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It’s a Blog.. A Wiki… and a Floor Wax

Leigh Blackall has some great rumblings on his Vision for Wikieducator, starting with the rant:

The problem with wikis is that they require people to remember to contribute, stop what they’re doing, go to the wiki, click edit and retype what they wrote somewhere else already, such as in a blog, email, or other media upload somewhere else. I really hate it when I upload an image to my preferred image host (Flickr) then have to re-upload it if I want to use it in a wiki. And what about this blog post? As I write I’m thinking about how I might put it on the wikieducator discussion pages I’m involved in”¦ I think I’ll just add a link there and point to this post.

Wikis are generally messy, chaotic, and unless you have a Wiki General overseeing it, the sites end up being useful to more or less they person that plunked the most wiki code in the edit boxes.

And Leigh goes on to expand his vision of wikis being a channel for bringing in content from other sources and being able to broadcast them out, on all, the magic carpet ride of RSS still is at the core. He points to the features in the WikiEducator site, which is a powerful site fueled on the MediaWiki engine.

So wikis are more than WikiPedia (thankfully), the mass writing well, and more than the open idea stew pot for collaborators. Just as blogs need not be diaries, wikis are not relegated to being just wild scratch pads…

And across the great Pacific Ocean from Leigh, Brian Lamb picks up the wiki stream, citing WikiEducator, as well as some of the groovy extensions for MediaWiki, but the gem was the pointing to SendToWiki, a site/tool/magic wand that offers a bookmarklet that allows you to send web pages to a wiki so that you can remix them” and that wikis is… MediaWiki.

I’d been meaning to try and write up some recent new bits I’ve picked up from using MediaWiki on a few NMC sites (NMC Campus Guide, Horizon Project).

In prep for our NMConnect event last month, one of our colleagues in the Second Life art world, turned us on to a few useful extensions. I had already been using an RSS extenstion that allows us to embed content read in via RSS feeds, and I had made some modifications on it. I have a front page side bar on the NMC Campus Guide that pulls in headlines via RSS from our NMC Campus Observer. You know that tune about “Small Pieces Loosely….”

MediaWiki extensions are code that people write; you stick a php script or a folder of them inside your mediaWiki extensions directory, and add a line to your LocalSettings.php file to activate it. Some are almost drag and drop in simplicity, such as the ones that allow you to easily embed YouTube video or one that does the same with Google Video. These are really easy, in wii editing, you simply include code like:

to embed the Google Video from the URL from http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6444586097901795775

The Flickr Extension took a bit more leg work; you need to get the phpFlickr code running on your web server, which in itself involved setting up a Flickr API key and such, installing some extra PHP libraries.

but if you get through all that, you can embed flickr images for any desired tag with MediaWiki code like:

Which will show the 5 most interesting dog pictures. Every wiki needs that. I set those up, but have not done much with them besides doing a test page that has all three extensions mentioned above.

Gotta love extensions, takes your wiki up a notch.

One of the downsides of doing good wikis is the difficulty in creating a method for navigation between say 5 or 6 or 10 wiki pages that are inter-related. I had done a number of these by manually creating sidebars, or top row wiki text, with hand coded links to the other pages, and a bold tag to indicate the current page. Old school. One short cut is that you don’t need to do special code to highlight the current page. If, say you have a wiki page named “Bugs Bunny”, you can create a cut and paste navigation code like:

If I use this same nav code on all four of my pages, MediaWiki automatically turns the link code to just a bold tag, if you are on ne of those pages.

But that still calls for manual edits, and a _____ load of cutting and pasting to modify your menu.

So that is where MediaWiki templates come in. Woah, these are powerful. They are smaller bits of MediaWiki content you can create, and use as include-like statements in any page. So this means, rather than say, creating a hand coded nav box on every one of my Toon Friend pages, I can create one template, and reference it in any other page… with the payoff, that if I edit the Template code, it changes on all pages that use it.

So if I take the same code above, and stick it inside a page at a wiki page on my site called Template:Toon Navigation (you can just append something like “Template:Toon_Navigation” in a URL that normally generates a wiki page, and it gives you the option to edit this new page. Just pop the code in and save.

Now I have my navigation code in one place, and where-ever I want it to appear in a regular page, I use:

The Double curly braces tell MediaWiki to insert the template stuff into the flow of the page. I used it on the NMConnect series of pages to include the header graphic and right floated navigation, plus the footer at the bottom… it makes for Wiki pages that are more consistent, and used well, can provide an easier way to update content that hand editing gobs of pages.

You can get crazier with templating, as it can use variables and grep like expressions to do powerful tasks.

