Friday, September 22, 2006

Building Friendly Social Media: Socialtext Gears Up for Wiki 2.0

TechCrunch notes the debut of Socialtext 2.0, a long-needed overhaul to the enterprise-oriented Wiki publishing package. This new version provides a cleaner look, enhanced usability for non-techie page editors and an application programming interface that will enable content from Socialtext-enabled sites to be extracted for other content applications such as mashups.

Our colleague Robin Good notes in comments on the TechCrunch posting that the TechCrunch review is a bit of a soft treatment and that they should acknowledge that many packages have come along in the last year that provide more streamlined functionality and features that will widen the appeal of Wiki packages to users. With packages such as Wetpaint providing very user-friendly interfaces and features tuned to make Wikis far more accessible to the users on whose contributions the success of a Wiki rises or falls Socialtext is indeed a little late to the party.

But it's hard to have your cake and eat it too. With a focus on making Wiki software acceptable in behind-the-firewall environments Socialtext has had its hands full with early successes that haven't necessarily allowed them to focus on the explosion of online Wikis that are beginning to bloom thanks to more easily licensed open source packages and the new wave of less geekish Wiki products. A body of code can move only so fast, oftentimes not as fast as a content marketplace demands of its evolution.

This seems to be especially true of most software supporting social media. We're in the process of vetting a number of social software packages which, while all useful, are clearly early-stage systems that are having a hard time managing the addition of enough features to provide robust publishing environments that capture the many facets of effective social media. Major publishers are not any better off with more mature content management packages that are for the most part oriented towards a more rigid view of content production and sharing. It's a bit like the early days of content management systems about ten years ago - with the notable exception of open source packages making it far easier for publishing Everymans to get in the game.

In the meantime publishers impatient to have social publishing software that's both enterprise-ready to satisfy their I.T. staffs and robust enough with features to satisfy online media clients are having a hard time closing the gap this year. This tends to favor destination sites such as Wikipedia and Gather that have built up publishing communities around their own technology platforms, gaining valuable insights into how to make these packages work from their diverse and broadening audiences. The Wikimedia Foundation that sponsors Wikipedia has also spun off its Mediawiki platform as a public-license Wiki software package that's popular in its own right, though falling behind the times in user-friendly features.

Where does this leave publishers? I leave the details of when these packages mature to the code hounds, but my sense is that we're less than a year away from Wiki software creating a new wave of social publishing similar to the recent weblog explosion. Some in the thick of Wikis may view that as a very conservative forecast given the stellar growth of Wikipedia but I think that the real growth has not yet arrived for the medium as a whole. Wikis need to act more like databases and less like scratch pads for them to gain full acceptance.

In the meantime the rough edges of the technology are being worked out as best practices are still forming for managing the sometimes free-for-all environments that can erupt in the medium. Wikis are far from perfect database publishing tools, but then again weblogs are pretty puny content management systems - yet they have already changed the publishing world. Welcome to Wiki 2.0 - social publishing meeting the demands of both enterprise and media publishers on a common ground that attracts user-publishers far more effectively than ever before.
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