[SharedKnowing] Wiki lessons learned
bkovitz at acm.org
Sun Dec 30 19:04:27 CST 2007
Inspired by Larry's example questions on
propose six lessons learned from the last eight years or so of wikiing.
1. Error and imperfection drive wikis. Preventing error kills wikis.
When someone posts a factual error or poorly worded description, that
motivates others to correct it or improve it. A perfected, polished
piece of writing does not trigger improvement. Trying to prevent
poor or inaccurate text from ever getting into the system would
undermine collaboration before it starts.
Wikis are peculiarly positioned to turn disagreement into growth:
instead of one party backing down, or merely reverting a poor edit, a
good editor will incorporate what's good in an imperfect edit into
content or structure that no one previously anticipated. This is the
essence of what makes wikis so fertile. Text on a good wiki is not a
compromise, but true synergy.
Consequently, wikis trade off between reliability and fertility.
Wikipedia is not completely reliable, but it is this very
unreliability that has triggered its unprecedented growth of useful
2. Wikis are bad for resolving disagreements or determining consensus.
"The wiki renders no verdict."
Because any individual can change anything, a fair representation of
a consensus is impossible to achieve. Edit wars happen as people try
to make the text speak an opinion for the whole community. We can
see this principle at work on Wikipedia where the pages about the
most controversial pages are plagued by edit wars and low quality.
Some ways to resolve this are: limit the topics only to factually
indisputable matters ("NPOV" on Wikipedia) or simply declare that the
wiki renders no verdict on anything but has space for all opposing
3. DocumentMode should be separate from ThreadMode.
That's now-archaic terminology for "the end product that people are
collaborating on" (e.g. encyclopedia pages) should be separated from
people's signed statements in the first person (e.g. discussion
To put this another way, the glory of wikis is that there is a truly
collaborative product that no one owns, rather than people making
first-person statements that they own individually. c2 is pretty
much all ThreadMode now--which is to say, people shouting back and
forth at each other, and not really collaborating.
This anonymity or cross-authorship makes it impossible for wikis to
support pedigreed statements (this credentialed person said so,
therefore the statement is reliable).
4. Free-form text is especially good for collaboration: infinite degrees
of freedom, but it's easy for anyone to make small changes.
More-structured media like SQL databases offer less wiggle room for
people to grow the data in unanticipated directions. Disagreement in
such a medium can only be resolved by someone backing down, the
opposite of wiki-style growth in new directions (#1). Extremely rich
media like video don't allow small changes to be made without
completely reworking the whole.
5. Intervention from above should be very sparing. The growth and
direction of a wiki are not very controllable from the executive
The more control a leader has, the less the wiki can grow
spontaneously into something beyond what any planner can fully
envision. As an example, I think here of Richard Drake, founder of
the Why Clublet wiki in 2000. When the wiki drifted beyond his
ability to make sense of it, he clamped down control and ultimately
threw nearly everybody off to rescue his vision. The resulting wiki
became stale: just one person's self-publishing forum, lacking
This need for a light touch at the executive level results from the
unpredictable way growth of a wiki is triggered by error (#1).
6. A wiki's growth has two principal "cusps": reaching a critical mass
when it takes on a life of its own (beyond the founder's personal
friends and ability to control the vision), and another one where
people show up who violate the social norms of collaborative writing
and threaten to destroy it.
The many small wikis that contain just a little haphazard content are
ones that never reached critical mass. Ward Cunningham's original
wiki at http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?RecentChanges illustrates a wiki
long past the stage where the riff-raff showed up and ended the
culture of mutual respect. Wikipedia is a great success, in large
part because when the riff-raff showed up, a strong-enough group of
citizens enacted rules and set up dispute resolution--alienating some
people but preserving the cooperative spirit of the wiki.
I doubt that everyone will agree with these. I'd love to hear some
counterexamples--or, if you do think these are genuine lessons, perhaps
an interesting illustration of them. Better yet, I'd love to hear other
lessons you've learned from watching or participating on wikis.
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