Response to lesson 4: Wikis

Ah, wikis.  Part of my duties at my co-op placement involve a sort of nebulous “maintain our wiki” function.  This tends to be one of the areas where I don’t spend a lot of time, as the corporate wiki (and my unit’s portal) does not get a lot of attention.  One thing that is contributing to this stagnation is the overbearing company policies that extend to the wiki.  For instance, everything that is published in English must also be translated into French and sent through editors before it can officially go up.  These extra steps really stifle the collaborative, instant nature of wikis.  If we have to have everything translated before we post it, it slows progress to a crawl and overloads our translation team.  Translation is also a cost-recovery service, which means we have to pay for it from the department’s budget.  It seems like an awful lot of process for a wiki that is entirely internal!
DFAIT, on the other hand, has a bustling and successful wiki. (That is the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, for those not up to their ears in government acronyms.)  Some pages are updated in English, some are updated in French, and some are dutifully translated into both languages – but it is at the discretion of the user.  Traffic explodes during times like now, with the hubbub in Egypt.  Updates occur hourly, sometimes more often.  They have developed several in-house features that bring their wiki above and beyond the standard mediawiki package: a search engine that can sort by relevance, their own statistical tracking system… it is a thing of beauty.  People see it, find it useful, contribute, and repeat.
When it comes to the world of libraries, the properties of a wiki give it a broad array of potential uses.  Meredith Farkas outlines some of them in “Using Wikis to Create Online Communities”, all of them bristling with promise.  A catalogue with user reviews! A wiki for the community! A central location for pathfinders!  But as it is all too easy to observe, many wikis never make it off the ground.  There are many things that can cause a wiki to fail, like poor organization and navigation, lack of planning, failure to follow through and continue updating, unenthusiastic or uncommunicative users, lack of content, or too many rules *cough*.  Even if people want to collaborate, an unfriendly interface will turn them away.  Another factor is feedback – a friendly, active community will be good at encouraging wiki contributors to keep doing what they’re doing, while a silent community that doesn’t provide feedback in any way will eventually convince all but the most determined contributors that what they are doing on the wiki doesn’t matter and is not making an impact, and they will stop contributing.
Maish Nichani brings up some very good points in her article about planning and sustaining wiki-based projects, and the commenters chime in as well.  The article provides a solid framework for nurturing the continued growth of a wiki, and commenter Dennis McDonald sums up nicely: “Planning is good. Too much planning without action is bad. No planning is worse.”  It’s all about balance.
As for Wikipedia – this assignment was pretty tough!  I found it tricky to identify things I know enough about to feel confident in editing, and even trickier to find one of those that was less than complete.  But I eventually located a sad little scrap of article that could use some freshening.  Here are some pictures:
It still doesn’t look like a whole lot, but I think it’s much improved.  The article is about the website Gaia Online, which is a predominantly forum-based site.  No problems at all with the wiki markup – the help page was quite handy, but all I needed was the WYSIWYG editor for my purposes.  Even if I didn’t have my background knowledge of markup languages, it would have been quite easy to figure out.

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