Among the Wikimaniacs

Our panel yesterday at Wikimania was great fun.  I was amazed at how many people were willing to drag themselves out of bed on Sunday and get to a 9:30 am panel on the use of wikis within organizations, a topic that is not (yet) near to everyone’s heart.

My new HBS colleague Karim Lakhani did an admirable job riding herd on the panelists and encouraging lots of dialogue with the audience.  He and I want to thank our panelists Josh Bancroft , Ned Gulley, Michael Idinopulos, and Ross Mayfield

I’m sure they’ll be blogging about their impressions, and after the current round of conferences I’ll post more here about the common themes I saw.  For now I just want to share a couple quick post-panel impressions and some news.

Perhaps the best part about an event like yesterday’s is when you see something new —  when you have an I-never-thought-of-it-that-way-before moment.  For me, that came when I listened to people talk about the many different ways there are to contribute to an organization’s wiki, from authoring to editing to gardening to correcting spelling mistakes.  The discussion made me realize that for all the emphasis I’d placed on the freeform nature of Enterprise 2.0 technologies, I’d missed one important way in which these tools get out of the way of their users:  they don’t have any notion of what constitutes a good contribution, or a complete one, or an approved one, or a minimum one.

I can see at least two important positive implications of this non-judgmental attitude toward contributions.  First, people with many different talents and proclivities can meaningfully pitch in.  In other words, wikis aren’t just for subject matter experts and those who can write lapidary prose.  They’re also for information architects, fact-finders, nitpickers, linkers, taggers, etc.  Prior to Enterprise 2.0, these folk had virtually no opportunity to influence their companies’ digital platforms unless they worked in the Intranet group.  

Second, people don’t have to dive headlong into making contributions.  They can instead dip a toe in the water by doing something as minor as correcting a spelling or punctuation mistake (of which there are usually no shortage).  Once they see how easy it is to participate they often make deeper contributions.  More than one person yesterday admitted that they purposely misspell words sometimes in order to draw wiki participation.

The problem with accepting all kinds of contributions, of course, is that some of them might not be helpful.  Wikipedians spend a lot of time dealing with vandals, trolls, and people caught up in edit wars.  They also spend a lot of time thinking through guidelines and policies for dealing with them.  So will advocates of organizational wikis have to do the same?

Ross Mayfield said that in four years of building wikis for corporations Socialtext has seen precisely 0 trolls and 0 instances of vandalism.  I was astonished by this and polled the entire room.  No one reported even a single instance of counterproductive behavior on the wiki.  

As I’ve written before, one of the advantages the Intranet has over the Internet is that people within companies share a culture and norms, and are usually quite reluctant to overturn them.  In addition, vandals and trolls can usually be easily identified behind the firewall.  So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that employees aren’t using corporate wikis to act out.

Ross has generously set up a public wiki to talk about enterprise wikis.  It’s at https://www.socialtext.net/ewikimania  .  What shall we use it for?