So this is the thing. MediaWiki is insanely powerful, but the guts of it, and doing things that are not in the box, are not really for the fainthearted. I can never find the same set of documentation bits on a repeat visit (unles I bookmark them) — the docs are a sprawling mess, and there is a book waiting to be written to explain it all in one of those bright yellow covered flavors.

I think 90% of the users of MediaWiki stray as far as changing the logo in the top left and 95% of us use the stock Monobook style I feel like I’ve only scraped down maybe 5 or 10% of what is there. It’s cool to see even more unfolding out there, especially as wikis grow more in variety and interesting uses out there.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

Comments

  1. Holy hell! That sure is eye opening! Its pretty exciting to realise all the potential in mediaWiki. I start to ask the devil question though – at what point does it stop being a wiki? With all the specialist know how needed… but I think I can still answer that, so long as anyone can still edit it, its still a wiki, and so long as the specialist wikitext doesn’t make it impossible to see where and what to edit, then its still a wiki. Will you come and strut your stuff in Wikieducator then Alan?

  2. Well Leigh, I may see some distinction, perhaps artificial, between wiki as the software (all the things that WikiMedia can do as far as creating web content) and wiki as the process where all content is editable… so the same software can do something that is used extensively by large numbers in wiki fashion (WikiPedia) to something perhaps that only one person might really be editing, but making a site that is used by many others.

    The specialist aspect is really needed to set up the site, and wrangle the templates and extensions… a small missing gap is how this functionality is provided to the general user. I find that most people using the wiki editing, that they don’t really use the wiki codes very well (you have to remember them). I can spend a fair bit of time cleaning up sloppy wiki coding. Maybe it’s just a better WYSIWIG editor need.

    Strut stuff? Another web place to suck the marrow out of my time? Sigh… Only because you asked nicely!

  3. More neat wizardry Alan!

    Much as I love the idea of wikis, I really hate the editing and writing process involved. At times it really is painfully reminiscent of developing large web-sites using Windows Notepad. The community aspect is clearly the important part… as you say decent WYSIWIG would go a long way to helping the technology catch up with the community.

  4. I KNEW MediaWiki was the way to go. You have vindicated my small existence again, CogDog. This is astonishing stuff. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing it with us. Let’s go for that undiscovered 90%–but only if you’re leading the way with your CDB secret decoder ring.

    I have GOT to learn some programming sometime. I feel like I’m always enjoying Web 2.0 on a surface level by not understanding php, MySQL, etc. Gotta get me some chops.

  5. It *might* be the way, I’d say “a” way, and I am far from being the wiki feature expert (see http://www.wikimatrix.org/)

    Knowing programming is not really critical, I wish I had your literary and audio chops!

    And there are likely 3 people in the world who get the “wax” reference?

  6. This is amazing stuff, Alan. A veritable treasure chest of mediawiki conceptualizing and plugins. I tried using the Send2Wiki for this page and was fascinated to learn that it has already been stored there -in Spanish no less! I wonder how the translation reads?

    http://www.send2wiki.com/index.php/It%E2%80%99s_a_Blog.._A_Wiki%E2%80%A6_and_a_Floor_Wax_%C2%BB_CogDogBloghttp://www.send2wiki.com/index.php/It%E2%80%99s_a_Blog.._A_Wiki%E2%80%A6_and_a_Floor_Wax_%C2%BB_CogDogBlog

    Thanks for all this goodness!

  7. The sick and twisted irony of my last two comments is that my wife is an Italian from Italy. If she ever read these comments and realized that I can not recognize her mother tongue, I would be referring to my family in the first-person singular. All this to say, I just read your most recent post :)

  8. Well, given our penchant for hyphenating ethnicity when one was born in the States, i.e., African-American, Irish-American, Italian-America, etc. I was trying to find another way to suggest a more “genuine,” “off the boat,” “real McCoy,” “really from Italy Italian” notion in order to emphasize the family shame for mistaking Italian for Spanish. But hey, what do you want from me, heh?

  9. Greetings from WikiEducator!

    Alan great post! The WikiEducator community is keen to explore these futures – particularly in pushing the envelope in realizing the potential of Mediawiki technology for the future. We have a tough challenge – because we have a responsibility in widening access to education – particularly for the developing world. Given connectivity challenges – we will need to find smart ways in turning the digital divide into digital dividends.

    One step in this direction is a Tectonic-Shift Think Tank we’re planning for 11- 13 April 2007 here in Vancouver. All our thoughts will be documented in WikiEducator and I hope that you’ll be able to help us in our thought processes ;-).

    See: http://www.wikieducator.org/Tectonic_shift_think_tank

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