Wisdom in wiki production/Wiki content production process
Starting a wiki
Starting a wiki might be easier if you are a private individual starting one for your personal use. You have a need which a particular wiki platform can fulfil. But also various types of groups (teams or departments in an organisation, associations, clubs) might want to maintain wikis to use them collectively. Wikis often facilitate information distribution and the collective production and modifying of materials.
In order to start a wiki, you must specify your requirements and make the necessary technical choices. You should specify the requirements with care in order to appropriately clarify the common needs. You should complete the requirements specification before you select a wiki platform so that the platform which you select can eventually support the objectives and needs in practice. Issues you should consider before the selection of a wiki platform are discussed in more detail in section Introducing a wiki for use.
Names of wikis should be short and to the point. They must visualise for users what is being produced or why these wikis were established. Names should not be all-encompassing; instead, they should carry a great deal of informative value. Names should tell new users what particular wikis deal with. In the case of wikis open to anyone, you should also consider the web search logic — what words might people use to search for information about the subject of your wiki? Those words would be preferable in its name.
Many heads are often wiser than one. Peer production is a good method for choosing a name. Brainstorming names together inspires commitment among writers. However, there often is not enough time for brainstorming because the wiki might be established so quickly.
Producing materials for different target groups
Social media advances diversity in all fields. It also makes it possible for even small groups to be promoted to the spotlight. The needs of small target groups can be paid attention to, because materials production is cheap, and information can be easily distributed in the web. When producing materials for wikis, paying attention to target groups is important — just as it is in all content production. You need to note the level of information (depth, amount of detail) you want to produce.
Wiki production processes differ from traditional text production
Typically, the production of books and web pages starts with specification and, after many phases, ends with publication. Separate plans and resources are typically required for production and updates. The production process of a wiki is much lighter and the degree of freedom is greater. The production, i.e. the writing, can start on the basis of a need observed without more ado. Often, a wiki is one of the tools used in a wider context. For example, a publication can be designed with a wiki, or a part of a project may operate through a wiki.
Materials are produced and contents are structured flexibly. The outputs are visible in the web in real time. Contents may feature crossmedia, but most often, they are text based. Therefore, their production can be rather easy on ready-made platforms. The quality of wikis typically correlates directly to the importance of these wikis for the producer groups themselves. If the contents of a wiki are useful and significant for the work of the writers or that of their teams, writers tend to update their wikis as they proceed with their regular duties. If, however, wiki production is based on a momentary need or if it is only expected to clarify someone's own thoughts without a wider context, the material easily becomes short-lived.
Construction of wiki contents
The contents of wikis are individual wiki pages. They can also be called hypertext pages, because they are no different from other web pages. One wiki page forms an information unit concerning the subject dealt with under the heading. Wiki pages form a website on which contents pages are interlinked. Wiki contents have no fixed book-like structure or table of contents.
Wiki tools often allow pages to be automatically linked to other pages. If a page contains a word or sentence that happens to form the topic of another page, the word or sentence is linked to that page. Writers can create links in words and these links start new pages. Contents are created through the creation of pages, and the interlinking of pages is automatic. Not all wiki platforms support automatic links. For example, the users of Wikibooks, which is implemented on MediaWiki, are required to insert the word or words in brackets in the edit space in order to create a link to a new page. See instructions about new page creation.
A wiki page will reflect the writers' understanding of their topic. The page will be of as high a quality as is the writers' skill in treating their topic and writing about it. Pages may exist to cover all possible topics that the writers have felt necessary. It is very typical that the structure of a wiki site undergoes constant change.
Creating and working on a wiki structure
The work on a wiki page usually starts at someone's initiative — and that someone might be an individual as well as a project group. The starter creates a page with a certain heading and writes text just like any other text. The page, once saved, is visible to all the users of that wiki. If someone else wishes to supplement the information or change it, he or she can take the stored page and edit it.
Often, this process is not predefined in any way, and all people can edit as they wish. Eventually, the wiki page will gain length and the topics on it will diversify. When the amount of information has grown for a while, writers usually start a discussion on the structure of the material. Wiki writing starts from the particular and proceeds to the general. It is noteworthy that the editing permissions in wikis also include the right to delete items. The output of the collective effort will be a joint production in which it is impossible to point out individual contributions. Someone might, for example, only correct the others' typos to improve the text.
