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.