Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Working Wikily

Last month the Monitor Institute launched a blog http://workingwikily.net 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.


Noah Flower said...

Hi, Bruce. Thanks for mentioning Working Wikily. I couldn't agree with you more about the myth of wikis being a place where everyone collaborates, so thank you for laying out the point with such clarity. I imagine people hear about these funny things called "wikis," which are a magical kind of website where everyone pitches in, and they expect that every wiki will automatically get a crowd. When, of course, the reality is that wikis need a solid purpose and a community of people who care enough to be part of the project. Maybe the idea of "everyone" contributing just needs a bit of scope added, i.e.: "everyone who really cares." Because that's the tiny percentage of the world who keep Wikipedia and all the other wikis cranking.

When have you seen wikis work the best?

Martin Lindeskog said...

I found your blog via LinkedInBloggers at Yahoo Groups. Couldn't this be another example of the Pareto principle (80/20 rule)?

I have been testing different kinds of wikis, e.g., tikiwiki, wetpaint, and it takes some time to get used to the format.

Meta Brown said...

The purpose of creating and editing wiki content is to assure that the information in the wiki is factual and complete. So we'd like those who create and edit the wiki to have subject matter expertise, good research skills, the ability to write clearly and use the wiki tools properly. Only a small fraction of the world meets those criteria, and not all of those will choose to engage in this particular activity.

It isn't fair, though, to characterize the rest of the world as "coasting" on the efforts of those who maintain wikis. The rest of the world is busy with a lot of things, things we might need, like say, bagging our groceries, taking care of our kids, or doing our taxes. They do what they are cut out to do.

It takes all kinds to make the world go round. If they all edited wikis, we would not be better off.

Bruce Hoppe said...

Although my post is ambiguous, I do agree with most of what Meta Brown says, except for the negative interpretation of "coasting," which I meant as a neutral term, or even a positive term that indicates awareness of how to avoid unnecessary effort.

crojane said...

The Nielsen alertbox report from which the pyramid graphic comes (unless he scraped it from 1 of 3 references he cites) was posted in October 2006.

There are two issues missing from the analysis:

(1) Lurkers in one space are contributors in another. If you asked "what do you do all day?" to the 99% who seem to lurk in a collaborative space, they'd likely answer that they "work" which involves a given mix of searching and reading with at least 10% to 20% "contribution" of some form to some space - be it e-mail, document writing, or (hopefully) a blog or wiki style space.

(2) The more public spaces which we can monitor tend to attract authoring by what I call "Alpha bloggers," people who have an incentive to play the game and are articular or exceptionally expert on a topic. That's the tip of the pyramid. The rest of us are what I call "beta bloggers," people who have loads to say and contribute - but, from a work process point of view, such contributions may be completely mundane unless you are involved in our work process, at which point they become business critical.

This second point is expanded upon in beta bloggers need not lurk in the enterprise which I wrote in October 2006 as a response to the Nielsen post and some other blog-matter that resulted from it.

I'll take my alpha hat off now and go back to beta work so I can get out of the office before getting snowed in on this awesome New Years Eve storm.


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