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

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why does a wiki work?

Everything about a wiki is counter-intuitive. Collaboration on a large scale with few rules and no supervision should not work. Especially when the collaborators do not collaborate but work entirely independently on their own projects. Especially when the collaborators have no idea who else is working on the project. How can a project that entirely lacks an overall goal or even a mission statement produce anything of value? Isn't it sort-of like depending on the people driving by a construction site to build the building, without plans or supervision? Do wikis work?

I think the answer to these and many other questions can be answered by examining the structure both cultural and practical of the wiki. First of all, there is the underlying  program structure of the wiki. Using as an example the FamilySearch Research Wiki, there is a standard conceptual and recognizable structure. The Research Wiki uses the dominant WikiMedia open-source program, the same program used by Wikipedia, that is at its core, extremely simple to use. Wikis are described as a self-organizing, self-correcting and never finished online encyclopedias. This is a very long video but interesting, it will give you an idea about why the wiki works:

As you can see from the video, the core value of the wiki is neutrality. The wiki itself does not take a position. If you take the time to view the video, you will also see why the wiki works. 

When I use the term "simple" I mean like E-mail and Blogs. Simple to the point of usefulness. As I have noticed, nearly everyone who reads my blog posts also has a blog. Only a handful of blogs can break out of the blog culture to have a wider appeal. On the other hand, E-mail is becoming pervasive even among the almost entirely computer illiterate. When I ask a class about wikis how many people have used Wikipedia, I find that there is a surprisingly large number of positive respondents. But as you can see from the video, the actual number of active participants is relatively small. The real question is not why does a wiki work, but why will seemingly intelligent people spend their time writing useful articles for free? Deep down, there is a need to communicate. I have noticed that bloggers not only write a lot, they have a tendency to talk a lot also.

In my previous post about the culture of the wiki I was focusing on the exclusive issues of wikis. Obviously, there are more inclusive than exclusive issues or wikis would not be such a phenomena. The FamilySearch Research Wiki currently has an access counter that shows that the startup page has been accessed 234,789,234 times and growing at the rate of thousands of visits a minute. The number of articles will soon pass 50,000. (If you read this in the future, you will see how influential the Research Wiki has become, because these numbers will seem very small).

There is no mystery as to why this particular form of social organization works. Those who contribute have bought in to the system. They know how and why the wiki works. They are also insatiable communicators and get satisfaction from sharing what they know or can research. There is a complex and difficult to penetrate social organization, but it is worth the effort. Ask yourself, if you are one of these people and seriously consider adding your own knowledge and expertise to the mix. It is satisfying to find a project that is worth the effort.


  1. I would be glad to contribute to the research wiki if:

    --the site were not the slowest-loading of any website I visit. 3 to 8 minutes for a page is very discouraging.

    --there were a text explanation of how to add to and edit sections plus how to add sub-category (such as "Dunmore's War"). Videos are not searchable, so if one were to forget how to do something the how-to video is not a handy guide. Given how slow the site overall is, I fear to start the video lest it freeze up my computer completely. This is one example of how more-tech is not better-functionality.

  2. Hi James,

    Wikis don't have to be encyclopedias.

    Most of them are these days because they're standing on the shoulders of the highly-successful Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales and the group at Wikipedia took the wiki model to new heights and most people would never have heard the term "wiki" if it wasn't for them.

    The inventor of wikis, Ward Cunningham, didn't envision a wiki encyclopedia. The software was just designed as a quick and easy way for multiple people to edit the same web page.

    The only two essential aspects of a wiki: 1.) pages are editable through a web browser, and 2.) changes to pages are tracked so you can see who edited what and when. See for a better description.

    The FamilySearch Research Wiki and WeRelate are basically wiki encyclopedias on genealogical topics. Our site, WikiTree, is a wiki family tree. Changes to ancestor profiles and their relationships can be edited by anyone who's trusted, and their changes are tracked so you can see who did what and change things back if you disagree.

    Chris Whitten
    Webmaster of WikiTree