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tychoish/rhizome/ Doing Wikis Right

Doing Wikis Right

tycho garen
7 December 2009

Wiki started as this weird idea that seemed to work against all odds. And then it seemed to really work. And now wiki is just a way to make and host a website without taking full responsibility for the generation of all the content. To say wiki is to say "collaboration" and "distributed authorship," in some vague handwaving way.

But clearly, getting a wiki "right," is more difficult than just throwing up a wiki engine and saying "have at it people." Wiki's need a lot of stewardship, and care, that I think people don't realize off the bat. Even wikis that seem to be organic and loosey-goosey.

I have this wiki project, at the Cyborg Institute Wiki that I've put some time into, but not, you know a huge amount of time particularly recently. Edits have been good, when they've happened. But all additions have come from people who I have asked specifically for their contributions. I don't think this is a bad thing but this experience does run counter to the "throw up a wiki and people will edit it" mindset.

I've started (or restarted?) [a wiki that I set up for the OuterAlliance][oa-wik]. You can find out more about the OA there (as it gets added) or on the OuterAlliance Blog. Basically, O.A. is a group of Science Fiction writers, editors, and critics (and agents? do we have agents?) who are interested in promoting the presentation and visibility of positive queer characters and themes in science fiction (literature).1

In any case, the group needed a wiki, and unlike the C2 Wiki, the people who are likely to contribute to this wiki are probably not hackers in the conventional sense. As I've sort of taken this wiki project upon myself, I've been trying to think of ways to ensure success in wikis.

Ideas, thoroughly untested:

Invite people to contribute at every opportunity, but not simply by saying "please add your thoughts here." Rather, write in a way that leaves spaces for other people to interject ideas and thoughts.

Create stubs and pages where people can interject their own thoughts, but "red links" (or preceding question marks in my preferred wiki engine) are just as effective as stubs in many cases. The thing is that wikis require a lot of hands on attention. While stubs don't require a lot of attention and maintenance, they require some. My favored approach recently is to make new pages when the content in the current page grows too unwieldy and to resist the urge to make new pages except when that happens.

Reduce hierarchy in page organization unless totally needed. You don't want potential collaborators to have to thing very much about "where should I put this thing." The more hierarchy there is the greater the chance that they'll have to either think about it and/or that they'll not find a place to put their contribution and then not contribute. This is undesirable.

Hierarchy is problematic for most organizational systems, but in most wiki systems, it is really easy and attractive to divide things into lots of layers of hierarchy because it makes sense at the time. The truth is, however, that this almost never makes sense a couple of weeks or months down the road. Some hierarchy makes sense, but it'll take you hundreds of thousands of words to really need 3 layers of hierarchy in most wikis.

Leaders and instigators of wiki projects also, should know that creating and having a successful wiki represents the output of a huge amount of effort. There's a lot of figuring out what people mean to say and making sure that their words actually convey that. There's a lot of making sure people's comments really do belong on the page where they put them. And more often than not leaders put in the effort to write a huge amount of "seed" content as an example to contributors in the future. It's not a bad gig, but it's also not the kind of hting you can just sit back and let happen.

Other thoughts? Onward and Upward!

  1. It's an awesome group, and a useful and powerful mission, and I think the OA has learned a lot from, and is well connected to some of the activity around anti-racism, that's been lingering in science fiction over the last year to eighteen months as a result of the "RaceFail" hubbub of a year ago. The fact that there's this kind of activity in and around Science fiction is one of the reasons that I love being a part of this genre. ↩