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How would you fancy letting visitors to your website change it as much as they wanted? The concept of the ‘wiki’, which allows just that, is a deeply trendy one at the moment. And my idea is daft. Or is it?

Many internet users are familiar with wikis through Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org). It is an encyclopaedia with, this week, 1,486,409 articles in English; also 60,958 articles in Esperanto. To quote Charles Leadbeater’s book, We-think, ‘Wikipedia is a dizzying collaborative creation. Anyone can edit it, take away the information and use it.’ I am quoting Leadbeater, once an FT journalist, because his book is published in 2007 but is already available online – as a wiki. If you want to help him write it, go to www.charlesleadbeater.net.

To see how Wikipedia works, try looking up ‘Financial Times’. You will find a serious entry on the newspaper, along with a picture of its front page and links to articles on prominent journalists. Click the History tab, and you will see that several hundred changes have been made since the first two line ‘stub’ was put up in October 2002. Go back, click Edit this page, and you can do just that.

The secret of its success is that if anyone says something wrong, someone will correct it. Its weakness is that right and wrong are often subjective. Go to the article on George W. Bush and you will find a padlock symbol alongside a note that ‘because of recent vandalism, editing of this article by unregistered and newly registered users is currently disabled.’ In other words, the old hands are allowed to make changes, others are not. This is a pragmatic solution that usually works because, as Leadbeater points out, there only about 1,100 people are responsible for the bulk of the English language content. They have proved themselves trustworthy and are therefore appointed guardians of Wikipedia’s integrity.

Wikis are already moving into the corporate world, though much of the activity is on intranets rather than the public web. A typical use would be a technical manual, where experts within a company create, correct and polished pieces written by their colleagues. An open internet example is the Microsoft Developer Network wiki (msdnwiki.microsoft.com), where ‘our goal is to extend the documentation with code examples, tips and tricks, and other information that you add’. Look too at the ebay wiki (www.ebaywiki.com), where experienced ebay users are busy polishing an online manual on how to get the best from the auction site.

Let’s say you are in charge of a large corporate site. Absurd to turn it into a wiki, isn’t it? Well...

Think about your product information section. Nestlé (www.nestle.com) has a childcare area with a ‘mothers share their stories’ section. So the group is already in the mood to encourage visitors to provide content. In the same section it has Childcare Tips, on putting a baby to bed, packing a picnic, and so on. The childcare equivalent of MSDN developers and ebay traders are, of course, mothers – why not open the tips up to a wiki? Then go to the cooking section, with its recipes. I’m sure some of them could be improved by the Great Online.

Think about your social responsibility section. You probably have case studies about the nice things your employees are doing in the community. I bet there are many more that could be added – but you don’t have time. So why not let employees and anyone else add them themselves?

Then there is history. Ford has a centenary mini-site within its heritage section, with a section called Your Stories. It’s empty now (which could lead me off on a ramble about keeping your site in order), but it used to have reminiscences from the old days. They were researched and written specially, but how much richer would the site have been if workers could have added their own memories as they wanted?

The ‘if’ in the last sentence leads off a barrage of objections to the whole idea. Why would retired workers, or mothers, bother to add their thoughts? Would not the first people onto the Nestlé site be its enemies (and there are plenty, as you will find if you type ‘nestle baby milk’ into Nestlé)? And would your lawyers let any outsiders write anything about anything?

To take the last two questions first. Shell launched its Tell Shell Forum in 1998; it’s offline now, but you can still find things in the archive that are uncomplimentary, to say the least, about the company. You could of course use a system such as Wikipedia’s padlock, but I suspect that if someone wrote something demonstrably unfair, it would be corrected by other people. Because most people are fair-minded, after all.

It is the first question that is the real stumbling block. Nestlé’s mummy’s stories are thin on the ground – just two contributions this year. There are sites that gather huge numbers of words from visitors, but they are ones where people feel a sense of belonging: Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org) is a good example. Microsoft’s developer network belongs to a capitalist giant, but its discussion area is more like a club. I doubt people would rush to feed a forum on the corporate site.

To come back to where I started from. No, I don’t think it is at all daft to set up a wiki, at least in limited areas of your site. It may not work, but there again it might, so why not try? It would be nice to think that boring old companies, which are just so Web 1.0, are prepared to experiment with some of the intriguing ideas now floating around. I’m not holding my breath, but I can hope.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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