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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Getting wikis filled in

“The Wiki field of dreams bothers me just because you build it doesn’t mean that people will do your boring content entry”
-Bryce Johnson (on Twitter)

I think you can build a wiki and get it populated, as long as you satisfy the following conditions:

  1. Your wiki fills a need, one that’s not already filled. According to people who are in the wiki’s intended audience — not according to you or “management”.

  2. The people who would use it include a high percentage of what I call analytical-retentive people, like computer geeks, librarians (hi, Connie), or policy wonks (hi, Mark).

  3. You seed the wiki the way I’m about to talk about.

If you’re like most people, if you’re given a blank slate and are asked to put something on it, you’ll have a much harder time than if someone gives you a starting point that you can modify. Even an example of the kind of thing that’s desired constitutes such a starting point, e.g. if you’re asking someone for a description of a table and you want to know its height, materials, etc. you can give as an example a description of a bookcase that includes similar attributes. (Highly creative people do thrive on blank slates, but most people aren’t that creative, and furthermore the people you want populating your wiki are the ones who are more interested in knowing boring old facts than in being creative.)

If you just create a blank wiki, or have just minimal content in it, chances are high that nobody else will contribute anything. So you need to get the wiki started by creating a bunch of pages and putting something on each page.

That’s advice you’ll get from other people too, but I would add this: make those pages annoying. Annoying to people who are interested in the subject and are bothered by seeing it treated poorly, enough so that they’ll fix the problem. Analytical-retentive people are more bothered by flaws than other people, and furthermore are usually good at fixing them.

You can’t just create garbage as your starting point: you need to create something that’s going in the right direction, but is flawed. The better you know key people in your audience, the better a job you can do on this: ask yourself what kind of flaws would get those key people riled up and anxious to fix them. For example, if a wiki page is about how to use a Macintosh computer, you could seed it with some “information” that is obviously about Windows and is completely wrong for a Mac. This is where creativity can really come in handy: for seeding the wiki, not for populating it.

Misinformation is not the only way to seed with flawed content, but it can be an effective one. If you use misinformation, I recommend that your wiki be in a clearly stated beta mode until all the misinformation has been removed by users. (There is always the possibility that someone just removes misinformation without replacing it with something accurate, but it’s less likely to happen if you do your job well. There is an art to this.)

I’ve never seeded a new wiki by putting in provocative content, but I’ve successfully used the technique to seed individual pages in an existing wiki, and I find it powerful.


Blogger Bryce said...

Hey Rohan nice post.

Too bad that my Twitter feed is not a wiki. Then people could fix my annoying habit of not using punctuation.

I'm sure many have seen this but has some very good advise on seeding your wikis.

Friday, May 4, 2007 at 10:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Bryce, yeah, the punctuation thing. I deliberately said that your quote was from Twitter because Twitter-aware readers would know that people often don't bother with punctuation there because of the space and keyboard limitations. I considered adding punctuation myself, but I'm hesitant to mess with what people say when quoting them. I could have used square brackets, as in “...bothers me[:] just because...”, but that would have looked odd. I decided that the meaning was perfectly clear and that was what mattered. I probably spent five minutes agonizing over this.

Saturday, May 5, 2007 at 5:46:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Connie said...

Thanks for the nod, Rohan. Librarians are just waking up to wikis. I gave a 10 minute quick talk about how I've used wikis at my annual conference (Canadian Association of Law Libraries) this week and had lots of interest. I gave an ad hoc repeat performance for people who missed it, and had lots of others ask me about it. My colleagues are just starting to take notice, but there is a long way to go.

On the other hand, I do think we are more likely to jump in and use a wiki than perhaps some of the people who we serve. I am organizing a conference with 20+ people, and perhaps only one or two were intimidated. I was impressed that people were able to jump right in.

It can get discouraging for those of us who find it so simple that others don't pick it up so easily!


Thursday, May 10, 2007 at 12:32:00 AM EDT  

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