Three flavors of wiki exchange

There’s been an ongoing conversation about wiki standardization. The conversation includes proposals for three different types of wiki exchange. Standards trace the shape of a community, like iron filings on a piece of paper over a magnet. This insight helps to explain how these proposals fit together in the world.
a) standard markup syntax. The Tiki crew have an RFC for an international wiki markup standard. This would mandate things like ** for bold and ” for italic.
The wiki world isn’t one big web — it’s composed of numerous creative communities, where people collaborate intensely together within the community, and have weaker ties with other communities. Therefore, attempts to impose a standard wiki markup esperanto are ambitious. They may be worth some attention, but will take a long time if ever to implement.
The fact that wiki markup is arbitrary will not make a standard easier to achieve. Setting a standard implies that some people will be able to continue with current behavior, and others will need to change behavior. There’s simply not enough internal incentive to cause people to change behavior, and there isn’t the external incentive of domininant market share.
b) interchange standard. These proposals don’t mandate wiki markup, but provide a means to exchange formatted pages. Since wikis all export HTML, there are proposals on the table to use a subset of XHTML as a lingua franca. This method would be somewhat “lossy” — specialized features like Purple Numbers and Twiki variables woudn’t get through. But text with the basic HTML formatting and structure would come through fine.
A wiki exchange standard fits nicely with the current pattern of wiki collaboration. People collaborate in their small and mid-sized communities, and want to exchange their results with others. A wiki exchange standard will take some negotiation, but seems feasible and worth attention, and valuable when achieved.
c) metalanguage. These proposals don’t mandate input or output formats —
instead, they abstract the general principles of formatting; parsing blocks and phrases, so as to be able to implement or emulate any arbitrary markup standard. WAFL is one such meta-language, recently implemented as part of Kwiki. There’s another, similar proposal at Meatball
In the mean time, before all of the standards efforts take hold, we’re living in a world with multiple markup flavors, and no defined output standard. In this motley world, there’s a pragmatic benefit in being able to emulate multiple sorts of markup. A metalanguage enables a wiki community to build readers or translators for other dialects, while still developing specialized vocabulary for technical documents, paragraph footnotes, or other nuances important to the subcommunity.

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