Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) on successful wikis

Yesterday, Jimmy Wales blew into town to address a huge audience of information professionals at the Online Information conference. Wales, in case you don’t know, co-founded Wikipedia which is intended to become "the sum of all human knowledge". Written for the people by the people. And hugely popular, to boot.
As ever with these kind of events, the question and answer session at the end was just as interesting as the prepared presentation. It was a chance for some baffled people to get to grips with some key issues. While these were Wikipedia-focused they do resonate with other wiki activity, including that in your own organisation perhaps.
Freeform Dynamics recently ran a survey asking people how they connect at work or education, as opposed to in their personal life. The 1500 or so responses came from IT professionals and, that subset that liked responding to a survey on this subject. Interestingly, in the work context, wikis were read by more than 55 percent of respondents and contributed to by about 25 percent. This suggests that wikis are certainly on the business communication radar. Wales’ thoughts could well help avoid some false starts.
On participation, he talked of applying the ‘neutrality principle’ to writing style. I think he means avoid opinion and stick to facts. Or, to don the behavioural psychologist’s hat, to keep contributions adult rather than parental or childish. A debate is more constructive and likely to lead to a better outcome than a fight.
In a similar vein, Wales urges courtesy and respect for the community. He gives the example of journalists who think its clever to edit a contribution to see how long it takes for anyone to notice. The important takeaway here is that people cannot be expected to just start contributing to Wikipedia without understanding and agreeing to some basic ground rules.
He doesn’t regard Wikipedia as the place to publish original research. For a start, no-one would be able to check it. Second of all, it gets away from the principle of the "sum of all human knowledge", in the sense of a summary, understandable to the layman but with sources cited for those who want to drill deeper. In Wikipedia’s case, he politely suggests that researchers get their material published elsewhere first and then cite this as a source. The ‘summary’ idea is a good one. The difficulty in a company wiki is that it’s sometimes quicker to write or cut and paste a long discourse than a thought-out summary. But, if no-one reads it, it seems rather counter-productive.
On credibility, it’s somewhat easier for humans to assess this than for it to be calculated automatically. Wales would be interested in seeing a background colour wash in Wikipedia according to the credibility of the writer. But, as he points out, a mathematical formula might regard his frequent contributions to the policy part of Wikipedia as ‘argumentative’ and downgrade him accordingly.
Humans take into account their knowledge of a person, whether their changes and challenges have improved the content, their engagement style generally, their biases, etc. Try working out a reliable algorithm to deal with that lot. Perhaps Wales is right to be experimenting with it but with no firm plans for its introduction.
Another thing to bear in mind is that a wiki isn’t like paper. It’s theoretically limitless. Wales noted that the English language write up of Pokémon provides details of all the various regions but the German version has not allowed this. People don’t have to read this stuff, so does it matter whether it’s there or not? Since wikis are largely textual, they demand little in storage resources.
Finally, there’s the question of motivation. In Wikipedia’s case, Wales believes it boils down to humanitarianisn or fun, where the fun is being part of an enthusiastic and engaged community of common interest. He points out that "doing wikis alone doesn’t work". He suggests five or six people – friends, enemies, it doesn’t matter – engaging day in and day out is the way to go.
In our coporate wikis, we can probably discard the humanitarian aspects but fun and community building sound like good motivations.

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