First impressions of FeatherWiki, a self-contained wiki in a single HTML file
I’ve been using a lot of note-taking tools recently, trying to find the right balance between “always-on” portability that paper offers and the search-, modify and link- functionality of digital notes. There’s a broad middle ground between the most basic options like the Notes app on the Mac and the feature bloated, power-user centric varieties like OneNote, Roam Research and Notion. Personal Wikis might be one of those tools.
Entirely self-contained, everything on one HTML file. Runs on anything where you can access a browser. Very cool, and reminiscent of the first time I discovered Portable Apps. This was where tools like Sublime Text, Winamp and others could be installed right onto a USB stick and used on any Windows computer that accepted USB storage input. The browser is a document viewer at its core, and sprinkling just little bit of interactivity to make it a self-contained CMS is really cool. There are several cons though.
Works Offline! As mentioned, a self-contained HTML file gives your wiki near-universal compatibility. shareable via any medium. Send it to your friend via email, Bluetooth nearby share, or by USB stick. The humble thumb drive’s predecessor was of course the 3.5″ floppy disk. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, floppies were how the very first electronic publications would be distributed. The most famous of which was the digital zine that accompanied Billy Idol’s 1993 album Cyberpunk. It was made on a pre-Powerpoint software called Hypercard, came on a floppy disk and contained primitive animations, sound and images of the band. Having this kind of dependency-free interlinked document reminds me of that era.
Supports CSS Theming. CSS styles let you customize the look and feel as you see fit, giving this another dimension of personalization that isn’t possible with one-size fits all software like Notion or Airtable. In their defense those apps are designed to help you get thigns done, and design is mostly leveraged to make things easy to find, not satiate your personal MySpace 2005 aesthetic. But seeing as how this is a PERSONAL wiki, I saw fit to mess around with the CSS to make it slightly more pleasing for me.
Markdown Support. The main text editor is very nice, and in most cases, I would prefer to use it. That said, it doesn’t support columns or other types of layout. That’s where Markdown support is useful. Markdown compiles (or transpiles? I forget) to HTML, so you can use HTML markup in a Markdown document and it will (usually) look right. I’ve confirmed that HTML tables work, which sort of solves the lack of column support in the main text editor. But what I really wanted to see was whether I could use CSS Grid and simply type up my document using pure HTML. It works! I think it’d be a bit unwieldy to do it this way for all docs, but it does offer a way to develop sophisticated looking documents that won’t entirely resemble a Geocities page from 1995. Even though it is nice to know that it is backwards compatible with that kind of authoring.
Not all media is supported. You can add multiple images to your wiki, but I don’t think sound works. Self-containment has its limits!
Customization requires some basic knowledge of HTML. Not too much. The changes shown in the screenshots required only changes to the background and font colours of semantic HTML elements like <section> and <header>. You can use the Inspect Element functionality in your browser to select an element, and try changing the ‘color’ or ‘background’ value right in the browser.
‘Saving’ files creates a new file each time. If you’re used to saving a lot, these can add up. This is a limitation of Stroll and Tiddlywiki as well, so I’m not sure it can be fixed without breaking the “single-file” limit of these portable HTML wikis.
What kind of documents make sense for Wikis?
In the screenshots, I started drafting a set of notes related to investing and personal finance. Not very exciting, but I just wanted to play around with the feature set and not invest too much time in thinking about a completely new topic. The markets are currently going through some turbulence, and it’s just occurred to me that I’m braving these waters using what memory fragments I have from finance classes in college 15 years ago!
I definitely want to imagine more creative uses though. For example, a family tree could definitely be mapped out here, although again, the lack of search would probably be a blocker depending on how far back the tree goes.
On the more Web 1.0 side, I think a wiki, especially one with nearly full-HTML customization, can go a long way towards helping people build the clumsy fanpages that made the early such a fascinating place to explore. Just the other day, I discovered yesterweb.org, a little digital outpost in a barren wasteland of SEO-juice-hoarding megasites. They still exist! It just gets harder each year to find them.