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The wiki-fication of MSDN

Microsoft now allows registered users to leave comments on MSDN, its developer documentation site. Mike Gunderloy finds the user posts helpful but says Microsoft must do more if it wants to call the site a wiki.

Back in early June, Microsoft announced the MSDN Wiki. This site contains a complete mirror of the Visual Studio 2005 and .NET Framework 2.0 documentation, with one small twist: anyone with a PassPort or Windows Live ID (and Internet Explorer) can register to add their own "community content" to the official help topics. This contributed content shows up at the bottom of the page, underneath the official help content.

Now that the site has been up and running for a couple of months, I thought I'd check in and see how it's going.

[T]his is a promising project that people have shown willingness to contribute to, but one that is not yet particularly useful to the community that it ought to serve.
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I spent a while poking around and reading the community content that's on the site now. This ranges from notes on particular compiler warnings, to a history of Microsoft C++ compilers, to why you shouldn't pass DataSets from Web Services, to notes on implementing your own DataReader. Overall, the quality is quite high. The people contributing to these pages generally seem to know what they're talking about, and the content is often helpful in pointing out holes in the parent MSDN topics.

In two months, the site has garnered just shy of 1,000 community content blocks, which I'd call a modest success (especially since they all seem to be on-topic, as opposed to being spam or meaningless rambling). On the other hand, the "long tail" factor is clearly evident, with more than half of the contributions being from just two people, David M. Kean and Craig Skibo, both of whom are Microsoft employees. Various non-Microsoft people have come through to leave notes and pointers to blog entries, or warnings about particular pieces of functionality based on their own experience, but we haven't yet seen the emergence of the sort of core contributors that more established wiki sites tend to develop.

One reason for this, I think, is that the MSDN wiki isn't really a wiki. While there is functionality for editing the community content blocks, they're really just annotations to the sacrosanct content from the MSDN writers -- which can't, itself, be edited.

This sort of two-tiered system is contrary to the way that other wikis approach, and indeed, in the view of many makes the MSDN wiki not a wiki at all. It seems likely that the MSDN folks are afraid of being a high-profile vandalism target if they throw all of their content open to editing, but plenty of other wiki sites have dealt with that problem in the past. (The granddaddy of them all, the C2 wiki, has an extensive section of thoughts on Wiki Vandalism).

Another problem with the current MSDN wiki is that very few people know about it, and it's currently not allowing crawlers to index its pages. The result is that you won't find pages from the wiki in Google or MSN Search, no matter how great the information they contain. So even though, say, the ICloneable page in the wiki is superior to the standard ICloneable page, no one will ever know. Hopefully they'll lift this limitation after the beta period is over.

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Mike Gunderloy
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Alas, the URLs are not easily transformable from regular MSDN to the wikified version, so if you want to see whether there are community contributions you have to actually go drill down through the table of contents -- a huge hurdle for usability.

The bottom line, I think, is that this is a promising project that people have shown willingness to contribute to, but one that is not yet particularly useful to the community that it ought to serve. I'd like to see Microsoft commit to some sort of plan for evaluating the site and moving it out of beta, and then moving it towards true wiki-hood. Then it would be something that we could all use, instead of a quiet backwater novelty to visit once and then forget about.

Mike Gunderloy is the Senior Technology Partner for Adaptive Strategy, a Washington State consulting firm. You can read more of Mike's work at his Larkware Web site, or contact him at MikeG1@larkfarm.com.

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