Tip of the Week #1: Five Ways to Manage Your Wiki Better

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(This is it folks, the inaugural edition of my PBwiki Tip of the Week. Most people know me better as “vietmusic” of the PBwiki Forums, where I offer advice on WikiStyle syntax, CSS, Javascript, and how to pick up hot dates. After today, expect regular updates every Monday!)

Wikis are about collaboration, which doesn’t work so well when your work is scattered and messy. The following tips are designed to fix that problem, tightening up the process from multiple angles. Without further ado…

1. Save the orphans!

I’m guilty of it too: I press the “New Page” button on a whim (it calls to me), and starting typing aimlessly. Later, I decide that I don’t need the page, but I forget to delete it. I do this a dozen more times and my wiki is suddenly cluttered with unconnected pages. Poor, poor neglected orphans.

Remember, your wiki is only as good as your users’ ability to navigate it. If the only way to access a page is through the AllPages foster home, you’re in trouble. Instead, decide on the context for a page and create a link for it on another page, either by using CamelCase or with [brackets]. Then, create your new page by clicking on this link, which guarantees that it’s connected to the rest of your wiki.

But one link isn’t enough. Keep linking to your page over and over. Any time that it’s referenced, link to it. If you’re using CamelCase, this is real easy, as any reference to the page automatically becomes a link. If you use [brackets], perservere and it’ll be worth it.

Each link you make is a chance for a page to be adopted. Do your duty.

2. The SideBar is your friend

The PBwiki SideBar is a little box that appears on the right-hand side of every PBwiki page (you can turn off this feature by deleting the page). If you’re having problems finding places to make links like in #1, the SideBar is a great place to drop them. It’s like making a link on every single page of your wiki. On a 100 page wiki, that’s 100 more chances for your page to be seen.

Check out PBwiki’s official wiki, Yummy, for an example. The FrontPage provides an index of all the main features, so people know what to expect on each page. These links are reproduced in the SideBar, so that visitors can immediately find the major pages. A horizontal line is also used to elegantly separate the two navigation sections.

PBwiki users who have recently registered their wikis as “Educational” get to use a special 3-tabbed SideBar, which shows the QuickStart, RecentActivity, and SideBar pages respectively (turn them on and off by creating or deleting them). When you make your wiki, they all have things in them, but remember, the wiki is your’s to manipulate. Clear out the QuickStart menu and fill it with links specific to your wiki. If you don’t like folks knowing the exact time of day you edited a page, clear out the RecentActivity page and turn it into a short “Updates” page. Remember, you’re in control.

3. Organizing your information

PBwiki has a lot of different options for presenting your information, such as quote boxes, headers, tables of contents, and more. Here’s a quick overview (visit WikiStyle for more details):

  • Quote (breakout) boxes – Make them by starting a line with a space. They’re great for quotes, blocks of code, or any special information that needs to be set off from everything else.
  • Headings – PBwiki offers six levels of headings. Use them so readers can follow the flow of ideas.
  • Table of Contents – when you DO use your headings correctly, your ToC starts to make sense, and becomes useful for navigating the page.

Also, make sure to use them correctly. Don’t use headers to just get big text. If you use quote boxes around everything, then what do you do when you really DO have special text?

Also, this is the internet, where people have short attention spans: use shorter pages. My favorite example is this presentation by David Weekly. By dividing the information into multiple pages, each page appears more important. If you can’t avoid long pages, use the <top> function to create a link that takes you to the top of the page. In conjunction with a nice clean ToC, these features direct your users’ attentions exactly where you want them to go.

4. Tags

My mom labels everything with little strips of masking tape, and usually, I think it’s really lame, until I need to find something and I realize that it actually works and I can find my stuff.

PBwiki, however, is the opposite of lame, so no masking tape here. Still, labeling stuff is really useful, and PBwiki has recently launched tagging. Now, you can attach as many pieces of virtual masking tape to a page as you want. This is great for categorizing pages for yourself, and a simple search function allows you to group pages according to the tags you set.

Another use is to mark unfinished pages. Before tags, savvy wiki editors would use a unique string like “@@@@@” that they would attach to unfinished pages. Then they searched for that string to get a list of all unfinished pages. We can do the same thing much more neatly by making an “incomplete” tag and searching for it.

5. PBwiki Identities

So far, I’ve dealt mostly with editing; however, there’s also the people side. Let’s say Johnny is new to your wiki, and he still needs to prove himself. He should have contributor access, but not moderator access. On the other hand, Timmy is a moderator, but he has caused a few ruckuses (ruckii?). You’d like to be able to drop him down to a contributor. Sure, you could give them passwords for each level, but imagine the hassle of trying to give Johnny a new password, or trying to take away Timmy’s access. Ugh.

By visiting http://my.pbworks.com, users can create a “PBwiki Identity.” With an identity, a user can join and be invited to wikis without having to manage any password other than the Identity password. For wiki admin, they can invite people and change their status individually, rather than trying to change passwords and pass them on only to the “right” people. Encourage your members to start using Identities and your management of the people-side becomes much easier.

Note: This works best for premium wikis, which have multiple access levels. Still, Identities are great for people who work on multiple wikis, or for wiki owners to keep track of everyone working on a project (names are easier than IP numbers, you know). Try it!

The End

So that’s it for this week’s tip. Keep playing around with stuff and find out what works best for you. If you have questions, suggestions, or even tips of your own, please e-mail me. Also, technical questions can be asked on the PBwiki Forums, which I monitor daily. Otherwise, check in with me on Monday as I discuss Tip #2: Wikilets – Secrets from the Masters.

Jason Nguyen

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