Gardening the wiki, order in chaos


BANKSY shared CC by Troy Holden

When thinking about how to use wikis, I’ve always thought there was a tension between chaos and order. Part of what appealed to me about this technology was that it was a relatively painless and low-risk way of introducing emergence into an institutional context.

So I’ve had an instinctive fear of overly structuring wiki practice, a hesitation that I can barely defend intellectually. But as MediaWiki has moved from an experimental platform to an established part of the UBC online environment, inevitably a new emphasis on structure and process has followed. I expected that progression… what I did not expect is that I would dig the effects so much.

This summer, the Centre I work with at UBC has employed Will Engle (a grad student with UBC’s fantastic School of Library, Archival and Information Studies) to serve as our wiki gardener. And really, gardener is a well-chosen title, in a nifty, permaculturish sense… The challenge has been to observe, ride and channel the energy and activity taking place across the system, planting seeds while gently directing and correcting where needed.

So now the UBC Wiki features what I think is a very clear and useful Main Page, and the use of namespaces for course activity and documentation now features good instructions and examples so newcomers can in most cases orient themselves (though help is available for those that need it). Will also monitors the (rapidly expanding) activity on the wiki, contacting new users and making gentle corrections where needed.

I really like the balance Will has struck between keeping things tidy and doing so with a light and human touch. To get a sense of his approach, I recommend you check out the blog he maintains, it makes great reading for anyone who wrestles with managing a diverse and active community on an open platform. Recent posts have dealt with the implied ownership philosophy on an open wiki, seeding articles, purpose and community

The wiki has become the core platform for our Centre’s online publishing process, allowing for granular reuse, open content syndication and simple but thorough tracking and updating of our resources. To give one fresh example of how this works, this simple overview of open education posted on the wiki can be syndicated on the university’s e-learning info site, as well as any number of other environments as needed. When the wiki is updated, those updates are reflected on all pages reusing that material (whether we know about them or not). And since each page section has its own URL as a subpage (eg: http://wiki.ubc.ca/Documentation:Open_Education/Uses_and_Benefits), people can be quite precise in terms of what they reuse.

An exciting side benefit of this approach is that our university is now producing quite a steady stream of OER across this institution, without the presence of a formal OER project. Every time I check out the Recent Activity, I am blown away by the energy, and almost always discover a cool new user creating highly reusable public resources.

So, experience has taught me that order has its place in a chaotic universe. I hope to apply that learning to the disgraceful condition of my desk.

5 thoughts on “Gardening the wiki, order in chaos

  1. These issues are so important — this seems like a great direction for the UBC Wiki and I’m excited to see how it plays out.

    Tthere’s a kind of an inherent tension between openness and purpose — from a systems perspective, systems are open to the extent that outside entities can effect the structure and purpose of the system. So *some* purpose will be alterable by users, but not all. Figuring out what purposes are fungible and what purposes are foundational (and making that clear to users) is pretty key to success I think.

    It also reminds me that the idea of audience and reuse motivates groups, and makes their work meaningful. But groups often do things that undermine audience and reuse.

    You probably already saw this, but kind of relevant maybe?

    Tran|Script: The user of social software is the group, not the individual

  2. Thanks for the great write up. I suspect finding the right balance between chaos and order, openness and purpose, and the group and the individual will always be something that drives any informational project. At any rate, it’s a constant learning curve for me. And, while I wish I could take credit for how the UBC Wiki is looking these days, it’s really a community project. The CTLT’s dev team (who maintain it) and the users who add to it are doing most of the heavy lifting.

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