Wiki science/Case Study 1
The following report details the beginnings of the Book of Metal wiki—a wiki dedicated to documenting the metal music genre. This report and wiki began as a computer-mediated project at university. The wiki is not currently live, but it is the author’s hope that the wiki will flourish when it goes live later this year.
An argument for a metal wiki
This wiki grew out of a computer-mediated communication class where students were tasked with using a computer technology to facilitate or improve communication. Naturally, the author wished to combine his interest in metal with an innovative communication technology. A wiki appeared to be the logical information sharing solution for a worldwide community consisting of many diverse but related sub-genres.
The Internet is home to many massive projects aimed at documenting, and reviewing metal music. Unfortunately, they all encounter the same problem—there is simply too much information to process, let alone organize. Nearly every country on the planet is home to at least one metal band and each month the metal community releases around fifty new albums. While the current attempts at centralizing information are admirable, the task is simply too big for a group of individuals.
A metal specific wiki has the potential to be rapidly and thoroughly embraced by the metal community. This adoption is likely for two reasons: elitism and enthusiasm. The metal community is simultaneously close-knit and very individualistic. The different metal genres vary drastically. Metal might be inspired by symphonies or folk music, or more basic primal genres that exemplify aggression. These differences lead to very specialized interests and preferences, and yet members of the metal community emphasize their similarities more often than their differences. These differences might impact an individual’s level of enthusiasm. The metal community’s diversity allows individuals to discover or start emotionally and audibly different bands that directly appeal to the individual. This connection often drives fans to extremes like flying to the band’s native country or tattooing the band’s label on their body. Much like other genres, the web hosts a multitude of fan-run websites. Many fans have even begun to document their favorite bands in Wikipedia articles.
These differences could be seen as a problem. In fact, a significant percentage of metal websites focus specifically on a sub-genre, suggesting that these differences are a problem for traditional websites. On the other hand, these differences might simply be a problem for traditional websites where the content decisions are in the hands of a small group of individuals. Instead, these differences might become a strength once the community is given a platform where the community can agree what constitutes metal and it’s multitude of distinct sub-genres.
Wikis fail or prosper due to three theoretical considerations: hacker ethics, transaction costs, and reliability concerns.
HACKER ETHICS. Hacker ethics can be taken to mean many things, but for this article, I would like to focus on the belief that information should be free. This is one of the main reasons wikis have been successful. When considering starting a wiki, one needs to determine whether the community values the opinions of its members or if the community prefers to appeal to an authority. Communities that value individual opinions will be more likely to embrace a system where people collaboratively construct knowledge. Communities that look to experts instead of their peers may find trusting a wiki more difficult.
TRANSACTION COSTS. Transaction costs play a huge role in the success or failure of a wiki. Transaction costs refer to the amount of effort required to contribute to a wiki. Logically, the more difficult it is to contribute, the less likely people are to participate. While some people worry that wikis might make it too easy to contribute, most wikis err in this direction. (You mean they make it too easy?) The ease of contributing is one of the major reasons people have reliability concerns.
RELIABILITY CONCERNS. Most wikis address reliability concerns through tracking functionality and the hope that members of the community will clean up after troublemakers. This is an ongoing problem which can best be solved by providing the tools to reverse destructive changes quickly and conveniently. The Wikipedia community has developed an ethic which seems to work well for that project.
Important Considerations & Challenges
The following considerations and challenges summarize my key concerns for the project.
Encyclopedic vs. Information Resource
The wiki community still debates the best application of the concept and perhaps more prominently, whether the most well known wiki, Wikipedia, is truly an encyclopedia or just a very successful information resource. Early on, I decided that the wiki should not be restrained by artificial constraints. I would prefer for the wiki to become a vast informational resource that contains many encyclopedic entries but also more useful articles and content like biographies. This decision needed to be made early on because it sets the tone for the wiki and has the potential to sink the project. Some communities might be more receptive to an encyclopedia, others might welcome a less formal resource that gives the readers/contributors the opportunity to organize the information as they see fit.
Founding a wiki involves several important technical decisions. First, wiki software must be selected. Wiki software differs in two key ways: functionality and server requirements.
Some wiki software simply allows contributors to create, edit, and track changes to pages. Others combine each article with a discussion page where future or past changes can be discussed. Other popular features are the ability tie changes to contributor’s names and WYSIWYG editing.
Once wiki software is selected, a server must be found to host the wiki. This can be a challenging task if you are not familiar with web hosting and database software. Fortunately, many of the simpler wiki programs only require a web server with PHP running. The files simply need to be uploaded to the web server with a couple of changes to file permissions. Other more complicated wiki programs like Wikimedia require MySQL, a database program that can be intimidating to setup.
Once a new wiki is setup and running, it is vital that a backup plan is in place. The smaller and younger the community, the more damaging any downtime will be. The bigger the wiki, the more damaging any data loss will be.
Rear View Mirror
In retrospect, I would have done a couple of things differently for the school portion of this project. First, I would have focused on hosting the wiki earlier on because I was unable to get MySQL properly running on my university account. Switching between wiki software is not a pleasant experience, especially when the platforms do not share the same features. Second, I would have enlisted the help of friends once the wiki was available. A wiki containing real contributions would have made this project more interesting.
Looking forward, I plan to do two things: recruit help and focus on formats and social norms.
First, I will enlist the help of friends who will help create content, establish formats, and establish social norms. Bringing more contributors in will be important if the wiki is ever to reach critical mass. As Larry Sanger has often noted, the likelihood of success increases as the number of participants increases.
Second, we will establish article formats and social guidelines as we generate content. In my opinion, a wiki needs a certain level of structure in order to succeed with an audience who is unfamiliar with the concept. This structure will make it easier for readers to understand the content and to see where they could contribute. I also believe that the social guidelines will be more effective if they are established as a small group actually interacts on the wiki. The guidelines will be more likely to match actual behavior if they are created based on real experiences.
I will be updating this article with additional findings once the wiki goes live.
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