Wikis, RSS and Wikipedia history visualization by the Media Lab

Jeremy Zawodny writes Why do Wiki RSS Feeds Suck?. I’m a big fan of Wikis. Jeremy writes that he’s not. His two reasons are 1) he “find[s] the markup annoying”; 2) Change notification, especially when offered by RSS, “all suck”.

The first is quickly disposed of: Wikis generally allow HTML or XHTML markup in addition to their own markup. If you don’t like Wiki markup, don’t use it. (The system is converting it to XHTML anyways, so you can view-source grab it.) Wiki markup is there for people who prefer it.

His second issue is that Wiki change notification (RSS or other) is often nearly useless. I generally agree: either it’s too technical, or it’s too vague. Too specific, or too broad. My work Wiki, for example, only allows you to subscribe to changes in general — the entire Wiki — not to a particular page.

While the notification could be better, perhaps the information is of a type not suited to per-instance notification. RSS is a natural medium for “change notifications”, but not necessarily for “change visualization”. The MIT Media Lab’s Fernanda B. ViĆ©gas, in collaboration with IMB’s Martin Wattenberg, have done some beautiful, insightful and important work visualizing dynamic, evolving documents and the interactions of multiple collaborating authors. That have mainly focused on the interactions on Wikipedia, which are massive, controversial at times, and exceedingly active. Check out their gallery, it’s pretty sweet. It’s amazing that in some cases, 20-word sentences have each word contributed by a different author. Also, that files that have been exited tens of thousands of times will still retain unchanged content from initial authors. (I saw them present this work at CHI2004 in Vienna.)