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Submit, publish, comment, rinse, repeat

MacOSXHints is a community-driven site operated by Mac Publishing LLC (of Macworld and Playlist renown) whose sole purpose is to collect and archive —wait for it— hints pertaining to Mac OS X… little tidbits you probably won’t find in the help files or product pages. It’s a great resource, and is often among the top hits if you throw a Mac troubleshooting question at Google, but there’s something very wrong with it: it’s a blog.

“Sure,” you say, “now he’s against blogging”. Whatever. Although the immediacy of the format works to its benefit (the RSS feed in particular), if you read the site for more than a few months you’ll start to see the cracks in the blogging facade: the hints are submitted by the public (good), they’re screened (good), published (good), and commented on by other members of the public (good) before falling into the giant abyss known as the archive, where they’re never touched again by mortal hands (bad). OK, an exaggeration, and though this isn’t such a terrible state of affairs for normal weblogs, MacOSXHints isn’t a normal weblog… it’s a knowledge base.

Take an example: you submit a hint, a simple AppleScript, which is later published and in the course of the following days critiqued and improved upon in the comments… becoming a much simpler AppleScript. Sounds good so far, but for the downside: those improvements are several screens below the fold, nested so deeply in the comments that Joe Googler will probably never see them. He uses the original, unimproved hint. Not life-threatening.

Fast-forward a year, a new OS revision installed, and somebody will submit a hint pointing out that your hint was broken by the upgrade and that they’ve created a workaround. This will, in turn, be published and commented upon… and so the cycle continues. What we have is a thriving community site that houses a great number of hints, some percentage of them broken or redundant, most of which could be improved upon (and are, if you bother to read the comments) with the aid of a few dozen eyes.

This isn’t what blogs are for. This is what wikis are for.

So why isn’t MacOSXHints a wiki?

Common and uncommon similes for which you might put your hands in the air

  1. Like you just don’t care
  2. Like you're shampooing your hair
  3. Like you're provoking a bear
  4. Like you're enjoying a ride at the county fair
  5. Like you're firing a flare
  6. Like the cops have you surrounded

That’s why isn’t a wiki

Rob Griffiths, founder and operator of Mac nerd nirvana MacOSXHints, has replied at great length to the question posed in last week’s Submit, publish, comment, rinse, repeat. That is: why isn’t his site a wiki? The way I read it there are two reasons:

  1. Inertia
  2. Fear

That’s oversimplifying a tad, but when you really boil it down you see the same recurring themes when people argue against infrastructure change and against giving up the driver’s seat. Ask your president or prime minister why his party won’t embrace communism.

Inertia is a hell of a thing. Wikis certainly weren’t well known when Rob started the site in late 2000 (Wikipedia, now probably the world’s best-known wiki, was founded several months after MacOSXHints in January of 2001), so it’s a little mean-spirited to suggest that he should’ve taken that route from the start. Rob opted for a bloggier content management system, currently Geeklog, and it’s hard to fault him on his reasons for choosing the format to begin with. Now, after several years in business, with “thousands of hints, tens of thousands of threaded comments, and 65,000+ user accounts” it’s fair to say that the opportunity cost of making the switch is quite high.

Nonetheless I think it’s just low enough to be worthwhile. That might be because I’m not the one who would have to do the work (see, I’m the wretched hippie in this debate), but if I believed “it’d be a lot of work” was a good enough excuse to avoid something I would never have gotten out of bed this morning. And though the reason I did eventually get out of bed this morning was because my girlfriend doesn’t know how to use the coffee machine, I don’t think it dilutes my point any. As Dreamhost’s recent conversion to wikis for its support knowledge base indicates, the hard work is worth it.

Dumping the raw content of a hint (and the threaded comments that follow) into a wiki article is something that can be automated. So too can the migration of user accounts. I know there are subtle nuances I’m ignoring, such as the story/comment metadata associated with those user accounts, but broad-stroked brushes say the transition is neither impossible nor unreasonably difficult.

The second reason, which I’ve termed Fear despite the reaction that particularly loaded word may elicit, is pretty justified. Wikifying one’s site is ceding control to the masses, and for a profit-generating site that can be shaky ground. While I don’t believe poor spelling, grammar, and editorial voice are that big a deal, operating a wiki is opening yourself up to abuse. Wikipedia, bless its heart, fights these kinds of abuses every day on high-controversy entries like Intelligent Design and on certain politicians’ biographies.

Simply put, dickheads will try to screw with your wiki if they have a strong opinion about the subject matter, and computer operating systems are a strangely religious topic amongst nerds. A Mac-centric wiki might garner the attention of Windows geeks, editing every page to read “heres a hint go by a real computer instead of a MAC u dumasses LOLOL!!1!1”. But then again, nothing stops them from doing the same thing in the comments at MacOSXHints today. A membership-requiring wiki with version control would probably stay under the radar of abusive jerks. A mandatory review period imposed on edits would lock it down completely.

This is where mine and Rob’s visions of MacOSXHints start to converge. Both of us believe more community involvement is a good thing, and that old hints shouldn’t stagnate. It’s just a matter of implementation. Rob obviously has a vested interest in maintaining a high degree of control over the site, and a significant investment in the software and processes that make the site tick as it does today. If I were in his position I’d probably feel the same way, but power upheavals are fun when you’re sitting on the sidelines and you’re rooting for anarchy.

All MacBooks are go

Apple’s new MacBook laptop computers are available in black, too. It would seem the more diminutive members of iBook/PowerBook line have been killed off altogether, leaving us with the MacBook family: 13" MacBooks, 15" MacBook Pros, and 17" MacBook Pros. I guess the 12" glove my brother bought me last year won’t see any action beyond my current (and beloved) 12" PowerBook G4. Ah, well.

The new beasts seem to feature all the trimmings of their Pro siblings bar the ExpressCard expansion slot, dedicated graphics, and FireWire 800 (only available on the 17" Pro, incidentally). They’re also touting ‘glossy’ screens (WTF?) and come in the traditional white and a shiny new black, to complement your iPod.

Looks like a decent upgrade, even if there is a $150 premium on the black one.

For the math impaired…

A $200 price difference between the black MacBook and ‘higher end’ white MacBook minus the $50 it would cost to upgrade the white model to match the black model’s 80GB hard drive equals… $150!

Bowman goes to Google?

Holy shit: Sarah, the future sister-in-law currently enjoying herself at the Webstock conference in New Zealand, has just reported that the estimable Doug Bowman recently accepted a job at Google!

What Google would be doing with a designer of his caliber is anyone’s guess… CSS?

Trivia of the day

Growing up, one doesn’t question why the old “why did the chicken cross the road” joke is funny. It’s a joke! Laugh, kid! The truth is, it isn’t funny. It amuses adults because they expect it to be a funny joke, and then it suckers them with an obvious, non-joke punchline.

Kids, on the other hand, just don’t get it. They laugh anyway. It’s a stock joke.

Growing up hearing other stock expressions, like “the greatest thing since sliced bread”, you never question why and how sliced bread came to be the benchmark for great things. It is pretty great, one must admit, but as a child you expect that it must have existed forever. You expect that it happened in medieval Europe, and that the magical date of invention was lost to the sands of time, enough that we can assume that sliced bread just is, and always has been.

The truth is, sliced bread was invented in Chillicothe, Missouri, on July 7, 1928. That we will all celebrate the 100 year anniversary of sliced bread in our lifetimes is a little bizarre, to my mind, being unsure whether I should express gratitude, wonderment, or general indifference. I think we should have a bread party. You can bet your ass there’ll be fairy bread, that stuff is delicious.