Sunday, 8 April 2007

World of Wikis

Until now, my knowledge of wikis extended to frantically searching Wikipedia to find out the hobbies and interests of famous blokes I fancy, to make sure we are compatible, obviously. Then I was asked to present a seminar on wikis and their implication for the PR industry and found out that there is much more involved than star signs, et cetera.

First thing’s first. A wiki, for the uninitiated, is a piece of server software that allows users to create and edit web pages using any web browser. The most well-known, Wikipedia, acts as an online encyclopaedia, asking users to add information and correct content on its subject pages. Wikis have evolved as a group communications mechanism, a form of mass collaborative authoring, encouraging democratic use of the web and promoting content composition by non-technical users (good news for the likes of me!). Indeed, the democratic nature of wikis has been the most significant factor in their growth. Low barriers to access (most do not require registration) and ease of use have also been important factors.

Wikis were first used by a dude called Ward Cunningham for the Portland Pattern Repository (?) in 1995. The term ‘wiki’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary Online in March 2007. A directory of all existing wikis can be found at WikiIndex. There is a small dispute over the origin of the term. Some believe (as if this is some kind of techy urban legend) that the term derives from the colloquial Hawaiian word for ‘quick’, ‘wikiwiki’. Others argue that the term is an achronym for ‘What I Know Is’, in reference to the wiki’s principle characteristics of information sharing and collaboration.

Wikis have evolved alongside the generative nature of the internet, encouraging users to help build it. Key features usually include:

  • The name of the article embedded in the hyperlink.
  • The ability to be created by anyone at anytime (applying to open wikis; some can be created for private uses, such as in the internal operations of an organisation, replacing intranet facilities). Some ‘wiki-farms’ for individual creation include WetPaint, SocialText and Wikia (it is easy honest – we did it in class and if I can do it anyone can!).
  • Editable through a browser.
  • Each article provides one-click access to a history page.
  • Discussion pages.
  • Recent additions or changes can be monitored actively or passively.

Wikis were originally utilised to create a dynamic knowledge base and have since evolved greatly. For example, they are employed widely as an instructional technology between educators and students, amateurs and professionals. They have the ability to expand community involvement and interest and grow as a result of people adding material. As a result, they can be content specific and address a variety of needs, allowing groups to form around specific topics. Their potential as collaborative spaces have led to them becoming semi-authoritative voices on particular topics, as is the case with Wikipedia.

The democratic nature of wikis is also the root of the problems it faces. They are susceptible to vandalism, or ‘trolling’, which can often go unnoticed for long periods of time. Wikis operate a soft-security philosophy, based on the assumption that the majority of users are genuine. As a result, it is easy to correct mistakes rather than difficult to make them. Rather than attempting to prevent damage through abuse, the way wikis operate make it easy to undo it. A recent case involved an individual posing on Wikipedia as a professor, having faked his academic credentials.

This links to issues surrounding its credibility. There is an increasing concern in the academic world that students are becoming over-reliant on tools like Wikipedia for their coursework research, a problem considering the issue of validity of users. Certainly, many agree that Wikipedia is a useful starting point but it does not guarantee reliability.

Additionally, by facilitating the forming of groups around specific issues, wikis represent the collective perspective of those that use it, resulting in a collaborative bias. Many argue that wikis are able to reflect current thoughts but are not as effective in obtaining unbiased perspectives on rapidly evolving issues. This is, in my opinion, a point of contention. Surely something which is collaborative, open and immediate is the best place to start when researching different perspectives on a burning issue? Possible dissertation topic, anyone?

In a similar vein, there is a distinct lack of research on whether or not an enterprise wiki encourages more usage or leads to more knowledgable community members than more conventional systems.

There is also a debate on the use of wikis by PR professionals, similar to the arguments surrounding the industry’s use of blogging. Some in the social media community would rather wikis were preserved solely for individual contributions. Wikipedia’s policy centres around requirements that all posts must be neutral, factual and verfiable and providing links to one’s own website is akin to spamming. The response from the industry, which I would tend to agree with, is that as long as users are transparent about their identity and intentions, where’s the problem?

Which brings us to the use of wikis by the industry. Certainly, their low cost and lack of barriers means that they have already been successfully utilised to facilitate internal operations in the fast-moving, unpredictable world of PR. The main advantage is their use against the challenge of high staff turnover so characteristic of the industry. They have solved the issue of knowledge retention by providing a database of clients, case studies and information accessible to all employees. So it doesn’t matter when someone leaves since they are no longer walking out the door with all the important information stored only in their own head. They have also been utilised to archive meeting notes and status reports. Additionally because everyone has the ability to edit them, they are useful for press release and press tour schedule amendments. The blog applications of wikis mean that they can be fitted to news tracking and reporting. And RSS applications mean that any important information can be disseminated without cluttering up already-cluttered inboxes. Not only this, but the unique e-mail addresses of wikis mean that they be copied into e-mails, creating an accessible archive of important correspondence.

So that’s that then. Right, I’m off to find out Johnny Depp’s favourite colour.

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