7 What Is a Wiki? Is It a Blog?

Wikis are websites collaboratively written by groups that seek to document and inform about a specific topic. Wikis can be private, open only to those in the group, or they can be publicly available (such as Wikipedia). Like blogs, wikis include comments and allow links, images, and video.

However there are some differences both structurally and functionally between blogs and wikis. Blogs are usually linearly arranged so that the most recent posts show at the top of the page, with archive links off to the side. Wikis are organized as a series of pages arranged to suit the people maintaining the wiki; a front page usually introduces the content of the wiki and typically includes a search box. In blogs, only authors of the blog can add posts, and only administrators of the blog may change or delete those posts; viewers respond in comments. Most wikis, on the other hand, allow any user to add or remove any content so your contribution might be deleted or changed in some way. Most wiki software includes some type of history so you can track when and by whom changes were made and, if desired, revert to an earlier version. The best wikis are sprawling collections of information on a topic the writers are passionate about.

My Wiki Is the Blair Wiki Project

I don’t know where to start. How can I get this wiki moving?

Wikis are a form of crowdsourcing, a term that implies taking advantage of “the crowd” to grow your project. Of course, that means being able to appeal to a crowd and have some incentives in place to encourage them to volunteer their time and energy to your project. So, the first steps to consider are who will most benefit from the wiki? Who has the most to contribute? Who is likely to have the time, knowledge, and skills necessary to participate? If you don’t have good answers to these questions, go back to the drawing board.

A lot of wikis start off as local or site-specific projects, powered by friends or co-workers. For example, imagine you’re part of a local group that’s into snowboarding. You might launch a wiki that maps out the best spots for snowboarding, stores that sell equipment, and other such information that will interest your friends. If the project is successful on a local level, there’s a chance it might expand, as other 16 Web Writing Style Guide snowboarders from other towns stumble upon your work and decide to join in.

Or imagine yourself in a Shakespeare class. You know there will be a big final exam at the end with questions from all the lectures and readings throughout the semester. You could get together with your classmates to build a wiki study guide. The idea here is that while nobody is likely to know all the potential questions and their answers, everybody should know or check some of them. A wiki like this can help you pool your resources and quickly write a comprehensive document—and probably end up with a much better study guide than any one student could complete by herself.

Bear in mind that most people who use wikis read them but do not contribute. Those who do are very special and should be treated with respect and gratitude. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by providing the wiki for them. Instead, do everything possible to make it easy and fun for them to work on your wiki. Don’t be heavy handed with administration, and don’t try to micromanage every page. Try not to ever criticize someone else’s work, even if it’s bad. Instead, focus on praising good work and making sure people who do it know you’re aware and grateful for it. Send out personal notes to your contributors, thanking them for their work and pointing out good things about their contributions. You can also encourage your community to talk to each other by setting up discussion pages, and don’t get upset if the discussion isn’t always strictly on task.

Why Do Wikipedia People Keep Deleting My Stuff?

Some idiot just deleted all my changes and hours of work! What gives?

Imagine barging into a room, announcing that the people there are idiots, and rearranging the furniture. Wouldn’t you kick that person out?

The important thing to remember about wikis, especially active ones, is that they’re social in nature. Other people have put their best efforts into making it good, and they won’t appreciate an outsider making changes without first seeking their approval.

If you really don’t know why people are deleting your edits, go to the “Discussion” area of the entry and ask. Tell the others that “Hey, I wrote this about that, but someone deleted it. Any idea why that’s happening?” There’s a lot of give and take going on behind the scenes, which really isn’t all that “behind” the scenes since it is made visible. If you know you are right, you may have to convince someone who has more clout, a more respected ethos. But if you provide the necessary evidence and rationale, your stuff may just become part of the record.

It’s better, though, to preempt deletions by announcing your intentions first. Go to the discussion or talk page for the article you want to change, and read what’s there (in order to find out whether you’re about to walk into a minefield). Then, describe what you think needs doing on the page. If no one objects after a reasonable time (say, a day), go ahead and start making the changes. Also, when you do make a change, be sure to use the justification feature to explain why you thought the change was necessary. If you’re only making a small change, such as adding a missing period or correcting a misspelled word, click the “minor change” option.

Most wiki people are happy to have you join their efforts, but only if you’re sensible enough to be polite and upfront about what you’re doing there.

Example comments and discussion from a wiki
Figure 5. Many wikis offer commenting features and encourage editors to discuss their work. The Threats to Sustainability of an Organizational Content Strategy wiki was created by students in a professional writing class at Michigan State University.

On a side note, some wiki people are skeptical of students who are only there because of a required project or assignment. Even if this is the case, don’t announce it or act like you’re just there because it’s required. Don’t ask the community to help you with your project. Instead, be sincere about wanting to join the community and contribute towards the project.

A good rule of thumb for dealing with strangers online is to be ten times more polite and friendly than you normally are. If you go to great lengths to show respect and sincerity, you’ll be welcome on almost any wiki. If you go in “guns blazing” and treating the locals like crap, don’t expect your edits to stick.

How Do I Get People to Write in the Same Style?

I have a bunch of people using my wiki, but it’s making it really rough. How can I get all these people to write the same way?

On one hand, you can’t. On the other hand, as the text comes together, new contributors may pick up on the existing style and begin to adopt it. Other contributors may notice the places where the styles don’t match, and over time, the text may self-correct. Even though the purpose and structure of wikis prevents you from having complete control over the text, you can edit the contributions where needed to improve coherence and consistency.

Some wikis are entirely open, in which case, you are giving up control as an author, but other wikis are set up with more editorial control. You’ll have to decide which best meets the needs for your project. Let the standards evolve organically if you can, then apply them retroactively to existing pages.

Whatever you do, don’t make a bunch of complex rules before the wiki takes root. Doing that will only scare off potential contributors who will be worried they might accidentally break a rule or misunderstand something. Remember, you want to make your wiki a friendly, welcoming place. If you come off as stern and quick to criticize or enforce your policy, you may intimidate the very people who would help you the most.

A so-so wiki with lots of content and participation is better than a really awesome ghost wiki.


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Writing Spaces Web Writing Style Guide Copyright © 2011 by Writing Spaces is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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