Friday, September 30, 2005


Esquire magazine recently completed an experiment with wikis and journalism. Specifically, A.J. Jacobs used Wikipedia to write an article about Wikipedia by gathering feedback, corrections and the like. Not too shabby. Turned out much better than the LA Times experiment with wiki-torials.

Wikis are interesting things. They give ultimate power to the community. Depending on how it's done, it could help write an article, or destroy an editorial. Talk about pushing power to the edges.

This notion of engaging a group of passionate users (as opposed to "volunteers") and then enabling them to do x, y, or z is quite common with online communities. That there can be such varying degrees of success seems to indicate a need for a more managed approach when tapping into a passionate user base. Why did the wiki-squire work and the wikitorial fail? In part, I think it has to do with the scope and focus of the "task" at hand. For example, the scope of the wiki-squire article was a tightly focused, "bite-sized chunk." Basically the author called for any edits, comments and suggestions, and the payoff was clear -- the finished product would be published.

Contrast this with the wikitorial where it was more open ended and several editorials were open to the concept of wikification where anyone could add, edit or remove it. The broader focus, and perhaps broader audience (?) resulted in content spammer and trolls.

Would a more narrow focus helped? Perhaps.

Alos, to what extent did the nature of the communities in the first place factor into the vastly different results? Wikipedia seems to attract a certain type of user who understands the concept of a wiki, and participates through reading and editing. There is a constant stream of passionate users eager to make a contribution about a particular topic. The LA Times website, on the other hand (pure conjecture here) reaches a different type of audience, where the focus is on a city, and the site is ad and subscription based. I would argue that a general newspaper site for a major metropolitan area attracts different users than that of wikipedia.

Another factor to consider is the nature of the articles/wikis. The LA Times focused on editorials while Esquire focused on the Wikipedia community themselves. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that editorials are typically controversial in nature, and articles that profile a user or group are easy to accomplish as who doesn't like to talk about themselves? They say a good conversationalist speaks very little and instead focuses their attention on you, making you feel like the star. That is what the Esquire article did for the case of Wikipedia users, as opposed to the LA Times which opened themselves up for controversy in the first place by stating an opinion.

The difference in scope, audience and ego seem to have been the key factors in the relative success or failure of these experiments. Kudos to both publications to taking a chance. I look forward to seeing more of this in the future.

Overall, my key takeaways from the role of wikis are:
  • know your audience
  • present focused, small, bite-sized chunks
  • offer the audience a chance to share a bit of themselves with you

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