UBC Wiki

Wiki Seeding

In an earlier post, I listed some lessons that helped the Davis Wiki become widely used. One of these lessons that stood out is the idea that wikis need content to breed content. The founders of the Davis Wiki created 500 “seed” articles to get their wiki off the ground and to give potential editors the idea of the purpose of the Davis Wiki. In a comment to my post, Novak asked that if we were to to create “seed” articles, “what would be the right strategy to distribute the effort and engage different user groups, academic vs staff vs students, and across various disciplines and fields?” and I wanted to follow up with a few thoughts about this question and about seed articles in general.

First, though, it should be noted that the UBC Wiki is hardly a barren place. There are currently 5,642 pages in the UBC Wiki (this number includes all created pages, such as categories, redirects, and talk pages). Since the MediaWiki installation and the current UBC Wiki went live in 2009, 1,291 people have registered for an account and 46 people have edited the UBC Wiki within the last week, which isn’t bad for August when things are slow at an university. The UBC Wiki is being used.

However, if the UBC Wiki can be seen as having two grand purposes, that of a collaborative work space and that of an information repository, then much of the content created to date fits mostly in the former category. The UBC Wiki is being used, but it’s not being used to it’s full potential. The Wiki is clearly seen as a tool for individuals and groups; however, I’m not sure if it’s seen as a tool for the entire university.

I think the seed articles that we create should exemplify how the UBC Wiki is a university wide tool by capturing or compiling information that does not exist in a centralized, easily up-datable space. For example, this information might be informal student knowledge, such as the real differences between the Place Vanier and Totem Park residences. As a Google search reveals, this information is something students are looking but they would have to read several forums and blog postings to get a somewhat clear picture. The UBC Wiki is a great place to compile that info – students can easily updated and discuss the topic as it changes over time. Likewise, it’s hard to get a clear picture of all that UBC is doing on the topic of climate change research. The UBC Wiki could centralize that knowledge by pointing to all the different projects, departments, people, or whatever that are currently engaged on a specific topic. As new projects get started or as people change research approaches, there wouldn’t be any procedural roadblocks for updating that info; anyone could edit that page.

As Novak points out, the university community is not a homogeneous crowd and seed articles might be different depending on what their focus is; however, I don’t think they will be all that different based on the audience. Instructors might look at an article called Bars and Pubs on Campus and undergrad students might read an article on UBC research efforts into terrestrial climate change. Thus, the distribution of seed articles should be thought more in terms of topics rather than audiences; I’m not sure what would be the best strategy for creating the proper topic distribution other than to say it is very important to have a mix of articles from all different aspects of a university: from the cheapest places for lunch to what genetic research is being done here.

The most important part of seed articles, though, is simply planting the idea in users’ minds of what the wiki could be.

Image: Public domain picture from USDA Plants Database

UBC Wiki

Wiki Roadtrip: Davis

Davis, California, is home to one of the largest municipal-focused wikis in the world.  As of November 2009, DavisWiki.org had over 14,945 pages, 11,134 registered editors, and averaged 10,000 unique visitors daily.  Not bad for a town with a population of just 65,000 people.   Michael Andersen, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, summarizes six lessons that helped them achieve this success:

  • Wikis need content to breed content
  • Business information is the holy grail
  • A wiki’s strengths kick in after one year
  • Start with a subculture, then build out to a general audience
  • Keep your content open source, no matter what
  • Don’t get hung up on mimicking Wikipedia

The entire article is worth reading and most of the lessons learned by the Davis Wiki can and should be applied to the UBC Wiki.  The Davis Wiki started with its founders, Philip Neustrom and friends, creating 500 seed articles – snippets about things that only exist in Davis.  They also hit the streets and did a lot of promotion – such as sticking flyers in the bathrooms at the local university (I particularly like this one).  I think seeding and promotion are two things that the UBC Wiki can be focusing on more.

Ultimately, though, I think a lot of the success with the Davis Wiki is due not just to their ability to just attract users to their site but also to their ability to create a community.  In describing how it wasn’t just the founders who were sticking flyers in bathrooms but also the users, Neustrom explains: People don’t do that for sites they think are neat. They do it for sites they own.

