Recently I got some very unusual looks at a conference table by suggesting “…perhaps we could use a Wiki.” I imagine that participants thought… “Who invited the web guy, anyway?” But I stood my ground taking comfort in the words of about Tom Peters “We need more freaks!”
A Wiki (the name comes from the Hawaiian word for “speed”) is a website that anyone can edit, anytime. They are a blank sheet of paper or a whiteboard and everyone has a pencil and eraser. On a public Wiki, anyone on the web can contribute, change or remove content very, very easily. A private version is usually a password-protected space for teams in a corporate environment. Almost zero training and zero overhead are needed.
Wikis are nearly the opposite of the dreaded FYI email, and very different from discussion forums, chat rooms, and even blogs. They thrive on visibility and transparency, and die if more than the most basic level of housekeeping is imposed. Wikis can simplify planning, meetings, document development, and brainstorming. During use, social cues are exchanged, trust is earned and useful documents, and with thorough document history provided as a by-product. Readers scrutinize information empowered to change what’s “not quite right” easily, on the spot, right now. If someone else disagrees, your change may be rolled back or replaced completely.
It should be clear that Wiki participation demands checking egos at the door. Sometimes Wiki scuffles (“edit wars”) do occur where two or more people spar about details, but in the end the resultant Wiki is the beneficiary of the debate, self-organizing around a collective compromise. Both sides of the debate, along with the resulting publication, are stored in a simple-to-extract document history, giving readers the ability to better understand and contribute.
Sound chaotic? It can be. Wonderfully so, if you ask me. Skeptics said public Wikis would just fill up with junk, and sometimes there are problems. Then again, the first printing presses were used to distribute scandal, gossip and crackpot theories. Wikis are usually self-policed via a sort of online neighborhood watch program. The question is, as the early adoption phase transfers to the masses, will the self policing efforts remain intact?
Take one John Seigenthaler, former editor of the Tennessean who put Wikipedia (arguably the largest public Wiki at 700,000 articles) on the defense by insisting that they track down a publisher of false information that attacked his character. After being traced by Wikipedia engineers, user Brian Chase admitted to intentionally publishing entries stating Seigenthaler was involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Chase lost his job over the whole thing and a precedent was set. The subsequent news stories sent tens of thousands of people to Wikipedia to review what might be posted about them!
Conspiracy theories aside, Wiki adoption within an organization is best left as viral marketing effort. These are a “stop by my office and let me show you something” ideas. Like Instant Messaging, use will spread by itself. I’ve been asked to come and “teach us how to use a Wiki” but I always try to push back and suggest a self-directed approach. I like to let them be owned and adapted by individual teams, as the process of discovering how they work serves as a catalyst for their use.
Speaking of deployment, Wiki software is everywhere. There are inexpensive hosted solutions or you can install some on your own company network. The big players are weighing in too.. Microsoft is currently building a very Wiki-like system called Microsoft “Team System” that should be making news soon. Microsoft? Lightweight software? We’ll see. Mediawiki is a very popular open source Wiki Engine. More are available at http://www.wikimatrix.com .
The best way to start a Wiki is to start a Wiki. Use a cheap, hosted Wiki for something small, like organizing a meeting. You don’t have to call it a “Wiki” … call it a “project whiteboard” if you want. Next, develop a document or prepare a case, and see where it takes you. The first time will have rough spots, but soon, you may find that they are indispensable.
If you look around, these concepts are already leaking into the public web. Amazon has product tagging and reviews, Yahoo Local has company ratings, and blogs have comments. A Wiki is another step forward in the social web of involvement.
Whether public or private, Wikis are the start of something bigger, a collaborative, participative Internet. Yesterday’s web was built on nouns… sites, pages, and places, but the next version is built on verbs – share, change, subscribe. Think del.icio.us, furl.com, and MyWeb 2.0. We’re just getting started, so hop on the Wiki bus and let’s take a ride to the future.