in ur wiki, fixing ur syntax

Evan pointed me (via identi.ca, his microblogging site that I happily use to record my life when not blogging or, you know, actually getting in touch with people, which is 99% of the time) to the CrisisCommons wiki, which was inspired by a CrisisCamp back in June, but is now taking off with people wanting to build resources to help out Haiti. The idea is that tech geeks — people who build databases and twitter applications and map mashups and whatnot — can help out in a crisis too by building useful applications. Social media could be applied to a crisis like Haiti’s, where there is little to no centralized infrastructure remaining, to help distribute the task of sharing information; and social media tools could also help engage people in the rest of the world to help. A related/spinoff project is NPR’s CrisisWiki, which aims to use semantic MediaWiki to build an ontology of regions and aid groups so that the next time there is something as horrific as the Haiti earthquake, they can auto-generate a list of resources for the area, pretty much instantly.

These are both awesome projects, and the energy of the people involved is inspiring, though why we haven’t all collectively been working on such things since Katrina and before is a bit beyond me (perhaps people have, and I just don’t know about it). At any rate, I don’t know much about disaster relief — I give money to Doctors Without Borders and hope for the best — but I do know something about wikis, and so I’ve been helping clean up and organize the pages that people are posting on the CrisisCommons, which is something I can do over coffee on this rainy holiday morning in California.

Which brings me back to an idea I’ve had for a long time. People in the wiki world — hardcore Wikipedians or Wikians or Wikihowians, people who run or hack various wikis, folks who know something about syntax — should be able to serve as a general resource for projects involving wikis. I know of innumerable non-profits and other worthy causes that have started wikis — sometimes in a big hurry, like CrisisCommons, but often not — for groups of people that usually don’t really know how to work them, and aren’t familiar with wiki syntax and culture. There is a pattern in wiki culture called the “wiki gnome”, someone who potters around your WikiGarden and fixes things — pulling weeds, tidying up paths, merging pages, adding categories, and so on. What all of these new wikis for various projects need is an infusion of WikiGnomes, people who know something about wikis and are willing to spend a few hours adding a category structure, or fixing links.

Because here’s the thing — while for those of us on the “use them every day” side of the wiki fence doing such work is easy, for people unfamiliar with wiki technology having such problems can be an insurmountable barrier to use. And why should people know the obscure details of how to add a template to a page? Until and unless we get better wikisyg editing, there is no special reason why people should or will learn such things. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many such projects install MediaWiki, which is readily available and incredibly powerful but also particularly difficult to figure out. Don’t get me wrong, I love the software — I have a MW sticker on my laptop — but of all the wikis out there, it’s not necessarily the best choice for a beginner.

So given this situation, I think we need a wiki team — a wiki horde — that can congregate around a known, central place for projects to post that they need help with their wiki. Interested editors with a bit of free time could check here and choose which (if any) projects they wanted to help out with. Note that this list would be different from the big projects that are perpetually recruiting editors, like Wikipedia and Wikihow, though I suppose they could post there too. I’m imagining rather a simple list of entries: “CrisisCommons, just getting started, needs experienced people to help organize pages.” I know there have been projects to list wikis in the past, with the goal of attracting readers and editors; but these lists are invariably overwhelming, because there are so many wikis in the world, some active and some not. The list I’m imaging would be restrained in some way — perhaps only nonprofit or free content projects, or maybe only active calls for help, or maybe in database format so it could be easily searchable by topic. It would ideally be hosted somewhere established, like AboutUs or similar, so that people wouldn’t have to remember another new place to go. And it would be widely publicized in the wiki world and outside of it, so people would think to add new projects and remove old ones on a regular basis.

What do you think? Has this been tried? (I have a feeling it might have been, but probably in the pre-ubiquitous social media age).

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