Wikia Co-founder Waxes About Wikia, Wikis, Wikipedia

Wikis could take a trick or two from Facebook and social networking sites in order to draw more contributors in the new year, says co-founder of Wikia, Angela Beesley, one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming linux.conf.au. She shares her thoughts on wikia, wikis and wikipedia as well as their place in the enterprise with Computerworld.

What will your talk at linux.conf.au be about?

I will be talking about the future plans of both Wikipedia and its parent organisation, the Wikimedia Foundation.

Where are Wikia and Wikipedia heading?

Both Wikia and Wikimedia will be very focused on usability in 2009. The Wikimedia Foundation was recently awarded a grant of $890,000 by the Stanton Foundation to make Wikipedia's editing interface easier to use. Wikia has recently launched a rich text (or WYSIWYG) editor for MediaWiki, the software that both Wikia and Wikipedia use. This means that new users can instantly get involved with editing or creating new pages without needing to learn complex markup. At the same time, we have retained the option for editors to switch to the traditional editing interface. Wikia has also introduced a new skin making the site easier to navigate, especially for new users, and we will be refining this over the coming year, ensuring that people know they can edit and we will be making it very easy to add new content.

How has Wikia created a viable business model around wikis?

Unlike other tools, a wiki is not owned by a single person, so the model of selling something to the customer doesn't work here. The sort of public community-based wikis that Wikia hosts rely very much on group ownership, and we think that providing hosting or premium services via one person who is paying could upset that by implying that the individual is responsible for the site which decreases the motivations of others to build and maintain it. Instead, Wikia is focused on the advertising-model, where we display ads from a variety of networks and directly from companies. This frees the community from being reliant on the person who pays the bills, and allows all members to have an equal stake in the success of their wiki.

Technology-wise where do you see wikis heading in a few year's time?

The next step for wikis is to become more usable. They've developed out of a very geeky culture in which people were happy to put up with complicated markup and sites that were hard to navigate, but to reach a mainstream audience, they need to be as easy to use as blogs and social networking sites. The barriers to entry on many wikis are low, in that anyone is invited to edit, but the learning curve is still too steep to get more than a tiny percentage of the readers involved in contributing content themselves. We're also starting to see integrations with social tools that give authors more incentive to participate, and help to recruit new editors by using the same viral methods that sites like Facebook use. The growing importance of video on the Internet will also affect wikis. Right now, the editable part of a wiki is usually limited to the text. Even where a wiki allows you to embed images or videos, that embedded content is an add-on rather than an integrated and editable part of the site. Work is going on to apply wiki principles to video-based collaboration.

Do you think wikis will play a greater role in the enterprise in the future?

Wikis are already playing a role in many enterprises. They're an increasingly important part of any corporate toolset as they're so easy to implement and can bring immediate improvements to working methods, as well as in aiding collaboration, and saving time by reducing email flow.

How large is the problem of maliciousness in the world of wiki's, generally? Does it play out, like a real life cyber land version of Star Wars, with good versus evil? And who ultimately wins?

The percentage of problem edits is incredibly small. It can seem larger for two groups of people. Firstly, those external to the wiki who know of it via news articles often think maliciousness is a bigger problem than it really is. People hear a lot of bad news about Wikipedia in particular. It seems that journalists prefer to write about the negative aspects of wiki projects, or to highlight amusing or insulting vandalism than to write about the thousands of positive edits being made each day. Secondly, it can seem a larger problem to those who are very internal to the wiki -- the wiki administrators on the "frontline" of defending the wiki for those edits. This is particularly the case on large projects as the administrators use tools that help to highlight potentially bad edits, so that ends up being all they see of the wiki! In general, there are far more good people than bad, so the beneficial contributions far outweigh the malicious ones, which is why openly editable wikis can work so well. Your background is in psychology, but your world now pretty much revolves around wiki's.

What initially got your interest in wiki's?

I got involved with wikis completely by accident after searching for something and visiting Wikipedia. I saw the edit link and didn't quite believe it. I assumed, like earlier projects that I'd be involved with such as the Open Directory Project, that there must be some form of moderation behind the site. Then I read the help pages and found out more about Wikipedia and discovered that it really is that open! From then on, I was hooked on the idea of openly editable wikis and I got more and more involved with them.

Do you have a personal definition of Web 2.0 or is it just marketing fluff?

To me, Web 2.0 is about collaboration, which is well exemplified by wikis even though these existed long before the term Web 2.0 was coined. However, the term is used so widely now that it doesn't seem to have any well-defined meaning beyond an implication that modern internet tools are somehow involved.

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