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That’s why macosxhints.com 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.