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Vibewire 3: Wonderful Wikis?

I've just posted another contribution to the ongoing discussion on the Vibewire e-Festival Ideas forum. This was triggered by discussion about the New Zealand Greens' use of wiki technology to develop their policy platform, and the perhaps overly enthusiastic endorsement of this model from some of the contributors on the forum. In response, I suggest a somewhat more nuanced view of what contribution wikis and other open produsage approaches might be able to make.

Well if a bunch of people are writing policy together on a wiki it's better policy in that it's a better representation of what the group wants because its written by everyone, rather than one or two people who may filter what other people want.

OK, I'm going to take issue with this statement, at least in this very general formulation (which has quite a techno-determinist ring to it - it sounds like you're saying that policy written using wikis is automatically better/more representative policy because wikis were used in writing it).

I agree that this can be the result, but whether it is or not depends crucially on the dynamics of the the group of people participating in the process. Wiki-based projects are no more and no less subject to groupthink, flamewars, and conceptual blind spots than any other collaborative content development projects. Whether they 'work' or not (that is, capture a wide range of views and achieve a consensus that most contributors can live with) depends on whether there's an active desire (driven by the community of contributors) to listen to, engage with, and come to a consensus with these diverse views.

To take the example of the world's largest wiki, Wikipedia: here, this process works very well on some pages, where even for controversial topics a detailed and multiperspectival coverage emerges - and it fails miserably for others where there are constant flames and revert wars, and pages have to be locked down to deal with these disruptions. The only difference determining failure or success is whether on a page-by-page level, the communities of contributors choose to collaborate constructively or revert to endless warfare between ideological tribes.

The other thing to consider in the Greens case is the question of who should get to participate. While there's always the suggestion that wikis should be as open as possible, I'm not sure even that necessarily holds here: a wikified policy document written by anyone and everyone might be an interesting exercise, but would it still be a Greens policy? What if the wiki gets swamped by Labor/Liberal voters, drowning out the voices of Greens party members? Whose views is the policy meant to represent - those of the average voter (in which case, why badge it as a Greens wiki) or those of Greens supporters (in which case, should it be open to everyone's contributions)?

So (at the risk of being overly negative here) let's avoid overgeneralisations about what contributions wikis can make. At the same time, having said all of this, I fully agree with the potential of wiki systems (and open collaborative produsage systems more generally); I've published a book about this. ;-) But it's whether there's an active, diverse, and sufficiently intelligent community of users that determines whether such systems work or not...

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