Wiki Wired

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UPDATE: Veni. Vidi. Wiki. The published story, and commentary by Ryan Singel, The Wiki That Edited Me.

I believe the Wired Wiki experiment can be called a success, and yesterday I would have said it was doomed. Just came back from Wiki Wednesday, where Wired reporter Ryan Singel held a conversation about it. How we conducted the experiment, what part of the editorial process it was directed at it and the participation of the community gives us a lot to learn from.

Do recall that the use of wikis in journalism has been significantly tainted by the LA Times Wikitorial debacle. It was a failure in wiki implementation, goal setting, content structure and moderation. While the media has embraced public blogs, they still have a while to go before public wikis are accepted.

When I was an intern I got into an argument with the editor of the Washington Post that ended with him telling me I have a perception problem. Since then I have been trying to prove him wrong, but that’s a larger story, right now I might tell him the same thing.

There are different parts of the editorial process where wikis are perfect fits. Public wikis of course run the greatest risks, but I believe these risks can be managed with the right practices. Up front, this experiment was different from Wikitorial:

  • Monitoring tools like Recent Changes and History were made available to let the community moderate
  • Requiring registration to edit made contributors more accountable
  • It could be argued that a WYSIWYG editor enabled domain experts to contribute, but in this case the domain was wikis, so it probably wasn’t a factor. Nevertheless usability always matters.
  • Besides the article, we use a weblog for submission of headline ideas and an included page for the deck
  • Choosing an article, instead of an editorial, provided an implicit guideline for what was acceptable.
  • Most importantly — a clear goal for the collaboration was set

There was one lesson from the Wikitorial, something I saw coming back then, that we had to employ in the middle of the project. With the Wikitorial, an edit war ensued with differing viewpoints. Jimmy Wales stepped in and forked the page, creating pro and con editorials. With a wiki, there is space for everyone, even when the topic is war. In this, the topic was wikis where lots of people have a stake. Wired endorsed an Enumeration to also be published, for remaindered links and references. This served as a pressure release valve, to let the quality of the main article improve.

We made some mistakes, perhaps on purpose:

  • The collaboration was for an open group of participants to play the role of editor to Ryan’s original submission. This is a very unusual role for most participants, and most chose to edit directly in ways that an editor accountable to both the institution and journalist would not.
  • While there was a goal, there were no guidelines. Closest thing was pointing to the Wired Style Guide. There were no rules, norms or conventions. Unlike the Esquire experiment, there was no benefit from Wikipedia’s established guidelines.
  • Leadership was passive. Wired explictly did not edit the article and did not pass judgement.
  • The article initially evolved reasonably. A pattern I have seen before, say with sharing Wikified Books, where most of the contributions were lightweight and adding in references and associations that came to the minds of readers. Personally, I stayed out of the initial editing fray (Wired did too, more on that later) to leave room for others. But a wave of edits came in. Angela called it “here’s my favorite wiki” links. This did reflect the topic of the article, a domain of vendors, open source and public wiki project managers. Almost every wiki vendor added a link to themselves and editing in their positioning. Part of this is a sad commentary about the space, I can tell you that if this experiment was done 2 years ago, the contributions would be more, uh, wiki-like.

    There were some real gems, particularly in the education section. One person took it upon themselves to interview an expert at Harvard after coordinating with Ryan and contributed a quote that persisted. Someone suggested an expert to Ryan on the Comments page, but he didn’t have time to interview her. She got word of the experiment and contributed persistent edits herself. There was a minor dispute within the section, and some backchanneling between the parties, but the result stands.

    At one point, someone stepped in made the first significant edit. They were kind enough to leave the remainder on what was the beginning of the Enumeration page, with an explanation:

    Whereas the Wired Wiki story became too long, and became a soapbox for too many wiki, editors moved some of it to this page.

    Hark, and know that you are upon an epic enumeration of wiki. Here, mentions of many wiki sites shall you find, and links shall you encounter.

    At first I thought it was crazy, but then saw the wisdom. Unfortunately, this created a vacuum that was quickly filled with the same. Yesterday, with the deadline approaching, I thought the experiment would be a failure.

    This morning there was a significant amount of edits, including some multiple detailed edits by one editor. Suddenly, the article was a story again. And the edits persisted.

    At present, there is no plans for a community and I wouldn’t say that one took root. But some common understanding was reached in a short period of time. I gained greater confirmation about some mediative techniques and moderation practices. There are better parts of the editorial process to apply this too, some proven already, and many happening behind the firewall, but much work to be done.

    The result is a good story, dear reader (at the moment), I leave to you to judge.


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    Ross Mayfield is CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, an emerging provider of Enterprise Social Software that dramatically increases group productivity and develops a group memory.

    He also writes Ross Mayfield’s Weblog which focuses on markets, technology and musings.

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