Why Bookbag Uses A Wiki

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Why Bookbag Uses A Wiki

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Summary: A look at the wiki software used to run Bookbag, with a brief history of last year's redesign.
Date: January 2009
Author: Keith Dudhnath

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A number of you (0) have asked why Bookbag uses wiki software. The simple answer is that the old hand-coded version was becoming too time-consuming for Sue to add new reviews, make any widespread changes and generally maintain. We knew there was a better way, involving some form of database, but none of us were familiar enough with them to be able to create a whole new site from scratch. HTML was pretty much our limit.

The old version of Bookbag was doing well, but it lacked some useful features, like being able to easily find highly-rated books. Some features could be manually coded, but it was rapidly becoming impractical, given the large number of reviews. The site was essentially bursting at the seams, and needed a new set of clothes.

We looked at a few content management systems - I forget their names. By and large, they were unnecessarily complicated behind the scenes, and the visible site would be messy. They were geared up for people to run their own blogs, so we'd need to do a lot of tweaking before everything was suitable for a book review site. We probably could have made it work, but it would have been a lot of work for very little improvement and not much time-saving.

We also briefly considered modifying some message board software, but it would have been as much of a kludge as the content management system. phpBB was due to release, or had just released, version 3. A year on, with more mods available, we might have looked a little deeper into it, but at the time it was a non-starter.

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Many moons ago, before Bookbag was even a glint in Sue's eye, a guy called Jeff had suggested Jill attach a wiki to a message board she was running at the time. (As you can see, we have a long history of using the wrong tools for the job). We all had a bit of a play with it, but didn't have enough use for it. This was back when CamelCase was the main method of linking pages; even if we had a use for a wiki, this would have made it all look rather ugly. CamelCase, for those who don't know, means that pages would have to be called FupbyJimdodge rather than looking neat and tidy. Anyway, in all our pondering of how to make a new version of Bookbag work, our thoughts returned to Jeff and one of us (it might have been me, but I honestly don't remember) suggested using a wiki.

By now, Jill and I had experience of editing Wikipedia. Sue I don't think had, but she'd skilfully gone from knowing nothing about HTML to being able to code and maintain a site, so we knew she'd pick it up very quickly. With Wikipedia's Mediawiki software now available, we wouldn't be dealing with ugly CamelCase. We'd be able to use templates to vastly simplify adding reviews, as well as being able to make any widespread changes incredibly quickly. The categories would essentially create and maintain the navigation automatically. There'd be many more ways for people to browse the site and find the reviews they wanted.

The first stage was to strip out everything that makes a wiki a wiki. The idea that anyone can edit a page is fantastic on Wikipedia. It has great potential on Wikinews. It'll be used more and more on other sites with large numbers of readers and contributors. Bookbag has a large number of readers, but a relatively small core of contributors - and that's as it should be to maintain its own voice and distinct quality. So, you can't edit this page. Sorry. You can always leave a comment on any review, and we love getting them, but it's a leap from that to being fully open, with the necessary janitors and bureaucrats behind the scenes to make everything appear to run smoothly.

There were a number of software options available to automatically convert an HTML site to wiki markup, but none of them that actually worked well enough to make it a painless process. In the end, I was locked in a darkened room with a copy of EditPad and a shaky knowledge of the awesome power of regular expressions. Had Bookbag had fewer pages, we probably would have just manually pasted everything over, but if we could automate it in any way, we'd be much better off. It worked, and here we are. A few cosmetic polishes and it became the Bookbag you see before you.

Bookbag's content is always going to be its best feature. The simplest websites tend to be the most usable. The average person knows how to browse Wikipedia, so that means they're immediately able to browse Bookbag without much effort. Mediawiki isn't designed to be used as a content management system, but it was the best option we had available to us. Things like adding adverts and banners are a little more complicated than just using HTML, but these are such a small part of what we do (or rather what we leave Sue to do!) that it's not a worry at all. It's all been a huge time saver, whilst also improving Bookbag's usability, design and features. There isn't really anything major we'd want to change about the wiki software. We're incredibly lucky that it's so suitable for our needs.

Tune in next week for an exciting report on my collection of toenail clippings.

Bookfeatures.jpg Check out Bookbag's exciting features section, with interviews, top tens and editorials.

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