How to make a successful new wiki

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It's easy to set up a bare-bones wiki installation on a web site. It's very hard - much more difficult than most people imagine - to turn that into a successful wiki.

Making a successful new wiki is hard[edit | edit source]

Challenges include:

  • Protecting from spam and vandalism
  • Continuing to develop the site
  • Finding content
  • Creating community. This is the central challenge - a huge job that takes hard work and persistence. The online communities page lists very valuable resources for building online communities. Wikis are even more challenging for building a community, as the platform is designed with knowledge sharing as the focus, rather than community. While issues such as resolving disagreements among participants can be handled, with patience, other key ingredients such as engagement and communication need more structured efforts on a wiki than on a simple forum. Additional tools may be useful, such as a forum or a mailing list - but be aware that while community members are using the other tools, they're not on the wiki. (A wiki-based forum such as DPLforum may be a good choice for this reason.)
  • Managing the content for quality and structure. This takes commitment - it's not an easy job, and it's not the kind of thing most people do for fun. As the wiki grows, this will become an enormous job, so you probably can't rely simply on paying people to do this work (unless you have very substantial funding... and of course you mightn't have any funding at all).
  • Building the infrastructure: templates,W categories,W help pages,W policy/guideline/procedure pages, etc. to foster productive collaboration. Beware of instruction creep though - keep things simple and intuitive as far as possible.

These tasks take a huge amount of collective skilled work.

It is a rare community that has even one obsessive wiki admin/contributor, let alone the half dozen or more that are needed to make a successful wiki. Building up the community and participation needed will take a serious commitment.

For a very sobering example, see the green wikis page: One commercial site has been set up by a leader in wikis who has contacts with global sustainability leaders. It is run by a company that manages many active wikis, with (at times) an employee working on the site and with the community, and was launched with media fanfare by a well known figure, yet has not achieved critical mass in public attention or in attracting editors, and is less active than several other green wikis. (This is not to criticize the effort - just to emphasize that the goal is a difficult one and the right team makes the difference.)

If we build it will they come?[edit | edit source]

Having built it several times, I have realised that even if you do built it, they usually won’t come. Are we suffering from confirmation bias? Wikipedia is absolutely successful but given the colossally high failure rate of other wiki-based projects... we may well find that it is the exception... rather than the rule itself.

— Paul Currion, comment on his own blog post, Do you think it’s time for a humanitarian wiki?, ‪

If they come, will they edit?[edit | edit source]

  • It is possible to get editors - e.g. Appropedia and Greenlivingpedia have had a large number of contributions. Appropedia has had 450,924 edits since May 2006 (increasing over time) and many millions of page views.
  • Appropedia has had 129 views per edit; Greenlivingpedia has had 157. On the English Wikipedia about 0.02% of the unique visitors actually edit,[1] and yet it is extremely active and comprehensive. With these figures, a community-wide or a global wiki clearly has a much better chance. A locally based wiki will at best be moderately successful, and that only if there is someone very committed to editing the wiki.
  • The large comparison table of wikis at Green wikis and development wikis[2] shows a profusion of wikis, but a high proportion of them are inactive. Only a very small number have grown to a useful resource, mainly thanks to the dedication of a small, committed group of people - sometimes it is just one committed person, which is enough to create something useful but it is often not very visible, and does not contribute to encouraging broader collaboration by the viewers (to be precise, that tiny proportion of a large number of viewers).

Conclusion: Your wiki needs to engage with a very large number of people to get a significant absolute number of contributors. This is a classic manifestation of the Pareto principle,W also known as the law of the vital few.

How successful wikis started[edit | edit source]