Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How does a wiki work?

All social interactions are based on a complex behavioral code. I spent a number of years living and working in Latin America. I also spent years studying Spanish and Linguistics and then teaching both Spanish to English speakers and English to Spanish speakers. The complexity of the differences between my own Anglo culture and that in Latin America, was brought home to me recently when I was invited to a wedding reception where I was good friends with the bride's family, who were Anglos, and also good friends with the groom's family who were Latinos. There were substantial numbers of both ethnic groups in attendance and once again I was struck with the contrast between the two cultures. The Spanish speaking people were all related or friends or whatever of each other. When I said hello to a Spanish speaking friend, I was immediately introduced to the entire table and, through a cultural norm, had to shake hands with everyone. As soon as they realized I spoke Spanish, I was immediately friends with everyone.

The contrast was with the Anglos. We knew quite a few people who would say hello, perhaps shake hands and then wander off after exchanging the mandatory formalities. Except for a few parent/child relationships, the Anglos were all there as individuals or couples. They would talk to those who they recognized as friends but I don't recall meeting one person I did not already know. Some of the younger attendees who knew each other, were gathered in groups but not really interacting.

One image at the reception was a group of about 20 or so Latinos standing in a group having their picture taken together. These were not wedding pictures, they were family and friends.

Everyone got along fine, there was almost no apparent friction between the two groups because I assume most people didn't even recognize that there were two groups defined by language, culture and traditions. It is not at all unusual in Mesa, Arizona to have people speaking Spanish since close to half of the people speak Spanish. Many of the people there spoke both Spanish and English.

How does this apply to a wiki? Well, a wiki is in effect a social organization where there are specific rules, customs and traditions. Just as with my experience in noting the cultural differences between the Latino and Anglo people at the reception, when someone uses a wiki they may become more or less aware of the wiki culture and mores. When I lived in Panama, I knew Anglos who would not go out of the Canal Zone. They had lived in the Canal Zone for years and had never been across the imaginary line dividing Panama from the Canal Zone which was essentially like crossing the street as there was no formal fence at the edge of the Zone except signs. As a contrast, my family lived in the heart of Panama City in an apartment building. I assume there are a lot of people out there who will also avoid learning about the wikis.

My cross cultural experience probably helps me to accept the restrictions and rules of other cultural groups, including working with wikis. Some rules are written and obvious, some are less obvious and unwritten.

In the overall online world, it is customary to identify yourself through some method, either as an individual who lives in the "real world" or as an avatar, an imaginary character assumed for the purpose of online conduct. Participants in a wiki soon learn to distinguish between participants who have a "real" identity and those with assumed ones. Participants also soon realize that the wiki is cooperative and that there are definite rules for successful participation. In the long run, participants can only continue to actively contribute from a real identity.

Like living in a non-English speaking country (I avoid the term "foreign" as no country is foreign to me only different), wikis have their own language, Wikitext and HTML. Just as those who visited Panama from the deck of a boat going through the Canal, casual visitors to a wiki may not even be aware that the participants speak Wikitext. Wiki culture is somewhat defined and created by the structure of the wiki itself. Just as I learned Spanish and then after a number of years became accustomed to the Latin American culture, everyone can learn "wiki" but it is only through active participation over a considerable time period, that the person can learn wiki culture.

Just as there were people who lived in the Canal Zone only around the corner from a completely different culture but who never stepped across the line, there are those who will use wikis their whole life and never imagine the underlying cultural complexity of the social context.

Obviously, I understand that any real world culture is far more complex than an online wiki, but I am illustrating the fact with a wiki that there is a language, not generally known, there is a culture, also not generally known and there are other similarities. One difference between the wiki culture and a real world one, is the fact that the participants in a wiki, to some extent, define the culture rather than in the real world where the participants are defined by the culture. Additionally, the individual wikis do take on some of the aspects of the dominant background culture. The FamilySearch Research Wiki is a genealogical community, so it assumes many of the attributes of the genealogical community and culture. Other wikis take on their own culture.

The FamilySearch Research Wiki is a good example of the blend of background culture, in this case, genealogy, with the wiki culture. Since it is a relatively new community, the active participants are still trying to search out their collective identity. Wikis work because there are those who see the advantages of the collective cooperative environment and are willing to participate and contribute even if the participation requires learning a new language and accepting a new or different culture.

Likewise, those who are actively involved in a wiki need to remember that not all those who use the wiki want to be native wiki users. Some just want to be tourists on a boat. Others just want to experience the different culture but do not want to learn the language. Some will learn the language and come to participate and contribute, but those people are few and far between. How many English speakers do you know who have learned to speak Spanish like a native?

I probably have a lot more to say about this subject, but that is all for now.


  1. I look forward to reading more about this topic.

  2. Hi James,
    Great analogy. I'm one of the ones still finding my way about the FamilySearch wiki. I'll be following your posts on this topic.

  3. Hi James,

    Great post. Community is absolutely essential to the success of a wiki. This is a lesson I've had to learn through years of experience. Twice.

    When I started WikiAnswers in 2002, I figured that the answers would come from individuals who came along and wanted to ask one question, and then to pay it forward they'd answer somebody else's question. I was totally wrong. It took me years to figure out that the bulk of the answers and improvements would come from a small community of active users. They're the ones who take the time to learn the language and culture, like you say. They're the ones that go native. Now there are almost 12 million answers on the site.

    When I started in 2008 I made a parallel mistake. I figured that, again, this was different from other wikis. The communities would be families. They would grow their family history together, each adding a couple or a couple dozen profiles to the family tree.

    As you would know, but I didn't, the chasm between casual family historians and serious genealogists is vast. The first couple years we were tailoring WikiTree to the casual historians and growing by a few thousand profiles a month. Since we started getting more in touch with serious genealogists we've been growing by about 100,000 profiles a month. That's largely to the credit of a small group of genealogists who have taken the time to learn the language and culture.

    You point out that the wiki culture is somewhat defined by its structure. My mistake was taking that way too far. I missed the "somewhat" part, and I didn't realize that the basic wiki rules are universal to the wiki model. I assumed that because WikiAnswers and WikiTree were structurally different from Wikipedia and all the other 'pedia-style wikis, the community aspect would be completely different.

    For anyone starting a wiki, e.g. for a surname project or a local history group, definitely remember that community is key. Even if the community is just two people. Nurture that core group.