Visualizing wikis: History Flow

It’s all in the visualization.

When I describe wikis to someone still grappling with the oddness of the word ‘wiki’, my description inevitably kicks into abstractions about joint authoring, organic development, networked interactivity. What is likely to lodge, in an innocent auditor’s mind, is an amorphous sense of wide-open vulnerability: You mean, anyone can change any page? – or Why would anyone want to risk having their work distorted/mangled/deleted?

Assurances about communal good will and self-policing don’t always reassure. It’s a world of vandalism, terrorism, and error; the Internet is never secure, the Web is never authoritative; without accountability there is no truth… und so weiter. Descriptions of ‘rollback’ functionality are more comforting to our skeptical strawman, but of course that’s just damage control.

So here’s a better picture. Back in 2003, the Collaborative User Experience Research Group at IBM began publishing some illustrations of wiki posting activity. Authors were assigned a range of colors, in order to track the influence of any given individual, revision activity, and information persistence in a collaborative environment. This tool, called History Flow, is now available as a download at IBM’s alphaWorks.

These are visualizations that are immediately graspable. Here’s an example of three persons contributing to one wiki page over the course of four versions. Their words are color-coded:

History Flow small group

And here’s the same content, now shaded to show persistence. The oldest surviving content is darkest:

History Flow persistence

This all gets very interesting when the researchers visualize the activity of a particularly controversial page, such as Wikipedia’s entry for abortion. This page does indeed attract outright attacks and vandalism; it’s a wonder that such a contentious topic is at all viable as an ‘open’ forum. But History Flow shows how quickly a wiki can recover from sabotage – “so quickly that most users will never see is effects” (text and illustrations here). Here’s a chart of the ‘abortion’ page, charted by saved versions; the gaps represent deletions:

History Flow rendition of wiki vandalism

And here’s the same page, now represented across a time axis: the attacks on this page are, by this measure, pretty much undetectable:

History Flow:  vandalism of Wikipedia abortion page over time

May History Flow keep flowing, keep rendering snapshots of how wikis actually work. They can be reassuring, arresting, even beautiful, given the right colors.

A 2004 report on History Flow entitled Studying Cooperation and Conflict between Authors with History Flow Visualizations, by Fernanda B. Viegas, Martin Wattenberg, and Kushal Dave, is posted here.

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