What happens when Wikipedia isn’t enough?
Guest post by Michael Trice
Last week I had the distinct pleasure of serving on a SXSW Interactive panel—moderated by KUT’s own Dee Kapila—with two brilliant leaders in the world of non-profit technology. Phoebe Ayers from the Wikimedia Foundation and Philip Neustrom from Localwiki.org came together with me to discuss the successes and limitations of wiki communities at the global and local level. The success stories of these two organizations offer a fascinating look into what it means to be literate in today’s world but also illustrate real concerns about the perils of illiteracy when it comes to wiki technology.
Now, while I assume many readers have used the Wikimedia Foundation’s principal site, Wikipedia, allow me to indulge in a quick description of both organizations and what exactly I mean by wiki communities. Wikis come in a lot of different forms, they essentially are websites that allow multiple people easy access to both read and edit the site’s content. Some sites, like Wikipedia, open themselves up for anyone who can access the Web, while other sites restrict access to a specific community—such as a corporation’s internal wiki for employees. What makes a wiki useful is the ability it offers for numerous people to contribute to the content on the site in whatever chunks of time they wish. This significantly increases productivity by working within whatever time allotments wiki contributors have available to them.
Wikipedia, the paragon of open access wikis, receives 100,000s of edits a day by relying upon the free time of millions of users. Ayers, a Wikimedia Foundation board member, pointed out that Wikipedia has become so vital to the world that it now ranks as the fifth most visited site on the Web. More than 413 million people visit Wikipedia each month—almost 1.5 times the population of the United States. The English version of Wikipedia has more than 3.5 million articles. Yet, as enormous as that seems, Wikipedia retains a limited scope.
Wikipedia intended from its inception to serve as an encyclopedia and remains committed to that singular goal. This means the type of content contained on the site is by nature highly restricted. No fiction, no original research or ideas, no bias or specific points of view, and the content must have some level of global notability. Thus, while 3.5 million articles sound vast, the site’s information is actually quite constrained. One outcome of this constraint arises in a lack of local knowledge on Wikipedia.
This is where Neustrom joins the conversation. Neutsrom co-founded one of the world’s most active local wikis in Daviswiki.org. At the local level, Davis Wiki has a success story on par with that of Wikipedia. In a town of 60,000 people, one in seven people contribute to the local wiki. For perspective, Wikipedia would need 1 billion contributors (not just readers) around the world to match that level of involvement. So while significantly smaller than Wikipedia, Davis Wiki’s saturation within its chosen community is unrivaled.
Now, Davis Wiki is not an encyclopedia, but still serves as a knowledge base of a different sort. Davis Wiki accepts content specifically about Davis, CA. Notability, neutral point of view, and sourced content are not required to post information on the wiki. In fact, the goal of emphasizing local content and flavor often runs against these traditional Wikipedia values. That said, Davis Wiki encourages sourcing quotes and facts when possible—and a general courtesy for fellow community member is encouraged.
The success of Davis Wiki allowed Neustrom to pursue his concept for Localwiki.org, a modernized wiki platform built from the ground up to support community wikis. With help from a Knight Foundation grant, Neutsrom is currently building this new platform with an eye toward updating the wiki concept to allow easier access and a smoother interface for people who lack experience using a wiki. Currently Localwiki.org has started accepting applications for pilot communities to test the new wiki platform.
In my experience just how simple Localwiki.org is to use will be crucial. Davis, CA represents a perfect scenario for a local wiki project. University of California Davis students represent nearly half of the population, and the town possesses an exceptionally level of technological literacy. This will not be the case in other cities. As someone who has assisted with technological literacy programs in underserved communities, I can attest to the difficulty facing any Web based community project. Even in a tech savvy city like Austin, numerous areas would lack the access and skills required to participate in such a project without considerable assistance.
In 2009, I worked with the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol, UK to set up a local wiki for recording oral traditions. The Knowle West neighborhood in Bristol suffers from chronic unemployment and high crime, though its citizenry is proud and active.
The roadblocks for implementing a tech-driven solution to community underrepresentation were enormous. Few had computers at home and thus access to the site required workshops at the media centre. Many interested community members struggled to learn to type or use a mouse. Others suffered from traditional literacy issues and largely unaddressed dyslexia. While the interest in a local wiki certainly existed, basic skills required for such a project had to be built from the ground up. Those in the community familiar with Facebook or Twitter quickly mastered certain elements, but still required education in how wiki pages linked to one another and what purpose was served in sharing content with others.
The inherent danger in implementing high tech community tools without addressing the literacy to use these tools is that a community will assuredly repeat past mistakes of devaluing and ignoring under served within that community. Worse, these under-served areas will be represented primarily through coverage originating from the more literate areas of the community, thus obscuring the level of disenfranchisement taking place. Not only will more literate areas have more content in the community wiki, but the content about less literate areas will not even be from the point of view of those people living within the under-served area—thus defeating the entire point of a local wiki.
This is a serious challenge and one Neustrom hopes to address in part by simplifying the wiki system and relying upon local outreach. However, the system cannot do this work alone. Increased efforts in self-representation as the goal of written and digital literacy campaigns need more work and projects like Localwiki.org offer a powerful tool to teach this combined literacy. However, the success of the projects will depend upon dedicated efforts to include, educate, and empower under-served communities wherever these local wikis arise.
Michael Trice is a doctoral candidate in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. In 2009-10, he served as a Fulbright student scholar to the Centre for Digital Citizenship at the University of Leeds. He has five years of community outreach experience with SafePlace of Austin and the Knowle West Media Centre. In 2010, he co-founded the online editorial site Partisans.org.