UBC Wiki

Consolidating the Crops: Revisiting the Main space

The UBC Wiki, as originally described, serves multiple purposes:

  • It is a course repository: The wiki provides a collaborative space for faculty and students to create and share course related content.
  • It is a documentation repository: The wiki provides a collaborative space for the creation, updating, and hosting of documentation, user manuals, and the like.  Using the wiki append plug-in and the wiki book creator, specific documentation could easily be syndicated and republished.
  • It is an open space that anyone can use for any purpose.
  • Finally, it would be a knowledge sharing repository of all things UBC.  For example (again as originally described):

    The genome page [on the UBC Wiki] should inventory UBC resources about Genome – topics like people, groups and departments that research genome; papers, posters and thesis published about genome etc. In the ideal scenario, UBC faculty, students and staff would update topics of their professional (and wider) interests and so make resources more presentable and easier to find.

To accommodate these multiple purposes, the UBC Wiki was divided into four public namespaces: Course, Documentation, Sandbox, and the Main space.  However, as I’ve detailed in my early Course Conundrum post, users tend to not use the namespaces and just create new pages in main space.  To some extent, this problem is getting better.  I’ve created some expanded documentation and created wayfinding aids about the different namespaces. I’m also moving all new pages to their proper space and dropping a note to the page creator explaining what I did and pointing them to the proper help pages.   Finally, I’ve been moving older pages to their proper spaces as well – as you can see I’m close to hitting the 500 page mark.

One thing that would really help users notice the organization of the wiki would be to better define the purpose of the main space:

  • If the main space is intended to be a wikipedia like resource for anything and everything UBC, then this needs to be stated in clearer terms in all descriptions of the main space.
  • “Best practice pages” or better examples of main space articles should be developed so users have a better idea of just what it is we are trying to create.
  • Policies and guidelines should be developed as to what types of content fit into the main space (I’ve started developing some here).
  • The term “main space” should go and it should be renamed with something that better conveys the space’s intended purpose, such as UBCpedia, UBC Dictionary, UBCompendium, or (my favourite) the UBCnomicon

Of course, these suggestions apply to all namespaces.  However, since the main space is the most prominent part of the wiki, clarifying its purpose would help clarify the the purpose of the other areas as well.

UBC Wiki

Quick Thoughts About Purpose & Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of the UBC Wiki. Wikipedia has a pretty narrowly defined purpose: it is an encyclopedia. Only content that fits with their mission of being an encyclopedia is allowed to remain.  Inherit in that mission is the idea that an encyclopedia is read by a lot of people and that any content will be read and edited by larger community. This purpose provides Wikipedia with a focus which helps it to be organized and to grow.

So, what is the purpose of the UBC Wiki? According to the masthead, the UBC Wiki is a space for use by students, staff, and faculty for whatever purpose, whether it be teaching and learning, research, or community engagement. The UBC Wiki has, by design, a pretty unfocused definition that doesn’t limit how people can use the site.  Thus some people use it as an individual work space and some use it as a community resource for knowledge sharing.

The advantages of using the wiki as an individual space is that people can use the wiki pretty much how they want, it is clearly filling a need, and the wiki is a great tool for group collaboration. The disadvantage, however, is that people tend to get frustrated when when content they see as “theirs” gets renamed or edited and this might cause them to never use the wiki again. Likewise, people might be hesitant to edit or add to content that they think of as “yours”.

As a community resource, the wiki has the potential to really facilitate knowledge sharing across the departmental, faculty, and other boundaries that all universities have. However, in order to for the wiki to be a community resource, information on the wiki must be accessible. This means not only does the info need to be somewhat organized but also there needs to be a change in how people are thinking about the wiki: yes, it can be a personal work space but it is also a community shared space.

I think the UBC Wiki can work both as an individual tool and as a community resource. The different namespaces allow the UBC Wiki to serve both purposes. However, I think for the namespaces to work, users need to have a better understanding of both purposes.

I guess this is all a long way of explaining that the I changed the wording in the masthead from saying that the UBC Wiki is a space to saying that it is a shared space.