Those darn wikis

The other day, LA Times launched a concept they called wikitorial — basically, they started a wiki, put a professionally written editorial on it, and link to this wiki from the newspaper’s site’s home page. Then, as far as anyone can see, about a day later they shut the site and blamed vandals for the closure. The blogosphere has been laughing, in a way, at the LA Times folks who couldn’t handle the heat. I think that they’re wrong to laugh.

Shortly after the wikitorial was put up, I found myself on the LA Times wiki — they called it LATWiki. This to me looked like a crippled version of the MediaWiki software that runs Wikipedia and Wikinews. Crippled, because some things I expect in the software, like the Recent Changes list, or any sort of community pages for coordination of editing efforts, were very clearly absent. No village pump, no water cooler.

After just manually going to the recent changes page, two things became obvious: 1) there was some vandalism going on, and 2) Jimbo Wales was online, fixing things. Between the two of us, we then moved some pages around, introduced some navigation, created a bit of space for collaboration, left instructions for newbies, and kept an eye on vandalism and reverted it. A few other MediaWiki-savvy folks dropped in over the course of the day to tidy things up.

Where were the site’s administrators? Probably watching what was happening. After Jimbo and I stopped minding Recent Changes, the admins banned a user or two, and reverted some changes. And eventually had to go to sleep — which probably quickly resulted in vandals changing the site enough that the only way they knew to cope with it was to close the wiki.

And then the emailed us, asking for advice. Which both Jimbo and I have been very glad to provide. The people at the LA Times who were responsible for the wikitorial really want to do this right, but my feeling is that they simply didn’t yet know how to properly run a wiki. The terms of service were horrendous, the community-building was nearly non-existent. Even vandal-fighting tools like Recent Changes were not easily available.

In my communication with the LA Times folks in charge of the project, I recommended the following:

Running a wiki requires a very simple formula. The site has to have a purpose (which yours does). The folks who sponsor the site have to be well-known and accessible (that means that you have to be involved on the site — make user pages, respond to things posted on your talk pages, etc). The site’s visitors have to be given responsibility — out of all your visitors, a small percentage will get interested enough in keeping your wiki going that they’ll see it as their wiki: accept their behavior and encourage it! Let the users set all the policy for content, navigation, language, attribution, etc. And reserve the right to rule by fiat, but use it very, very, very rarely.

I think experiments such as this one have to be encouraged, and not ridiculed. It takes a lot to move a mainstream media organization such as LA Times in the direction of the wikisphere and the blogosphere. The very nature of a newspaper is to want to be insular and to bind every published word with some strict legalese. It is the nature of a wiki to be as open as possible and to resist limitations.

So why did the wikitorial come down, and what does it mean? I argue that it wasn’t because of vandalism per se, but because LA Times wasn’t yet ready to start a community. They weren’t ready to trust random users enough to make them site admins. They weren’t ready to let users form policy.

And it’s ok that they weren’t — heck, at least they even tried this experiment. Most other large organizations haven’t, at all. What we as wiki-savvy, online community members should be doing is to give constructive feedback on building such a community, on fixing terms-of-service problems, on making the site work when it comes back up. And then maybe after a few years we’ll successfully see a mainstream media wiki that is open, thriving, and accomplishes its goals.

11 Responses to “Those darn wikis”

  1. Michael Kuker Says:

    I think the issue people have isn’t the fact that the Times was experimenting with wikis, per se. I think the issue is how the medium affects the message. It makes no sense to have a collaborative editorial. None. A “wikitorial” is just blantant buzzword mongering and trend-whoring.

    Perhaps a better idea would be a collaborative community calendar or local news site.

  2. Ilya Haykinson Says:

    Well, perhaps or perhaps not. I am skeptical of using a wiki for editorials as well. However people used to think having a wiki encyclopedia is a strange idea, and people still criticize wikinews as flawed — yet, both are around.