Every time a page is saved, a version of it is stored in the revision history where it can also be viewed. Revisions can be compared to check the individual changes from one revision to another. The page history functionality can be used for restoring an older version back to current. This is one way to counteract vandalism and inappropriate changes.
During the production process, wiki users can use the talk pages for discussion; these pages store the discussion chains, respectively. These discussions often concern the contents of the particular wiki pages. Producer groups may also wish to agree on internal codes of conduct. One alternative is, for example, to conduct a discussion about the page contents, after which a member records the common view into the wiki.
Wiki gardener (community gardener)
Wiki gardeners are persons who clean up and arrange wiki contents. The gardener makes sure that the visual appearance and all sorts of off-shoots stay within reasonable bounds. Off-shoots are e.g. unnecessary pages or very similar pages that can be deleted or combined to create more coherent wholes.
The gardener also functions as a sort of a moderator who can guide others in their writing by giving comments and suggesting corrections. The gardener may also ask for new contributions.
Supporting a wiki writing process
Because wikis typically have several writers, wiki writing is different from the traditional form of writing. It may be completely new to many people who now wish to participate. Therefore, wiki writing needs to be supported. There are issues to pay attention to such as writing practices and the maintenance of pace that become rather significant in strongly goal-oriented writing processes in particular.
Finding active writers
Wikis and wiki pages are often formed due to a specific reason or need. Enthusiasm and willingness to participate in collaborative writing require a great deal of interest in the issue at hand. It is their interest that drives the participants to search for information and to build knowledge for themselves. If several people are interested in similar things, they often want to advance matters and work together.
If the contents advance the writers' own interests, like learning materials advance teachers' interests, they are motivated to collaborate. Often it is only a desire to be of use or web sociability that prompts many people to write about issues that are generally experienced as important. One of the basic functions of wikis is information distribution. Wiki writing may be a fine (and maybe the only) possibility for some people to publish their own texts.
The nature of collaborative writing does not necessarily suit everyone. Today, many people do not presume to edit the texts of others but feel shy about it. Even giving comments may be difficult for them. When enticing these people to write, it might help to remind them that they can edit and delete their own comments, and the wiki page history functionality allows the restoration of older pages.
It is challenging to find active writers, but active web presence and active promotion help. If you are starting a new wiki open to everyone, you should publicise information of your site on as many forums as you can. If you know heavily networked parties, information radiators, you might turn to them and ask them to pass your message round.
Materials are created due to the activity of the participants. Often, one active producer creates a great amount of contents. The various writers involved often assume different roles quite automatically. These roles are not specifically agreed upon, most often, but they are formed in accordance with the inclinations of the individuals (e.g. mass producer, constructor, corrector of errors in facts and technicalities, multimedia enthusiast, proof-reader, supplementor).
If the number of producers is too few, the contents may remain meagre and incomplete. But when determining the critical mass, it is not only the number of participants that is significant — also their enthusiasm and personal characteristics matter. As the number of users increases, the active agency of the material becomes apparent.
Agreements on writing practices
When we start a collaborative wiki, it becomes obvious at a very early stage that we need to agree on common rules concerning our production process. Wikis allow the creation of instruction pages for writers, and they should be made use of. Instructions should be given on a general level, but even specific rules may become necessary at some point.
These common rules may be recommended practices or specific technical instructions. It also depends on the wiki platform what sort of instructions are required. The purpose of giving instructions is, in addition to facilitating the content creation process, the maintaining of the common policies. Guidelines and instructions take form per wiki community.
Because wikis are not discussion tools, the communication among writers needs to take place in some other way. When contents are produced for Wikimedia Foundation wikis, the common practice is that talk pages be used for communicating observations about writing to other writers. When storing minor edits, comments may be added about the edits to describe the changes made.
Keeping up activity levels in long term
Wiki writing should be rewarding in some way to keep writers going. The position of an expert within the wiki community may be rewarding. Some people may find it rewarding that their articles are discussed and others want to take the trouble of contributing to them.
