Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wikis, surveys, and webwhompers

Continuing on the thread of when have I seen wikis work the best... In my last post I answered that I have seen wikis work quite well when they are tightly controlled. I described the LeaderNetwork wiki, which only allows editing by Claire Reinelt and me.

Another good way of controlling a wiki is not by limiting the number of editors (as in the previous example) but by limiting the contributions asked of each editor.

Used in this way, a wiki is quite similar to an online survey. The wiki begins with a clear list of questions and a well-defined framework to hold each response contributed by each wiki editor --- just like SurveyMonkey. However, a wiki-survey has two important differences:
  1. Transparent sharing of all wiki-survey responses is a given. There is no waiting for the survey administrator to publish anything, no option for the survey administrator to hold anything back.
  2. The questions themselves can be added to and/or edited on the fly by wiki-survey respondents. This frees the survey administrator from having to ask just the right questions; if someone does not see the question they wanted to answer, they can add that question in a place where everyone can respond to it.
One of my favorite wiki-surveys is this one, which I have used to run a contest that recognizes the most popular student project of the semester. It is a simple and effective wiki-survey that leverages option #1 heavily and ignores option #2. I have previously posted two case studies about its use on these pages: "Pros and cons of male enhancement" and "Delete all your links, except to me." I have modified it for use in many client engagements as well, fully leveraging both options #1 and #2.

This fall I significantly upgraded my pseudo-survey technology by abandoning the wiki platform altogether. You can see my post-wiki pseudo-survey at, where the blood from my students' recently fought competition is still fresh.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Wiki Whomping

"When have I seen wikis work the best?" Thanks to Noah Flower for posting his thoughtful response to my last post (about working wikily), and closing with that question.

By way of answering, I'd like to quote from the pre-eminent prophet of working wikily, Clay Shirky. In his award-winning essay "A group is its own worst enemy," Shirky states, "Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table."

You can click here to read my original argument that Shirky is crazy if he really believes that. Today, instead of arguing against Shirky, I'd like to use his quote to put Noah's question in clearer context:

"When have you seen tables work the best?"

If you find that question confusing, good. Tables are such a fantastic technology for collaboration, and so flexible in the ways we can use them, that asking for "best example of using a table" is more of a Rorschach test than a question. More specifically, it's a great question for a furniture salesman to ask, as the person answering will suddenly feel an urge to find some connection between tables and whatever "works the best."

Answering Noah more earnestly (sort of), I have seen wikis work very well when they are tightly controlled. For example, Claire Reinelt and I use a wiki to publish our favorite reading list about SNA and leadership networks for social change. Our reading list is a joint effort that neither of us could have assembled alone. The most important feature of the site, however, is that no one can edit the wiki but me and Claire.

I'll close today's post with this passage from Wikipedia. It's from an article on participation inequality, but it also works well as a manifesto for Wikipedia's own governance, which is much more tightly controlled than it used to be:
"A major reason why user-contributed content rarely turns into a true community is that ... a few users contribute the overwhelming majority of the content, while most users either post very rarely or not at all. Unfortunately, those people who have nothing better to do than post on the Internet all day long are rarely the ones who have the most insights. In other words, it is inherent in the nature of the Internet that any unedited stream of user-contributed content will be dominated by uninteresting material."
Next time we'll answer the question, "When have I seen social bookmarking work the best?"

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Working Wikily

Last month the Monitor Institute launched a blog about how the social sector is adopting the new tools, strategies, and practices of networking.

They explain here that "Working Wikily" was coined "to describe the new ways that people are applying network theory and networked technology to do the work they’ve always done in a more collaborative form and also to begin working in new ways altogether."

As my contribution to "Working Wikily," I'd like to offer a reality check on what happens when people use a wiki. Before I continue, however, let me make clear that (1) collaboration is great, (2) wikis are great, and (3) the reality check I am about to deliver is aimed at people who associate "collaboration" with "wiki" and thereby set themselves up for disappointment when they learn this the hard way:

Jakob Nielsen summarizes Web collaboration in general with the 90-9-1 rule as pictured below.
90% do nothing, 9% do a little, and 1% do practically everything.

Blogs are even more skewed than average Web sites, with 95% doing nothing, 4.9% doing a little, and 0.1% doing practically everything.

Wikis are the most skewed of all.

Most community facilitators I know who have set up wikis lament that they can't get anyone else to edit it without resorting to bribery. That is 100% doing nothing while one outsider does everything.

With a hugely successful wiki like Wikipedia, the ratio is slightly better, 99.8% percent do nothing, 0.197% do very little, and 0.003% do practically everything.

The above dose of reality is called "participation inequality" by Nielsen. Let me reiterate that I do not see this inequality as a problem, even though Nielsen presents it that way (as would, I suspect, many who set out to "work wikily" and end up proving Nielsen's point).

Thank you to Laurie Damianos for alerting me to these statistics during her presentation on MITRE's use of social bookmarking on their corporate intranet. Her experience at MITRE was consistent with the general trends claimed by Nielsen. Unlike many others in her position, though, she did not get discouraged by low participation, nor did she try to change it. Instead, she did a great job explaining to the powers-that-be that MITRE's social bookmarking system was working great, even with most people contributing nothing.

So let's raise a toast to the 99.8% who have perfected the most popular way of "working wikily" -- those who do nothing and, when they feel like it, coast off the hard work of the 0.003% who give it all away.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.