Beyond Defining, and Beyond Demonstrating

I have answered the question “what exactly is a wiki?” more times than I care to. I feel this way not because I find the question particularly annoying, but because I know a few features of the technology world that make such things as explaining “what is a wiki” an annoying process. Here are some of these things:

  1. When most people use a wiki, such as wikipedia, they do not really distinguish it from any another website.
  2. Wikis are just another example of a socially connected website, which means that to explain a wiki, you really ought to talk about even more confusing things such as Web 2.0, social software, RSS and so on.
  3. In many ways, a wiki is a how more than it is a what. Wikis are just one way of collaborating online. There are other ways to do it too. The result is pretty much the same: useful information and learning.
  4. Like most things online, Google has a way to explain it better than I can.
  5. When the word “wiki” comes out, most people think some kind of weird “techie” language is being intoned. In fact, it is Hawaiian.

So, defining “wiki,” to me, is pretty much a redundant process. I am not going to be very helpful to someone who wants to know about wikis, because wikis are not really what they are after. The question “what exactly is a wiki?” really means “do I really need to know about this?” The answer to that question is “Well, ‘wikis’? No. That the way people are accessing and publishing information on the web is changing in ways that no one can explain easily? Yes.”

So, as I muddle my way trying to answer “what exactly is a wiki?” every-so-once-in-a-while, someone will get as frustrated as I am and say, “Ok. Show me what a wiki is.” This process is a little better, but it still does not explain where we are at with social software. When I demonstrate a wiki, I am really just demonstrating some features of a dynamic website. It’s kind of like saying “Show me what a river is.” If I show you a river, that might explain how it looks and a few things about what it does, but it does not explain a river really, because rivers are ever-changing and as much about possibilities as they are things in-and-of-themselves. Rivers have a basin, and fish and rocks and plankton and algae and how the rivers interact with these things says as much about the river as the water inside it. And we can do many things with a river, like go boating, or swimming or fish in it. It can quench our thirst, or clean our pots and pans. It can also drown our loved ones. The Ancient Greeks gave their rivers names and considered them Gods.

The good news about rivers is that we are used to rivers. I don’t have to explain a river to most people, thank goodness. But occassionally people ask me to explain wikis. Wikis are dynamic, multi-faceted and also as much about possibilities as they are things in-and-of-themselves. So, showing the features of a wiki does not explain what it does. Seeing a page history does not really help to explain the interactions going on in the wiki-world. When I show wikipedia, most people treat it as frivolous. Why wouldn’t they? People pretentiously creating an encyclopedia without authority or credentials sounds like a frivolous thing. They aren’t even making money out of this stuff!

OK. So far, this is a rant, but I have categorized this topic under “Change Management” for a reason, I promise. Why? Because, sitting down with a colleague of mine, Kelli Wooshue, we came up with something that is a little better than defining or demonstrating.

If “what exactly is a wiki?” really means “do I really need to know about this?” then we thought we should put the onus on the asker. “Here — you try it and tell me whether you need to know about this.
And that’s what we did. We offered a 5 minute presentation to the management of our library, gave them laptops, flipcharts and a bookmark with specific instructions on how to make your own blog, enter something in a wiki or use a piece of social software. Then we asked them their own questions: “What is a wiki?” “What did you think of it?” “Is it useful to you in any way?” “How?” “Is it useful to the library?” “How?” “Do you really need to know about this in your life?”

I put a sample lesson plan in my pages section in case anyone is interested.   I hope to have the actual bookmarks we created up soon as well.

And the joy of all this is that, for some, once they tried the stuff, some of them realized that, actually, no — they did not need a wiki in their lives right now. But when or if they do, they understand not only exactly what a wiki is and how it looks. They know how it might work for them when they go about their everyday life.

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