Roy Schestowitz

Wiki for Correspondence


Wikis are a popular family of tools for collaboration on content. They are used when a groups of people (most typically) wish to jointly extend and maintain some publication, documentation or the like. Wikis are similar to CVS, but they are not suitable for handling of code.

Several months ago I saw the potential of using Wikis as an alternative to E-mail messages that form a daily (and therefore slow) correspondence. E-mail just did not seem like a natural form for exchange of messages. Long tails of quoted text appeared in messages and one could easily lose track of the conversation, which had intervals of hours or days in between. What's more, backup, archiving and searching capabilities were poor. I then started working on a way which enables correspondence via a Wiki.

How it Works

Much of the work is handled by cascading style sheets. It is then required that all users of the Wiki edit the text of the page and obey the styles. Here is a sample CSS file. I chose PHPWiki as it is quite open-ended and easy to customise. Since it uses a database, it is also easy and quick to back up entirely.

The CSS file, in simple terms, defines the looks of different elements. If each user sticks to one such element, then blocks of text from different user are distinguishable. A Wiki treats a line of text beginning with ! as HEADER 3; !! as HEADER 2 and !!! as HEADER 1. Plain text (a standard paragraph) is not preceeded by anything. In the following example, HEADER 1 is used to have date labels, HEADER 2 used to specify a time, HEADER 3 is used by person 1 in the conversation and standard text us used by person 2 in the conversation.

!!!May 14th, 2005


!Hi John, when will you leave the office?

Anon, I will have to leave early in order to catch the train.


I am leaving the office. I will catch up with you tomorrow.

!!!May 15th, 2005


!Good morning. What's new?

Nothing in particular. How about yourself?

Note that the above text will have been written by progressive addition of text by both parties. Here is how the Wiki will interpret (display) the raw text above.


  • Install PHPWiki on your domain. If necessary, follow the relevant documentation to complete this step.
  • Create a link to the basic CSS file from the template files. If style/s exist already, merge with the existing one/s. The file to change (the templates) will typically be under /[your_Wiki_dir]/templates/ and there should be at least 4 of them:
    • browse.html
    • editlinks.html
    • editpage.html
    • message.html

    Note: The most important one to change is the first; the others might be worth changing for the sake of consistency.

    Put the CSS file in /[your_Wiki_dir]/templates/ and add the following line:

    <link rel="stylesheet" href="/Wiki/wiki.css" type="text/css">

    Somewhere between the line:




Ideas for Extension

When the page becomes large and heavy, secondary pages (archives) can be constructed and all text migrated (essentially copies and pasted) onto them.

Add some of your customised styles to make the Wiki page fit your taste or theme. Below is an example from my domain -- the pages where I converse with my parents. The Public Wiki is quite similar (and open for copying), yet it is not customised for correspondence.

This page was last modified on May 16th, 2005 Maintained by Roy Schestowitz