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.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Leifer
    July 7, 2009

    Thanks for addressing my comment. I do agree with most of what you say. There is a need and room for all types of editing process. All I am really disagreeing with is the identification between the traditional editing process and a dead-tree book.

    My issue is more about the publishing medium than the process of editing. I think that a web-based document (be it blog, wiki or static html page) is much more valuable in the long-run than a dead-tree or DRMed electronic version of a book. Web pages can be updated more easily, they are searchable, and they are more easily discovered by sites like Google. I admit that there is a problem for publishing houses with the business model for web publishing; and I don’t know how to solve it; but that is not my job. However, I do think that publishers will be forced to move in this direction due to book piracy, which is more rampant than most people seem to realize. Just like the record companies, they will lose their existing revenue stream in any case, so they would be better off adoping a new model sooner rather than later.

    At the moment, I would point to Living Reviews as the best example of the type of model I would like to see more of. The review articles go through a normal editing process, but are presented as web documents and can be updated by the authors at any time to correct errors and to reflect new developments in the field. It is a journal rather than a book, but I don’t see why you couldn’t do a similar thing with book length documents.

  2. #2 Matt Leifer
    July 7, 2009

    Thanks for addressing my comment. I do agree with most of what you say. There is a need and room for all types of editing process. All I am really disagreeing with is the identification between the traditional editing process and a dead-tree book.

    My issue is more about the publishing medium than the process of editing. I think that a web-based document (be it blog, wiki or static html page) is much more valuable in the long-run than a dead-tree or DRMed electronic version of a book. Web pages can be updated more easily, they are searchable, and they are more easily discovered by sites like Google. I admit that there is a problem for publishing houses with the business model for web publishing; and I don’t know how to solve it; but that is not my job. However, I do think that publishers will be forced to move in this direction due to book piracy, which is more rampant than most people seem to realize. Just like the record companies, they will lose their existing revenue stream in any case, so they would be better off adoping a new model sooner rather than later.

    At the moment, I would point to Living Reviews as the best example of the type of model I would like to see more of. The review articles go through a normal editing process, but are presented as web documents and can be updated by the authors at any time to correct errors and to reflect new developments in the field. It is a journal rather than a book, but I don’t see why you couldn’t do a similar thing with book length documents.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    July 7, 2009

    Thanks for addressing my comment. I do agree with most of what you say. There is a need and room for all types of editing process. All I am really disagreeing with is the identification between the traditional editing process and a dead-tree book.

    The end product doesn’t need to be a dead-tree book– it could perfectly well be some electronic format. I’ve written a couple of things for online-only publications, and they’ve been edited in a productive way.

    I think that the idea of having some central control of the publication is key, though. As I went through the editing process for my book, there were a number of suggested changes that I wouldn’t've made were it not for the fact that my editor controlled the money. Ultimately, I think they made it a better book– when I got past my initial resistance to some of the suggestions, they turned out to be good ideas– but had I been self-publishing it, they never would’ve gotten made. I would’ve just put my original version up on the web, and been done with it, to the overall detriment of the book.

    At the moment, there are a very small number of outlets providing this sort of editing in an electronic-only format, so the practices I’m interested in continue to be primarily associated with traditional publishing.

    At the moment, I would point to Living Reviews as the best example of the type of model I would like to see more of. The review articles go through a normal editing process, but are presented as web documents and can be updated by the authors at any time to correct errors and to reflect new developments in the field. It is a journal rather than a book, but I don’t see why you couldn’t do a similar thing with book length documents.

    The “updated at any time” thing makes me uneasy, unless there’s very good version tracking built in. Otherwise, you can easily imagine incorrect or offensive statements disappearing with no reference, making it hard to force any kind of accountability on authors.

    You see this sort of thing happening all the time on blogs and in various web forums– somebody says something outlandish, gets called on it, and then deletes the original post or comment. Late-arriving readers have a very difficult time making any sense of the controversy as a result.

  4. #4 Matt Leifer
    July 8, 2009

    I agree that version control is important, but most wiki software already has that built in. Blogs are less good at this, but you could probably create some sort of blog/wiki hybrid to do this. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the software already exists.

    Generally, I do think the “updated at any time” thing is good because it is a bit ridiculous that you have to go through the whole process of publishing a new edition of a book just to correct errors and make small improvements. I guess it is most important when you are writing about a fast moving field though.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    July 8, 2009

    Generally, I do think the “updated at any time” thing is good because it is a bit ridiculous that you have to go through the whole process of publishing a new edition of a book just to correct errors and make small improvements. I guess it is most important when you are writing about a fast moving field though.

    I think we’re probably thinking about very different sorts of books, here. I think the updatable wiki sort of thing could work very well for things like textbooks and reference books, where the goal is to give a relatively objective and comprehensive overview of a field. In that case, it’s important to have all the facts be up-to-date.

    The sort of books I’m thinking of, though, are more along the lines of Unscientific America, which prompted the whole thing. They’re books that make an argument for a particular point of view at a particular point in time. Those don’t really benefit from updating in the same way– while the external situation may change, it doesn’t really make sense to update that sort of book, because doing so makes it an entirely different book.

    I’m not enough of a student of philosophy to be able to come up with good examples, but it’s not uncommon to see references to thinkers whose stances on various things evolved over time, sometimes to the point where they wouldn’t necessarily agree with things they wrote when they were younger. I think there’s some value in having those earlier books remain intact as they were when first published, though, rather than having the original author constantly tinkering with a single dynamic work.

    An example a little closer to my middlebrow comfort zone would be popular books and movies. The dynamically edited model seems to me to be a little like the digital re-edits of the Star Wars movies (Han shot first, damn it!). Or the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies, or the umpteen different cuts of Blade Runner that have been released, or Ted Turner’s colorization of old movies, lo these many years ago. The products of those after-the-fact re-edits are interesting, but also kind of unnecessary. And having them entirely replace the original versions is just wrong.