Wicked (good) Wikis

FRAMINGHAM (02/27/2004) - I recently attended a workshop on "Working Communities" that was developed and led by Full Circle Associates. The workshop experience was itself worthy of commentary, but the thing that I really came away with was the impact of a collaborative, social technology that we used prior to, during and now following the workshop itself: a Wiki.

Although I had been exposed to Wikis as a casual reader of websites like the Wikipedia (which is the largest, and perhaps most ambitious, Wiki in the world -- attempting to capture encyclopedia entries on everything), I had not had the opportunity to work with a large group collaborating with the medium. My eyes have been opened; and in the jargon of my Boston boyhood, I now think "Wikis are wicked" (which means they are good).

A Brief Intro to Wikis

For those who don't already know, a Wiki (the Hawaiian word for "quick") is a relatively unstructured, hypertext-based collaborative information distribution medium. Wikis have a few constructs, which can be composed into very rich collaborative information management systems:

- Wikis are made up of a collection of hyperlinked documents that can be collectively edited using a browser.

- Traditional Wikis (some variants don't follow this pattern) manage pages in two representations: the HTML presentation (which any browser will render), and a mark-up form for those with editing and authoring privileges. Some modern Wiki technologies use some sort of WYSIWYG editor in lieu of the Wiki mark-up language.

- Wiki pages typically link to many other pages, using various conventions for the denotation of URLs. Whatever notation is used, Wikis support a wide variety of possible structures: top-down hierarchical (like table of contents), or other, complex network forms.

- Wikis are a very open collaboration medium (which has some interesting social effects, which I'll explore later), where all authors can add to, change and or delete other people's work. To counter the potential for damage this can create, Wikis generally support a mechanism for comparing two states of a page (a "diff," so-called) so that the revisions can be viewed, as well as a roll-back capability so that erroneous or mistaken changes can be backed-out.

The Wiki concept was originally developed by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Since that time, dozens of Wiki implementations have been promoted, including a number of open source projects, like OpenWiki and Kwiki.

With the very open interaction, it is hard to believe that projects like Wikipedia will work, but as Dan Gillmor recently pointed out,

- It defies first-glance assumptions. After all, one might imagine if anyone can edit anything, surely cybervandals will wreck it. Surely flame wars over article content will stymie good intentions. And, of course, the articles will all be amateurish nonsense. Right? Well, no. (and, later on in the article...)

- The Wikipedia articles tend to be neutral in tone, and when the topic is controversial, they will explain the varying viewpoints in addition to offering the basic facts. When anyone can edit what you've just posted, such fairness becomes essential.

- "The only way you can write something that survives is that someone who's your diametrical opposite can agree with it," says Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia. ("Online Reference to Reach Milestone," Steve Gillmor, San Jose Mercury, Jan. 25, 2004)

Wikis Are Like Blogs, Only More So

I have made the case many times in the past year, here at Darwin and elsewhere, that blog networks (in the public Internet or within a gated enterprise intranet) provide a way for social networks to grow. As I recently wrote in regard to the social networks inherent in interconnected blogs:

- Much of the value of a blog network is the social capital that is built from relationships. People read each others' blogs to see what their friends (and enemies) are up to, and then they add value by linking, commenting and elaborating what is being said. The implicit or explicit "swarmth"(online reputation) that individuals accumulate can be a vital indicator of their worth to the organization -- who trusts whose recommendations, whose proposals seem to garner the most attention and who is a respected authority -- which can be more effectively managed (if managed is the right word) in the social matrix than in the command-and-control hierarchies that still seem to form the architecture of most businesses. Non-social solutions -- such as traditional content management solutions, portals and newsletters -- cannot compensate for the missing social dimension that social tools engender.

The same social interactions seem to take place in Wikis, but at a faster pace and with a more intensely collaborative feel. Wiki structure is so open it can be morphed into any of a variety of collaborative modes: Wikis can support an "electronic bulletin board" mode of interaction, a la Slashdot or The Well (although without the Slashdot karma model), while at the same time, even in the same Wiki but on another page, the interaction will be much more like a groupware or portal sort of interaction, a la Notes or eRoom.

Wikis share a fundamental organizing principle with the CompanyWay technology I profiled last year (Swarm Intelligence), in that Wikis are based on emergent intelligence and knowledge: the belief that the best results come from allowing decisions to emerge bottom-up, in a relatively free-form interchange between the participants of a group, with only a light-handed editorial or managerial top-down control being applied. As I wrote then,

- It is better to socialize decisions with those that are involved in them not as a mealy-mouthed "empowerment" exercise, but as a means to get the best ideas out in the light of day, to allow all to make their contributions and raise their concerns, and to recognize what is good based on merit and not on personage. Louis Brandeis once said, "Light is the best disinfectant," and socializing critical business decisions in an open forum based on merit, and not on politics, is a powerful model of business. Wikis are built upon an inherently open model of social interaction and collaboration, with very little constraint placed on the participants. In a sense, this puts the onus back on the members of a project group to self-police: to build structure out of the minimalist forms of Wiki components, to correct others' grammar, syntax and wrong-headed arguments, to cajole others to your viewpoint or ideas where the project should be headed. But it's exactly this frisson between partners, affiliated around shared purpose, that builds social ties and generates social capital. Wikis directly support us in our efforts to get more from the whole than the sum of the parts.

A Note on Socialtext

The specific Wiki technology that we applied for the workshop was provided by Socialtext . Taking a step forward toward the socialized enterprise, their exemplary technology includes blogs right in the framework of the basic Wiki tools. This combination of complementary social tools is much more powerful than using the two technologies in parallel but unintegrated.

I was especially struck by the value of real-time Wikiing, as a running sidebar to the presentations and direct interaction in the workshop. At any given time, several of the 30-odd workshop attendees were capturing their own streams of consciousness or the comments of others, and it was obviously the case that Wikis have an amazingly steep learning curve, since many were total novices to Wikis. (Note: steep learning curves are the best sort, despite the conventional mistaken notion about them. A steep learning curve means you learn something quickly, not that something is difficult.)

The only missing dimension that I see is integrated instant messaging or group chat -- and Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, smiles knowingly whenever I ask that question.

Stowe Boyd is managing director of A Working Model, a research and strategy firm focused on real-time, collaborative and sociaL technologies, and their impact on business and society. His writings and monthly webcasts can be found at Get Real. Contact him at stoweboyd@aworkingmodel.com.

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