A wiki’s power comes from participation

It always amazes me when I visit wikis like Wikipedia or Lostpedia, and I see how a group of dedicated volunteers can collaborate to create a truly impressive body of knowledge. Now that I have been using a wiki in my own work, I have a better understanding of just what a powerful tool it is. The wiki’s utility resides in its simplicity, which enables (after learning a few basics) the technology to get out of the way of the users. And since it is built on the idea that everyone has something of value to contribute, over time the information contained on a good wiki becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

We are using a wiki for our Open Source development projects, but I don’t think we’re quite there on the collaboration aspect. Like all social media, a wiki becomes more worthwhile when more people participate meaningfully in it. But it is very difficult to communicate the value to someone who hasn’t participated in order to convince them to contribute. First, you have to do, and over time, you probably will come to know the value. This is similar to the value of micro-blogging, as I pointed out in an earlier post.

And we have to get past some barriers, especially in the work setting, before that participation becomes a natural part of the workflow. This reminds me of a recent Bamboo Project discussion on how do we know when an idea is dead. Social media has changed a lot of things, and many old ideas just don’t apply anymore. When it comes to wikis, there are two main ideas that need to be put to rest once and for all.

The first is that you have to ask permission. Maybe, depending on the openness of the wiki, you ask permission once, when you create an account. But once you have that account, you have the freedom to contribute and edit whatever you want. If there are problems, they are taken care of after they occur, rather than spending a lot of energy trying to anticipate and prevent them. But in the workplace, we tend to seek permission to do anything, so this kind of openness can just feel wrong.

The second is that someone owns their content or pages. A wiki is “owned” by the group that uses it. Yes, it’s useful to have gardeners who tend the space and keep it tidy, but they are not the same as owners. We have to give up notions of “that’s my area of expertise, this is yours, so stay out of my territory.” A few people contribute to our work wiki, but they don’t often edit one another’s pages. Instead, everyone has their own little area. I think this goes against the core idea of a wiki: that the information on the wiki grows in value as more people contribute to it and refine it. I want people to edit the pages I post on our wiki. I invite them to. But I do think there’s some hesitation to just dive in and do it.

A third “dead” idea occurs to me. We have to let go of perfection. There is a notion that something cannot appear “in print” unless it has been polished and revised and reviewed. But again, this defeats the purpose of the wiki. The wiki will never be perfect. It grows and changes organically over time, as our knowledge and needs grow and change. The wiki’s ability to do this easily, even naturally, is yet another reason why it’s such a powerful tool for collaboration and knowledge sharing. But it all starts when someone has the courage to post something, no matter how imperfect it might be.

2 responses to “A wiki’s power comes from participation”

  1. Shannon, these are some great dead ideas about wikis that I’ve also seen in action myself. It’s interesting that for the most part, using a wiki isn’t technologically that difficult. It’s much more about changing mindsets and letting go of our beliefs about things like ownership and making mistakes in a more “public” setting. I still have people email me things to add to our wikis or call me to leave a comment, rather than just leaving a comment on the wiki. We hold on so tightly to the old ways of doing things. . .

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