Any wiki will wilt soon if new, interesting materials are not added in sufficient amounts. The activity of the group maintaining the wiki will also (we hope) increase the activities of other users. We should attract active writers with methods external to wikis: we can talk about the joy of writing, the general usefulness and benefits of wikis, etc.
We can make use of various means in writing projects of smaller groups particularly if the producers are distant from one another. The participants might work at their desks at agreed times to collaborate on their materials; if they open a web conferencing application or some other means of communicating for the time, they can bridge their distance and agree on issues that might daunt them.
Rise and transformation of wiki cultures
The production process, success and failure of collectively produced outputs probably all relate to the work culture. If the culture is open and permissive, wiki writing is a natural means for an organisation's collective knowledge to grow. In practice, this means that even unfinished matters may be published and sentences do not have to be complete. However, users may experience a feeling of distrust if materials seem too unfinished and not properly revised. The practices and rules in particular communities determine their working methods.
Organisation-internal cultures are all different. If permissiveness and openness are not in the culture, wiki creation may become difficult. We assume there is no particular culture that is more right than any other — wiki cultures rise and are transformed in accordance with their participants. We must understand why the wiki-form as such would be important for certain wiki producers or the party who owns their work. What does this mean?
The wiki platform itself affects the ways of working. Different tools enable different operations. Work can be limited and directed by the tools' properties.
The changing of a culture is a long-term process, and forcing change may kill the community. Hobby groups, for example, may have long traditions and established practices. If they are forced to change, participants may disappear rather quickly. Users might even change to a new platform or service provider.
Communities cannot be controlled. Community members are equal and have equal opportunities for participation. There is no one there to dictate what can and may be done. Community members incite the seed to grow. The seed (article, wiki page, discussion) grows with participation. Other communities and people may become interested in the seed, making it popular. If nobody becomes interested, the growth of the seed may indeed remain slight. The growth of a wiki community and wiki content is collectively directed with the majority determining the direction. In this context, we can talk of flocking or herding: the flock or herd always moves rather collectively in a direction. Finally, a factor emerges that makes the flock or herd turn.
Wiki cultures are affected by e.g. the following factors:
- What is the significance of the information/contents for the organisation?
- What is the wiki platform used (level of openness)?
- What is the function of the information in the wiki?
- Where will the information go if the maintaining community or owner disappears?
- How can the information in the wiki be copied?
Example of a production process: publishing Wisdom in wiki production in Wikibooks
This wiki was started as a rather large peer production in Wikibooks in the autumn of 2009. The producers came from different organisations in various parts of Finland.
Essential issues and good practices observed in wiki peer production:
- An owner for the process is required at least when production is started. If there is no one minding the whole and keeping it moving, the production process will not progress on its own even if all participants consider it necessary. Particularly in cases in which the production is not tightly scheduled, it is important that someone holds the reigns and spurs the work on. It is possible, of course, that at some point the producer community becomes so large that the work proceeds under its own power (e.g. Wikipedia).
- Shared working methods supporting peer production are needed. In the production of this wiki book, we tried web conferencing with a video conferencing system. We arranged an online meeting of a couple of hours once per month; first, we checked the status of the materials (what was new, which sections were missing material...) and discussed common matters (including the structure of the wiki). The second hour of the monthly meeting was reserved for materials production with all participants working at their desks. It was possible to keep the web conference open (and use other tools such as the chat) so that the team could be in real-time contact and ask for advice when necessary.
- Keeping up the pace between online meetings. The producer group wished that the coordinating party, the process owner, would regularly remind them about writing into the wiki during the intervals between the online meetings, because otherwise, their voluntary production work might be left second in the face of other duties. The group decided that writers be reminded through email once a week, and they would also receive a summary of the progress at that time together with other motivating information.
- A little is better than nothing at all. It is good to remember that even a quarter of an hour of work per week per writer is a great deal better than nothing. It should be easy to reserve this much time for wiki writing in one's calendar, and it is essential for the progress of the whole.
- New points of view broaden our minds. When producing wiki materials and wikis, we may become blind to our work. External views should be solicited from those people, in particular, who have personal experience of wikis. Half-finished texts are easier to assess and work on, so it is a good step ahead when a rough wiki outline is made and some initial thoughts are written.