Wikis and Middle Age

Today I noticed that two of the places I visit frequently – Creative Commons and RPG.net – have new wikis. Blogs are taking over from personal homepages1. This is the time to turn the Web from a collection of sites into something bigger.

A technology experiences the most experimentation when it is young. As it grows older and gains acceptance, it tends to settle into familiar forms. Sitcoms are 30 minutes, dramas an hour long. Credits are at the end of a movie (they used to be at the beginning). Cars have steering wheels instead of reins. Windows are dragged by the title bar, not by using a menu or holding a control key.

There is still tremendous experimentation, with AJAX applications and the great examples of Flickr and Google Maps. It will take a long time for this to settle down. But I’m not talking about fancy web services. For regular tasks, the kinds of content-based sites the Web was originally designed for, we are finding the sweet spots. Most sites now follow standard practices: wikis have a search field and an index, blogs have archives by date and topic, e-commerce sites have shopping carts, forums have lists of threads.

I am one of those who thinks one of the greatest advantages of the Web over desktop applications with “rich” interfaces is the simple user interface vocabulary; I am pleased I haven’t seen a Javascript drop-down menu in ages. The simplicity of the tools forces us to think harder about what we want a site to do, rather than inventing complex new ways to do it2.

The emerging standard formats – wikis, forums, blogs – look set to stay. But there’s still plenty of room for innovation: that it has taken this long to get this far only shows how much more might be done. I think one of the biggest weaknesses is integration. We can depend on these technologies sticking around; it’s time for them to start talking to each other3. That will increase the value of all of them, and increase the ability of all of us to build on each others’ work. And that, as the mashers and wikipedians and bloggers have shown, is what it’s all about.

Notes

1 Searching Google, I find 540M hits for homepage and 204M hits for blog. The word “blog” is newer, and not all homepages are personal sites. See also Sifry.

2 Some applications need more, especially for authoring. I’m violating the principle myself with web annotation.

3 The pending release of the Atom spec is a step in the right direction.

2005-05-05

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