Wikis Are Not the Answer

Matt Leifer had a good comment to yesterday’s post about how the editing function, in my opinion, adds considerable value to a book that you don’t get with a blog. I got distracted and didn’t reply to it, and since a day in blog-time is like a week in the real world, I’ll promote it to a post so it doesn’t get buried and forgotten:

Yes, but starting a wiki in order to put together a more coherent version of the ideas from the blog may have been equally effective. Blogging is not the only web publishing tool.

Of course, I realize that you still wouldn’t get the benefits of the editorial process, but there is no real reason why this process could not be applied to a wiki instead of a book (apart from the ancient business model of publishing houses).

I think there are two main problems with the wiki idea. If you try to duplicate the traditional editing process on a wiki, then you need some way to make it worth the while of whoever’s going to do the hard work of editing the thing. And also some way to force the author to go along with the suggestions, which can be pretty difficult.

If you try to do the “crowdsource” thing with the editing, and just get comments from people who happen to read it on the web, you get the same distorting effect that you see with the blog. To stick with the example of Chris and Sheril’s book, if you just read the blog, you might very well come to the conclusion that the most important part of their argument is the stuff about religious culture. That’s the material that generates the most heat, in terms of comments and responses from other bloggers, and so that’s the part that they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about on the blog.

In the final book, though, the religion material is a relatively small part of the whole argument. The chapters on political and media culture are far more important to what they’re talking about in the book. They hardly get talked about on the blog, though, because those are dry and wonkish subjects, especially compared to the burning question of whether Richard Dawkins is a noble freedom fighter or just a big ol’ meanie.

If you were trying to “crowd-edit” a book on the web, particularly a political book of this sort, I think you’d end up spending an inordinate amount of time re-working the sections that push the buttons of people on the web, to the detriment of the argument as a whole. In the end, “editing” a book in this manner might do more harm than good.