Picking A Wiki For Your Private Notebook

For Hack Your Life With A Private Wiki Notebook Getting Things Done And Other Systems.

I think Reflective Thought is crucial for Self Improvement, and a HyperText NoteBook is an awesome tool for that. And a Wiki is a great form of HyperText NoteBook. So, which one?

Need to consider: WikiEngines; WikiFarms; Desktop Wiki apps.

So what are our requirements?

Support a private space

This seems obvious, but

Content available as PlainText

You want a process that lasts for decades. This isn't a chore, it's a Life Style lever.

  • My Private Wiki includes notes that I wrote on a PDA in 1997.
  • I started keeping date-stamped pages in 2005.
  • I started doing my Weekly Log process (consistently) in Mar'2012.

But any software you start using, you will probably change later.

  • it might be an online service that goes out of business
  • it might be a piece of software that doesn't get updated any more, and eventually stops working with your devices
  • your needs/preferences might change.

So you'll eventually need to be able to get your old notes converted into a new system.

The path most likely to work over the long-term is getting your hands on PlainText files.

  • files, not database records
  • separate files, not a giant all-notes file
  • PlainText in some sort of SmartAscii lite-markup. Mark Down seems like a popular flavor.

If an app/farm supports exporting to this, then you might be OK.

Scales to thousands of notes

Some apps build in features that work nicely when there are a few notes, but not when you accumulate many notes over many years.

I currently have 2400 notes in my notebook, some going back over 15yrs (though most are from the last 8 years).

Available anywhere

More specifically: you'll probably do 80% of your writing from 1-2 devices, but you'll probably want to be able to read from other devices/places.

Many of those places will have no WiFi. (So, if you want to use a Tablet that doesn't have a CellCo card, this could raise a challenge.)

Some places will not even have CellCo data service, you'll be totally Off-Line. This might be OK, unless it happens often and you want to keep your To-Do List as part of your NoteBook.

I use SimpleNote to synch my files to a non-wiki note app on my Android tablet, but that has caused lots of problems for me. I'm considering switching to Drop Box but fear I'll run into a different variety of the same scaling problem. Since most people want to focus on the writing and not the technical yak-shaving, I've concluded for the sake of this page that most users will be best served with a WikiFarm service. (If you consider yourself an exception, I've added a couple nuggets to the Private Wiki page.)

Easy naming for/and internal-linking

I have historically been a loud advocate for Automatic Linking via Smashed Together Words, vs the Free Link model that has become more popular in wikis.

I am chewing over this right now because relying on Smashed Together Words results in issues when you really want a single-word note-name (e.g. Hero, Bicycle). Right now I either push something into a multi-word name (MyHeroes), or else end up with a really weird word (Hero). Aside from being ugly, it becomes unnatural for you to Link As You Think to such a name, which kinda defeats the purpose of the Smashed Together Words model.

On the other hand, making the 95% case less-natural for the sake of the 5% seems like bad design, even though consistency is often part of good design.

Related to this is the handling of date-specific entries, which for a personal journal are where you spend a big chunk of time. You want the date to be part of the page name/title so that it's part of the identifier in any listing pages the software generates. (Even if the software does something fancy with remembering and showing the create-date of a page, remember that you will eventually switch to another package, and probably end up losing subtle Meta Data like that. Also note you'll sometimes want to back-create a page for a previous date, so you want to make sure you have manual control over that, rather than over-smart software automatically using the create-date.)

And you'll probably want the date-info to be the first part of the pagename, and be in year-month-date order for sorting purposes. When I started my public WikiLog, I put a z at the beginning of my date-strings so that they'd come at/near the end of any alphabetical listing of pages. I've followed this same model in NoteBook for consistency, but that won't matter to you. I've also pondered using different prefixes for different purposes: if I were exporting events from my Calendar app, maybe I'd want to put a c at the front; or if I were re-posting my tweets (PESOS) maybe I'd put a t at the beginning to distinguish them; or maybe I'd use zc and zt. But I've never done either of those, and you probably won't either. So you'd be fine just starting with the year-number and no prefix.

While you won't often want to link to a page like this, you will sometimes, so there has to be a system for that. So even if your wiki generally uses Smashed Together Words, you'll want some way to identify a page-name. I rather like double-brackets, though a down-side of those is that if you're using a Tablet or Mobile, they're not characters that are easy to get to. (Then again, this may be a rare enough issue that hitting that bump once in a while isn't the end of the world.)

