Whither Wikis? The State of Collaborative Web Publishing

A long time ago — meaning, of course, three or four years in Internet time — wikis came to represent the best of the true democratic, user-generated nature of the Web. The collaborative writing/editing of a wiki meant that all voices could be heard, but majority rule would prevail.

This segment’s shining example, the “free encyclopedia” Wikipedia, would harness the power and (wait for it) wisdom of the crowds, and the nonprofit Web site’s founder, Jimmy Wales, was the Mark Zuckerberg of his time.

Then a funny thing happened. Social network Facebook came along, as did the real Mark Zuckerberg, and soon it was his face you saw all over the tech blogosphere and at the A-list panel discussions. Then another social network, Twitter, squawked its way into the media’s consciousness, and its cofounders Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone were soon elbowing Zuckerberg away from Charlie Rose’s big wooden table.

Suddenly, nobody was talking about wikis anymore. At least, it has seemed that way from a public relations/mindshare perspective. While technology industry analysts and business news pundits continue to wonder about how Facebook and Twitter will make money, they don’t seem to be expending any energy trying to figure out wiki-generated revenue streams, even though companies exist to help consumers and businesses create wikis.

It’s not as if the numbers still don’t back up those who argue that wikis are a real Web phenomenon. There are thousands of wikis out there — at least one for every cast member of “Lost,” it seems — and Wikipedia.org says 684 million people visited its site in 2008 to check out more than 10 million articles in 260 languages. Google anything these days, and a Wikipedia entry will likely be at or near the top of the results page.

However, it didn’t take long for Facebook to attract its 200 millionth member, and although estimates of Twitter’s user total and account numbers are all over the map, Nielsen.com says it grew by 1,328 percent from 2008 to 2009, making it the fastest-growing social network.

So what happened? Have wikis lost their mojo? Were they before their (Internet) time? Or have they been co-opted by the newer, shinier social networks?

The Evolution of Wikis

Seattle-based Wetpaint started out in 2005 as a pure wiki-creation company. However, Wetpaint now throws other aspects of social media and user-generated content into the mix to help people and businesses create Web communities around favorite topics, according to Senior Vice President of Marketing Rob Grady.

“Wikis are wonderful consumer-generated media, and the fact that nobody’s talking about them — I don’t think that necessarily means they are good or bad,” Grady told LinuxInsider. “It just means that consumers, like they do over time, are trying new and different things. The fact that they are using Twitter, which is a form of communications, and Facebook, which is today a communications platform more than a publishing platform, doesn’t necessarily say anything about wikis.”

It may indeed say something about the fickle nature of the social media-consuming public, and it may seem unfair that the networks that garner mainstream media coverage and lots of eyeballs haven’t made their first dollar yet.

“The way I think about it, a lot of these services get a lot of traction as communications services, but they haven’t shown traction in terms of a business model,” Grady said. “Whether it’s wikis or blogs or Twitter — whatever the next thing will be, the proof of the pudding is to what extent there’s a business model.”

Wetpaint is a company that morphed from wikis to social publishing to the creation of fan sites, according to Grady. “The platform we use is based on wikis and easy-to-use content publishing systems. We’ve enabled people passionate about anything, and made it easy to publish content about that.” Advertisers, in turn, love the chance to reach that very specific, focused audience.

That may not appeal as much to companies looking to advertise on Facebook, which Grady maintains is focused around people, not topics like TV shows/movies, athletes, hobbies, etc.

Wikis Are for Nerds?

The hype around wikis certainly went away, according to Jake McKee, chief strategy officer for Ant’s Eye View, a community/social media management company that lists Apple, Texas Instruments, Dr. Pepper and Microsoft among its clients. However, the reality is still with us — that is, wiki concepts and ideas have survived in venues that may not look like wikis.

“At the end of the day, [wikis] did lose their pop, and I always thought they were the nerdiest of the social tools, and the one that requires the most established … oversight,” McKee told LinuxInsider. “A blog you can give to somebody, and they can immediately connect and know what’s in it for them. You can quickly get up to speed with Twitter and Facebook — you’ve got friends inviting you right away.”

Yet some companies have set up internal wikis for all employees to contribute to and edit, and the resulting 21st-century version of an employee newsletter may generate more enthusiasm for company missions and goals. Office-based software tools that allow for group writing and editing of documents — developed by everyone from Microsoft to Google — share attributes with wikis.

“The idea of a wiki has [ingrained] itself in our minds and in our products,” McKee said, “in the same ways that blogging brought about the idea of commenting. I see a piece of content, and I expect to leave a comment about it — and when I can’t, that’s when things get kind of wonky. I think, ‘Boy, that’s old school.’ I think there’s a certain social dynamic at play that we’re starting to learn, perhaps kicked off by the wikis.”

An example McKee himself offered up: his recent purchase of a netbook and his desire to load it with a Mac OS. He went online and found a blog post offering instructions, which worked for him. Yet he had additional questions and wanted to add them to the mix.

“I almost felt an obligation to add some comment to his post so that anybody could learn that,” he said. “It’s the payback model. I almost felt guilty for not sharing, and it was so easy to do so. That’s where the wiki mindset has brought us.”

Not all users, however, may feel the same obligation to share for the good of the community.

“Wikis were too much work,” Rob Enderle, principal with the Enderle Group told LinuxInsider. “That’s always the problem with anything powered by volunteer labor. Folks for a while will do stuff for free, but they won’t do it indefinitely. You can only sustain it if it’s fun and interesting.”

Wikis rely on editing and vetting for their credibility, while social networks are all about throwing caution to the winds and having a good time.

“People are free to comment and kind of have fun. That’s what they wanted with wikis in the first place,” said Enderle — “doing it for fun, not doing it because they want to work for nothing.”

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