  3. Kyle Hamilton Says:

    Part of the problem is that there will /always/ be an Eternal September (abusing a term from way back when in Usenet, when new students who didn’t know how to use it would lower the signal:noise ratio enough that a lot of people who did know how to use it would just stop reading and responding for a while). There are always going to be people who want nothing more than to vandalize. There are always going to be people who read the newspaper, see “Hey, we can put our own stuff up!”, and immediately think “Let’s put something offensive up!” instead of thinking “How can I explore the topic that it’s about?”

    I think it’s more of a “gee-whiz” factor than a “let’s think about it” factor.

    Some of the things I think that LATimes should have done: invite “guest editorials” — essentially, letters to the editor on various topics, and allowing users to go on their own soapboxes and having the editors point users to good ones. (Essentially, make it a kind of wiki-blog, for everyone.) Delete the pages with low hit-count or low reputation (note: this implies a thumbs-up/thumbs-down on whether the content is good, compared to a thumbs-up/thumbs-down on whether the reader agrees with what was written). Watch the trends, and give people who consistently (98%+ of the time) rate “this is good content” and “this is bad content” along with the reality some kind of extra voice — maybe don’t even let them know about it, just bump their reputation modifiers up a bit. Truly make it an effort to get the community involved, versus making it a way to try to reach the community in a new medium.

    Invite participation, and enforce it, and allow the users to enforce it. (Maybe put up a “highly-rated” and a “lowest-rated” pages list… so that those who truly care about the project can read the good stuff, and take responsibility for clearing out the bad stuff.)

    But yeah. A wiki is about collaborating, and is best served by having people involved who want to collaborate. It’s worst-served by inviting everyone to willy-nilly make their own changes.

  4. Blogging.LA Says:

    More on the LA Times wiki project
    Waxy links to Ilya’s thoughts on his involvement with the LA Times wiki project and notes “though it failed, this kind of media experimentation should be commended instead of ridiculed.” This is a very insightful read for sure and I…

  5. Tim Yang Says:

    Ilya, I completely agree with your views. But LATimes ignored them. The wiki had a purpose, but the wrong one. LATimes wanted to use it to build community, however they chose to use a system of complete anonymity — how did they think they could build community without trust…

    They also chose the wrong kind of articles to turn into wiki format. Wikis are good for sharing knowledge, not for sharing opinion.

  6. Five Live Links Says:

    ilya haykinson talks about what went awry with the L.A. Times wikitorial
    One thing people always seem to get wrong: Anonymity does not equal untrustworthy. In fact, some people who are given anonymity online will act in a more straightforward and consistent manner because they’re not under multiple competing pressures from…

  7. Tim Windsor Says:

    Even if all the participants in this experiment wore white gloves and drank their Earl Grey with pinkies extended, this was doomed to failure, because a “collaborative editorial” is an unreachable goal. Editorials are strongly-argued opinions. Wikis, in my limited experience with them, are much better suited to fact-finding and consensus.

    But I do have to disagree with one thing Ilya says. I do think it was the defacing that ultimately forced LAT to pull the plug. There’s just no way that a serious news organization such as The Times is going to allow itself to be a publisher of goatse. Once that happened, it was “game over,” at least for now.

  8. Linda Greenberg Says:

    I want to have faith in wikitorials. While a “collaborative editorial” is certainly difficult (if not impossible) to achieve, I believe that there is still room for wikitorials that engage in collaborative debate. On an issue in which there are two fairly clearly demarcated sides, it could be fascinating to watch 2 pro- and con- type wikis develop and evolve in conjunction with each other over that given issue.

  9. NetworkWorld.com Community Says:

    Why the Los Angeles Times wiki failed so quickly
    Last week, the Los Angeles Times posted its first “wikitorial” - an editorial that anybody could edit. It was gone within 48 hours - victim of prankster/vandals who kept posting X-rated images. Ilya Haykinson, who, along with Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wa

  10. neil Says:

    well, i replied to a blog entry from like a year ago, so oops. bump
    just sayin hi. long time no see man :)

    -neil

  11. idav » Annonmity on the web…. Says:

    [...] and having my own share of frustrations), it’s amusing to watch The Ventura Star and The La Times trying to launch user contributed comments without registration or [...]