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.

Social media at a glance (well 57 readable pages anyway)

Lee Hopkins and Trevor Cook have written the second edition of their Social Media eBook. If you feel uncertain about the SM (no, not that one!) world, then this will help. It’s a 57-page pdf but it’s an easy and informative read.

Don’t be put off by its Australianness or its datedness in the early parts, it probably needs a slight update when it comes to mentions of things like Writely, which was renamed last October. The value of this .pdf eBook is that it’s running you through the principles of the new web world.

The wiki bit is the least insightful by these two excellent writers, but they compensate by examining real projects so you should get an idea of their relevance to you.

Nothing is beyond reach: Facebook, Twitter, Jaiku, Second Life … Offhand, I couldn’t think of anything significant that they left out. (The providers of the services that weren’t mentioned will probably disagree. They can chuck in their comments on this blog if they like.)

Take a look. It costs nothing apart from half an hour or so of your time.

Social software myths exploded

People scoff at the "wisdom of crowds" theory, articulated so well by James Surowiecki, probably because they’re mistaking it for the "consensus of crowds" which is a different thing altogether.

JP Rangaswami, with a hat tip to Kathy Sierra, has taken a few common assertions about social software and tells us why they are actually lies. The three are:

Lie 1: Social software causes groupthink and herd behaviour

Lie 2: Social software is full of inaccuracies and downright lies

Lie 3: Social software destroys privacy

To give a flavour, here’s one of the things he said about lie 2:

With MSM on the other hand, the lie is printed and continues to be an
archived lie. And while you may get a retraction or correction, it
tends to appear on page 32 sandwiched between dog shampoo ads and
undertaker recruitment campaigns.

Depending on the social software he’s talking about, that kind of lie can be dealt with in comments (blog and bulletin board) or by editing (wiki). Or, indeed, if it’s a real cause célèbre then the blogosphere can, and will, quickly amplify it.

Anyway, don’t listen to me, go and read the original.

Social and Corporate Computing to join forces?

Rod Boothby tipped me off about BEA‘s moves into the Social Computing space. It is already a well-established provider of deep corporate computing software which is good at joining disparate systems and information sources together. If anyone’s going to be able to have a stab at joining the social computing world to the real computing world, it’s going to be BEA.

I guess BEA could have gone two ways with this: develop some kind of connections to existing blogging platforms and end up on a treadmill of adjustments and upgrades, or do its own thing. It chose the latter. (Or should I say ‘lattr’?)

If its upcoming blog/wiki combo (called Builder) is any good, then it might encourage organisations to sit up and take notice of social software. And make them feel comfortable because BEA will make sure that theirs is tightly integrated to organisational computer systems, giving the ability to surface material from these systems right up to the wiki, for example. Another element, called Runner, will provide access control and audit trails.

What appeals to me about BEA’s move is that it is independent of the traditional application companies who are already beginning to slog it out in this space. It is fundamentally a platform company, although the blog/wiki stuff might bring it into contention with some of the existing social computing companies.

People who’ve lived with blogs/wikis and the liberation they have brought, not to mention the low cost, are probably going to be appalled that ‘their’ world is going to ‘go corporate’. But, just as the PC did all those years ago, it was an inevitable consequence of something proving useful.