So I think my conclusion is to pick software that lets you:

Easy/fast editing/saving

Most Wikis are WebApps, and because of the use of SmartAscii and Automatic Linking, you have to switch between View and Edit "modes".

There are few things as annoying as a Wiki that is slow at those two things - you lose your train of thought very quickly.

With a WikiEngine you run locally this probably won't be an issue, but with a WikiFarm provider, or even a WikiEngine you run yourself in Cheap Hosting, you could find things annoying. Try before you buy.

Also, look at how you switch from Viewing to Editing. In many wikis you have Edit links at the top and bottom of the page. If you're reading through a long page, and find a place you want to make an edit, scrolling up/down to find the link/button, clicking it, then scrolling through the Text Area to find your place again can be annoying (your browser's "find on page" function is handy).

Some wiki WebApps will switch to editing if you double-click or triple-click anywhere on the page. Of course, you still have to scroll to find your place. A very small number have a nice trick where double-clicking next to a line changed the mode just for that paragraph, showing the rest of the page in read-mode.

Fast BackLinks (extra points if Visible)

One of the key reasons for using a Wiki is its HyperText nature. Forward-links from the current page are key. But so is the ability to see the list of pages that link to the current page ("BackLinks"), and jump to one of those if you want.

In most wikis you do that by clicking on the linked page title (headline).

This feature needs to be reasonably fast, or you won't bother using it.

A small number of wikis actually show "VisibleBacklinks" right in the page (typically in the right Margin or down at the bottom). Extra points for that!

Handling non-text items

Types of content you might want to create or save:

  • sketches
  • structured diagrams, flow charts
  • Mind Maps
  • what other ideas do you have?

You might be making these in some piece of software, or making them by hand on a piece of paper. To save the value from a paper item, either type in the key points, or take a picture (or scan it) and save it like any other computer file.

Certain types of files you might already want to put on a Sharing site (like you might store your Photos in FlickR or Picasa). So that means they already have a URL you can paste into a note page.

Or, to handle all your different types of files, you could use some Online Storage like Drop Box, which has a process to give you a URL for any file.

Once you have a URL, you can paste that into any wiki note page where it's appropriate. Or you could even give a file a page of its own. If you do the latter, you probably want to use a date-stamped page, and include some extra text in the page that relates to the meaningful of the document. As always, it's good to have at least one WikiWord in the page that relates it to other ideas/pages.

Features I think are less/un-important

Version Control System for history of pages. See Should A Wiki Have A Version Control System.

Expanding Wiki Words - important for a Public Wiki for Search Engine purposes, but not as relevant for a Private Wiki.

Evaluating Specific Options

Going through this writing process only reinforced for me the need to have your NoteBook as "everywhere" as possible. And most people are "online" most of the time these days. So having your Private Wiki "in the cloud" is the best architecture for the "normal person". Therefore I'm rejecting all the Desktop Wiki choices.

Most people do not want to bother with the hassles of a Hosted Server anywhere. So that throws out the WikiEngines.

Leaving the WikiFarm category.

Picking a WikiFarm


PbWiki/PbWorks - basic free http://pbworks.com/

SocialText - $9/mo - http://www.socialtext.com/

Tiddly Space - free - http://tiddlyspace.com/ - dead

  • individual notes ("tiddlers") can be private, but what about an entire space? Not really, you have a private/public radio button pair as you create each new page.
  • can export your entire space to a giant JSON structure.
  • has its own SmartAscii flavor plus a fair amount of support for MarkDown.

WagN - $20/mo http://wagn.org/

  • too expensive to consider for an individual

Wiki Foundry (WetPaint) - free - http://www.wikifoundrycentral.com/

WikiSpaces - free Basic Plan can have Private Wiki http://www.wikispaces.com/

Conclusion: Tiddly Space is the only choice that seems acceptable to me. I didn't expect that.

(Obsolete) Instructions for creating a Private Wiki Notebook in Tiddly Space

  • go to http://tiddlyspace.com/
  • fill out create-space form - you don't even have to give them an email address!
  • note that this space isn't private, so the initial/default pages it creates are publicly readable - but those are just generic "Getting Started" kinda info, so they don't really matter.
  • you can think of "tiddler" as being the same thing as "page"
  • click the "new tiddler" near the top/right corner of the page (in the 2nd ribbon)
  • click the "private" radio button in the new-tiddler form, plus give it a name (using Smashed Together Words!) and some content.
  • click the checkmark button above the new-tiddler-name field to Save the page

So, once you have that account set up, what are the First Pages To Create In Your Private Wiki Notebook?

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