Forums, blogs, wikis

In thinking about the new website, we should address the question of
how we communicate. Some of the CMS systems we are considering offer
blogs, wikis, discussion boards and other forms of interaction. Should
we use these things? What are the differences between them? Could
we end up using too many of them?

Personally, I do not believe that blogs, wikis and discussion forums are
interchangable. We treat them differently, and they are good at
different things. Here are my working hypotheses as to what these
different media are good for. Suggestions for how the LUG should use
them in our new website follow.

First, let's consider the humble static website.
In some sense, a
static website and a comment form should be all we need for full
interactivity: if people saw something they didn't like, they could
just send a comment which the webmaster would read. The webmaster
could then make changes based on those comments. It doesn't work like
that in reality, of course. Mostly, people refrain from commenting,
and for the most part static websites don't change much. If all we
wanted to do was advertise upcoming meetings, this might be enough.
But I think we can do better.

One option is to use a wiki for everything. Wikis are very good for
summarizing discussions; it is very easy to add new information and
reorganize old information. Wiki pages often have easily-parsed URLs,
which makes them easy to link to.

Then, of course, there is that aspect of wikis that make them famous:
they are accessible to everybody. Wiki syntax is easy to pick
up, and all members of the wiki have full rights to reorganize
information. In theory, this means any or all members of an
organization can serve as "wiki masters".

Wikis have their weaknesses, however. One problem is that they are not
that good for holding discussions. If you modify the text directly it
becomes tricky to tell who said what; if you add attribution to
comments then you clutter up the wiki. Wikis with "talk" pages get
around this somewhat, but talk pages are not very wiki-like.

The other big problem with wikis is the tragedy of the commons.
Because everybody has access to modify a wiki, people feel less
responsibility to do so. Creating a wiki does not guarantee
a flock of eagers content-creators any more than releasing
source code guarantees a flock of eager maintainers for your code.
People need to be committed to making the project better.

In my view, wikis are ideal for focussed collaborative work. You put
up a proposal on a wiki, and then the group modifies and fleshes out
the proposal in response to discussion carried out in some other
format. The result is a dynamic, long-term page that can be easily
referenced. They can also be used for general-purpose information
sharing, but if we want to do this then some people have to assume
responsibility for keeping the wiki up to date.

In my view web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists
are mostly interchangable. They are all media for
holding threaded conversations, where one person proposes a topic and
other people respond. These media have the property that all posters
are more-or-less equal. In addition to responding to the original
poster, people in a thread will often have "subconversations" with
each other. This has both good and bad sides. On the positive side,
the subdiscussions will often illuminate aspects of a topic that the
original poster did not consider. More negatively, these media are
prone to topic drift.

Web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists are good for having
conversations, but they are substandard as reference sources. Unless
the conversation is very short, relevant/interesting information can
be spread out among many posts. In addition, the URLs for these media
are often not very nice; it is difficult to find a discussion unless
you know what you are looking for beforehand. Many web forums have
particularly lousy topic URLs.

Although they basically serve the same purpose, the cultures
surrounding web forums and mailing lists do differ. Web forums tend to
be more graphical, with avatars and smilies. Mailing lists tend to be
text-based. I have found that people post off-topic or non-sequitur
comments on web forums more than on mailing lists. When people go
on mailing lists then others often get cranky. My guess is that this has
something to do with ownership; people feel like they "own" their
e-mail addresses, and they don't want a lot of junk going to their
property. On the other hand, web forums are seen as "common space",
and it is trivial to skip topics that are not of interest, so people
don't care so much.

Another difference -- especially with respect to Linux -- is that
experienced geeks tend to use mailing lists, and newcomers tend to use
web forums. That is not a universal rule, but it has happened a lot at
KWLUG. Since one purpose of the LUG is to bring Linux users together,
I believe that integrating web forums and mailing lists as necessary.
It will be interesting to see how much conflict the differing cultures
of these media cause, however.

In my view web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists are ideal for
holding discussions of all kinds.

Then there are blogs. Each blog post is a topic made by a single
person. As such, blog posts are self-contained; each one has a
"permalink" that can easily be visited again and again.

Unlike wikis, people do not modify their blog posts very much -- and
they usually indicate updates when they do modify their posts. Much
like web forums, blog posts also come with commenting facilities.
I have noticed that the nature of commenting is very different on
blogs than on most web forums or mailing lists. On a blog post, the
author of the blog posting is the focus of attention. Almost all
comments will be directed towards the main author, with little
conversation between other commenters of the post. As often as not,
detailed responses to a blog post end up taking the form of other blog

In my view blogs are best used to make longer statements by
individuals -- offering tips, reviews, opinions, commentary and so on.
Occasionally people use blogs as effective means to find information
("Dear Lazyweb") but this requires a large readership; in general
forums may be a better medium for questions.

To summarize: if you are organizing something concrete, use a wiki. If
you are initiating a conversation among equals, use a web forum or
mailing list post. If you are making a statement of some kind, use a
blog post.

The next question is which of these online media would benefit the
KWLUG website. I think that wikis, web forums, mailing lists and blog
posts can all have their place. Experience has shown us that web
forums and mailing lists should be linked, or the forums will be
neglected. I think wikis are good for one-off projects (such as
organizing Installfests or deciding which CMS to use) but without some
maintenance commitment I would be reluctant to depend on wikis for
I do not think that blog abilities are essential for the LUG -- an RSS
aggregator that points to the blogs owned by other LUG members might
be enough.

The lack of blogging should certainly not be a deal-breaker
for a CMS. The lack of a wiki should not either -- wikis are easy
enough to set up when we need one. I do think that easily-updated
static pages are vital, and some way to link forums and mailing lists
are fairly important as well. It would probably be better to forgo web
forums altogether than to have forums that no members use regularly.


In response to your comments on Forums, blogs, wikis, etc:
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All of the above offer valuable and distinct benefits. What I would like to see is the mailing list contents being stored in a web accessible archive as I've observed many other mailing lists and LUGs do. Perhaps this functionality already exists and I just don't know where to locate it? The benefit of a searchable archive is that it allows new users to search through existing mail list conversations so they don't ask redundant questions of the mailing list veterans.
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I have always found forums better suited for the general conversations, questions and other topics that require group feedback and collaboration since it can be done at a leisurely pace. It appears many linux users tend to use mailing lists for those purposes however. I've always felt mailing lists to be a better avenue for flagging important information to its members such as reminders before upcoming events or critical security flaws where it's important to interrupt and get the attention of its members. I can only assume mailing lists are favoured by long time users because it's what they've always used? I'm not sure exactly when web based forums replaced BBS's but I'd have thought BBS's were the early incarnation of forums in todays societies. Were mailing lists used before BBS's or was it the case that mailing lists and BBS's offered a redundant way to communicate? I'm not really sure because BBS's were mainstream before I could afford a computer.
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Wiki's are great for collaborative work including documentation and additionally they serve as a great way for indexing and linking to the various forum posts, blogs and wiki content that contains information that could be useful enough to be indexed.
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The content management system (drupal or whatever) brings all these together in a single package requiring only 1 login and password per user with access to all of the various forms of collaboration and in some cases is capable of tracking content added by each user along with a history of edits in order to revert and block out malicious content changes. Content management systems also allow limited access to posting content.
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I find the community driven sites are generally more successful since they allow more diversity and creativity than sites where a single administrator is responsible for adding the content. Anonymous registration to the community driven sites can tend to lead to abuse but generally where each member has to be approved after registration there's an accountability factor that keeps the content clean and higher quality.

~Joe D