When and why to wiki: an interview with Adam Frey of Wikispaces
Adam Frey is one of the founders of Wikispaces.com, a popular hosted wiki service. A wiki is a web site that any authorized user can edit, where all previous versions of the site are visible and notification can be receieved whenever a change is made.
Wikispaces hosts wikis for a wide variety of communities and offers free premium hosting for K-12 educators. In the following interview Adam and I discussed his thoughts on optimal use and selection of a wiki.
What sorts of circumstances are wikis appropriate for? What sorts of collaboration might they not be best for?
Wikis are first and foremost about content. So where the purpose of a group is to create, edit, or manage content, wikis are great tools. Classrooms working together on essays, a team of lawyers editing a document, or a book club maintaining schedules and attendee lists are good examples of where wikis work. If a group wants a linear discussion, say a weekly newsletter or an ongoing discussion about current events, a blog or a forum might be more suitable.
Of course, many groups need more than one tool. A customer support team might use a wiki to maintain their FAQ in collaboration with their customers but also use a forum for general discussion and a blog to send out regular news.
What sorts of things should people look for when selecting wiki software to use?
First, a wiki should be easy to use. Wikis are powerful when they are simple. When a user looks at a page, it should be obvious how to edit the page and how to navigate around the space. The site should have a clean look rather than being cluttered with confusing features. A WYSIWYG editor is often critical for non-technical people as is the visual representation of important features like page histories.
Second, a wiki should be easy to adopt and share. Since wikis are about communities, a new member should be able to start participating immediately. Sign up, where necessary, should be quick and easy and the learning curve should be shallow. It should be trivially easy to invite a new member to join the wiki.
Making a wiki that is easy to use and easy to adopt for a broad audience may sound deceptively simple. It's not. People looking for a wiki should really think carefully about whether their solution meets these criteria for their community.
There are some good hosted wiki services available, each of which has its own strengths.
Wikicities has a connection to Wikipedia which makes it well known and runs on the MediaWiki platform which has its strengths for large Wikipedia style communities. Some wiki hosting services, like Wikicities, have explicit policies which specify which kinds of communities they will host and which they will not which is a good way for them to keep focus.
So when selecting a hosted wiki service, people should try to understand who the service is designed for. They should then check to see if there are any restrictions on the service which may not suit their community. Finally, each community has to find the service that they think will be simple and easy for them to use and adopt. Getting in touch with the people running a service to evaluate their customer support and to get initial questions answered is also always a good idea.
Do you have any advice on maximizing participation by members of a group in wiki use?
Resist the temptation to impose arbitrary structure up front. Allow your community to develop its own way of thinking and working incrementally. In other words, give your group as close to a blank slate as you can and let them participate in structuring the space as well as working on the content.
You'll find that there's less resistance because people get to decide how best to work together and the space will remain active and the content fresh over time.
Why are you giving away free hosting to K-12 educators?
We were genuinely thrilled to hear the success stories coming out of our teacher communities and, to quote ourselves, "We think that what teachers do is important and we want to help. We've seen a lot of educators successfully use Wikispaces in their classrooms and schools and we want to see more. And we figure if you like Wikispaces, you'll tell your friends and colleagues about us."