Considering that I have initiated many MediaWiki projects of my own, I was very excited about hearing from other folks who have experienced the highs and lows of running a wiki.

Transitioning to a Wiki: The wikiHow Experience

Jack Herrick is the owner of wikiHow. Their mission is to “provide useful instructions ot help people solve the problems of everyday life.”

Pew Internet and American Life study found that almost 60% of people look for “how-to” information. And in most cases, it is ridiculously difficult to find information like that in a Google search. The wiki is a space where people can post instructions (with visuals) on how to do things, such as setting up a hot tub platform, how to care for a tarantula, etc. As more people have added content, more people visit. It’s designed to be a one-stop-shop for how-to information.

WikiHow was born out of the site eHow. It was the most popular how-to site on the Internet and was written by professional writers and editors. They knew they could never get it “big” enough by paying writers to write instructions on how to do stuff. Jack tried out a wiki and was amazed by the quality and quantity of the content. This is the only mainstream commercial site that has become a wiki. Jack actually ended up selling eHow to finance wikiHow.

How is it that a wiki produces better content? A paid writer just researches a topic; a wiki contributor is passionate about their topic.

Tips on making the transition to wiki:

  • Drop the publisher’s mindset – you don’t own the wiki. The community controls what is on there.
  • Go slow with a wiki. “You can make a tree grow fast, but the roots won’t be very strong” (I like that!). They started slow, moved limited content and members over. They didn’t do any marketing initially and let the site grow organically. Jack sees it as a long-term project.
  • Community is at the heart of a wiki. Trust them, empower them.
  • Licensing – They chose creative commons BY-SA-NC. Must allow free sharing and forking. Now they sort of regret choosing the non-commercial license. They can’t use Wikipedia’s content and the Wikipedia can’t use theirs. Prevents free advertising like Answers.com’s use of Wikipedia content. A lot of people like the non-commercial license however.
  • Think about how your wiki is differnet from other people’s sites. They wanted to make their site as easy to use as possible. They have a special wrapper for adding content (don’t have to use wiki markup). Want to distinguish themselves from the Wikipedia.
  • Problems – multiple pages per topic, difficult to verify how-to facts, problems with neutrality (so much of how-to’s are opinion).

Three stupidest mistakes: Licensing choice, too many irreversible changes to MediaWiki software (makes it hard to upgrade, confusing for experienced wikipedians), look and feel of the site. They made a lot of choices early on without thinking about sustainability and now are trying to un-do many of them. I know I made a lot of choices about the Library Success Wiki early on without really thinking about how I (and any of the users) might feel about those choices a year or more later.

This was a refreshingly honest talk from a wiki creator 1.5 years into his project. It’s nice to hear about the mistakes he made, because we can benefit as much from learning what not to do as we can from learning what to-do. And Jack’s passion for the wiki format and his project really reminds me of my own passion for the Library Success Wiki and for wikis as knowledgebases. Wiki knowledgebases give me warm fuzzy feelings. :)

Wiki and open content travel guides: past, present, future

by Evan Prodromou of WikiTravel.

Background – in the 1990s, we started to be able to learn more about travel from regular folks who wrote about their travels. We could book our own travel. We became much more independent. Traditional travel guides also started to create online presence and put limited content online.

We began to see more review-style sites where people could post ratings and reviews of hotels, restaurants, etc. Lots of public content, but it was fragmented, personal, or commercially oriented. A lot was out-of-date. Evan wanted to create a non-commercial repository of travel information created by regular people. Evan was inspired by a bad travel experience (due to incorrect travel guide info) and the Wikipedia.

Wikitravel was started in 2003. Their goal was to output content to print, Web and PDA. They used a Creative Commons license to govern use of content. They use MediaWiki and Evan is a member of the MediaWiki Dev Group and contributes bug fixes and whatnot. They have a strict style manual, article templates and listing formats for consistency. It is smart to have structure like this, because as the wiki gets bigger, without consistency, the wiki would get disorganized and unmanageable.

He mentions some other wiki travel projects. He says competition is bad because it splits up the community. They won’t have the same content and level of quality. They decided to merge with another major travel wiki into a commercial venture. I agree with this. Wikis are great because they’re designed to be one-stop-shops for information. That is impossible when there are several “stops” for that same information.

Diplopedia: Application of the Wiki Model for Collaborative Drafting in Foreign Affairs

By Chris Bronk. Chris is a career diplomat who has created an internal wiki for diplomats to share information. Diplomats move every 2-3 years and must pass information on to whomever takes over there. Primarily, they share information via official reports. So this is all the information one’s successor gets when they come to the new country. You don’t get the personal insights. You don’t know about customs, where to shop, what the major issues are in the country, etc.

The Diplopedia is a pilot program “intended to serve as a repository for know-how, in which the Department of State’s employees may share their knowledge of the institution and its many and varied missions.”

People need insights about how to set up motorcades, build an embassy, how to decide whether to give someone a visa or not, etc. There are policies, but personal insights are so valuable. It’s useful to hear from people who have successfully done it.

The big challenge with the Diplopedia with the state department is governance. They don’t want people ranting about policy in the wiki — they want how-to’s and practical information. However, the workforce in the diplomatic corps is trained to be very professional, so it’s probably less of an issue. They are made aware of the fact that anything they write is one-click away from a press source.

Wikis can also be a good medium for people to work on policy documents. So often people are all over the world, and can’t easily meet in person and discuss the document.