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The Trouble with Wikis

A week or so ago I bestirred myself and installed MediaWiki on my Web host. I’d been intending to do that for some time, but (as my friend Don put it) my life was ODTAA for a bit. Installing it was a snap. My provider has something called Installatron that did the job, no issues. The software, of course, is free and open-source.

I installed it in part to become more familiar with the MediaWiki system. As usual, when installing something new, I went up to Amazon and checked for books on MediaWiki.

Unless I missed something, there are five.

Plus a few more in French, German, and Japanese. Furthermore, those five books did not all get favorable reviews. The title I was most interested in is now 11 years old and way behind the current release of MediaWiki. (I ordered it anyway, along with O’Reilly’s MediaWiki: Wikipedia and Beyond, which is even older.)

My first question was: Why so few books about software this famous?

The answer came to me slowly: Almost nobody wants to create/maintain/populate their own wiki. MediaWiki is famous for one reason: Wikipedia. I’ve seen a number of other public wikis, including, Conservapedia, Everipedia, WikiHow, Wikispecies, and WikiTree. There is a list on Wikipedia that eyeballs at about 80. Let’s be generous and triple that to account for wikis that Wikipedia didn’t list, and for private wikis. So, say, 250. That’s not much of a market for books. Even 500 installs would not float a print book.

MediaWiki’s online presence has a feature for creating a downloadable PDF version of the MediaWiki documentation, but it’s currently disabled. Sheesh.

Having gone crosseyed reading about it online, my conclusion is that MediaWiki is a bit of a hot mess. That said, I should tell you all why I even bothered: I want to create a wiki for my fiction, and especially about the Gaeans Saga, which includes the Metaspace books and the Drumlins books. I’ve done a little wiki editing, and have a couple of decent books on my shelf about creating content on Wikipedia. The trick to creating content on wikis is having a group of content templates and knowing how to use them. If you look at the page source for any Wikipedia article, the problem becomes obvious: The stuff is crawling with templates, and for the most part they’re templates that don’t come with the generic MediaWiki install.

I discovered this by opening an edit window for Wikipedia’s article on the star mu Arae, which in my Metaspace books is the location of Earth’s first colony. I loaded the whole wad onto the clipboard and dropped it into a new page on my MediaWiki instance. A few of the templates were present on MediaWiki. Most were not, and the article incorporated dozens. I went back and lifted the source for 47 Tucanae. Same deal.

Now, Wikipedia content is available under Creative Commons. Grabbing the articles is easy and legal. I soon found after googling around for awhile that grabbing the templates, while legal, is not easy. Some templates are actually contained in libraries written in…Lua. I have some sympathies for Lua, which strongly resembles Pascal. It made me wonder, however, why a formatting template needs to make calls into a code library. As best I know, this is something specific to Wikipedia, and is not present in the generic MediaWiki.

I like the overall look of Wikipedia. People are used to it. I’d like to incorporate that design into my own instance of MediaWiki. I wouldn’t need all the templates, though some would be damned useful. That said, I see no reason why some sharp MediaWiki hacker couldn’t gin up an installer for all of Wikipedia’s templates, no matter how many there are. Maybe such a thing already exists, though I think that if it did, I would have found it by now.

There are other projects needing my attention, so I’m going to set this one aside for awhile. Obviously, if anybody reading this knows where to find an installable collection of Wikipedia’s templates, give a yell.


  1. Jason Kaczor says:

    Found some “wikipedia templates” on GitHub – but the all seem to be for DocuWiki and not MediaWiki.

    This is a problem I find endemic with Wiki’s and Web content-management-systems in general, good, out-of-the-box template designs are few and far between. (Last time I looked at the open-source marketplace for CMS’s, the best I could find to meet that requirement was Plone). OTOH, it allows a market for third-party consulting and design firms to specialize in template creation.

    1. Absolutely. I use a reasonable canned template here on Contra because I don’t want to waste time creating my own. (It’s not that creating templates is a waste of time. It’s just not a good use of my time.) A blog does one thing, basically, and this template does a decent job of that one thing. Some people use WordPress a lot more aggressively. I’m not one of them.

      My brother-in-law spotted a page I missed the other day, which contains detailed instructions on how to grab Wikipedia’s templates and install them on a new install of MediaWiki. It’s still kind of a PITA, but at least it’s a step-by-step description of the (needlessly complex) process. I’m going to try it when a little time opens up (I’m thinking it might take most of a day) and I’ll report back here on how well (or if) it worked.

      1. Lots and lots of people use and maintain Wikis. Most of the role playing games I play on have a wiki for logs and information. Nearly all of them are built up from templates because the syntax is a bit obtuse. On the flipside, I think there’s still a plugin for Libreoffice that saves //in// wiki format, so there’s that.

  2. TRX says:

    I remember when wikis were *hot*, and every tech company got the idea they could just dispense with documentation completely and point users to their wikis, who would both document and support their products for free.

    Funny, their customers generally seemed to have an opposing view of who was working for whom…

  3. WILLIAM H MEYER says:

    Check I just searched, and they have three (3) titles on MediaWiki. They offer multiple formats: print, epub, mobi, PDF (from memory). And keep your purchases cataloged so you can download them whenever, wherever.

    They even have some very good Delphi offerings. I have been generally pleased with the quality, and have found that they do better than most presenting technical content in a flowed document.

    Highly recommended. Also note that they occasionally offer sales where any book can be had for $5.00.

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