 February 2008

Task 19 of the 23 Things program requires me to put a photo of my pet on the library staff wiki. My lilac Burmese cat Lily is already there, in excellent company with 77 other pets:


I regret that this was quite a difficult task for those who don’t have pets, those who have recently lost their pets, and those who struggle with the wiki software.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the origin of the wiki; my colleague Dana gives an excellent linguistic rundown on her post so I’ll save myself the time. But I think I’ve made it clear in a previous post that I like the idea of wikis as a means of keeping as much of our corporate work accessible, transparent and current as possible.

There are many reasons why wikis are better than intranets in our setting. For starters, intranets tend to be a top-down method of communication where senior levels of management deposit policy documents and statements to trickle down to their underlings. There is usually little or no encouragement for contributions from further down the food chain. That’s not how we want communicate in a library. Libraries are spaces for learning, creativity and collaboration at all levels of scholarship; that should include the library staff.

Secondly, intranets are usually maintained by a single administrator who uses complex HTML and stylesheets to build pages. While our web managers are quite capable of running a system like that, it defeats the purpose of a horizontal communication tool if we have to email them every time we want to make a change. Documents on intranets tend to go out of date very quickly and become redundant when an administrator has to see to other tasks; staff members are unlikely to pay attention to an internal method of communication if it’s perceived to be constantly out-of-date.

Many of my colleagues seem to have found using the staff wiki quite stressful. I agree with Dana that remembering the special wiki markup language is actually very difficult for those schooled in the HTML encoding used in websites; it’s like learning Dutch after learning German — the languages are similar on the surface, but sometimes their similarity is actively misleading.

For me, learning to use our Swinburne Library MediaWiki software has been a process of trial and error (lots of errors and quite a trial at times). I’d never used a wiki before June last year, but I found many of the help manuals on Wikipedia very useful for both basic and more advanced skills.

Library staff will have noticed that it’s particularly difficult to upload documents to a wiki. This is because wikis can’t really compute the concept of a word processed document; the software makes the assumption (whether good or bad) that if you’re adding textual content, you’ll do it in wiki markup. Uploading images is not an easy task, either.

I was disappointed that my idealistic viewpoint on democratic flows of information is hampered by my pedantry. I found it difficult to search for specific pages on the wiki; no matter which keywords I used, I often couldn’t find the page I was looking for. So I made a decision to introduce categories to our wiki, so that it’s easier to browse by topic, unit or campus for pages of interest. Every time someone adds a page to the wiki, the software sends me an email so I can log in to add the page to a category. This might appear a little intrusive, so please let me know what you think in the comments or on my talk page.

The other problem I discovered with wikis is that attempting to navigate around them can lead users into a bit of an abyss. It’s especially difficult to go backwards. You can click the Main Page link on the left-hand side panel to return to the homepage, but if you’ve come across a page purely by chance you’ll struggle to ever find it again. My response to this problem is to add breadcrumbs to each wiki page in the hope that it’s easier to feel my way around. On our Online Services and Strategies pages, I’ve also added a section for related links at the base of each page to help users find more information or return to an area of interest. If you’d like to do this to your own pages, please feel free. I think it’s a handy trick. Again, please let me know what you think in the comments.

*’ I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one.’ (1 John 2:13)

Build your house, then call me home(page)

21 February 2008

Our lives are increasingly mobile. For example, I wrote this post (and many of the previous ones) on the train. It’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds; I don’t have a laptop, a PDA or a web-enabled phone. I’m not even typing bestsellers with my thumbs like the famous Japanese cell phone authors.

No, I’ve gone truly retrograde. I’m writing my posts in pen on paper.

And I love it.

But what about those of us who want to use technology in more than one place? People without laptops, or people who travel?

This time last week I was in New Zealand, having a fantastic holiday and generally steering clear of the Web for the sake of rest, eyestrain, and my unfortunate tendency to read work email while I’m on vacation. But one thing I could have done from an airport kiosk or internet cafe was upload my holiday snaps to Flickr, Picasa, Facebook or any number of image-sharing websites. Why? Because all of these services are web-based, so they can follow (or haunt) me everywhere.

As I’m a really long way behind in the 23 Things schedule, some of my colleagues are beginning to post their final comments on the program. A particularly interesting point made by several bloggers was that many staff use more than one PC, sometimes even on multiple campuses. Naturally this makes the idea of a permanent desktop very appealing.

