November 2, 2008 at 4:18 pm Leave a comment

Things 15 and 16 bring us to “wikis.” Once again, we have a term that’s probably become so over-used that it will eventually be meaningless. But the concept behind it is brilliant.

Everyone knows about the biggest wiki out there, Wikipedia. Wikipedia has generated plenty of controversy on its own, but one thing that seems to be constantly overlooked in the criticism is the fact that it’s actually pretty effective.

So why is Wikipedia effective? Surely if we turn the entire world loose to edit an encyclopedia however they see fit we’ll have information anarchy! But as with all things Internet, the answer lies in the scale. For every vandal, there are hundreds of people who care enough about the entry to fix it. Basically, why would a vandal want to waste their time messing with an entry that will be reverted to its original form seconds after it was altered?

In this large example there are several clues as to why wikis are a good idea generally. First, anyone can contribute. This makes them an effective way of sharing the work around. One of my favorite wikis that I just stumbled across was the Lolcat Bible. Someone gets the bright idea to translate the Bible in lolcat-speak, puts it on a wiki, and in about a year the project is almost done. Not because a few people wasted a lot of time, but because lots of people wasted a little time. So if you put the same concept to good use, you can get a comprehensive site about just about anything, not because some expert put lots of time into the project, but because a lot of experts put a little time into it.

Second, wikis track changes. This is important for a few reasons. It allows for accountability– that is, anything you change will be visible for anyone to check on. If you’re messing around with the content, someone will call you on it. It also lets you see how an idea has progressed. How many times have you been working on a project and forgotten how you got to this point? Or come to a dead end and have to reconstruct your work to figure out where you went wrong? With a wiki, it’s all there. Finally, if you try something and it doesn’t work, a few clicks and you can get it back to where you had it originally.

Ultimately, wikis are another sign of how cheap and plentiful data storage has become. To quote Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, “There’s plenty of disk space, and as long as there are people out there who are able to write a decent article about a subject, why not let them?” We can keep all these changes and maintain all these authors because it doesn’t cost anything more to do so. Wikis create a framework to be able to do this.

The most obvious application for my job is to create a wiki for circulation practices. Our library has almost always had a compilation of best practices for circulation service. The problem is that almost as soon as we have them written up, something has changed. Also, right now the only way to create them is for someone to bring the idea to me, find people to write a draft, and then go through an editing process. But if we put these on a wiki, anyone with an idea can create a stub, any of the circulation experts in our system can contribute to the practice, and it can be updated as things change with little difficulty. In other words, it would take something that’s currently incomplete and would be a big drain on my time to complete, and turns it into a self-completing project!

To wrap up, for Thing 16 I’ve added to the favorite sport page of our wiki sandbox. I’ll let you guess which entry is mine.


Entry filed under: Internet, Library.

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