Why a wiki would make an awesome address book

December 14, 2008

I’ve been thinking a bit about wikis recently, from how I’d use one for a particular project, right through to how I’d implement one. Something hit me recently which may have been obvious to everyone else, but came to me in a flash of light: wikis are so flexible, you can use them for anything. Really. Absolutely anything.

I’m going to assume you already know what a wiki is. If you don’t, take a look at this explanation by CommonCraft, then come back. I’ll wait here.

So. Just to prove how great wikis are, I’m going to show you why you could use a wiki to make a truly awesome address book. In fact, I reckon this address book would be better than some examples of dedicated address book software.

What does a wiki have over a normal, database-backed address book?

It’s free-form. A wiki can contain any information you want to store (and are able to encode). It’s not restricted by strict formats or sets of fields, meaning you make your own structure. Why is this useful? Well, I have a mate named Jamie, who has 11 email addresses. That’s right. Eleven. Most address books will only let me put in 2 or 3. See my problem? Well, because wiki pages are free-form text documents, I can put in as many email addresses as I want, in whatever way I want to lay them out.

It’s freely editable. Normally only one user can see any given address book. If not, it’s probably run by a business or organisation, and that will mean that only an admin can edit it. Either way, changes go through one person, and one person only. Because that person has much better things to do with his/her time, we get problems with out-of-date information, typos, etc, that take forever to get fixed (better things, remember?). Wikifying my address book does not allieviate these problems on its own, but it does provide an opportunity to fix it, which a normal address book does not.

It’s extensible. I’ve got several groups of friends, and all my friends have many interests and things in common with each other. They’re human, so this is inherent in their nature. But a normal address book doesn’t let me document these associations usefully. I can apply some pretty broad category-type groupings, but mostly it’s very hard to identify relationships between people. The closest I’ve seen is the “Spouse” field in the Windows Mobile 5 Contacts app, and even that is just a text field - I can’t even link to another person!

With a wiki, not only can I link to (or from!) other people within my address book, I can also link to outside resources, for example a group or association website, or just my Christmas card list, or other (as yet unimagined) parts of my wiki.

It’s searchable. When you search your address book in Windows Mobile, you’d better be searching for a name or a phone number. If you’re searching for anything else, forget it. Email? Nope. Category or group? Better off eyeballing the list (and that’s assuming you’ve maintained your categories diligently, and who has time for that?).

Wiki? It’ll index everything, from the mystery phone number to the birthday present ideas (regifts, anyone?). That’s what I want.

It’s version controlled. Everyone makes mistakes, so you’d be foolish not to allow for them. Most apps have an “undo” button, but address books don’t, in the main. Not once you’ve saved your update, anyway. So say I overwrite an important phone number with another important phone number. A wiki (a good one, anyway) will let me go back to the old version. I don’t know of any address book that does that.

Its functionality is limited only by your imagination (and programming skills). Most wikis have some kind of plugin/macro architecture. At least the self-hosted ones do. That means that if I have the programming nous, I can make it do whatever the hell I want. Ain’t no address book in the world that will do that (except maybe Thunderbird, and possibly Gmail with Greasemonkey).

UPDATE: I’ve written a “devil’s advocate” to this piece: Why a wiki would make a terrible address book

Why a wiki would make an awesome address book - December 14, 2008 - Lucas Wilson-Richter