The 23 Things tasks reflect the trend towards ‘going mobile’. We’ve looked at Google Docs, for example, which offers a free hosting and editing service for office documents, and Flickr, a centralised space for storing images. But how can we take our desktops with us?

Firstly, we need to extract as much data as possible from internal network drives and make it available online. In the case of Swinburne Library staff, confidential information can be added to the staff wiki, since this is protected by password. The added advantage here is that a wiki is a collaborative tool; you might find your colleagues respond to your work with helpful comments and additions. Swinburne staff should also never underestimate the power of their email inboxes. Email is hardly the best content management service, especially given its relatively poor search abilities. However, since our email client can be accessed remotely, at least it’s always available.

Of course, this doesn’t solve everything. Swinburne 23 Things Task 16 encourages us to try iGoogle, a customised Web start page that can be accessed anywhere users have an internet connection.

iGoogle is certainly very visually versatile. Users can choose from a directory of over 150 themes, or even design their own using XML. I chose the ready-made City Scape theme, which changes gradually during the day to reflect the sun’s position in the sky. iGoogle, like many of the other Google products, makes use of ‘gadgets’ (called ‘widgets’ in Blogger) to add external content to pages. Like Facebook’s applications, many of these are created by weekend developers. As suggested when I activated the software, I added the Wikipedia, Gmail, Google Reader and ToDo gadgets.

Although it’s easy to search Wikipedia in Firefox (I just type ‘wp’ then the search query in the address bar), the ability to search Wikipedia from a portable desktop is useful when chasing PCs or using Internet Explorer. The option to preview my latest emails and feeds through iGoogle is also very handy. I don’t use my Gmail account very often (mainly just for Blogger comment alerts and Facebook ‘bacn‘) so I often forget to check for new emails. And with the number of unread feeds in my Google Reader rapidly approaching 1500 (again), it can be daunting even to take a peek at my aggregator. Much better just to be presented with a few new feeds each time I refresh my homepage.

Since I like the way iGoogle works, I may consider using it more regularly in the future, and I’ll definitely explore the gadget directory in more detail. However, for those who like the concept of a web-based desktop but aren’t inspired by Google’s offering, there are plenty of alternatives. Like all Web 2.0 products, their continued existence is subject to the fickleness of the web-using public — the safety of Google and any of its services lies in monstrous size and wealth. I am always hesitant to save my data to little-known Web 2.0 services without a backup, since they are frequently here today and gone tomorrow.

With that dire warning out of the way, here are some rival start pages I investigated:

PageOnce is designed for users with a number of web email and social networking accounts. It feeds all new email or friend update data into one start page, negating the need to remember a multitude of passwords. However, I think it’s important to bear privacy and security in mind; iGoogle only recycles data through the Gmail and Google Reader gadgets that is already available from my Google account. How much new information would I have to provide PageOnce for the same functionality?

Pageflakes is one of iGoogle’s most successful competitors. It has the ability to accomodate a wider audience than a personalised webpage like iGoogle. As an example, Dublin City Public Libraries use a customised Pageflakes page as the default homepage on all public access PCs. Unfortunately the page is very cluttered and ugly, and I worry about such heavy reliance on Web 2.0 tools. As Andrew Finegan notes, public libraries deserve to be ‘free but not cheap’.

As you can see from the comparison links below, many people favour Netvibes. Like Pageflakes, it was able to pinpoint my location (albeit Canberra, but close enough) and provide me with a demo page containing geographically-relevant modules like Herald Sun news and local weather. However like Pageflakes, the layout is messy and overcrowded; iGoogle’s sparse layout, in keeping with other Google products, definitely counts in its favour.

Despite iGoogle’s rapid rise in popularity in 2007, MyYahoo! is still the most popular start page by miles, but while it has the benefit of using the same login details as Flickr, it suffers from a strong UK bias. Let’s just say I wouldn’t use it.

Symbaloo is different from the other start pages I viewed because it uses a customisable array of symbols to represent frequently-used websites and services. Unlike iGoogle, which federates a number of services into a single space, Symbaloo acts as a launching pad for the Web. I think it’s one to watch, but it’s still in beta outside the United States.

Smplr has generated some interest in the online press, mostly because it’s unusual and much prettier than most of the start pages on the market. However, it requires users to learn a whole new language of codes to navigate the Web — something users are perfectly capable of doing without Simplr. Such a complicated process for a service that is meant to make users’ lives easier seems truly oxymoronic.

Further information:

Compare startpages: