Recently, we held the second session of the relaunched Demos for Democracy program. The program holds interactive online introductions to some of the latest tools designed to bring greater openness and collaboration to how we govern. We offer these in an effort to jumpstart conversation about what works and what doesn’t, and to provide developers an interested audience to help refine and improve their tools.
We were joined by Ward Cunningham and Mike Caulfield, the activists for and contributors to the Smallest Federated Wiki: a wiki designed for in-depth discussion and analysis. Cunningham, creator of this new iteration of the wiki, wanted to solve a problem he felt existed in the classic wiki model: personal ownership.
In a traditional wiki, like Wikipedia, individual users contribute to and read from a single central server. There is a single page for each topic, and users can edit that page to change it. The Smallest Federated Wiki, on the other hand, embraces a distributed model. Each user can make their own pages and do edits to them, but can’t directly change the pages that other users have created. Instead, users can “fork” pages of other users, creating an identical copy that they can then edit. This allows for multiple pages on a single topic, approaching it from different perspectives or angles. Under this model, each user is the host and curator of their own personal wiki, linking and taking elements of other user’s wikis as they wish.
Every page a user creates will belong to that user. Collaboration between users can be accomplished by repeatedly forking the same page back and forth, changing sentences or paragraphs until both parties are satisfied. The Smallest Federated Wiki also allows for much more opinion, speculation, and analysis that Wikipedia does: without a standard of neutrality, writers and editors can create whatever type of content they want.
Webpages and other pieces of content on the Internet can also be imported into a wiki, allowing a creator to put relevant information directly onto their page. The imported information will update every time the source changes, so users writing about, for example, obesity could display accurate and current information without needing to manually update it.
Cunningham and Caulfield discussed a number of different use cases and examples, showing how different groups could have their wikis interact with each other and the outside world. All of the different groups above are using heavily overlapping sources and data, but each have a different take on the end product. Their wikis will be able to have the same foundational pages, but combined in different ways with different pieces of analysis.
Cunningham and Caulfield walked us through the actual wiki itself, and the product was quite slick. When you use Wikipedia, you’ll often find yourself with tons of tabs. The Smallest Federated Wiki was created to make the process of moving between pages substantially easier by showing multiple pages of content on a single tab in your browser. Editing, linking, and simple browsing have all been made easier and more convenient for an ordinary user.
The Smallest Federated Wiki is still a work in progress, and likely will never be done (in the same way that Wikipedia will never be done). Even now, however, it offers a new and interesting way to collect, share, and collaborate. If you’re interested, the entire project has been made open source on GitHub.
The entire discussion is available on The GovLab’s channel of YouTube: