Danny Horn, Founder of the Muppet Wiki shares tips on building a wiki community.
Small wikis are different
Small wikis aren’t the same as Wikipedia. Wikipedia has 43,000 contributors every month. Muppet Wiki has around 50 contributors. 43,000 isn’t just “50, but bigger”. It’s a whole different level of complexity.
Muppet Wiki is the size of an office. Wikipedia is the size of a small city.
That means that a small wiki has different priorities and a different structure, and it needs different rules. “They do it this way on Wikipedia” is not a good way to run a small wiki.
The individual is important
The biggest difference between a group of 50 and a group of 43,000 is that a small group needs to value each individual much more highly.
An individual contributor doesn’t mean that much on Wikipedia. The top ten Wikipedia contributors could all take a month-long vacation at the same time, and it wouldn’t make any difference to the project as a whole. If one person drops out of the project — even a long-time, knowledgeable, valued contributor — then there’s still hundreds, even thousands, who could take that person’s place.
On a small wiki, each individual is important. The top contributors on a small wiki are probably the administrators. They’re the people who understand the structure. They’re the institutional memory. They’re the people who mentor new contributors, and help to referee disputes. If you lose an active contributor on a small wiki, there isn’t necessarily anybody there to take that person’s place. If you lose two or three of the most active contributors, then your wiki is in big trouble.
The other side of that coin is that an individual can also do a lot of damage to a small wiki. One vandal, or one babbling kid, can’t do much to harm Wikipedia — the database is too big, and there’s plenty of people who enjoy finding and reverting nonsense. On a small wiki, there aren’t as many people around to clean up the damage. As we found out on Muppet Wiki, one pestering, clueless kid with a lot of time on his hands can frustrate and exhaust the most active contributors — and if that’s allowed to continue, it can make the active contributors drop out.
Therefore, you need to pay attention to each individual on a small wiki. Each contributor needs encouragement, mentoring, and appreciation. You also need to set boundaries that make the productive contributors feel safe and happy.
People don’t like anonymity
It’s amazing to me that people still believe in the old cliche that “on the internet, people like to be anonymous.” That might be true when you’re searching for porn or sending out viruses, but aside from that, it just isn’t true.
Compare these two ideas about what people enjoy.
- “People like to be anonymous, and seek out places to hide. It’s satisfying and fun when they can contribute to society without anyone knowing who they are.”
- “People like social experiences, and seek out ways to interact with other people. They like going to places where they feel well-known, and welcomed. They like being around other people, and when they’re completely alone, they feel lonely and abandoned. They like being recognized and appreciated for their work.”
If you look around at the way the world is structured, it’s pretty clear that people crave social experiences. People work, play and relax in places where other people are around. Sure, everyone needs some alone time, and some people need more than others, but that’s not how we live our lives. People like being around other people.
But people still say, “on the internet, people like to be anonymous.” As if there’s a difference between how we behave on “the internet” and how we behave when we’re walking around in the world. That’s like saying that we become different people when we’re on “the telephone”.
There is no “the internet”. It’s just a communication medium. You’re still a person, with human needs and human feelings, and people don’t like being alone.
A wiki is a volunteer project
There’s one easy way to predict whether a wiki is going to thrive, or stagnate and die: look at the Recent Changes page, and check out how active the Talk pages are. If most of the users have a red “Talk” link — meaning nobody’s ever bothered to talk to them — then that wiki is in trouble.
A wiki is a volunteer project, and the admins should act as if they’re the volunteer coordinators at a non-profit agency.
If you walk into a non-profit agency to volunteer, there’s somebody there to say hello. They get you oriented, and they check in with you about how things are going. If it’s a successful, active program, then other volunteers are there too; they talk to you, and help you out. There’s always a sense that your participation is important, and appreciated. If you’re not getting paid for being there, then they need to give you something, and usually what you get is pride, satisfaction and appreciation.
People who like working alone have their own personal websites and blogs. People come to wikis because it’s a communal project, with lots of people working together on a common goal. They want to feel welcomed and appreciated.
The admin of a small wiki has three essential tasks — to welcome new people, to mentor the new contributors and make sure they know how to participate productively, and to encourage communication on talk pages. Everything else is secondary.
Everybody needs a user name
At Muppet Wiki, we have a User Name policy. We expect every contributor to sign in and create a user name. The first time an anonymous contributor posts on the wiki, an admin posts a welcome message on their talk page that says hello, points them towards the FAQ, and invites them to sign in. The majority of contributors sign in at this point.
Anonymous contributors get a trial period of five edits. If the contributor does five edits without signing in, an admin posts a warning message, telling them that they’ll be blocked if they continue editing without signing in. Many contributors sign in at this point.
Occasionally, an anonymous contributor will ignore the warning and continue posting. When that happens, we block that IP address, with a message that directs them to the User Name policy, and gives them my e-mail address if they want to get the block removed.
Your head just exploded, right? Most wiki people that I talk to about the User Name thing usually have head explosions at this point. Let me summarize the argument: It’s harsh, it’s mean, it’s anti-wiki, it drives away potential contributors. In other words: Wikipedia doesn’t do it that way.
And it’s true, Wikipedia doesn’t do it that way… which is why Wikipedia has hundreds of admins who play an endless game of whack-a-mole with anonymous vandals. Wikipedia’s system works, but at the cost of hundreds of person-hours every day. If those admins weren’t wasting their time reverting vandalism and nonsense, they could be doing productive work on articles.
Wikipedia can afford to waste admins’ time like that because they have 43,000 active contributors. Small wikis can’t afford to waste their most active members’ time.
User names build trust
The User Name policy helps to weed out vandals and creeps — and it also helps to build communication and trust.
Having a stable identity makes communication possible. Contributors with user names build a record of contributions, and a reputation. If the community as a whole knows that a particular contributor is trustworthy, then that can influence how conflicts get resolved. You need a stable identity to earn people’s trust.
Allowing people to sign in with a random string of numbers breaks down the community’s sense of trust and common goals. You can’t build a strong team of trustworthy colleagues that also includes shadowy, faceless strangers.
Setting reasonable boundaries for anonymous contributors proves to your active members that they matter, that this is a group worth protecting and taking care of. Groups like it when the leaders act in the group’s interest. It makes them feel special, and safe. That’s basic group process technique — it doesn’t matter whether the group is on “the internet” or in your living room. That’s how you build a group.
Love your contributors
So, anyway. This is all basically saying the same thing: Love your contributors. They’re working for free. Some of them are spending hours of their personal time every week. The only reward they get is the satisfaction of adding to the project, and the pleasure of working with a group.
That’s magic, it’s pure magic. It’s one of the best things about human nature. We like to work together, just for the pleasure of building something. That’s why I believe in wikis, because wikis are a pure expression of our generosity, our passion, and our strange, quirky enthusiasms.
That’s why you have to take care of your contributors — talk to them, welcome them, take their interests to heart. Learn their names. When something is bugging them or frustrating them, take care of it. Pay attention to them, and make sure they feel appreciated.
These are extraordinary people, doing extraordinary things. Love them.
(Image source: Muppet Wiki) and (Content is GNU FDL Free Doc License)