Wiki Roles

Some thoughts on roles of the people associated with a Wiki

I've tried to make this as general as possible, not dependent on any particular Wiki system or implementation. The following is a classification of the different roles I see people can play in relation to a Wiki.

(I've also edited this now in an attempt to clarify what I mean by "roles" - it seems the concept is clear in my mind, but my writing does not (yet) convey that clarity. Please bear with me... drawing a picture might help but I cannot do that (easily) here.)

The concept of a role

What a role is not
A role is not a person: a single person can have ("play") multiple roles, and a single role can be played by different persons.
A role is not a permission: permissions enable people to play (different) roles.

What a role is
Rather, I see a role as referring to a process: a role defines the relationship of a person with a Wiki, how a person is interacting with a Wiki. A role name is a word describing what someone is doing, rather than what someone is allowed to do: when someone is editing a page, obviously that someone does have sufficient "permissions" to be editing or he would not be doing it: thus permissions enable roles, but are not the same thing as roles or even attached to roles.

Associated with roles are powers and responsibilities: things a (user playing that) role can or cannot do, and things a role should or should not do. Roles are like hats people wear; when working with a Wiki you may be wearing different hats, but at every moment you're likely to wear only a single one. I find it helps to be aware of what hat you're wearing while doing things "with" or "to" a Wiki, and to wear only a single hat at a time.

Why roles?
My main focus for roles and wanting to name them is that different roles with respect to a Wiki (any Wiki) have and use different user interfaces for that Wiki. I want to talk about user interfaces but in order to do that I need to talk about roles (what someone is doing) first. That's what this page is about.

Sorry if this is still not clear; if not, please do comment (more) to force me to make it clear - or let me know if it is any clearer now, in this second incarnation. (Please also keep in mind that I can think a lot faster than I can write; I'll try to communicate what is (at the moment) clear in my own thinking, but that doesn't mean the thought process itself is "complete".)

Definition of WikiRoles

  1. Before everything else, there's someone who "owns" the place:
    In general this role decides to set up a Wiki, and provides hosting (or somehow pays for it). Without an owner, there is no Wiki - someone has to start it all.
    In WikiLingo we call this role the WikiOwner.
  1. First, there's the equivalent of a webmaster or system operator:
    This role applies to someone who can do the system-level stuff and takes care of installation and creation of program files and installation and configuration of the database (if any).
    In other words: this role enables the existence of the Wiki (on behalf of the WikiOwner), and is responsible for making sure it runs, and runs smoothly. Conversely, this role can also take a Wiki down (again on behalf of the WikiOwner).
    In WikiLingo we call this role the WikiMaster.
  1. Then there is the role of administrator:
    This role applies to someone who has the powers to keep things neat and tidy and can assign permissions to (other) users of the Wiki. An administrator generally has special tools to be able to do things like changing configuration and do user management without having to depend on a WikiMaster for direct access to files and database on the server.
    In WikiLingo we call this role the WikiAdmin.
  1. Next, we have editors:
    Without editors that are not (also) WikiOwner, WikiMaster or WikiAdmin, we effectively have a personal blogging system, or maybe a CMS (content management system). While WikiMasters and WikiAdmins are special kinds of users, it's the other users that determine the "wikiness" of a system. The editor role in a Wiki is anyone who is creating or editing content: a Wiki's editors determine its content. Generally in the Wiki World, any WikiUser can edit any page but - depending on the application used and its implementation - there may be exceptions determined by the WikiMaster or WikiAdmins, for instance by requiring people to create an account to gain edit rights; and by protecting certain pages so they can be edited only by specific roles or users.
    In WikiLingo we call this role the WikiEditor.
    When a WikiAdmin has configured the system such that users need an account to play the role of WikiEditor and create and edit content they must choose a WikiName for themselves by which name they'll be known; in this case we must define yet another role:
  1. Maybe (or hopefully), we also have "mere" visitors:
    The role with the least rights is for the one who merely visits: someone who browses the Wiki content (usually without leaving a trace, or maybe leaving anonymous comments) but cannot create or edit content (or does not). Depending on system configuration by the WikiAdmin, a visitor may, or may not, add comments to pages.
    In WikiLingo we call this role the WikiVisitor.

The list above omits one role name I had included there previously: that of WikiUser. I now regard this as a generic role: a WikiUser anyone doing something with a Wiki through its web-based user interface. That includes WikiVisitors and WikiEditors; also WikiAdmins if the system not only provides them with special tools, but does so via a Wiki interface.


So we have the following roles, in order of decreasing (creative or destructive) powers while playing a role:
  1. WikiOwner
  1. WikiMaster
  1. WikiAdmin
  1. WikiEditor (who may choose a WikiName)
  1. WikiVisitor

In addition I use the concept of WikiUser which applies to anyone using a Wiki through its web-based user interface: WikiVisitor, WikiEditor or WikiAdmin. (Someone playing the role of WikiOwner or WikiMaster generally uses a different user interface to interact with a Wiki application.)

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